Marc Sasso Interview

From creating brilliant artwork for metal gods to doing stunning illustrations for Star Wars Roleplaying Games, Marc Sasso is an artist who is indeed MAGICAL. Heather Williams had a chat with Marc to find out more about his inspiration, technique and work with Ronnie James Dio, Rob Halford and others.

I just want to say you have done some AMAZING work. You have a very impressive resume. How did you get started on your artistic journey? Where did it all begin?

Thank you. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing. As a kid I ALWAYS had a pen or pencil in my hand. At home it was sketchbooks and while in school my notebooks were covered with sketches and doodles. Once I entered high school I started painting album covers on denim jackets.

I learned that you attended art school. What sort of things did you learn there that you think may have landed you where you are now?

One of the best things I learned at art school was the discipline to meet deadlines. The art college I attended was strict about meeting deadlines knowing full well it was a staple in the art biz. I spent tons of sleepless nights making sure I got my paintings done on time… and not much has changed since.

Do you think there are any differences in what people are learning in art schools today than when you attended?

As far as differences, yes things have changed quite a bit. The art industry has become dominated by digital media so of course art schools offer numerous digital art classes – they have to. When I was in art school none of that existed unfortunately.

Do you encourage anyone seeking an artistic career to attend art school?

It definitely doesn’t hurt. Most students aren’t at a professional level after leaving high school anyway, they really do need to be
trained and disciplined. That’s not to say that there aren’t artists who are ridiculously talented graduating high school… it’s just not
the norm.

Did you immediately start into digital art or have you worked with canvas painting too?

I started painting traditionally on canvas and masonite first back in high school. When I first started illustrating professionally I also worked traditionally. Later when the digital art world exploded inthe late nineties I started experimenting with Photoshop and Painter and got intrigued. Before long digital media began to dominate the industry and revising and delivering cover art etc. just became easier when you create digitally so I continued to use it. I still paint private commissions on canvas and for myself though, so thankfully I haven’t lost my touch.

Star Wars fans look out! You provided illustrations for many Star Wars Roleplaying Game sourcebooks. (Geonosis and the Outer Rim Worlds, Corcusant and the Core Worlds, The New Jedi Order Sourcebook, Ultimate Adversaries, Galactic Campaign Guide) How did you come about doing that?

I remember being excited to get the call to work on Star Wars properties. I’m a huge fan so it was great to be part of that. They
had seen my cover art somewhere and reached out to me.

You worked in a variety of elements as an artist one of them being the film industry doing visual effects. In fact, I’m definitely seeing “visual effects” in your artwork for album covers! Has your work been featured in any films and if so which ones?

I worked on a bunch of movies back in the nineties before I started freelancing. I worked for a studio that specialized in creating very creative trailers for movies – basically like little movies within the trailer. I designed effects and worked on trailers for films like Bram Stokers Dracula, Patriot Games, Lethal Weapon 3, Predator 2, Phantoms, etc.

What led you to start creating artwork for metal bands?

Well, I’ve been a massive metalhead since I was in my teens, so I always spent a lot of time staring at metal covers while losing myself in the music. I used to dream that one day I’d be a good enough artist to create for my favorite bands. Like others, I grew up listening to Kiss and Rainbow and then Judas Priest, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. When Metallica burst onto the scene my head exploded! I followed them around to every club and bar in New York to watch them play when they were just starting out. It made me realize I wanted to be more than a fan, that I wanted to somehow use my art to elevate this kind of music.

Ronnie James Dio was a musical artist you created artwork for. Of course, we all know Ronnie to be a truly amazing songwriter and vocalist having sung for Black Sabbath, Rainbow, Heaven And Hell, and of course his own Dio. What was it like working with him and how were you approached about creating artwork for his album covers? Tell us what went into creating these album covers?

Creating cover art for Ronnie James Dio was a dream come true for me. At an early age he quickly became one of my favorite singers. I was a huge Rainbow and Dio-era Sabbath-fan and later of course Dio. I had his posters in my room growing up for God’s sake! The way I was discovered by Ronnie and Wendy Dio was through Zakk Wylde and the then president of Spitfire Records (Ronnie’s label at the time). One of my friends, Phil Ciulo is best friends with Zakk so he introduced me to him and the president of the label. I had my portfolio with me and he said “Dude you should do the new Dio cover, they are looking for someone – I’ll call Wendy.” It was literally that easy. He sent her a link to my website the next day and the following week I was on the phone with Ronnie discussing ideas. Crazy! We spoke for over an hour that first day and I made sure I didn’t sound like a goofy fan boy but… because I had been a fan for so long I did have tons of questions. Before we hung up Ronnie said “Jesus I feel like I just got interviewed.” That made me laugh.

He was great every time I worked with him. Gracious, talkative, respectful etc. Plus he was really imaginative, and a good art director – he always had tons of great ideas. One thing always struck when I worked with Ronnie, I always received tons of respect from him. Like he considered me part of his team… a vital part of the process if you will. I remember when “Killing The Dragon” was finished and the credits in the booklet were set, they read “Those who created” and my name was listed after Ronnie’s, the bands’ and the producer! That blew me away! I thought… wow that is so respectful. We hit it off and remained in contact for years wether we were working together or not until sadly, his death (2010). I really cherished knowing him.

Besides Dio, what other artists have you created artwork for?

Rob Halford, Cage, Adrenaline Mob, Morbid Angel.

How do you go about preparing yourself mentally to create an album cover for a band?

After an initial conversation, I ask whomever is my contact within the band to put a detailed email together with notes, basically re-describing what we went over. That way I always have a clear point of reference from their point of view as I begin working and there is no confusion. Also, I always find that when musicians begin writing everything down more comes out of their minds which they may not have thought of during our initial conversation. After that I begin sketching out concepts based on the notes, etc.

What band did you do your first commissioned artwork for?

Ronnie and Wendy Dio were actually the first people to hire me to do an album cover believe it or not.

Do musicians give you their ideas or has there been times when they have left it up to you as to what gets created?

Both. Some musicians have a clear idea of what they want and others aren’t really sure. Either is fine. Many times I’ve been approached with an idea that isn’t great. I try to politely steer them away or convince them that’s it’s corny or that it’s been done a hundred times by other metal bands etc. Most times they appreciate it and listen and sometimes they don’t. If they don’t, it’s my job to take a tired idea and at least try to put a new spin on it… hopefully they accept it.

Rob Halford has a company, Metal God Entertainment, in which you worked as Art Director for seven years. It is a record label formed by Rob when he broke away from Sanctuary Records. In addition to creating cover art for his Fight and Halford releases, you also created illustrations for his Metal God Apparel and Metal God Games. Looking at the artwork created for the company, it’s simply amazing! Do you know why Halford IV and V werent released? Funny question to ask the art director!

Well, I think Halford’s “Made Of Metal” was basically Halford 4. As for 5… I’m not really sure. I think there is a lot of material recorded but I don’t know if it will ever see the light of day.

As Art Director, what were your responsibilities? How were you introduced to Rob Halford?

This was also crazy for me. Besides Dio my walls growing up were dominated by Judas Priest posters as well. Rob Halford is also one of my favorite vocalists. I grew up seeing Priest at Madison Square Garden and Nassau Coliseum here in New York so to meet Rob and then work for him for a bunch of years was nuts. We still remain friends and email throughout the year. He invites me to local shows and sets me up with great seats which means a lot because as any fan knows it sucks seeing your favorite band from the nose bleeds. I just recently spent some time with him after a “Firepower” show.

I was introduced to Rob and his then business partner by Roy Z back in 2003 after a Halford show here in New York City. They were about to form Metal God Entertainment and were looking for someone to create art and concepts for them. I brought my portfolio and they were impressed enough to then have a meeting with me a few months later. I prepared by creating a bunch of art and concepts based on what they had told me in secrecy at the show that night. I think what sealed the deal more than anything was my ability to come up with fresh and edgy ideas for them just based on that short conversation. I always felt that one of my strengths is my ability to conceptualize. I can come up with endless solutions to creative problems for any project, wether it’s art, design, storytelling, film and media – whatever. That served me well with Metal God Ent. because behind the scenes releasing music product was only a small part of what we were doing. We were pitching ideas and being approached by so many different companies, products and genres that I had to wear a million hats.

There was the clothing line that I designed because of Rob’s desire to enter that market and stake a claim in an area that he helped create with his attire in Judas Priest. There was a video game that we were working on after Rob was approached due to the success of Brütal Legend that he was a part of. Many of the things we were working on never came to fruition for a myriad of reasons but thats normal for an entertainment company.

I’m guessing you’re a metal fan because first of all the contact info on your website says BLAKMTL (BLKMETAL1) and of course you do artwork for metal bands. What are you listening to?

Yes, I’m a massive metal fan! Right now I’m listening to new Powerwolf “The Sacrement Of Sin”, Primordial‘s “Exile Amongst The Ruins”, Amorphis’ “Queen Of Time”, Nervosa‘s “Downfall Of Mankind”, Power Trip’s “Nightmare Logic” and still blasting new Judas Priest: “Firepower”!

When did you create Eternal Edge Studio? Exactly what services do you provide? I love the name, what inspired the name Eternal Edge?

Thank you! I started Eternal Edge in 2012. It is a creative studio that provides professional art and design services to a wide and diverse client base within the entertainment, music and publishing industries. The goal is to meet a challenge, collaborate and fulfill visions. That name came about because I basically wanted a company name that sounds like a metal band but also describes my approach to art and design. My company logo even looks metal!

Are you continuously learning new things in the art world despite your success in it today?

I try to stay current and up to date with what is going on in the art world, especially in the areas that pertain to me. It’s all happening so fast with the advent of digital technology and 3D art programs but I try really hard to keep learning and growing. I always like to ask the artist questions about art terms and other things specific to art.

What is “Imprimatura”? Do you have experience with it?

Imprimatura is a term that refers more to traditional painting with a brush. It’s a technique where you build up layers of thin color so light can bounce through your surface and create an illuminated effect to the overall painting. Maxfield Parrish was a master at this and used it extensively. When you look at his originals they have a brightness to them that is hard to understand unless you know the process he used. When I do paint traditionally and when I was in art school I didn’t use the technique that much but I have experimented with it. I’m too aggressive as a painter to build up anything, I like to get in and start pushing paint around.

What advice do you have for those who want to create art for a career?

Go into finance! Those fuckers make tons of money right out of college! Seriously, it’s hard to make a lot of money creating art and it’s even harder to make money creating art for whats left of the music industry. Try to start by getting a staff job somewhere as an artist with benefits because health benefits are IMPORTANT AND EXPENSIVE to pay for on your own. If you’re into the kind of crazy ass art like I am, try to get with a gaming company. These days there are tons, especially on the west coast. At least start with a staff job and learn and grow, you can pursue freelance work while you have a secure income. There will be time to start your own thing later on if the freelance takes off.

What is a “composition” in art language?

Well, for each project it’s used differently depending on what you are trying to convey but basically it’s the balance between the
objects and imagery you are placing within your picture to guide the viewers eye and create some sort of harmony or discomfort based on how you position things. This is a subject that can be discussed endlessly by artists, photographers, cinematographers, etc.

Can you give us a glimpse into your studio and work set up for digital art? What is your favorite software for digital art?

Mac Pro Towers with a 27 inch screen. I do most of my painting in Photoshop on a Wacom tablet hooked up to the Mac. I usually draw all my art traditionally with pen or pencil then scan and paint them but lately I’ve been drawing and painting jobs on my iPad Pro and pencil then finishing them in Photoshop and various other programs.

What are you looking forward to for 2019? Are you currently working on any projects? Any new ones lined up?

Well, at the moment I am creating a bunch of art for a Dio project that I am working on with Wendy Dio and BMG for release in 2019. It’s the beginning of a bunch of Dio related things actually. I don’t think they’ve been announced yet so I’ll leave it vague for now but the fans will be pleased.

Thank you Marc for the interview!

More info on Marc from his website:

Interview by Heather Williams
Artwork: Marc Sasso