With a career spanning gas station janitor to house renovator, Kentucky-based graphic designer, artist, and musician Robert Beatty is endearingly surprised at the attention his design and illustration has been receiving over the past few years. He’s possibly the only one who is, though, as even the most cursory glance at his portfolio reveals the extent of his skill.
“It’s really novel for me that I’m even recognized for what I’m doing,” he tells me. “I’ve known this is what I wanted to do all my life, but I didn’t take a path I knew was going to lead here.”
Rather than going to art school, Beatty graduated high school and pursued music, and a few other jobs to tide him over. He’s self-taught, in a way, but he wouldn’t use that term himself. Instead, he thinks of his artistic career as simply an extension of a life-long obsession with learning about the things that captivate him most.
“I’ve been drawing for as long as I remember, and I had a lot of support from my parents and teachers,” he says. “When I was younger I always said I wanted to draw comics when I grew up. I came to graphics though music and collecting records; I’d always look to see who’d designed them, or when I bought magazines as a teenager, I’d look to see who the art director was.”
While many have surmised that Beatty’s style is the product of 60s and 70s album artwork fandom—Roger Dean’s work for Yes seems an obvious inspiration—in fact, his influences are drawn from more esoteric sources. The first sleeve design that really excited him was Masakazu Kitayama’s for the Cornelius album Fantasma, but his main reference points today include Polish animation by the likes of Piotr Kamler, 60s and 70s adverts, the work of artist Lillian Schwartz, and experimental films. He’s also been making the most of the University of Kentucky’s resources, poring over their arts library’s collection of old Graphis and IDEA annuals. “People assume the stuff I’m referencing is 70s record covers or Krautrock, but I’m basically trying to continue in the way things were done before computers,” says Beatty. “Pre-digital graphic arts is my favorite era stylistically, and while I love people like Milton Glaser and Herb Lubalin, I generally take more from illustration and animation.”
The proliferation of images in the pages of these old graphics annuals is something Beatty has drawn on in his new book, Floodgate Companion, to be published by Floating World Comics in October this year. With no internal text whatsoever, the foil embossed, clothbound, hardcover book instead presents a series of seemingly interconnected images that force the reader to construct their own meanings. “There’s not a narrative, but there’s definitely a relationship between the images. I structured it more like an experimental film than a book,” says Beatty.
“The initial idea kinda came from those old design annuals and seeing all of this work by tons of different artists presented on the page together. There’s almost a relationship between them, even though they don’t necessarily relate. A lot of the images in the book have nothing to do with each other, or are different stylistically, but you make connections.”
In his early days creating sleeve designs for friends, Beatty worked mainly by hand, before scanning images for digital finishing. While some of the images in Floodgate Companion were made as pen and ink drawings, and digitised for coloring, for the most part he now goes straight to Illustrator and Photoshop. “I don’t really do sketches,” he says, and even for commissions for the New York Times, it’s often the first image he submits that becomes the final design: “I just find it easier to send what could be the final image than to build up sketches.”
The beguiling nature of Beatty’s work is born of its opacity: he delights in hinting at an idea, but never truly giving it away. That’s what’s made his record sleeve designs so successful: the irresistible taste of what’s inside the packaging hinted for the viewer to discover their own story. The images he creates are disparate in style and theme, but united by a refusal to give too much away. “I really like not telling people what something is, or how to think about it,” he says. “I don’t like having an artist’s statement—I want the work to speak for itself and let people make their own interpretations.”