A Few Bites with Terry Wolfinger, Mad Monster Artist

Every time I go out to eat lunch with Terry Wolfinger in Old Town Pasadena, CA — without fail — he’s sporting a Famous Monsters of Filmland T-shirt with one of his paintings on it. A celebrated artist and Rondo Award nominee, Terry is an immensely talented creator known primarily for his hyper-realistic horror art and vivid depictions of pop-culture icons. He’s also a MAD MAX nut. At the Mad Max: The Art of Road Rage group art show at the legendary Creature Features store and gallery space in Burbank, I was struck by his take on a pivotal scene from THE ROAD WARRIOR on canvas. It was then and there that I decided it was time to turn one of our lunches into an interview session so I could put a spotlight on his incredible talent.

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I got to know Terry personally during my run as executive editor of Famous Monsters, but I was already a fan of his work, having seen a variety of his previous FM covers on newsstands as well as observed his impressive work on display at the annual horror convention Monsterpalooza.FM 282 - Ash throne His brilliant painting of Bruce Campbell sitting on a throne of bones promoting ASH VS. EVIL DEAD graced the cover of FM #282, my first issue out of the gate as editor in 2015. We collaborated on four other covers — FLASH GORDON, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, GAME OF THRONES, and the 85th anniversary of DRACULA — before I stepped away from the company. Prior to that, he enlivened the front of a trio of FM issues that I contributed to as a writer (THE ROAD WARRIOR, TREMORS, and a tribute to the late Ray Harryhausen), as well as delivered memorable takes on the classic LOST IN SPACE, GHOSTBUSTERS, SUPERNATURAL, and more.

His first FM cover, released in 2013, was of El Santo the masked wrestler/luchador, commissioned by then-executive editor Ed Blair. Blair had discovered Terry’s work during a group monster art show at Halloweentown in Burbank and was immediately taken by the artist’s masterful grasp of the genre. Although overjoyed to be asked to do a cover for FM, Wolfinger admits that he didn’t know much about the silver-screen star of lucha libre: “I was like, ‘Man, I was hoping for a Frankenstein or a Dracula.’ Okay, I’ll just research the hell out of this and I’ll just do the best that I could. 71FvblsBjrL.jpgThey gave me a lot of leeway. This wrestler has fought pretty much every classic monster — vampires, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man — so I had him fighting The Wolf Man, hoisting him over his head to throw him to the ground. It was actually a lot of fun to paint.”

But his first cover had to wait when yet another, more pressing cover opportunity arose: “Mid-way through painting that, they had me do another,” he recalls. “They were like, ‘Stop that, can you jump on something else real quick? We need a special-edition cover for Comic-Con, and Kirk Hammett’s going to be in the issue and he’s a huge monster collector so we need him on the cover. Can you do it?’ And I was like, ‘Uhhhh, yeah!’” Terry fabricated “Kirk von Hammett,” an alter ego of the Metallica lead guitarist complete with fangs, classic hot rod, and spooky castle up on a hill behind him. At that Comic-Con, Terry met Hammett, who heaped praise on the imaginative cover. Then, at Terry’s first Monsterpalooza where he set up as an art vendor, Hammett bought eight canvases of his classic monster work, including Frankenstein, The Bride, and other famous fiends. fm_269_kirk_von_hammet__20372.1520881130.jpgClearly, Terry made an impression.

“His art moves me,” Hammet says of Terry’s work. “[It] invokes a feeling that there might be only a thin veil between what’s on the canvas and what the observer is experiencing.”

Terry’s finely detailed sketches and color paintings range from a shadowy, realistic approach to a more whimsical, caricature-like style. His versatile, often jaw-dropping work has also made an impression on other many other famous people. The likes of Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Michael Jackson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger have laid eyes on his creations, dating back to when he was a key artist at Stan Winston Studios. Terry worked on character concept designs for such projects as THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, TERMINATOR 3, a Michael Jackson long-form video directed by the late Winston, a video game called Monster Street Hockey, and an early round of AVATAR. Cameron would review Terry’s Pandora planet characters and creatures and comment, “Oh, that guy’s a real badass.” One of his design concepts had insectoid arms, and Terry remembers the Oscar-winning director advising, “I wouldn’t go insect on that. Keep it more animal.” It’s pretty cool to have James Cameron scrutinizing your work. But ultimately, AVATAR had to be shelved for close to a decade in order for technology to catch up with the concept.

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Terry’s professional resume also includes being the art director for GameFan magazine, for which he created numerous covers, and traditional hand-drawn animation and conceptual work for rock videos, video games, and comics. An early user of Photoshop, Terry’s ahead-of-the-curve proficiency with the digital painting program (“I used to paint with a mouse!”) helped him land that gig at Stan Winston Studios. He has active online courses in portrait illustration available at the Stan Winston School of Character Arts, and these days he produces the majority of his commercial art digitally. “I start with an original drawing, like a pen-and-ink drawing usually in my sketchbook, and then I scan that and I paint that in Photoshop, and then I make a limited run of prints onto canvas,” he explains. “I have done some traditional painting, but it takes me a lot longer, and I tend to sell them for a lot more money because it’s a longer process. I don’t have to price my stuff so high since it’s a canvas giclée; it’s affordable to more people.”

Terry got his BFA in Character Animation at CalArts in 1989, where he also studied character design and various art techniques. He prefers to sketch with a regular ball-point pen or with a pencil, but he still enjoys the occasional painting with acrylics or oils. His inspirations include MAD magazine caricaturists Mort Drucker and Jack Davis, comic book artists John Byrne, Phil Hale, and Ashley Wood, fantasy icon Frank Frazetta, and famed caricature and portrait artist Sebastian Kruger, whom Terry has studied with. Growing up, the amiable California native says he gravitated to ironic and absurd scenarios and subject matter. He would practice drawing faces of “happy people” in advertisements and “something horrific would be happening — you look down and they’re eating some guy’s arm or something like that. I just got off on doing these things, showing people, and getting a reaction.” He adds, “My mom always wanted me to draw the nice, cute stuff. So I would do my best to give her one or two kitten/teddy bear pictures.”

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Regarding his initial connection to Famous Monsters and his formative years watching monster movies, Terry remembers, “The first issue I remember was the EXORCIST cover. My brother bought that and tormented me with it because it terrified me. There was definitely a point in my life when the monsters actually scared me and I didn’t like it. I liked the classic stuff, like Frankenstein and Dracula, the original Phantom of the Opera. I got into the monsters more in third or fourth grade through junior high and high school to present day.” He loved watching Godzilla movies with his brother on late-night TV, and he notes that when his dad projected an 8mm, edited-down, black-and-white version of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA on the wall with a projector, it made a considerable impression on him.

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Later, the horsepower of Bond flicks and MAD MAX wrestled for his attention. His father, a civil engineer, was a hot rodder as a teen and would bookend the family wagon with a ’64 Austin Healy and a ’67 Corvette convertible Stingray. “He was a car guy, and I guess that sort of rubs off,” shrugs Terry about his predilection for suped-up vehicles. Roger Moore’s gadget-laden Lotus Esprit-turned-submarine in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME “sealed the deal” for his love of 007, and then sneaking into a screening of THE ROAD WARRIOR at age 13 rocked his world. “It was cars as fetish objects,” he says. “Cars were equal stars in that film.  That changed my mind of what movies could be.”

So impacted by director George Miller’s vision of a post-apocalyptic future, Terry has been trying to reclaim that mind-blowing MAD MAX experience he had in the theater pretty much ever since he was a teen himself; he’d cosplay as Max, outfit an old Ford Galaxy with mag wheels and paint it flat black with a big skull and crossbones on the hood (“I’d get looks from people driving it around my neighborhood”), and he’d attend high-desert Road Warrior Weekend events (later known as Wasteland Weekend). He did amazing art for the Wasteland Weekend advertising flyers, and oh yeah — he named his own kid Max0145018229-full.jpg

Not surprisingly, his favorite Famous Monsters cover that he painted is the ROAD WARRIOR one. “Obviously,” he says. “Max’s Interceptor with the blower is so iconic, I thought that’s got to be front and center, just charging right at the viewer, kind of like the opening when you start on the blower and the camera moves out and there it is. It’s like, ‘Wow.’ I wanted that kind of vibe, and I knew Vernon Wells was going to be interviewed, so I wanted to spotlight him as well. I kind of did the fantasy version of it, kind of the amalgam of those movies.”

Terry also singles out his Ray Harryhausen tribute cover as a favorite. “I thought that came out very special. It was cool to be able to do a tribute to that guy. I wanted to bathe him in golden light surrounded by all his creations mourning his loss. All the stuff I grew up with was in there: The Cyclops from THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, Talos from JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and the one thing I wanted to make sure was in there was Medusa from CLASH OF THE TITANS. I thought she was super-iconic to his legacy.”

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I found working with Terry as a cover artist for Famous Monsters to be an absolute pleasure given the challenges of producing them. With two and sometimes even three variant covers per issue to manage, I would often find myself on a scheduling treadmill doing my best to coordinate upcoming FM cover concepts with multiple artists at the same time in order to correspond with the variety of content featured in those future publications. While one of the variants would usually be a classic monster image or character (targeted for our longstanding Monster Kid subscriber base) such as Ray Harryhausen’s Medusa painted by Sanjulian, the American Werewolf painted by Rick Baker, or Bela Lugosi’s Dracula painted by Terry, the newsstand cover (found in Barnes & Noble and similar magazine and comic book brick-and-mortar outlets) would employ more contemporary subject matter (ranging from BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, painted by Simon Thorpe, and SUICIDE SQUAD, painted by Brian Taylor, to GAME OF THRONES, painted by Terry — using his wife as the Daenerys Targaryen body-pose model surrounded by dragons). FM 285 - ThronesThose newsstand cover choices had an unpredictable quality to them as I regularly could not confirm content, interviews, and exclusives until late in the game, and I would consistently be dependent on reference materials provided by studios and networks such as Disney, Universal, Warner Bros., and HBO — which would usually arrive frighteningly close to my deadline, or not at all. A cooperative artist was crucial to making it all happen efficiently, so I often relied on Terry’s masterful speed, his trained eye, and his infinite flexibility to roll with last-minute adjustments and straight-out changes (much to his frustration, I’m sure, as he’d sometimes justifiably verbalize that he wished he had more time to meet his sense of perfection).

One memorable example of this mutating FM cover process is Terry’s stellar take on the classic 1977 Tom Chantrell U.K. poster for STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS. I came up with the idea to riff on the Chantrell original with the new characters, looks, vehicles, and hardware of THE FORCE AWAKENS but had very limited access to source images. Disney publicity had an understandably tight lid on what was being presented to the press and public from the film, and also infamously excluded Mark Hamill’s aged Luke Skywalker from any marketing materials. So I grabbed what was available on the Internet already for the Finn, Rey, and Poe characters, and then took a gamble and lifted a shot of Hamill’s look from a behind-the-scenes featurette interview that debuted at STAR WARS Celebration (along with Carrie Fisher’s new Leia profile and Harrison Ford’s alternate Han Solo expression from that featurette). star wars at 40 poster art mark west Tom ChantrellTerry really nailed the look and feel of Chantrell’s iconic poster for a new generation with time to spare. It was stunning, and I was very excited to share it with the world. Then, within three days of our printing deadline, the public was suddenly showered with additional images from the J.J. Abrams film, thanks to its second major trailer release — and the bomb dropped that a brand-new Death Star (now called Starkiller Base) was central to the movie’s plot. Moments like that are exciting yet stressful for an executive editor of a magazine, and I immediately jumped on the phone: “Uh, Terry, I know you’re super busy and pretty much finished with the FORCE AWAKENS cover, but guess what? We just got a shitload of new images. And there’s a new Death Star in the movie. Can we swap out that finely detailed Star Destroyer that you labored over and add some more X-wings and T.I.E. Fighters? Like, immediately, so we can make our deadline?” To Terry’s credit, he stepped up to the plate without hesitation and delivered a masterpiece with his patented easy-going attitude. We still laugh about that cover to this day because I know I drove him nuts finessing it.

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For those who not only admire his work but are interested in improving their own game, Terry’s simple advice to aspiring artists is this: Practice, practice, practice. It may sound trite, but he insists it’s crucial. “Some people are just looking for the magic answer, like, ‘How do I get to draw better?!? What’s your trick?’ There is no trick,” he explains. “I was drawing all the time as a kid. And I was trying to draw things that were difficult to draw. I challenged myself. I wanted to get better. And if it didn’t turn out quite right, I’d try again. But it’s all about practicing and listening to critiques. If you have a hard time drawing hands, then that’s all you should be drawing. Draw your own hand. Get books about anatomy, about structure. It’s just a matter of 1) You have to love doing it, which I did and still do. And 2) You just have to do it whenever you can.” He adds, “It’s all about learning and trying to gain as much knowledge as you can. You always want to keep growing. You’ve got to put the time in and challenge yourself. … I think that’s life in general.”

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In between intermittent art shows, Monsterpalooza appearances, specific commissions, and a steady day job at a Los Angeles ad and marketing agency, Terry gently encourages his young son Max to draw. “It makes me smile to see the creations that come from him,” he says with a proud look. He then pauses, doodling on the Indian restaurant table paper that we just feasted over, and declares, “I cannot wait until he’s old enough to do THE ROAD WARRIOR.”

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Go to http://wolfinger.bigcartel.com to find out more about Terry Wolfinger and to purchase his wonderful art and merchandise. You can also interact with him on Facebook and Twitter.

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