Fantasy Art Magazine, China, October 2009
Interview with Joseph Vargo by Lizzy Carft
Read this interview in Chinese
Joseph Vargo is a world famous fantasy artist, musician and writer from Cleveland, Ohio. We are happy to be able to discuss his many projects with him.
Could you tell me what inspired you to want to become an artist?
I acquired my passion for fantasy art at an early age. As a youth, I tended to gravitate toward horror movies, monster models and anything that could possibly warp my young and impressionable mind. I was constantly drawing knights, dragons, vampires and an assortment of other monsters.
After graduating high school, I briefly attended the Cleveland Institute of Art, but I found the experience disheartening and left after one semester. I expected to hone my illustration skills and learn to paint like the Masters, but the instructors did not want to teach what I wanted to learn. I decided that I would have to teach myself and develop my own skills as an artist. I continued to paint with acrylics and oils until I had created a substantial body of work in the fantasy realm. In 1991, I established my own company, Monolith Graphics, to sell art prints, calendars and t-shirts of my own design.
How did you market your skills?
In the early 1990s I created and sold prints of my art as posters through various distributors and shops. In 1997 I assembled twelve of my strongest images for my first full-color calendar and sold it through the American chain store, Hot Topic. The posters and calendars sold very well, and my work became popular with the Gothic subculture. Later in 1997 I opened a gothic art gallery called The Realm: Showcase of the Fantastic, which featured my own paintings as well as those of many other popular fantasy artists. The next year we launched the Monolith Graphics website to sell and distribute my artwork throughout the world.
How do you define your style?
My artistic style developed and matured solely through hard work and discipline. Most of my early work captured the raw, brutish power of Frazetta, but through the years this style became increasingly overtaken by subtler, moody depictions of horror and enchantment. I really love Gothic horror, and I began painting gaunt vampires lurking in shadowy catacombs and beautiful women from the realm of the undead. I gained a reputation for my numerous paintings of gargoyles, vampires and ghosts.
In 1997, I released a line of posters and calendars in a blue and black duotone, mainly because it was more economical to print with two colors than with four, but it also captured the gothic atmosphere of the subject matter. The look really caught on and became my trademark for several years. Many people are surprised to see that a lot of my original paintings are actually rendered in full color.
What is the average length of time you spend on a painting?
I don't work for an art director, so I make all the decisions about what I paint. I usually don't sketch anything. I just start painting on a dark gray canvas or piece of illustration board. An average painting takes me about three to five days, depending on the amount of detail. When I'm working, I paint for 12 hours every day.
In 2002, I created The Gothic Tarot, a deck of 78 fortune telling cards. Although many images were created specifically for the deck, a lot of the images were adapted from existing works, so I had to re-work many paintings and drawings. This was usually done using computer programs on scanned images, so I didn't have to alter the physical paintings.
What is your artistic thought process when creating a new work?
I first think of the characters that I want to depict, then I think of the story that I want to tell with the painting. I want to make sure that when people look at the painting, they understand what is happening in the scene. The background setting and color scheme are important factors too. You can give an entirely different emotional feeling to a painting just by changing the color scheme.
What inspires you to create works of Gothic fantasy?
Most of my creations come directly from my own imagination. I get some inspiration from ancient mythology, books and films, but I prefer to dream up my own original characters and ideas. Once I get a strong idea in my head, I don't need any inspiration. I just begin working and unleash my own creativity.
In 2000, I published and illustrated the anthology Tales From The Dark Tower, which was a collection of thirteen short stories inspired by the fantasy realm I had created in my gothic paintings. The anthology delves into the mysteries surrounding a medieval tower inhabited by cursed vampires and other lost souls. Tales From The Dark Tower was very successful and I have recently published a new book of horror stories. The Legend of Darklore Manor and Other Tales of Terror, contains 13 sinister stories including the novella that chronicles the grim history of the haunted mansion that inspired Nox Arcana's debut album.
What is the most difficult thing about creating a painting?
Every single painting I work on goes through a dark period, when I hate what I have painted. I want to destroy it and start over, but i just keep painting and fixing things that look wrong and eventually it starts to take shape. They say that artists are their own worst critics and in this case it is very true. You just have to be persistent and keep pushing yourself to do your best.
What is the Gothic in your mind?
Originally the word "Gothic" was applied to the architecture of medieval cathedrals. The Gothic style was very different from the established architecture of the times. The name itself is a reference to the invading barbarian hordes that conquered Rome. Today the word "Gothic" refers to a dark and romantic style of art, literature and music. It appeals to people who like to explore the shadows and are intrigued by danger, passion and the supernatural.
You are also a renowned musician. Compared to being an artist, which one allows you to best express the feelings in your mind and heart?
I get a great amount of satisfaction from each of my artistic pursuits, and though I don't have a favorite medium, they each have their own rewards. My artwork gives me immediate feedback. People look at a painting, and within a few seconds they begin to tell you what they like about it. It's interesting to watch people view my paintings in a gallery. Some people gravitate toward specific pieces of art. Many people have told me that they were drawn to certain paintings from across the room. I love to hear them describe how their favorite paintings make them feel.
Music inspires a mood that you can revisit again and again. It stirs deep emotions and memories and is often very inspirational. Of all my artistic labors, I enjoy writing music the most.
Writing fiction allows me to describe my visions in much more detail than a painting allows. But no matter how descriptive a story is, it still leaves the reader to use his imagination to visualize exactly how everything looks and sounds.
Your artwork, writing and music of Nox Arcana are all quite solemn and dark. Is this how you view the world?
Many people find beauty in darkness. I love to create artwork and music that is mysterious, romantic and powerful. Most of my work balances on the edge of the human soul where shadows dwell. The music of Nox Arcana covers a wide range as well. Some of our CDs, such as "Necronomicon"and "Blackthorn Asylum" are very dark and sinister, while some of our other CDs, such as "Winter's Knight" and "Shadow of the Raven" contain some very beautiful and haunting melodies. I like to balance the concepts of light and dark because the world is a mixture of both of these elements.
What does the name Nox Arcana mean?
Nox Arcana is a Latin phrase that means "Mysteries of the Night." It represents all things that are dark and alluring.
When you create illustrations for your CDs, which comes first, the artwork or the music?
Each Nox Arcana CD is based on a different fantasy theme. First I choose a specific theme, then the music and the story develop together. The art is usually the last thing I work on because the concept may change from the original idea. The only exceptions to this were two of our earliest CDs, Darklore Manor and Winter's Knight. The cover artwork for both of these CDs was created years earlier, but the interior booklet art was created after the CDs were finished. I make a lot of notes and sketches while I'm in the studio, but I like to immerse myself in my work, so I try to keep my focus on the music and concept before I work on the art.
What styles of music do you enjoy listening to?
I listen to a lot of rock and soundtrack music. I think that most artists and writers draw inspiration from music, especially instrumental music that doesn't have lyrics or singing. I get a lot of letters from other artists and writers who tell me that they love to listen to our music to set a dark and mysterious mood while they are creating their own works. I take this as a very sincere compliment.
Could you tell us about your book Born of the Night: The Gothic Fantasy Artwork of Joseph Vargo?
Born of the Night is an art book that features over 100 original paintings and illustrations that have been published together for the first time. In addition to the artwork, each image is accompanied by a description that gives my personal insights into the gothic domain.
I also have three other books, Tales from the Dark Tower, The Legend of Darklore Manor, and The Gothic tarot Compendium. Tales from the Dark Tower is an illustrated collection of Gothic stories that center around vampires and ghosts that haunt a Medieval castle. The Legend of Darklore Manor is an illustrated collection of contemporary horror stories, including a novella based on Darklore manor, a legendary haunted house that was the basis for the first Nox Arcana concept CD. The Gothic Tarot Compendium is a reference book for my Gothic Tarot cards. The book includes photos of all 78 cards, as well as descriptions of each card.
Your company also published Dark Realms Magazine. What can you tell us about this publication?
In 2000, my company began to publish Dark Realms Magazine, a quarterly publication that explored the shadows of art, music and culture. The magazine contained reviews of movies, books and CDs, and features that covered a variety of gothic topics such as fashion, hauntings, mysticism and the occult. Dark Realms also showcased the works of new artists to help them gain recognition and exposure. In 2008, we stopped publishing the magazine after 8 years and 32 issues.
Tell us about your art gallery, The Realm.
The Realm was a gothic art gallery that my partner, Christine Filipak, and I designed, built and operated in 1997. It was the first and only fantasy art gallery of its kind in the area. The gallery was only open at night, from 6pm to midnight. The construction took about 9 months to complete. Over 4,000 square feet of an old warehouse was converted to a museum-quality gallery. The finished gallery featured gargoyles and angel sculptures on gothic columns. The window arches were constructed to turn the plain warehouse windows into a view from a castle tower, especially striking since this space was located on the top floor of a 4-story building. October 10, 1997 marked the Grand Opening, which featured 80 of my paintings. The following shows featured several other fantasy artists, including Christine Filipak, Ruth Thompson and L.A. Williams.
How did you come to create The Gothic Tarot?
I have created over 200 gothic-themed paintings during my career as a fantasy artist, and throughout the years, several people had commented that my paintings would make an interesting Tarot Deck. The idea of creating a Gothic Tarot deck intrigued me, but I was always very busy with several other projects and did not have enough time to dedicate to such a large project. In 2002, I decided to commit my time to create The Gothic Tarot.
As I began to do research into the history of Tarot decks, I decided to create individual illustrations for each of the 78 cards. I had seen other Tarot decks by popular fantasy artists that were simply a collection of random images that did not represent the actual meanings of the specific cards. I wanted to create a moody and visually alluring tarot deck that could easily be used for fortune telling.
The deck contains all of my most popular images that had previously been featured in calendars and posters, as well as other paintings from my private collection, so although the project took less than a year to complete, The Gothic Tarot represents more than ten years of my work.
Have there been any circumstances in the business market that have caused you to change or censor your art?
No, not really. One of our largest distributors was interested in selling the Gothic Tarot, but they wanted me to change the artwork on some of the cards because they thought it was too evil. I refused to change any of the images, so they never distributed the Gothic Tarot in their stores. I probably could have sold 100,000 decks through them, but I didn't do it because I wouldn't have been proud of what I had created.
Sometimes I have to censor my own work. When I paint an image that I know will be used as a magazine or CD cover, I cannot show nudity or excessive violence. This is not a problem for me because I usually do not paint anything vulgar or offensive, and I like to challenge myself to create interesting works that tells a story.
What do you think makes a successful artist, having high achievements in art, or having high achievements in business?
That is a really good question. There are a lot of fantastic artists in the world. I see many amazing works of modern fantasy art on the internet, and many of them are by artists that are not famous. These people create fantastic artwork, but no one knows their names because they are not good with business. When I started my career, I just wanted to paint. I didn't want to be a businessman, but I had to learn how to promote and sell my art. After a few years, I slowly began to learn how to succeed in business. It's a lot of hard work, but it is very different from creating artwork.
How do you split your time between music, art and writing?
I spend about ten hours every day working on my art, music and writing. I usually work on different projects throughout the day, but if I have a deadline, then I focus all my energy on finishing one project. My art studio and my music studio are in separate buildings, so I don't work on music while I am painting, although I do sketch things while I am working in the music studio. The average Nox Arcana Cd takes about 4 months to complete, and in addition to writing and recording the music, I spend about 2 weeks creating the artwork for the CD and packaging.
What is your advice to younger artists?
Work hard, learn from constructive criticism, study other artists, and practice every day. I believe that the power to achieve our life's goals lies within each of us. Don't rely on other people to make your dreams come true. Take control of your own destiny and work hard every day to improve your skills and make your desires a reality. Be ready when opportunity presents itself. Never let go of your dreams.