Bright Lights Film Journal

“What More Could a Boy Want?” An Interview with Artist Jim McDermott

“I’m using the computer (Photoshop) a bit more than I like to admit, but I still love traditional illustration, watercolor and oils.”

Some of you have inquired about the fantastic artwork that’s all over the new Bright Lights. The artist is Jim “Abnormal Brain” McDermott, an old pal of ours who’s well known in the seemingly inimical realms of pop-cult fanboyism (Heavy Metal, Eternity Comics) and high-tone industrial/branding art for companies like Apple and IBM. Jim’s an exceptional talent who combines gonzo technical skills with a dark but affectionate, sometimes sardonic approach to movie and pop-culture personalities, particularly the denizens of classic Hollywood horror and B-movies. He’s done exhaustive work in resurrecting and reimagining such legendary faces as Rondo Hatton, Lon Chaney (Jr. and Sr.), Yvonne De Carlo, Bela and Boris, and many other icons of the Dream Factory. He’s also made striking portraits of Johnny Depp, Marilyn Manson, Larry David, Heath Ledger, and other more contemporary personalities. Jim claims a dizzying array of influences, but his dramatic use of color, Chuck Close-like focus on the pleasures and terrors of the face, and exceptional draftsmanship make his style unique. Below is a brief Q&A — we didn’t want to take too much time away from his art — and a gallery of Jim’s paintings.

Jim, can you describe your background a little? Where you were born, raised, schooling, etc.?

I was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, home of Jack Kerouac, James Whistler, Ed McMahon, Bette Davis, and Michael Chiklis. I studied at the New England School of Art & Design on Newbury Street in Boston. After graduation, I headed for the West Coast, where I created cartoons, paintings and illustrations for books, magazines and comic books, plus work for ad agencies and animation houses.

When did you start making art? What kind of stuff did you do first? How did that evolve?

I remember that at the age of six or seven I sat in front of the TV for hours, drawing pictures of Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, filling endless sketchbooks with Warner Bros. characters. Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng were Gods! Then a science teacher introduced me to Creepy and Eerie in 1972, and I found out you could get paid for drawing monsters. Wow! I knew then that I wanted to draw for a living.

You’ve focused quite a bit on the classic horror icons – Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price. Could you comment on that?

I grew up watching classic horror films from the age of ten or eleven. Every Friday night at 11:30pm, it was time for the “Creature Double Feature”: House of Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein, The Wolfman, Dracula . . . Peter Lorre, Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Cushing. What more could a boy want?

Who are your artistic influences?

Alex Raymond, Hal Foster, Neal Adams,  Al Williamson, Jack Davis, Robert Crumb, Big Daddy Roth, Mort Drucker and the whole gang at Mad, Al Hirschfeld, Basil Gogos, Frank Frazetta, Kelly Freas, Hildebrandt Brothers, Graham Ingels, Jack Kirby, Jeff Jones, Ken Kelly, Arthur Rackham, Sanjulian, Wally Wood, Will Eisner, Alex Toth, Bob Peak, Dean Cornwell, Drew Struzan, Haddon Sundblom, James Bama, J. C. Leyendecker, Maxfield Parrish, Richard Amsel, Norman Rockwell, N. C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Charles Santore, Chris Van Allsburg, Scott Gustafson, Carl Barks, Vargas, the Petty Girls. This could go on forever.

What’s your medium of choice, or do you work in several?

It depends on the assignment. Lately, I combine both. I’m using the computer (Photoshop) a bit more than I like to admit, but I still love traditional illustration, watercolor and oils. I love acrylics and mixed media art, such as Prismacolor pencils with gouache. There’s nothing like the feel of brush and paint on a canvas and the smell of oils. You can’t get that on a computer.

A lot of people who see your art are struck by the really dramatic coloring as well as the almost photographic realism you achieve. Your portrait of the Wolfman, for example. How do you achieve this effect? How long does something like the Wolfman portrait take?

I love light and shadow, dramatic lighting. For a vivid effect, I visualize color gels in front of off-frame lights. Sometimes I work a full day, eight to ten hours on a single portrait. I try to finish it in one sitting or I tend to get bored.

Could you tell us something about your latest projects and interests?

Getting away from the computer as much as possible to sneak in a movie or two. You can’t beat a Peter Jackson film on a Tuesday afternoon while holding a large Coke and popcorn with extra butter. Recently, I’ve been doing cover illustrations for Bluewater Comics. In addition to cover art for their Vincent Price Presents book, the assignments include a variety of political portraits, from Rush Limbaugh and Abraham Lincoln to Al Gore and Joe Biden.