Interview with Roman Ismailov – "Art is a lifelong learning process"


Who doesn’t remember the iconic lion on the cover of Battle Beast‘s very first full-length album “Steel”? The legendary beast was designed by no other than Roman Ismailov, who was Battle Beast’s original illustrator and graphic designer back in the day. Now that Anton Kabanen parted ways with Battle Beast and found a new purpose in Beast In Black, Roman Ismailov is also back, with creating the album art for the first full-length album of Beast In Black: “Berserker”. Tuonela Magazine had the chance to talk to him about his art, the album cover art and the future.

Roman Ismailov

First of all thank you so much for making time for us. Let’s start with your background. How did you get into illustration? 

I have always been a huge fan of beautiful fantasy themed artwork in games, comics, book and album covers. I also used to play “Magic: the Gathering” when I was a kid. I wasn’t really interested that much in playing the actual game, but the artwork was so awesome I just had to collect the cards. I couldn’t get enough of them dragons! I’m that kind of person that keeps beautiful books in his shelf just because they look nice, not because I’d want to read them (or would).
In short: I’m a visual person. I don’t really make my living by doing artwork and I don’t think I could ever make it my day job, but whenever I get a chance, I’ll try to grab my pen and start creating stuff from my imagination. Getting into illustrating is just one of those happy little accidents that happen in life when you just keep doing what you love.
Low poly wildlife design

Next to illustrating, you have been working as a graphic designer for Battle Beast. Is there any other things you do? Can you briefly describe them?

I do whatever I find interesting. Mostly I do paintings digitally using Photoshop and a drawing tablet. Also I like to design things like logos on illustrator and I have experience in designing some website layouts and web graphics plus other things. I’ve also been sculpting figurines and statues from polymer clay, which I absolutely love. I have this need to create everything visual and I’ll try to use as much of my free time for that whenever I can.
Let’s talk more about you as an artist. What is your background and what influence does that have on you as an artist?
Roman I am a self-taught artist. I always loved the art classes and I went to as many lessons as I could until I graduated from high school. After high school I went to study music in Metropolia University of applied sciences, with the trumpet as my instrument, to become a music teacher.
At the time I believed this was the right choice, because I was convinced I’d never make a living out of making art, so it stayed as my hobby. I’ve cycled through all kinds of jobs in my life – from professional musician to a personal trainer, then a salesman.. now I have a permanent job as a production worker that I like, but it has nothing to do with art or music. As an artist hobbyist, mostly without deadlines and having the freedom of creating what I want, I really like it this way.
Battle Beast – side drops for concerts.

Your work is very distinctive and has a very personal touch to it. Is there anyone or anything that inspired you to get into art?
Roman I have to say that the first and the biggest inspiration for me was my mom. She used to paint beautiful portraits of people, flowers and ships and I used to mimic her style. At least tried. I’m still not good with traditional paints. It’s so convenient to have a computer and a drawing tablet, so I can do art wherever I am. Other inspirations, to name a few, are masters like Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo and Ken Kelly. I’ve always looked up to those guys.
You have done quite much artworks so far. What’s the best response you got to your artwork?
Roman Absolutely the best responses I got are from people I made art for as a gift. The moments are priceless and it really makes it all worthwhile.
Is there any moment you can look back to and say “this was a great success” in your career?
Roman When I’m browsing through my old drawings and works, there are those few that I still really like and take inspiration from to my current projects, so I think that kind of puts them in that category. I think the first big success for me was the first time I made album art. I still am proud of that picture even though I keep finding all kinds of things I could have done differently. It’s a life-long learning process and I constantly keep finding new ways to make artwork. Every time I learn a new thing, I consider it a success.
You are talking about browsing through your old drawings and works. I can imagine that you have done a lot of works and projects. What has been your favorite project so far?

Roman I want to say the latest album art has been my favorite, but when I look back, I had this online battle card game project “Elemental Gathering” I was collaborating with a skilled coder.
I made over 50 pieces of art for it, as well as all the music and sound effects. It’s a shame it was only exclusively inside an online flash-based community “whirled”, which has been down for a very long time.
Battle Beast – Steel

In 2011 you illustrated the Battle Beast album (Steel). How did you originally get involved with creating Battle Beast’s album art and logo?

Roman In January 2007 I started my military service in the Conscript Band of the Finnish Defense Forces and met Anton Kabanen there the first time. I used to draw things every now and then, and Anton happened to take a look at some of my then current work. After the army Anton asked me if I was interested in making a cover picture for his band project and I was up for it right away!
We sat at some bar and Anton told me the ideas he had in mind while I made a few rough sketches. I ended up making the whole design of the demo cd and the first quick version of a logo for the project. I learned a lot during that process. We started to collaborate and feed each other influences in art and music back and forth and developed an epic background story for the Beast, which really could be a series of books by now…
I then designed a new logo which can be seen in the first 3 official Battle Beast albums. I started making all kinds of promotional material for Battle Beast: MySpace layouts, flyers, posters, T-shirt designs. You name it!
Things started really happening when Battle Beast won the Wacken Open Air Metal Battle in 2010 and shortly after a Radio Rock Starba competition here in Finland. I had already some ideas for the album cover and I tried to put there as many elements as I could from the main storyline. I learned a lot about making art for printing that time.
One of the ideas for Battle Beast’s debut album cover art.

Did you have any experience creating album art before that? 
Roman Only the demo CD cover we mashed up together with Kabanen. I can tell you it was quite an experience.
How did you actually get started creating the art? What was the process like? Did you get a lot of freedom?

Roman It always starts with bunch of ideas and sketches and then it narrows down to one or two bigger sketches. I used to be in contact with Anton all the time when I got anything ready to make sure I’m on the right track.
I got lots of valuable ideas and of course a pair of fresh eyes to see things from another point of view. Of course I got a lot of freedom with the art. Most of the time when I draw something I think is cool and send it to Anton, I get a response that shortly translates to “Hell yeah”. It’s nice to work with someone who shares the same language.
Anton Kabanen has approached you to design Beast In Black’s new album. As a result you designed the cover art for “Berserker”. How would you say the album art responds to the music?
Roman Well, the background story which we developed is huge and the Beast is the essential part of it all, so it HAS to be there. Of course there are other themes like Berserk involved, so there got to be elements from those, too.
Naturally designing an album cover is quite different from any other form of illustration. How would you say that designing an album cover is different from your other art pieces? 
Roman In album cover art you have to take so many things in consideration. Like where would the logo be and what does it cover? Where does the album title go? In cover art you want to get everything that matters visible and also decide which things you want to get the most attention. Where the viewer’s eyes should go. I deliberately make lots of clues in the picture to grab the viewer’s attention to certain things. Also the dimensions of the picture are important. I try to focus more in these things in all of my art.
Could you tell us a bit more about what the main inspiration is for “Berserker”? 
Roman Of course the main storyline we had been developing together for years and strongly the Japanese Anime and Manga “Berserk”. Those are the biggest inspirations. And a little bit of Conan the Barbarian.
Beast in Black – Berserker

Now let’s talk more about the process of designing “Berserker”. Can you take us through the initial process of developing the concept?
Roman Originally I wasn’t even going to be the to make the cover for the new album and there was already another artist making sketches for it. Anton had a lot of my sketches and unfinished speed paintings from 2011 and 2012 in his email and for some reason when he was browsing them, he decided to call me and ask me if I was up to finishing the one sketch he liked.
He couldn’t be more on point with timing! I just got a new steady job, nice apartment with a decent amount of space and could set my art things up properly for a really long time. I took the job right away!
I took the old sketch from 2011 and drew a new one on top of it and added a bunch of stuff that came into my mind. It took me roughly about a month to finish the picture. For the whole process we were in contact with Anton and made sure to get it right. The response for the finished product from the band, record label and the fans was awesome and I’m really glad it’s making the desired impact!
We talked now about the concept and the process behind it. What about the technical side of designing “Berserker” What tools did you use to develop it?
Roman My tools were mostly just my laptop and a drawing tablet. I use Photoshop as my program to go, because it’s so versatile. I’ve just recently started learning some 3D-programs, but I really just love to do art that has more of a traditional feel.

I can imagine designing cover art is not an easy task. What would you say was the biggest challenge on this project?
Roman Time. I’m balancing between work, hobbies (which are many) and social life. Since I’m not doing this (yet) professionally, it’s always going to be a matter of prioritizing time for making art. It’s not an issue, but it is a challenge.
We first heard your name in 2011 when “Steel” came out. Approximately 6 years later you are back with the cover art for “Berserker”. How has your work changed in the past five years? 

I’ve had long periods where I haven’t been able to draw anything at all and I feel like I’ve lost a lot of time of potential self-development. But when I really start thinking about it, I’ve been subconsciously learning things all the time. Lots have changed in 5 years, but I’m still as slow as before at painting stuff. Understanding of tones and colors are better and also there are lots of new techniques I’ve finally grasped and I’m learning more all the time.
Thank you so much for making time for Tuonela Magazine, Roman! Now before we wrap this up, do you have any future plans for your art?

Roman We already have an idea for the next album cover art for Beast in Black and I’m going to make a few T-shirt designs as well. I have had this idea of a comic about the Beast which I’d really want to make one day, so we’ll see if that’s going to happen anytime soon.
I also have some ideas for limited beast statues which could be sold at tours. I’d love the idea of having The Beast exhibition somewhere in the future. For now I’m doing art exclusively just for Beast in Black due to time restrictions, but we’ll see what life brings.
Sounds like you will have a blast the next coming years. We definitely look forward to be part of The Beast exhibition if it ever happens! Thanks for making time for us.