"To always recognize, embrace and maintain your identity. Do work that you enjoy doing. An artist will always be at his best when he enjoys what he's doing."
Billy Perkins: See the Music
Illustrator and graphic designer Billy Perkins is a longtime native of Austin, Texas. His studio and its tagline "Good Ideas Thru Bad Living" were established in 1992, shortly after graduating with a BFA in Commercial Art from Texas State University. Advertising design, logos and illustration paid the bills, but a passion for music – Billy is vocalist of Honeycreepers and Butcherwhite - and a love of rock poster art soon made designing for the music industry the primary focus. Perkins has since become internationally known as an award-winning rock poster artist for his work with Alice in Chains, David Bowie, ZZ Top and many more. His posters for both bands and movies have been featured in several books. He has also designed CD packages for bands including The Arcangels and Cheap Trick.
His style is heavily influenced by Marvel comic book art tempered with a serious study in commercial art at Southwest Texas State. The resulting body of work is startling in it's depth and breadth.
Over the years, his images became increasingly familiar. You'd see Billy Perkins' posters at the concerts, record stores, and advertisements. He's part of a growing community of artists who live in Texas who design rock poster art. They all know and support each other as the movement grows. Check out of some of Billy's work at gigposters.com. Billy talks about ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Roky Erickson, Texas scene, Ramones, Chet Helms, and Seventies Rock stars.
Billy, when was your first desire to become involved in the Art and Music?
I got into both art and music almost simultaneously at a very young age. I was inspired to draw by Marvel Comics art before I was even old enough to read, and have had a lifelong love for comics ever since. My work reflects that.
I also played records almost daily growing up. My first LP was "Meet The Beatles", confiscated from my mom when I was just 6 years old. I wore the grooves out on that record!
In my early teens I began to combine my two loves, drawing KISS, Alice Cooper and other music-related art all over my notebooks and school papers. I also came to be very interested in album cover art and rock posters. I bought plenty of records because of the cover alone.
What does “Art” and “Music” offered you? What do you learn about yourself from the Art and Music?
Art and music have offered me something I'm extremely grateful for: the opportunity to make a career out of what I love doing the most. If my job wasn't making art, I'm not sure that I would make very much art, so I'm also thankful that my profession demands that I stay busy. It's very gratifying to look back and see the volume of work that I've created over 20 years, especially the work that I've done for bands. That's where my heart is. I listen to music constantly; it's an enormous part of my life. Having the opportunity to interpret and express the music that I love through my artwork is a blessing that I will never take for granted.
I also write music and play in a couple of bands. It's a lot of fun creating posters for your own band. Creating art and music are very analogous. I've learned that I am extremely passionate about both. This is who I am.
What characterize the art philosophy of Billy Perkins?
To always recognize, embrace and maintain your identity. Do work that you enjoy doing. An artist will always be at his best when he enjoys what he's doing. Same is true with musicians.
How do you describe your ART?
I like things big and bold with a lot of contrast. I insist on the power of using black. I often draw in different styles - sometimes bold, brush-stroke portraiture and sometimes more comics-style illustrations with ink and black colored pencil. I'm heavily inspired by comic book art, and it's reflected in a lot of my work. I also love hand-drawn lettering and feel it is one of my strong points. I draw in different styles partly because I enjoy drawing in different mediums, and partly because I would lose my mind if everything I did was illustrated in the same manner. I have to change it up for the sake of my own sanity.
What are some of the most memorable posters you've had?
I did a nice 3-piece poster set for a screening of "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" that has gotten a lot of attention. That piece kick-started a new style of ink & brush portraiture that I'm doing a lot of lately.
I'm happy with some of the ZZ Top posters that I've done, especially the print where I collaged a nude woman's body with a hat & shades. I'd say that one qualifies as memorable, even if for its own unique reasons. I have a weird sense of humor, and sometimes design to amuse myself.
My personal favorites are the more illustrative prints where I added dimension with a colored pencil, like my work for High on Fire.
From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the art and the music?
From myself partly, just from the experiences of having successes and failures. But more than anything else, from my peers. Through poster art and Flatstock poster shows, I've become close friends with other artists whose I had admired from afar. Our experiences in business and art are similar, and our shared advice is valuable. A smart man will heed the advice and follow the examples of those he respects.
Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
A high point was the first time I ever saw my work in a book, or on a shelf at a bookstore. The experiences of traveling the world to do poster shows with my friends and peers is way at the top of my list.
The worst moment was possibly when I realized that if I didn't rid myself of a couple of vices, I could literally lose this wonderful ability that I've been given - to conjure imagery using only my imagination and my hands. A blank piece of paper miraculously turns into art with a few waves of my hand. That's wonderful sorcery. Nothing is worth losing that. The fear of that realization ironically led to the discovery of some inner strength.
What kind of music you hear when you are on progress?
While I'm working on a design for a band, I always try to have their music playing. I like to completely immerse myself in the music so that the artwork more accurately reflects how the music is speaking to me. I listen to everything from classic rock and punk to metal and even 70's soul while I'm working. Lately I'm listening to a lot of Swedish blues-based rock, like Graveyard and Witchcraft.
Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from your inspiration to make a poster and print?
I have an ongoing series of hand-screened art prints that I named "Perkins 77". It's a series of 77 separate hand-drawn portraits of music icons from around 1977. Each print is an edition of only 77 prints, so it's all themed to the number 77. That series is basically a pictorial essay of the music that made me the person I am today - 1970's punk/new wave, and classic rock/metal like Priest, KISS, Sabbath etc. It's very autobiographical, but also appeals to a lot of other music fans as well. I thought about doing something like this for 20 years before putting it into motion. Every image I do brings back great memories of my teen years. I can almost see my high school bedroom, with all of my LP's and posters all over walls and ceiling.
Also, I literally taught myself to draw by studying Marvel Comics artists like Buscema, Colan & Kirby. Almost everything I drew as a kid was comics art, villains & superheroes at battle. I even made up a lot of my own characters. I hadn't drawn any superheroes for 30 years, until the Flatstock poster show in Seattle a few years ago. I had the chance to submit a piece of art for the annual screen printing demonstrations, so I drew the Hulk beating the crap out of The Avengers. I had an unbelievable amount of fun drawing that. It brought back childhood memories of hours of escapism through drawing. It was something I would have drawn as a kid, but now drawn as an adult with much more skill. Fun.
Which memory during of your progress makes you smile?
When I was drawing the aforementioned Hulk/Avengers print, I kept catching myself making little explosion noises with my mouth as I was drawing it. Little "Pow's!" and smashing sounds. It was completely subconscious, but I would hear myself doing it and laugh. Very amusing. I must have done that as a kid, and never realized it.
How does the music come out of your art?
I simply listen, and let the imagery come to me instead of looking for it.
Which of the bands (style) or faces were the most “difficult” and which was the most “gifted”?
I recently finished a CD cover for a band called The Statesboro Revue, an illustration of a tugboat in a dry creek bed. It turned out great, but I chose to do the illustration the hardest way possible - with only pens and a lot of detail. Every 2" square area consisted of 30 minutes to an hour of feathering with tiny strokes. After over 40 hours of drawing, then another 30 hours coloring it, my hand was so fatigued that I couldn't make a fist for weeks. That one was very difficult, and aggravated some carpal tunnel issues in my drawing hand. Just thinking about it makes my hand ache.
The portraiture that I do for my 77 series is a style that I cultivated for years. The idea is to be as spontaneous with the brush strokes as possible, with minimal line work and a lot of negative space. I actually spend more time on those studying source photos and lighting than I do actually rendering the images, so the actual work is less labor-intensive. They are each an experiment with negative space, also requiring more restraint than actual line work. That style comes a lot more natural to me, as do the comics-style illustrations. Where I have the most difficulty is drawing something that is my client's vision, and not out of my own head.
What is it that draws (inspiration) you to make a poster and print?
Music inspires me now, as it always has. Music conjures imagery. If it's a band I really like, I get excited about illustrating my interpretation of the music.
To whom you would like to donate one of their posters?
I would have loved to have done a poster for The Ramones.
What is your artistic DREAM? Which of historical music personalities would you like to meet?
To have perpetual inspiration and the time and ability to create. I'd like to make both art and music for the rest of my life.
I always wanted to meet and have a beer with Dee Dee Ramone. It would have also been great to meet Stevie Ray Vaughan, I've heard he was a nice guy. I have had the fortune of hanging with two of my idols, Warren Haynes and Zakk Wylde. Both guys were so cool, I'd love the opportunity to hang with them again.
Can music have images and the images to have music?
Of course. "Everything you can imagine is real." - Picasso
What would you ask of Chet Helms? What would you like to say to Rick Griffin and Wes Wilson?
Well, to those artists who pioneered us through the psychedelic 60's and into the '70's, I owe a huge debt of gratitude. Their styles of illustration and hand-drawn lettering played a big part in inspiring me to become the poster artist I am. But think about it: Who inspired them? Nobody did what they did until they did it. They were the alphas, very impressive. A lot of artists owe them thanks, including myself. So I would simply say, "Thank you. You inspired my life to go down an artistic path. I don't have to work in a chemical plant."
How you would spend a day with ZZ Top and Roky Erickson?
Oh man, I would be thrilled to spend a day with either of them. Billy Gibbons has one of the best guitar tones on the planet, and is one of my all-time favorite players. I have a tremendous amount of respect for both his playing and his odd sense of humor. I bet we would get along great and laugh a lot.
I'm also a long-time Roky fan, especially of the Roky and The Aliens horror stuff. His story is absolutely fascinating. A brilliant artist disappears inside his own mind for over 30 years, and somehow miraculously emerges. I am astonished with his journey. I'd love to talk with him, but I have no idea what I would say.
Do you know why the Texas sound is connected to the Blues Rock Psychedelic culture?
I'm not sure, but I have noticed it and acknowledge its legitimacy. Texas can at times be a surreal mashup of cultures. There's always been the old cowboy vibe and the stereotypical braggadocio and arrogance; then you have the high tech industry, hot rod culture, hippies and honky tonks. Spicy food, margaritas and hot, unpredictable weather are also factors. There are lots of bars, lots of drugs and lots of beautiful women…but you'll still occasionally see someone riding a horse. It's such a weird combination of elements; it's no surprise that it would spawn its own unique form of psychedelia. And of course it would be rooted in the blues, even with a little country mixed in - it's Texas.
Why did you think that Texas music continued to generate such a devoted following?
I think we Texans like to promote and support ourselves. (smile)
I think as a listener, you can tell when music is real or when it's contrived. Texas is a state full of working class people. There's a rich history here of hard work, sweat and pride. Sometimes that pride is even mistook as arrogance. (Other times it actually is arrogance). We have heat, tornadoes, mosquitos, immigrant culture, country music, politics, students, trailer parks, lakes, football, booze and guns. We have a lot of friendly people and more than enough grouches. It's as real a place as you'll find. It makes sense that the music that comes from Texas will be a product of its environment.
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