"With art, if you look hard enough there's a lot of answers right there in front of you."
Part 1 (jump to part 2)
Terraphant oil on canvas 30" x 40"
Ken Kelly really needs no introduction. His amazing body of work speaks for itself, most notably as a fantasy art painter who's work has graced album covers, magazine covers and even toy packaging. If you are not familiar with his work...you may have never listened to the KISS Destroyer album, picked up an Eerie or Creepy magazine...never bought a He-Man toy? With over 30 years in the business, Ken Kelly is still going strong today. But back in 1978 when his career mostly consisted of hanging with barbarians and rock stars, a big toy company came knocking to commission some work for a new line of 3 3/4" figures they were selling. The company was MEGO, and the toy line was The Micronauts. Toy packaging would never be the same...At the time of the interview, I actually caught Ken Kelly in the middle of working on a painting. He likes to work and talk at the same time, so we began discussing the work at hand and how he is usually juggling more than one thing at a time…
: I really appreciate you taking some time
out to do this.
Ken Kelly : "Oh, no problem. I'm paintin' while I talk to you. I haven't stopped painting…(laughter)…I have over 100 (paintings) up stairs, and I'm constantly working on private commissions. I have 7 big boards right here in front of me, and I'm trying to get a book out."
ISO : What are you working on?
KK : "This is one for the book, it's called 'Bird's Nest', a lovely topless honey with a gorgeous set of kazams, and she's kneeling in front of this really prehistoric bird, and it's a goodie. It's a hottie."
ISO : So you're working on trying to publish a second book? What's the title? How far along are you?
KK : "It's called 'Ken Kelly, ESCAPE'. We're almost there. I think I'm about 3 or 4 months there. I have 46 new pen and inks (13 to go) 8 or 9 original new paintings (2 to go) and text I have 9 to go out of 50, so it's been a long couple of years for me, I tell ya."
ISO : Will the old Micronauts paintings be in there?
KK "No, they will not be in this one. Simply because when I arranged the book I have everything spaced out, and there wasn't room allotted to it. But should everything work and I get the permissions, I'll put them in the next one. We're trying to come up with some unique concepts and new stuff. A lot of guys just came out with books, and they all used their old stuff, and I thought 'here's an opportunity to give the fans something brand new if you can'."
ISO : How many hours a day do you spend actually painting?
KK "About 5, about 5 doing the business, 5 doing the pen and inks…they're hard to do. I'm a painter, I'm not generally a pen and ink man, but I'm getting' pretty good at it with all this practice." (laughter) 8pm is my key time, I'm up till about 3 in the morning? 4 in the morning? So I get up at about 10 or 11 am, got all the day business stuff to take care of. The mailings, pick this up, go to the printer, go to the photographer, and go all over the different towns, stuff like that. By the time I'm done all that stuff it's 4 o'clock or so, I'm back home, put everything away. See what e-mails there are, and stop everything. Shut off the computer, and start working."
Membros oil on canvas 30" x 34"
Repto oil on canvas 30" x 34"
ISO : So how long were you 'professionally' painting before you did the Micronauts paintings?
KK : "…(counting slowly to himself) about 7 years, about 69 is when I started. I got out of the Marine Corp., and you realize you can't kill people for a living, so you say, 'hey I gotta learn something else.' Luckily I had someone in the field who guided me…"
ISO : So is he (Frank Frazetta) you're Uncle?
KK : "His wife is my Father's Brothers Daughter…so what is that? His wife's a relative…"
ISO : So would you go visit Frank and watch him paint?
KK : "I never watched him paint anything, he would never let me. He is very…"
ISO : Secretive?
KK : "…yeah, you know, he has a right. I'm someone who's gonna come in and compete with him basically, so there's a lot of things I asked him about and he said I'm not gonna tell you. But he basically opened the hood of the car and says 'here's the engine, this is the carburetor, this is that and this is that and you do the rest.' That's pretty much the way it was. And that's fine."
ISO : Well that's a good person to have at hand to pick his brain, huh?
KK : "And he wouldn't let me. But the biggest thing Frank Frazetta let me do was to look at the art. He had original artwork sitting around stuffed in the corner, being kicked this and that- this is the stuff that's going for like $2-300,000 now- at the time it was kicking around in the corners, 'here…you wanna go look at it? Go look at it.' So I would sit there for an hour at a time just staring at a painting. Picking it apart…'what made him do it this way? How did he get this? Why is there so much white paint in this area?' You know, all the things we would do… if it was a carburetor we'd strip it apart and say what the hell makes it work? So it's the same thing. With art, if you look hard enough there's a lot of answers right there in front of you."
ISO : When a toy company approaches you to do a painting, like LJN, Mattel, or in this case Mego, do they just straight up commission a painting from you and then purchase it?
KK : "No, they don't purchase the painting. They purchase the rights, that's negotiated even before you lift a paint brush or a pencil, what it's going to be and you make the best possible deal you can. Like LJN, they owned everything they got. With Mego…I got a call from a guy named John McNet, who was I guess the marketing director at the time. They were preparing to launch this new project, and he had seen some of my work, liked it, and wanted me to- the way he stated it was- 'We have a 4 inch high product, and we want you to make it look like it's 30 feet tall.' And that was basically my assignment. To make this 4-inch piece of plastic look like it's a living breathing menace. And I said, that's cool. I can do that."
ISO : So about what year was this? You mentioned before that you did 2 separate sets of paintings for them…
KK : "I know that the Hornetroid and the Antron were among the first. The Antron…it was the first. It was kind of a gamble on what they wanted to do, and so I did Antron and brought in and they said 'Bingo'."
ISO : So that was the first one that you produced for them that sealed the deal, huh?
KK : "And Marty (Abrams) actually didn't buy, he took. But I agreed to it, and I'm sure he's still got it. That's Marty, you know. I met the guy a couple of times and spoke with him, he was a tremendous businessman. Tremendously smart and all, and he liked the painting and he thought the product was going to go, and he just said 'I'm gonna take this, Ken.' And because I wanted a lot more, I said 'OK.' (laughter) Normally I don't…"
ISO : So how long did this first one take, from start to finish?
KK : "2 to 3 weeks. Maybe a month for the Hornetroid, that one was the most complicated. That shine effect, that shiny plastic look…that was…whew!"
ISO : So to lay out a painting like this, they sent you some reference, like of the toys, right?
KK : "Right. They had prototypes at the time. They didn't actually have product, it was still in the development stage. Maybe just past the development stage? Around '78? It was after KISS, and it just stretched on and on…there were 2 groups of toys. The first group of toys, which was early (Repto, Membros and Antron), and then there was a little delay, a little while that I didn't hear from them, and then all of a sudden they said hey! And the second batch was like- and you could almost see it in the paintings- they were like 'Ken, we need six of them, now.' (Hornetroid, Terraphant, Kronos, Lobros and Centaurus) Like an assembly line thing, and that's not the way you want to do this stuff, but hey. That's what the call was, and I stepped up. Those all happened…I don't think it was a week apart. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang…"
ISO : You painted each one of those in a week?
KK : "Yeah. They needed them, and part of the game was 'NOW'."
ISO : So would you set up the toy in front of you? Would you take photographs? Would you angle it, light it?
KK : "No photographs. You just- the prototype, most of the time I believe it was gray, cuz that's the plastic they work in- you just hold it in your hand and look up at it, and dead eye it. Bang it. There's no time for all that stuff, no time for 'let me see what this is, and how this angle works', nah. There's no time. You just put it up in front of you, look at the board and paint that sucker."
ISO : Would you sketch it out on the canvas first?
KK : "With the brush."
ISO : You wouldn't do any thumbnail or anything first?
KK : "Nah. You're wasting you're creative juices. If you do all that, what you want to do- a pen and ink, another pencil sketch, too much of that- you're wasting you're creative juices. When you've got it with a paint brush, you can bang it right in there, you can just develop it right there, work up from that."
ISO : So they didn't need any kind of rough or anything like that for approval?
KK : "Ahhh…God,
did they? They might have. And that would be an oil thing, a really
really basic oil thing. They were the first company to give me a color
chart. They had a gazillion colors, and they would pick, they would
identify a color… 'This guy's head is this, this guy's arms are this'.
In their reference material they would give me, it would usually be
a Xerox piece of paper with the picture of the thing on it, and little
markings saying 'this is red, this is orange, this is yellow', and they'd
have a corresponding number telling you exactly what color it is on
this color chart they handed me. So I would refer to this color chart
and try the best I could to get close to that color."
click here to see the rest of the interview Part 2
thanks to Ken Kelly and Rumel Tomiampos for sharing these beautiful images with
All images copyright © their individual owners