Nebulous, grainy imagery, intricate illustrations in the style of wood etchings, and mysterious figures standing in chiaroscuro are all staples of Charles Scott’s distinctly recognizable album covers. Undertaking the ambitious pace of one album cover a week over the course of one year, Scott uses a wide variety of imagery and typographic arrangements to create unique but stylistically coherent covers for his chosen music albums.
Album covers are a unique niche in commercial art. They’re an uncommonly flexible avenue for artistic expression (at least when it comes to commercial art), and a fortunate few can even become instantly recognizable visual icons. The Velvet Underground’s The Velvet Underground & Nico, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, The Clash’s London Calling, and Nirvana’s Nevermind all immediately come to mind as examples of globally recognizable covers. Many album covers have ingrained themselves in the public’s cultural consciousness, and have been parodied, ripped off, referenced, and given tribute to.
But album covers are not a blank canvas. While they provide an excellent channel for creativity, they are inexorably tied to the music they stand for. Not all album cover artists choose to acknowledge this fact. Many covers have seemingly nothing to do with their music. Despite this, I would argue that the very best covers are visually related to what the music within has to offer to the listener (with notable exceptions).
Through persistent practice, Scott has mastered finding the balance between creative expression and faithful visual representation of the music his covers represent. I’ve had the opportunity to briefly interview Scott about his process, inspiration, and how he approaches each design.
Boris: What is your professional background? How did you come to be in the industry you’re in?
Charles: I got my degree in industrial design, and worked for a few years doing display design and product development for the trade show industry. As time went on I kept an eye out for jobs in the same city as my girlfriend (now wife), eventually coming across a great graphic design job opportunity. I applied and got the job, and have been focused on graphic design work ever since.
Boris: What motivated you to start the series?
Charles: My main motivation came from seeing other design work, in both daily life and on the internet, that I found inspiring. I really wanted to expand my capabilities and explore styles that I wouldn’t necessarily do for my regular job (consumer packaging design/advertising). Album covers seemed like the way to go given how much connection I feel to music, and there’s so much opportunity for creativity in that medium.
Boris: Did you ever struggle with producing one cover every week? How did you get past creative roadblocks?
Charles: There were a few times that I’d finish working on a cover and think, “I have no idea what I’m going to do next.” But when that would happen, I’d actively search for new inspiration: chatting with other designers, checking out new music or revisiting old favorites, even reading new books. I’d also make sure to give myself some relaxation time where I’m not thinking about work at all. I always found that new ideas would come to the surface before the week’s end.
Boris: How do you choose an album to make a cover for? Does the music inspire a design, or do you perhaps think of a design technique and find a suitable album for it?
Charles: It’s gone both ways! Sometimes I’ll listen to an album and think, “Man, I’ve got to do something revolving around this record,” and I’ll start really delving into the lyrics and brainstorming a concept. Other times I’ll start working on a piece, just experimenting with a visual idea or technique, and somewhere along the way it strikes me that, “Oh, this would go really well with this album..” and then I’ll make additional adjustments with the music from that album in mind.
Boris: I’ve noticed the style of the design is kind of dark, and was wondering if that was mirrored in your favorite music genres. What kind of music do you tend to listen to?
Charles: I listen to all kinds of stuff these days, but I’ve always been rooted in metal and hardcore punk genres. It’s that sort of music that I listen to the most and find the most inspiration in when it comes to design. The album that I started this series off with, the subject of my first cover art concept, was “Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic” by The Ocean, a metal band from Germany.
Boris: Can you describe the general process you use when designing these album covers? What software do you use to make these covers?
Charles: I usually start with a goal in mind – to make use of a particular technique that interests me, or to create a concept based around a song or phrase. I search for assets that fit into whatever rough idea I have in mind, and then bring everything into Adobe Photoshop to start working on photo edits and composition. Once I’ve got that going, I bring my Photoshop document into Adobe Illustrator for type and vector elements. I adjust them both in tandem until I reach something that I’m happy with.
Boris: There’s a wide breadth of imagery used in the designs. The veiled women in Heavenly Bodies and the nervous system graphic in Gravemind – Reading Steiner are particularly beautiful. Where do you source the underlying imagery used in the album covers?
Charles: I make use of a lot of free stock sites and public domain libraries, to make sure that whatever assets I use are cleared for commercial purposes, regardless of whether I intend to sell the work. The original image that I made the Heavenly Bodies art came from Unsplash, a free stock site. The original image used in the Gravemind art was sourced from Flickr Commons, which has a lot of useful filters to find public domain images.
A big thanks to Charles for his willingness to answer my questions and provide some insight into how he makes these gorgeous covers.
You can follow Charles via his instagram (@charlesscottcreative), and check out the rest of his beautiful album cover series.