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Monday, October 28, 2019

TONY MASERO—WORDS AND PAINTS


TONY MASERO 
WORDS AND PAINT
Painted book covers from internationally respected illustrator and author Tony Masero have been in high demand from the 70’s and 80’s through to the present day. A Masero cover immediately stands out because of its bold hand-painted and colorful artwork.

Born in London, Tony attended art school in the UK and then trained as a graphic designer. He segued into full-time illustration when he began receiving commissions from major publishing houses and agencies.

Tony’s illustrations for this period covered a wide field of styles and subject matter, ranging from the popular to the macabre, intriguing and lesser known. From the Sci-Fi fantasies of Dr. Who, to horrifying paperback imagery, the westerns of Edge: The Loner, pulp covers for The Spider, Satan Sleuth, Death Dealer and beyond into the realms of historical fiction and romance. 

I’ve long been a fan of his artwork and his Western novels and have been fortunate enough to recently begin corresponding with him and getting to know him better. As a result, Tony was kind enough to allow me to pester him with a series of interview questions...
 
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What was your personal background leading to your career as an artist? Did you come from a family of creatives?

I have my father to thank for that. He was a wood carver who began as a restorer and worked his way up to become a respected master carver in the UK and abroad. His works are mainly of a religious nature and are to be found in many well known London churches—he created the figure of Christ on the cupola above the main altar in St. Paul’s Cathedral during the restoration after Blitz bomb damage, many family coats-of-arms for the College of Arms, The Admiralty as well as many other works around the city and beyond. For those interested: www.gino.masero.co.uk

When did you first start painting? Where did you get your training?

I think I was around three years old, at least that’s what they tell me, when my father first put a pencil in my hand—I guess I haven’t stopped since. Subsequently, I went on to train as a graphic designer in art school. It was considered by my parents as a safer career option rather than something as obscure and on the fringe as Illustration.

However, I knew I wanted to Illustrate. So, about halfway through my second year, I attempted to change my course, but sadly I was advised by my rather snobbish headmaster (an Royal Academy watercolorist of some note) that I would never make an illustrator. ‘No never, not a chance, old boy.’ A mark of the times in the UK in those post-war years where nothing was possible and the restrictions of the older generation led us all into the rebellious sixties. That one still burns and I’ve been proving the gentleman wrong ever since—but on the basis of that arbitrary decision I wasted a lot of years struggling in graphics before breaking through into Illustration.

Did you always make a living from your art or were there other jobs along the way?

A great many, mainly of a lowly nature—landscaping, laboring, factory and office work. Later, I worked as a paste-up artist in film poster advertising, then as a designer for various ad agencies, and latterly running a design studio for a print company. In the process, I acquired some knowledge of design and how to use the space on a cover. None of it is was a wasted experience. My time amongst working people was rich and a great source for later representations of tough hardworking guys.

One anecdote: Shift work in the factory, noon to midnight one week, then changed around for the next. Exhausting stuff for a meager piece-work pay. Payday meant drinking time. I worked with a big Irishman, full of song and poetry. He would stand on the bar table and sing rebel songs when the drink was on him. He saved me from a knifing one time and took me to meet his older brothers, both solemn souls just back from serving as mercenaries in Biafra. I suspect they served a different army at that time as the only way I was accepted into their company was because of my mother’s Irish origins. All of it grist for the mill when the writing came later.

When did you start painting book covers. And what were your early assignments?

After a while, the designer studio life paled and I quit it all. I made some samples and started hawking them around. In the late sixties/early seventies there were some gracious art directors in the publishing world who would actually meet and interview prospective illustrators. One of them at Pan Books gave me some good advice, which I subsequently took. From the basis of those samples I was accepted and New English Library gave me my first commission—a horror book, The Craft of Terror. My experience grew from there and evolved into getting regular commisions from their art department. It proved to be a great training ground as NEL’s list covered a wide spectrum of pulp fiction, and one never knew what was in the pipeline from one week to the next. Horror, Romance, Adventure, Western—whatever came along one had to turn one’s hand to it.

Was your writing an extension of your painting, or were the two skills developed independently?

I see little difference between them. To me words are like paint. A subtle shift can be emphasized visually in a character’s demeanor by a highlight that casts a spark of light in the eye. Or lacking visibility, by using the correct term to imply exactly the mood intended in the briefest way possible. Both forms have palettes that create the basis for the complete picture.

Who were your influences both in art and literature?

Norman Rockwell, James Bama, Dick Clifton-Dey—too many—there are so many great ones out there. Most profoundly though it was a British comic artist, Frank Hampson, who first starred in my evolution. He drew for the comic Eagle—the first large format bold and colorful comic of my youth—and one of the first artists to use real models as photographic reference in comics. The man was a genius of imagination.

I read widely from a tender age—all of the expected fiction along with classics and philosophy, some of it compulsively. Now it’s mostly historical literature, with Antony Beevor as a favorite. Of modern fiction writers, I greatly admire James Lee Burke who can manage to blend the most lyrical with the most violent in one breath.

Most of your novels have been Westerns, but you've also written in many other genres. What draws you to a story?

Imagination always. Often inspired by a word, a historical note, or a scene in a movie screenplay. Most finds are like a seed in the imagination, which sprout and bloom into a written page. I enjoy History and often read the early writings and journals of ordinary folk, particularly in the Old West. How would I react then becomes the question?
Historical research into those times can take one off on many different tacks and into intriguing areas all of which give an air of reality to the writing one is involved in.

Research is very important for me, just as it is in Illustration. How is a saddle made? What would the effect of a .45 caliber bullet make at close range? What distance can a loaded mule cover in a single day? None of these I have experience with and so it must be discovered.

Do you ever start with a painting and write a story based on it?

Often the two parallel. I’ll begin writing and will be thinking of the cover as I go. The great thing about being in both fields is I can adapt either to suit and change appearance or environment to whichever fits best.

How has your painting and your writing evolved over time?

Writing, being the more latterly, is the most obvious. I had no literary training, and in the beginning it was the old Black Horse publishing company who made me write and re-write my first manuscripts. The work was being honed to suit their particular market, but nevertheless it imposed on me a discipline that stood me well as I progressed. Probably, they were simply trying to get rid of another tiresome amateur. However, as I did when entering Illustration for the first time, I persisted and then persisted again until I received my first copy back in hardcover—Jake Rains—and that felt too good to stop.

Which discipline comes easiest to you, art or writing?

Obviously, the art. I’ve been at it the longest and a visual way of thinking is now so ingrained that my writing is merely a transposition of the visual images, which play like a movie in my head. Same with the dialogue, which I hope has improved over time and now flows more easily.


You have painted covers for iconic Western series—such as Edge, Sundance, The Searcher, and The Gunsmith to name but a few. You have also done action series covers for such esteemed series as The Sergeant, Dr. Who and many more. How do you creatively approach creating the covers for such high profile series?

The Edge series was a ground-breaker of course, but before that I did the covers for the James Gunn series of Westerns, which may have inspired the publisher’s to let me have a try with Edge. I was following in the footsteps of the great Clifton-Dey who started illustrating the series, but after their initial success I was allowed pretty much to go my own way until the series finished. Basically Edge was a simple design format—a figure in a black shirt against a white background with a compressed circular title and it worked. I always believe covers should tell the buyer what kind of book to expect in the most straightforward manner. Today’s complex covers are full of ambiguity and leave me rather cold. And as for the current trend of a single black silhouette walking off into some obscurity. It’s an image that leaves one wondering, are we dealing with a thriller, a spy story, a romance, or what? It has been done to death and it’s about time art directors come up with something new.

Your creation of Western covers and novels dominate your portfolio. Does the genre hold a special pull for you? If so, why?

I’m a huge movie fan and it was always the Western that attracted me most. Being a city boy the feelings of space and freedom encouraged by the Westerns of the late fifties and sixties expanded horizons in a literal and imaginary way.

Your output of painted covers has been wonderfully prolific. How do you bring a fresh perspective to new commissions?

Sometimes criticism can do it. That forces one to look elsewhere and see what is going on in the publishing world and adapt to different approaches. At my age, I’ve had to realize that often I’m steeped in the painterly tradition I was brought up in/ As many covers are now governed by stock photography and computer technology, it calls for finding a way of breaking the mold and combining the two.

As a man with the soul of a creative, do you feel art has a responsibility to the wider world?

In truth I never considered myself more than a commercial artist. I did what I did to make money and put food on the table. To think of any higher perspective would have been out of place and somewhat arrogant in this context. As a commercial artist you supply the image that is asked for, and any expansion into a more esoteric world would be uncalled for and most unlikely result in no payment.

However, in writing the advent of self publishing has been a more liberating experience. Early on, I sent out many manuscripts to publishers with the usual indifferent photocopied rejection slip received in reply. Thankfully those day are over now. Anybody can put what they like out into the ether, and my writing allows me to explore broader avenues, albeit within the strictures of the chosen genre.

Should paint or words strive to show the world the way it is, the way it was, or the way it should be?

That’s an interesting question. In writing can we truly show the way the world was? It is difficult to create the old world for the modern reader as the mores, the terminology, and use of language was so different. If a writer wants to communicate with the modern reader, he has to use the language of the present day to some extent. It’s very much down to the abilities of the writer to get across the feelings of the period rather than resorting to any historical tract, which may be accurate, but has about as much impact as a geography lesson. I’m not so pompous as to think my scribbling’s will in any way affect the modern world. In my experience, the average person goes their own way and in the long run one cannot change anyone else.

Should art stand apart from the human experience or attempt to understand and explain it?

They say that within the heart of every Illustrator there is the soul of a fine artist wanting to get out. I suppose there is some truth in that, but in my case I have struggled so long in the commercial world I find I approach my fine art paintings with all the Illustration techniques I’ve used over the years, which in itself, I find an inhibitor. My own personal work—except for some of the more representational still life paintings—proves to be too obscure and abstract for popular taste.

Within the written word, though, there exists the means to take our modern dilemmas and transpose them into another time and place, and within that disguise, to explore and attempt to rationalize them without offence.

Furthermore, I’d say there is a fine line now between accepted Fine Art and Illustration. The same commercial values apply, and its still a matter of who-you-know, plus critics who claim to understand what is great and what isn’t. Reproduction techniques have also now vastly undervalued art in its purest sense, so a poster print of a painting that might have taken a year or more for the artist to complete, which is sold for little money, means he is unlikely to regain its worth in time spent once the producer, promoter, and distributor have had their say.

During my time in the illustration world of the UK, it was never treated with the respect it received in the US, where fees represented more of an appreciation of the skills involved. Deadlines and indifference do not make for good bedfellows. After the advent of computers in the mid-eighties, many of my peers lost out as opportunities for work declined, and they were relegated to lesser employment just to survive. Some great illustrators fell by the wayside during that period, and I consider myself lucky to still be going.

If you could paint or write whatever you wanted and make a good living from it, what would you paint or write?

I have two ambitions: to finish a novel I began some twenty years ago about a Templar knight. It’s an unusual work for me and involves a complex plot and, as ever, needs a great deal of research. Needless to say, the cover already exists, but the time for the rest is harder to find. Secondly, I wish to bring into the light, edit, and publish my father’s memoir, including many pictorial images of his work.
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Thanks to Tony for his thoughtful responses. I look forward to reading much more of his work and to the pleasure of viewing many more of his covers.

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