The Art of Who: Andrew Skilleter Talks

Matthew West chats with Andrew Skilleter about new book, EXTERMINART! and his Doctor Who artwork.

For a while I co-ran a publishing company. It was fun, to a point, but sometimes overwhelming. One such overwhelming day was when I was reluctantly a customer in Ikea. We were in the bedding department and it felt like we’d been creeping around the labyrinth for days. Phone reception wasn’t great, but my phone pinged with an email from Andrew Skilleter and an attachment. We’d got in touch when I’d emailed to see if his cover painting for Nicholas Fisk’s Grinny was available to buy. It was and I now own it. I’d chanced my arm and asked Andrew if he would paint a cover for one of our books. It was a charity book so we weren’t offering top money by any means, but he kindly said yes. We sent over some visual reference for Sylvia Coleridge and my main stipulation was that whatever technique he’d used to paint the Keeper of Traken cover, I wanted that. Glancing at my phone, surrounded by MDF tat and screaming kids I was struck dumb. I flopped onto one of the nearby crap beds and just stared at my phone. Even on this tiny screen, the painting looked amazing. It was a huge hi-res image so I could zoom in on individual birds, poppies and Amelia Ducat’s piercing eyes.

‘The Keeper Of Traken’ Target cover. Remastered by @books_target on Twitter.

Thirty years earlier I’d been sitting cross-legged in Hook Library by the ‘D’ section in children’s fiction. The librarians wisely put all the Doctor Who books in this section because most of them were Terrance Dicks and kids who didn’t know the individual authors could look up ‘D’ for ‘Doctor’. As usual, I had my allowed maximum pile of eight paperbacks, all in plastic library sleeves. Almost all of them with cover paintings by Andrew Skilleter. This being the ‘80s and me being ten years old, my only source of visual reference for Doctor Who was Doctor Who Magazine and books. There were no videos, no commercial audio releases, certainly no repeats or streaming opportunities. Book selection was almost always influenced by the cover. Always judge a book by its cover, especially when the covers are as beautiful as these. Doctor Who has been blessed in this department; Chris Achilleos, Alister Pearson, Bill Donohoe, Nick Spender, Jeff Cummins and, in my view, the granddaddy: Andrew Skilleter.

Here I am, still in Ikea, and Andrew Skilleter has painted a cover for my book. Sure, I paid him and it’s work and I’m publishing it myself… but still… there it is. Of course, I’ve still not written it almost six years on. In truth I was intimidated by the cover. It was so good I didn’t think anything I could write would live up it, but I’m finally working on it now.

By this stage Andrew had become a friend. We exchanged publishing nightmares and tips and that following Christmas I received a package at our shop which baffled me at first until I opened it and honestly wept. Andrew had given me the original painting by way of thanks for the help I’d offered. I was so touched. Amelia sits framed (damn, that was expensive… UV glass ain’t cheap!) on the floor next to me, waiting to go on the wall in our new home. Grinny is going in the upstairs hall.

It was earlier this year that Andrew said he was planning a book of his collected Dalek art and it was clear he was intending this to be a deluxe volume. Any time I said, ‘Are you sure? That can get expensive’ regarding spot UV or binding, he just insisted it had to be quality. Quite right too. The logistics of delivery, which printers to use, which paper stock, what coating… all of this was being thought out to the tiniest detail, just like those poppies in his painting.

It occurred to me, watching this process that I’d never really talked to him about his work. I try not to do this with people from Who as it can scare them when they realise just what a sad old sod I am. When we’re doing our podcast I sometimes catch a roll of the eyes from Andrew Cartmel when Doctor Who is mentioned. But I asked Andrew Skilleter if he’d be up for an interview and he readily agreed. So here we go. 

We start at the beginning – had you always wanted to be a full-time artist?

Yes! I was one of those lucky people who from a very young age knew what I wanted to be. As a young boy I wrote and drew my own magazines in drawing books – features and strips in pencil and colour pencils. Then I became aware of the word ‘illustrator’ and certain artists such as Frank Hampson and Ron Embleton. This led me to aim for Art College with an intense desire to be an illustrator. I managed to dodge any regular jobs while I slogged away trying to get interest and work. After leaving art college, supportive parents and a large bedroom and studio of my own enabled me to do this. In the early days I was visually confused with the influence of contemporary illustration coming from Art College sitting uneasily with my root passion for the great British strip illustrators. I was very interested in colour work and the fantasy, fairy-tale genres were very popular. Smaller publishers would take a chance with unknown talent. So I did quite a bit of children’s book and magazine work before I got serious and connected with the mainstream where my contemporaries were working.

Ron Embleton: Men of the Jolly Roger.

Okay, lets get to the important bit: Doctor Who. Did you pitch to WH Allen or did they come to you?

I’d made contact with W H Allen at the beginning of 1979 looking for a break into book cover work and had quickly received a variety of commissions including for two Worzel Gummidge covers and then the K9 and Other Mechanical Creatures Special followed rapidly by Terry Nation’s Dalek Special.

And were you familiar with Doctor Who? A fan? Was science-fiction/fantasy your choice of reading?

I don’t think I was reading much back then. But I was, as ever, lapping up imagery that excited me including illustrated books from the early 20th Century. My favourites were titles illustrated by Willy Pogany. The fan question is a tricky one. I watched Doctor Who from the beginning and enjoyed it. The Tom Baker ones are best remembered, but black and white Daleks invading London are a very particular early memory I have. I was aware of artwork in TV Comic but I wasn’t aware of the Target covers until Mike Brett, Art Director at W H Allen, introduced me to them. He may have wanted The Specials covers to have a feel of the Achilleos ones, or it might be me doing my own thing.

“Beauty and the Dragon” Cover by Willy Pogany.

You mentioned Daleks, so let me leap on that and askdo you like painting Daleks?

There’s a degree of satisfaction in tackling difficult subjects but your need patience. Daleks are not easy and looking back I find it hard to understand how I coped doing them. It’s all curves, circles and straight lines. The multiple spheres are relentless and I always struggle with the gun and the rings around the eye stalk. After all I’m hardly ever doing these very large. But there is a reward on completing a Dalek. There are limits though. I did turn down a private commission that required something like nine different types of Dalek! Having just had some photos done with a Genesis Dalek, you can appreciate that Ray Cusick created a classic design that will continue to be appreciated for many, many years. The original designs are the best. Everything is about them is right; but pity the artists.

Do you do your spheres and straight lines freehand? Or is it rule rand protractor time?

As a rule: never free-hand. I use anything that helps. French curves, templates with circles and ovals and a twelve inch plastic ruler. That’s just for the drawing or lining. When it comes to painting it’s all hand and eye. And magnifying glass as needed.

They say when youre drawing a face you should start with the eyes. Do you have a system for Daleks?

What an interesting question. I don’t have a formula as to where I start, but of course I do for technique: Pencil, liner pen as appropriate, then acrylic inks.

Where do you stand on Photoshop?

I feel safer balancing on the top of the ‘P’. Sorry, taking the P…

I love Photoshop as a composition tool: formatting references, doing graphics, and fun design things. I illustrated a whole Doctor Who book digitally for the States which was packed with illustrations which is why I chose that route for time reasons. But it wasn’t for me and my lack of deep knowledge of Photoshop meant I had to wing it a lot of the time. I prefer simpler traditional techniques these days, line and inks, inks, pencils, line.. .although I do have on the stocks some large painting commissions.

And you said just now that you were working small, what size canvas were you using?

It depends at what stage of my career I was. Many of my earlier book covers for various publishers were painted small. Some, including Targets, were very small painted on rigid illustration board, something I’d learnt from Ron Embleton. I had developed a very detailed, painstaking gouache paint technique using small brushes, so it made sense to keep the originals small. But it must have looked odd to art directors as I became aware of other illustrator’s originals, some of which were massive oil paintings! I think the average comfortable size for many cover artists was about sixteen inches high. I certainly wish I could have done my earlier ones around that size. Some of my later Target covers were.

While were on the technical side, you hit a run of glassy, shiny textures (The Krotons, The Myth Makers, The Two Doctors) – was this a natural evolution for your interest in colour-work?

By this time I had taught myself to use an airbrush and this undoubtedly influenced the look of the Target covers; on a few occasions not for the better. It speeded them up and relieved me of having to meticulously hand paint, although even with the airbrush I hand-painted as well. The Krotons was a mostly airbrushed piece, with a very graphic background. I think a monochrome partial Kroton was the extent of my reference and I came up with an original approach.

The Two Doctors was the 100th Target Book so I did it larger and wanted to make a statement with it despite the fact that I could not feature the Doctors, hence the two TARDISes. The readers must have been baffled by the absence of the characters on the covers. This is one my favourite covers and the use of the airbrush on this piece is all positive, with some effective original touches.

Do you think not being able to use those elements worked in your favour at all? Covers like Enlightenment, Snakedance, Mark of the Rani etc. all have a strong central image.

It certainly meant I had other options, but overall it was a disadvantage as the absence of Doctors and companions was the ‘elephant in the room’.  The use of single elements on some of the covers was largely due to no other references being available, or subjects allowed.

Of course it did save time to an extent not having a portrait but I’d rather I was able to have the Doctor present. I was able to make up for this on my BBC VHS covers. In essence they indicate how my Target covers might have looked in terms of content. But certainly I am not an artist who actively wants to create a cover stuffed with floating heads. It’s an interesting point that I think there is a divide between my generation of illustrators and later when the best known artists were diehard fans.

I like Enlightenment a lot. A rare chance to do a narrative painting: a scene. And it looks quite ghostly. I was captivated by the concept and sought out the SFX guy and received photographs from him, so I had really good references to work from.

Did you often have to get creative with research? Was the BBC Picture Library or Production Office not available?

I was always one for research and it’s become a thing for me; I spend longer on research now than ever I did. Yes, I had access to the BBC Picture Library in London where I browsed black and white photos and some stunning large-format colour transparencies from the earIy black and white days. I then ordered the prints I wanted which were charged to W H Allen. I can vaguely remember one visit but there must have been others. In those days, everything was central London which for a visitor from Bournemouth was very useful. And as far as I remember there was never any visual reference coming to W H Allen from the Doctor Who Production office for the Target books. Looking back, why didn’t I ask? I knew JN-T from 1983, after all.

So with something like Snakedance do you find yourself working from imagination or browsing pictures of snakes?

I’m curious as to why I ended up with this visual solution. I think it’s very effective as a cover and I love the colours. But the least Doctor Who cover of them all! I can only imagine there was no reference and maybe Mike Brett and I came up with the solution. As always I did a pencil rough and supposedly these went to the Doctor Who office, although it’s hard to imagine why it was passed without a comment such as ‘do you need more references?’ Yes, I dug out my Big Book of Snakes for reference. Very important to get the head and fangs correct.

Your new book, EXTERMINART! features all of your Dalek artwork, but you already did a book covering the shows other big-name creatures, the Cybermen. This was with David Banks. I was given that book when I was in hospital as a kid and read it cover-to-cover several times over a fortnight. I love the incongruity of the organic artwork you did for the metal subject.

It wasn’t, of course, an art book, although it was very visual. I had the idea for Cybermen but then discovered David Banks had the same idea and I saw immediately how us teaming up would work. Adrian Rigelsford introduced us at an event and it evolved from there. David and I got on very well, mutual respect and all that, and we are still good friends. The concept for the way the written history of the Cybermen was presented was all David, although I came up with the idea of the ArcHive which we then developed.  I was the design and art director and finally the main illustrator. I was totally into David’s vision and wanted to indulge my imaginative, conceptual skills into realising the interior and exterior of the ArcHive with its very organic quality. Remember, the Cybermen aren’t robots, they are part organic.

Cybermen was in the planning for several years I think. It was very much a Who Dares [Andrew’s company] production under license from the BBC. Peter Darvill-Evans at Virgin bought the paperback rights later and did a cover variant with my artwork full-out which was better than ours I think. There was a replacement of a colour page with one of photos of David Banks and co. getting on their gear for Silver Nemesis.

We keep drifting away from Daleks artists are notoriously critical of their own work, so which of your Dalek pieces are you most satisfied with?

That is tricky one. I guess I have to go for the Davros and the Daleks poster print from 1983. It set a standard that’s hard for me to top. I had a vision for it and I realised that vision. That’s rare.

I love that poster. Its easily the best Molloy Davros Ive seen. Was there a difference between the commissioning and feedback process from BBC Enterprises and Target Books?
For the Who Dares work there was no briefing from BBC, just an approval process which was very easy ninety nine per cent of the time. I did what I wanted to do. There was some work directly commissioned by them later ˗ some posters and then of course my run of VHS covers. The process for these was similar to Target Books ˗ a brief and then I would supply a rough for approval. But I was able to research photographic reference at BBC Enterprises, White City. For the USA Travelling Exhibition trailer I had to put in a quote which was unique following their briefing but after that I had a lot of freedom. (Andrew covers this on his website)

EXTERMINART! features your more recognisable artwork, but also a lot of previously unpublished work. How many illustrations have been included?

Over forty in total, plus loads of ‘in progress photos,’ roughs, printed covers, and so on. The book is punctuated with features that concentrate on a single piece which is given extended coverage. That is why I felt the book was worth doing ˗  so much work that hasn’t been in print before. I don’t know about anyone else but it’s going to be a treat for me!

Over the years you’ve sold some of your original paintings and lost track of them. Would you like to hear from anyone that has a painting who thinks you may not be aware they own it?

Yes, of course. I can be contacted through my website:

 ‘EXTERMINART!: The Doctor Who Dalek Artwork of Andrew Skilleter’ Due November 2021. Available as a full-colour, litho printed book (The Silver Deluxe edition has already sold out!) Foreword and commentary by author John Peel

Instagram: @Andrew.Skilleter
Twitter: @AndrewSkilleter

Matt West (@mrmatthewwest): Reader of books, keeper of bees. Ex-Miwk. Very, very tired. Surrey, UK.

Become a patron at Patreon!