Born in 1946 in New London, Connecticut, Ken Kelly practically came into our world with a pencil in his hand. He started drawing at the fragile age of two and has not stopped since. It is said that children learn to express themselves through art. Well then, Ken must have been quite a revealing youngster, for nothing in the house was safe from his artistic expressions, from the smallest piece of paper that he would squeeze a tiny doodle on, to the very large drawing board known as the living room wall!
In the fourth grade, at the age of nine, Ken was introduced to art teacher Mrs. Valerious (hmm… that name is strangely close to Valeria – Conan’s pirate companion in Red Nails). This was the beginning of a relationship that would last for the next nine years. Mrs. Valerious gave Ken the direction he needed. She showed Ken how to develop and put to use his natural talent. She taught him the principles of art.
Unlike most art teachers that would push their students to go on to art school, Mrs. Valerious had quite the opposite approach. She convinced Ken’s parents not to put him through art school after high school. She claimed that it would ruin his natural and unique style.
That was just fine with Ken, as he had always dreamed of joining the Marines. After high school, that’s exactly what he did. For the next four years he found himself touring around the world serving both at Guantanamo Bay and Vietnam. During his service to his country he even got to use his art skills. While stationed in Cuba, he did all the illustrations for the U.S. magazine, “The Gitmo Gazette”.
He completed his four-year term in 1968 and returned home to New York. During the next year, Ken’s life would veer further into the realms of fantasy art. In 1968, he decided to go to the studio of Frank Frazetta and show him some of his own drawings. Frazetta liked what he saw and encouraged Ken to pursue a career in commercial art. At the same time, he also invited Ken to study under him. Ken eagerly accepted Frank’s offer.
Under the guidance of Frazetta, Ken was able to fine-tune his skill even further. Frazetta stressed how important it was to put feeling into creating a painting and to let the action on the canvas come from the imagination. Ken took those words to heart and has lived by them ever since.
Later that same year, Ken received his first professional assignment. Before he turned the painting in, he took it to Frazetta to get his approval. Well, Frazetta did not think that the woman in the painting had a terrified enough expression on her face, so he painted over her old face, with a new one of his own, which he felt worked better. Now it was ready to be turned in. That painting was done for Warren’s Vampirella Magazine and is titled, “The Lurking Terror”.
For the rest of that year, Ken worked for Warren and Skywald magazine. Then in 1969, he entered the book cover field and has since worked for just about every major publishing house. Ken has done work for some of the best selling authors in the field, including an outstanding series for Robert E. Howard, and the complete series of Robert Adam’s famous Horseclan novels.
Outside the bookcover field, Ken has worked for nearly all of the large toy manufacturers. He has also done many album covers, including two paintings for KISS, for which he was rewarded with gold albums.
Over the years, Ken’s artwork has continued to have the unique ability to evoke the imagination to travel to faraway places and primal battlefields. You will see that same imaginative ability in both his pen and ink drawings and his full color paintings. His work quite literally explodes with energy and throbs with life. His paintings are done exclusively in oil and are relatively large in size. Most of the paintings average 30”X40”, and many are much larger. In fact, “Kingdom of the Knights” measures a fantastic 40”X60”! – Paraphrased from Ken Kelly’s Book “The Art of Ken Kelly” by Michael J. Friedlander – July, 1990
A Dragon's Kiss
While fantasy art has existed for centuries, it was really the birth of both fantasy comics and modern fantasy literature, which has seen this genre become an integral part of our modern culture. Fantasy art has also melded strongly with science fiction writing and Film/TV generated sci-fi to shape a genre, which now possesses more categories than any other art form. Indeed, this genre is only limited by the imaginations of the artists who both explore and constantly push the boundaries of the fantasy world.
One of the field’s foremost exponents is American artist, Ken Kelly. Beginning in the 70s (after a stint in the Marines) Ken’s art covers styles as divergent as rock legends, Kiss to Conan the Barbarian and Tarzan. Ken has created a legion of mythical characters drawn from the pages of the world’s finest fantasy writers, not to mention his own voracious imagination. You can also put Ken to the test by offering your own ideas and then watch Ken employ his imagination to create a one-of-kind work of art. A genuine workaholic, Ken often simultaneously labors over a half dozen different paintings, projects and ideas. Organized chaos would be an apt description for this artist, who probably puts as many hours into his art now as he did thirty years ago.
Ken began drawing as a toddler, tagging every blank surface in sight. Later, he would have an art teacher at school that taught him throughout Grade and High School. However, it was surely that Dylanesque twist of fate, which would eventually make painting his life’s work. With the untimely death of his father, Ken got to know his uncle, more closely. Until his father’s wake Ken had known little about Frank Frazetta, the artist, but in Ken’s own words, Frank “acknowledged me as an adult and asked me to show him what I could do art wise. And that’s what started it all.”
This fine artist, whose own brilliant career had began back in the mid-40s, soon took Ken under his wing and helped to develop his talent over a five year period. Frank Frazetta was at the height of his career at the time he was helping Ken explore his latent talents. You can see Frank’s influence where he retouched the face on Vampirella #6 which happened to be Ken’s very first commission at Warren Publishing. Again, it was Frank who got Ken’s foot in at the door to work for Jim Warren. Ken worked at Warren for several years and while the pay was fairly abysmal, the chance to learn his tradecraft provided its own reward. At least, until projects like the famous KISS paintings finally encouraged Ken to go out on his own. The KISS assignment also went a long way to really establishing his name internationally. Ken described this project quite simply, “I had a ball!!!” Ken did three paintings for them, although the original Destroyer canvas remains unpublished.
Of course, the four years Ken spent in the Marines (1965-68) traveling the globe and observing amazing places from China to the Mediterranean gave Ken many insights and experiences, which he could bring to the canvas. As it was, he also received preferred status during his enlistment and worked on various Service publications due to his ability at line art. These influences can be seen in various series like The Gatekeeper & Feline Warriors. One painting often takes a fortnight’s preparation followed by another fortnight of actual painting, and the attention to detail is nothing short of sublime, Death Grip being a case in point.
Versatility is also a keyword in Ken Kelly’s CV. Not only has Ken completed more than 700 works, but also he has completed a Howard Calendar, published two art books and worked for the Mego (and various other companies) painting their Micronauts. Many people who are not familiar with Ken’s fantasy work will have often seen his Famous Monsters covers, with subjects like The Fly based upon that classic 50s film. When Ken creates a book cover, he usually reads the unpublished manuscript and creates a scene, which captures the essence of the story “without giving away the entire storyline.” At one stage, Ken was simultaneously creating covers for Horseclans, the DAW books and the Conan series. Of all these works, the Howard Calendar hurts the most as Ken succinctly puts it, “I really put my heart into them. When the release date got screwed up, it really hurt. I felt it for years.”
Today, you will find a number of Ken Kelly’s canvasses have found their way into museums, or come under the hammer at grand auction houses likes of Sotheby’s and Christies, as well as being exhibited at numerous private galleries across the globe.
The Internet has seen a huge growth in fantasy art mainly because of the accessibility it provides for both artists and fans to interact. The Net also allows the public to view a thousand-fold styles, which now make up this startling genre without even having to leave the comfort of their computer room. Where once fine art was restricted to the rich, the intellectuals or to those with access to galleries and expensive magazines, now anyone can view/study/appreciate/purchase art for the cost of a basic computer system. The work of Ken Kelly is a case in point. Anyone with access to the web can find Ken’s brilliant website: www.kenkellyart.com. Ken’s site is a world within a world of fantastic heroes and equally fantastic scenes, where colour and fury, adventure and drama know no bounds. I recently caught up with Ken and asked him a few questions about his highly successful career…
David: What was the first series you did that gave you your first big break as a published artist?
Ken: First series: The largest break I got in my career came with "KISS", but the first break had to be doing all the Warren Magazine covers. I have done more Warren covers than any other artist working for him I believe, over 150.
David: What were the circumstances of you being asked for your first autographed picture?
Ken: First Autograph: I was asked for my autograph for the first time at a convention in 1975 associated with Warren Publishing. It was held in New York.
David: What was the very first “Convention” you attended and what have become your favourites?
Ken: First Convention: Just mentioned and latest favorite has to be "Chiller Theatre" held two times a year in New Jersey. Tremendous fans and lots of fun!!! Also the "Big Apple" held in New York is very good.
David: What is the funniest or most unusual story you can remember involving an autograph signing?
Ken: Funniest signing: There are lots of stories here, one that comes to mind, I paint all of Manowar's covers and fans have that art tattooed on their bodies. I had to sign my name under one of these tattoos and the gentleman then went directly to the tattoo parlor to have that signature permanently put there.
David: Do you ever see forged signatures of your work and if so how do you deal with this problem?
Ken: Forged signatures: I do get this problem as well as forged art. I'm sure all artists get this. I have fans send my pictures of art they are intending to buy to make sure it's authentic. Every now and then I come across a copy and tell the buyer about it.
David: Which series is your all time favourite and what directions will you take in the future?
Ken: Favorite series: The Horseclans was a very good series for me, one where I worked very closely with the author, Robert Adams. So close that he would write in a cover design in his story and then call me and tell me just what pages to read to get "Your Next Cover, Ken". An excellent gentleman, and a very close friend. I miss him.
David: If you were to suddenly be trapped inside a small room with three famous artists, who would they be and why?
Ken: Trapped: Very unusual question, I guess Rembrandt, hoping he would shed insight on his knowledge of "light and shadow.” Michelangelo, for anything he might throw away, and Norman Rockwell, a man I would have liked to have known.
David: If any person in history could sign a photo for you, who would you ask and what would you have them say in their dedication?
Ken: Person in history: That's a tough one; I'm a WWII freak and would probably like a word or two with either Gen. Eisenhower or Gen. Patton so I would want to be in person while they signed a photo for me.
David: Do you get asked to paint larger works in large urban spaces or public buildings? Or for that matter do you sometimes do larger works for private homes?
Ken: Larger urban paintings: So far the largest area I have been asked to paint is the wall of a night club and they wanted the KISS destroyer cover but we could not agree on a price so it never happened. I paint private commissions for people and many of those are very large.
David: What is the weirdest private commission you’ve ever been asked to undertake? And did you do it!!!!
Ken: Weirdest commission: I don't consider many concepts weird but one comes to mind, it involved a swimming pool area with a lot of naked people cohabitating, seemed like something that would come back to bite me, so I passed on it.
David: What question are you still waiting someone to ask you?
Ken: Question: Won't know until I'm asked, I meet thousands of very nice people via the conventions I attend and I'm normally hoarse by the end of these sessions so I have been asked everything I can think of, when I hear a new one I'll pass it on to you.
David: And finally, what story or moment from your life best sums up Ken Kelly the person?
Ken: I consider myself an average guy who has been blessed with a gift. That doesn't mean my life’s a walk because of this gift, but rather that I knew very early in life what direction I would be going in. I talk to people all the time that aren't sure of the direction they took or will go in so in that I'm content. I hope the powers that be will allow me to continue to participate in this very wonderful field. I like very much what I do.
Letter from West Point:
"Man O' War" was used as a background for "B1"'s company creed at the military academy. Once again Ken serves his country with fantastic art!
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