World Building: An interview with illustrator Sean Andrew Murray

A concept illustrator with over 15 years experience, Sean Andrew Murray has an impressive portfolio which includes pieces for Guillermo Del Toro, Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight Games, and now, we are proud to say, Court of the Dead. We took some time out to talk with Sean about putting his talents to work on concept art, and a new trio of Premium Art Prints for Court, which will be available soon from Sideshow Collectibles.

What was it about Court of the Dead that first caught your interest?

[Court of the Dead creator] Tom Gilliland came by my booth at San Diego Comic-Con last year. We struck up a conversation, and he purchased a few of my books and prints. He asked me to stop by the Sideshow booth later on, which I did. That’s when we really got to talking and hit it off.

I really liked the depictions of main character of Death, because they were depictions of an iconic character that I hadn’t seen or thought of in that way before. My design philosophy keys in on iconic elements. What caught my attention in particular was Death’s mask, and not being able to see his face in its entirety.

A lot of my work is dark, but it has a sense of whimsy to it. Tom wanted me to bring that flavor to the property, which I thought was really interesting. We did an early creative brainstorm at the Sideshow offices, where we talked a lot about what inspired us, and connected on that level. I got a sense right away that we have similar influences. He’s easy to talk to. He gives you a lot of explore, but also lets you explore it on your own. He hired me because he liked what I did and what I could bring to the work, not because of what I could mimic… and that’s the best kind of relationship to have with an art director.

You’ve created a beautiful trio of illustrations that will be available soon as Premium Art Prints. Can you tell us a little insight into the story behind this set?

The illustrations are all part of a series that depict Death’s relationship with his three main faction leaders: Xiall, Kier, Gethsemoni… and their relationship with him. I explored and expressed these relationships through pose and body language. Lighting. Where the characters are in relationship to each other in the space. Placement and body can tell a lot of story. It was flattering that Tom gave me these assignments and gave me the freedom to explore complex emotional relationships, which was a lot of fun.

How do you set the mood when you work?

I listen to a lot of fairly dark Northern European electronic music, which was very inspiring for this project. I also do a lot of research, and visual reference in my own library: Ancient architecture; ruins of different cultures; and bone and anatomical studies. I look through my own library of books and find inspiration to combine different elements to create my own.

Can you walk us through your process from beginning to end, creating the compositions for each piece?

I start with research from my own books and photography. Then I make rough digital sketches in Photoshop with my Cintiq. I try to capture overall mood and gestures and structure in these sketches. Next, I print out the sketches very, very lightly on a large piece of Bristol board. I use the sketch as a base and draw over it with a mechanical pencil and really detail everything out. Last, I scan that drawing and do all my color in Photoshop.

Each image is very demanding, with a lot going on – so I can use both physical and digital mediums to get the most out of each. Drawing in pencil and paper is great for detail work, but rough work is faster and needs to be more about experimenting, so digital is good to get the layout feel for the piece.

Of the trio, did you have a favorite piece to work on?

My favorite of the three pieces is the Gethsemoni piece, because I got to really explore the Underworld. I love world building, and I started to think about that very early on. In my depiction of the city, I wanted to be faithful to the reference, but also bring my touch to it. I wanted to represent three different styles of architecture for the three different factions. Bone is very rigid, and almost mathematical and patternistic; whereas Spirit is flowy – almost carved out of smoke. Flesh is a mix of both.

Speaking of world building, tell us about your project “Gateway.” How has your experience in creating worlds of your own translated to working on a project like this?

“Gateway” is a personal project I’ve been working on for years. It’s focused on a large fantasy city. Both Gateway and Court are focused on a primary city. I love of old cities – the layering of old and new. In the City of the Dead, that can be flipped on its head because the rules of time don’t apply. It’s been fun to go back and forth between the projects – to solve the same problems, but use different logic. Helps me get out of my normal head space for both projects.

Check out more of Sean’s work on his portfolio website and on Facebook.