Dr. Strange, 18×24 inches, oil on panel. Musical inspiration: Fire on High by Electric Light Orchestra

(click images in this post for song cue links)

I’ve always been interested in what folks like to listen to when they work. It seems to fall on a spectrum, from absolute silence on one end to interactive conversation (phone calls, streaming, etc) on the other. Most of us are in the middle listening to music, podcasts, movies, and audiobooks. One thing that seems pretty consistent among folks I’ve talked to: these listening habits are limited to certain parts of the process. While an album or audiobook might keep you moving in the rendering phase, it might be too distracting in the early development stages.

I’ve personally found it difficult to problem solve a sketch if there’s anything verbal in the background. More specifically, I can’t do words very well while working out concepts and compositions. This does not mean that I can’t listen to music though. I find music sometimes an excellent aid to focus if it matches the mood of my project. I used to collect film scores for this reason, lining up a few of an appropriate tone to run in the background while sketching.

Howard the Duck, 12×16 inches, oil on panel. Musical inspiration: Love Theme from Chinatown by Jerry Goldsmith

When I started work on the 2020 Marvel Masterpieces, I was facing a challenge which I hadn’t run into before. I needed to concept out 135 pieces and give each one a unique personality, and I needed to do it in a relatively short space of time. To work efficiently, I was going to be batch sketching a couple dozen ideas at a time and I was very concerned that they would take on a monotone mood. There was a real worry that my creative flow would hit grooves that lead to same-ness across stretches of work, and particularly for characters that were unknown or less known to me.

When I imagined the final body of work, I wanted each piece to hold some aspect of the individual character’s personality. Taken in a group there would be those unifying threads which any artist cannot help, but each piece needed to think of itself as the staring role. And somehow, in trying to picture this, it struck me that each piece needed a song. The broad stroke film scores were too generic for this particular challenge. I needed specificity.

Iron Man, 18×24 inches, oil on panel. Musical Inspiration: Panama by Van Halen

There’s a term in the film industry called a “needle drop”, where a piece of popular music is used in place of a traditional score. At it’s best, this can multiply or twist the emotional impact of a scene in a very potent way. Some classic examples that come to my mind are Layla Piano Exit (Eric Clapton) in Goodfellas and Stuck In The Middle With You (Stealers Wheel) in Reservoir Dogs. If you know either movie, you probably know the scenes I just referenced from the song alone. They are among the most memorable in each movie and the song choice is everything.

Before I could begin sketching 135 individual Marvel characters, each one needed a needle drop.

Daredevil, 12×16 inches, oil on panel. Musical Inspiration: Leave by R.E.M.

This process took several days, possibly a week. I went through all of my music libraries. I free associated. I opened my mind to the task as I moved about the world. Over the course of the project, I would make changes if I discovered or remembered a song that better fit or if the original mood was not working. As a group, the playlist of all of these song choices was something I ended up listening to quite a bit while painting. While sketching, however, I often just listened to that single choice to keep rigidly focused on the necessary specific note I wanted to hit. I think it really helped.

Since then I don’t necessarily seek out or assign theme songs for every painting, but I do notice more if a song vibes with me. Just two days ago I heard a song I’d never given any attention to that registered as a future needle drop for a piece. There’s something in a song that helps you really hold on to one very particular emotion, helps you see it. It feels like working out the shape of a painting is a mini-movie and selecting that perfect song brings it to life. Once I can see that, I’m off and running.


Pip the Troll, 18×24 inches, oil on panel. Musical inspiration: Bubblin by Anderson Paak