Interview with Joseph Vargo by Judit Burany - (Budapest) January 2015
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You are musician and painter too. Here in Hungary people mainly know Nox Arcana, secondly, they know you as a painter. Can you put your 'selves' in a hierarchy?
I began my artistic career painting gothic fantasy images for posters and magazine covers, but I was always involved with music throughout my life, composing songs on the piano and singing in rock bands. I was fortunate to be very successful as an artist, and this allowed me to pursue my other creative outlets. In addition to art and music, I also enjoy writing and have written several books in the gothic-horror genre.
Art and music come very naturally to me, but writing requires the most concentration. The challenge with any artistic outlet is to add a unique touch to make the work original. People judge art very quickly. Their eyes scan a painting, and they instantly know what they like or dislike about it. Music takes slightly longer to stimulate the senses. Sometimes a song has to grow on you before you can appreciate it to the fullest. A book takes the longest to assess. Some stories are completely engrossing from cover to cover, but others may take several chapters to capture the reader’s interest, or lose it completely.
Art puts a vivid image in the viewer’s mind and music evokes a specific mood, whereas writing allows you to explain your thoughts in precise detail. I keep all these things in mind while I’m working, and I often create music and stories for my paintings so I can convey my concepts in a way that stimulates several senses.
Music and writing have taken up most of my time for the past few years and I haven't done much painting. But I plan to devote more time to creating new art again soon.
Did you write music for your paintings, or did you paint for your music?
I have done both. The artwork for the album covers for Nox Arcana's first two albums was done several years before the band was formed. In those cases, I wrote the music to fit the theme of the artwork, and then created new art for the cd booklet. For many of Nox Arcana's other concept albums, I wrote the music and concept stories at the same time, then created the artwork later. 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.
I prefer to develop my art, music and stories at the same time. This way, I can create my best work and maintain cohesive ideas and continuity throughout the project. Unfortunately, I don't always have the time to complete all the artistic aspects of a project before the deadline I set. I have an extensive body of artwork, so I can usually rely on using some existing imagery if the need arises.
I could rarely see a painter like you. Your human-shapes are anatomically unfinished, but you still make great, impressive paintings! Did you create this style consciously?
Thank you. I like to capture a mood with my paintings, rather than illustrate a picture in perfect detail. Our eyes never focus on all the details in any scene. We are drawn to the most important aspect of the image. Sometimes you only need to hint at something, such as silhouettes of withered trees, ravens or tombstones, to give people the impresssion of a dark, gothic setting. Since my art focuses mainly on gothic themes, I usually leave my backgrounds half-covered by shadows or eerie mist.
I learned a lot from studying the paintings of fantasy art master, Frank Frazetta. He always knew exactly what to put into a painting to capture the viewer's attention, and he always knew what to leave out of a painting so that his artistic statement would leave a lasting impression.
Your slim, aerial shapes invoke the gothic era. In the Middle Ages, gothic paintings had other messages, than today's gothic things. But still, (at least for me) technical similarity is eye-catching. What do you think about it?
My characters are intentionally very pale and gaunt to represent the realm of the undead. Vampires and ghosts have traditionally been depicted this way, so it sends a subliminal message to the viewer when they see a thin person with colorless flesh. We instantly recognize the look of a creature that doesn't eat and is drained of blood. But even though this is the traditional look of the living dead, I try to make my characters beautiful and sexy in a dark, gothic way.
I personally love this look and would like to see more modern styles reflect the dangerous, dark beauty of the gothic realm, combining the traditional elements of the period with fantasy elements of horror fiction.
How do you paint: you put brighter colours on a dark foundation, or inversely, or variously (like on your painting titled 'Shadows')? (More exactly: it's a basic graphical technique to start on a white paper, and work with a black/dark pencil or other instrument. On your paintings, it seems like your foundation was black!)
You are correct. I have a very unorthodox style. I usually paint a very dark background and lay gray shapes on top of it. As the painting progresses, I use brighter colors and mix less black with the paints. I usually don't use any white paint until I am adding the finishing highlights.
For the painting "Shadows," I worked backward, starting with a dark blue background and painting solid black shapes on top of it. I added a few highlight areas at the end, just to lend dimension to some of the monstrous forms.
I don't recommend my painting technique because the dark background foundation usually covers most, if not all, of the underlying sketch, but I like to make changes in my original composition as the painting evolves.
While watching your works, I feel like you didn't paint a picture, but you painted the unsettling, creepy-crawly feeling I should feel when I look at it. How did you learn to paint 'the gothic feeling' this perfectly?
I strive to capture a balance between unsettling darkness, and melancholy beauty in my work. I love dark and creepy things. Vampires, gargoyles, ghosts and bewitching enchantresses are among my favorite subjects to paint. The dark side piques my curiosity and stimulates my imagination—the mysteries that lurk in the shadows of our minds, the occult, the supernatural, and secrets buried in mankind’s forgotten past. When I wonder about these things, I form images and stories in my mind in order to explain and understand their hidden secrets.
Before I begin any painting, I think of the story that I want to tell and the mood I want to evoke. Whether it's terror, sadness, danger or lust, I want to make sure that when people look at the painting, they understand the feelings in the character's minds. 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. Many of my paintings have dark, twisting forms that fade into shadows, giving the impression that much more lies hidden in the darkness. If you can stimulate your viewer's emotions, their mind will fill in what lurks in the shadows.
What are your preferred instruments to work with? What do you like the most (pencil, pastel etc)?
My main weapons of choice are acrylic paints. Of the hundreds of works I've created, the vast majority were done with acrylics. I have a number of pencil renderings, and about a dozen oil and watercolor paintings, but I am the most proficient with acrylics.
When I have more free time, I would like to do more painting with oils. The finished product is much richer than the usual acrylic painting, but oils take longer to work with because of the time required for the paint to dry. I'm usually on a tight deadline, so I have to complete my work as quickly as possible.
Just like in the case of Michelangelo, your man shapes seem to be self-portraits. What do you think of this?
Yes. A friend of mine mentioned that several years ago. I never noticed it before then, but now I see it. I think I paint my male characters the way I wished I looked... younger, leaner and with perfect hair and features. It's like being able to change your own reflection. Most artists have large egos, so we enjoy molding our creations in our own image. It's also easier and cheaper to simply look in a mirror rather than hire a model to pose.
You work with a narrow theme, but still, you are a productive artist! What is your method (in paintings or music too) to avoid unnecessary repetition?
Artists are only limited by their own imaginations. I like to challenge myself with new elements, using a variety of settings and landscapes as well as adding various creatures to my paintings. Wolves, ravens, horses, bats, snakes, spiders are frequently depicted in my work. I also strive to create works that capture the entire gothic spectrum, ranging from the hauntingly beautiful to the macabre and monstrous. Some of my characters appear in more than one of my paintings, but each portrait tells a different story.
As for music, although all of the 18 Nox Arcana albums center around dark, gothic themes, they are all based on completely different concepts, ranging from haunted houses and creepy carnivals to ghostly pirates and sinister fairy tales. I've also created albums based on the works of some of my favorite writers, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker and H.P. Lovecraft, in addition to a trilogy of albums for the winter holiday season.
What do you think, can your paintings be authentically transformed to tattoos?
Yes. I have seen tattoo artists create some truly amazing work nowadays. Many of them have transformed my work to body art and added their own details and I have been very impressed by what they've done. A majority of my paintings are done with only two or three major colors, making them easy to be transformed to tattoos. I also have a lot of black-and-white graphics that are perfect for tattoo imagery.
How often people contact you to use your paintings as tattoo designs?
Not too often. Only about four or five times a year. I have a page on my website showing fan's tattoos featuring my work, but I know there are a lot more out there. I've designed original tattoos for some of my friends, but generally I allow people to use my existing art from magazine covers, my art book or gothic tarot deck.
What kind of formations did you do? Who taught you?
I am mainly a self-taught artist. That's probably why my techniques are so unorthodox. When I was a kid, I drew pictures all the time and was a pretty good little artist. When I entered high school, I took art classes and had some good teachers who taught me the basic techniques of composition and painting.
After high school, I attended the Cleveland Institute of Art, but became disillusioned with the curriculum and left after one semester. I got a regular job and nearly gave up on pursuing a career as an artist. Eventually I began taking jobs here and there as a freelance commercial artist. It wasn't anything glamorous, but it kept my interest in art alive. In my spare time I began painting and building my fantasy art portfolio and eventually began publishing my own work.
Are you teaching your art? How often do you have an apprentice?
No. I have never taught art or music. I find that most people aren't interested in listening to advice, even when it comes from an established artist. They seem to prefer to talk about their own vague ideas rather than discuss someone else's finished projects, even though they could learn a lot of useful information on how to make their own dreams become reality.
I have corresponded with numerous people via email, answering various questions about art, music and publishing, but I have never had an actual apprentice. I'm not really sure how that would work out.
Can you consider your art complete? Are you missing something (professionally or personally) to make it complete?
I am content with my work, but never truly satisfied. I see so many great artists whose works are far better than mine, but I also realize that I have my own particular style, so I don't try to copy anyone else. Most artists are never completely happy with their work. This is what drives us to put our best work and ideas into every piece we create.
I’m very driven to challenge myself with new projects, and like most artists, I’m very critical of my own work. I really spend a lot of time with the details of each project and just keep my mind focused on the goal I’ve set. It’s very easy to lose sight of what you set out to accomplish. If a particular piece isn’t heading in the right direction, you have to be willing to pick it apart and start over. I rework many of my paintings, musical compositions and stories several times before I’m satisfied with them. Occasionally, the initial idea is strong enough to carry through to the end of the creative process, but most of the time I’ll come up with new ideas to make the piece better and apply them along the way.
My work has been published on t-shirts, posters, books, magazines and album covers, and I have my own tarot deck and art book featuring over 100 of my images, so I am happy with what I have achieved so far, but there are so many other artistic projects floating around my mind. Hopefully I will be able to bring some new visions to life in the coming years.
What are your plans for the near future?
I am currently writing the third book in my Dark Tower series. Once the writing is complete, I will begin creating cover and interior art for the book. I am also working on three new winter-themed songs that will be ready for the holiday season. In the new year, I will begin work on another gothic-horror themed concept album.