Dan McPharlin creates abstract imagery depicting space travel and exploration of distant worlds, reminiscent of 70’s science fiction art. Dan also builds miniature analogue synths and audio equipment – hand-crafted from cardboard. His work has been on the cover of Wallpaper, and most recently as album artwork for Prefuse 73.
Hey Dan, could you tell us a little about your background ?
Sure. I studied Visual Arts and then went on to design websites for a bit. Eventually I decided that wasn’t really for me, so I got wrapped up in my art again, in a way going back to what I’d always loved doing, depicting strange far-out scenarios on the page. My mum was an art teacher, and my dad a mathematics teacher so that intersection between art and science has always been very interesting to me (the teacher part not so much!) I think my first career aspiration was to become an architect. Then later I got into electronic music pretty heavily, but there was always a degree of cross-over with the visual art side.
What have you been working on lately?
Recently I have been branching out a bit. We have a short film project in the works, as well as an iPhone game that I’m really excited about. Aside from that, I am about to exhibit again in the US so things have been pretty hectic lately.
How would you describe your artistic style?
Style is a difficult thing to quantify. I suppose the things that I find visually interesting rub off on my style. I love clashes, strange juxtapositions. Things like Victorian era mechanics brushed up against 60s modernist design. Re-imagining the past can often be just as interesting as forecasting the future.
I’m deeply interested in exploration; early sea voyages, Australian inland expeditions, deep sea probes and space travel. Exploring distant worlds, either through manned or more likely unmanned vehicles is a great adventure we can look forward to, however from what we know the distances in space are unimaginably vast and a space traveller would not encounter a universe teeming with the kind of sentient life we know from sci-fi films. If he was lucky he might just stumble on the ruins of a past civilization, likely destroyed thousands of years before his arrival. To me this subject matter is just as interesting to dwell on, but ambiguity is the key. There are a few anchor points but then the rest is left to the viewer to make sense of.
I feel there is a kind of devaluation of mystery that has gone on over the last 30 years. Art, music and books should be the jumping off point for our imagination, not the final destination. I think people like to turn things they don’t know or understand into things they do, but I’m happy just to concede that I don’t know - the universe is too complex and mysterious for me to ever fully understand, and that’s just fine.
Could you talk through the process for a typical illustration, what materials do you use?
Well the computer is really the main tool these days. Things like backgrounds are usually hand-painted and scanned in and thumbnail sketches are done with paper and pen, but really most of the work comes together in Photoshop which is the only software I use. I have a pretty modest Mac set up with Wacom tablet that suits me fine.
You have a series of handmade cardboard analog miniatures, what inspired you to make the miniatures?
Well in my years of collecting old synthesizers and drum machines, I had always found the equipment visually interesting. Something about the vast panels bristling with knobs, wires and switches; a kind of tactile landscape, was immensely appealing. Lacking the skills and resources to build a full-scale synth, I settled on the idea of making miniature versions out of scraps of framing matt-boards.
An obvious route might have been to utilize some of the new digital fabrication techniques to create these works, but I thought it would be much more interesting to turn that idea on its head and represent these very technological objects in a hand-crafted form. I’m also intrigued by origami and paper-engineering, and the Japanese obsession with detail and miniaturization.
With the miniatures the idea is not to replicate any machine in existence. Some are based loosely on actual gear but I also try to find inspiration outside of synthesizers and recording gear. I have a lot of reference pictures of aircraft instruments for example. The wonderful thing about analogue technology is the fact that a great deal of the equipment’s functionality is presented on the panel as a series of user controls. The modular synths that existed in the 1960s resembled scientific measuring equipment and were usually operated by serious looking men in white lab coats. It wasn’t until the Minimoog arrived in 1970 that the general public could understand the synthesizer as a musical instrument. Unfortunately what happened then (and later more marked with the DX-7) was that the synthesizer became just another keyboard instrument and as digital technology took over the vast panels and controls were reduced to a tiny LCD and jog-wheel; far less interesting visually!
I suppose a typical model can take anything from a few days to a week to complete, but I tend to be working on at least 3 or 4 at the same time.
are you involved in recording your own music at all? what setup do you have?
I have a bit of a studio. It’s pretty much a hardware based set-up. Computers are so much a part of everything else I do that I’ve tried to keep them out of the studio, so I have a modular synth, a few analogue machines, hardware samplers. I like to potter around and use my hands to make sound, route this to that and see what happens. I like the adventure of it!
What have been the highlights in your art-related career to-date?
Well I can’t really look past the cover for Wallpaper magazine. I was so exhausted when I took that job on, and almost didn’t do it, but in the end it came up nicely. I’ve also really enjoyed the Prefuse 73 covers I’ve done lately. They really let me indulge in my passion for 70s sci-fi art with that one, so even though it was a bit over the top, it was my chance to pay tribute to the lavish sleeve designs of the past that were so influential to me.
A similar experience was working for Wired magazine on a series of illustrations; a kind of hypothetical vision of the moon in the 2061. It was really pleasing that they let me run with some pretty far-our, mysterious, ambiguous art. The illustration work that I enjoy the most is the stuff that is not so obvious, where the connection between the text or music and the art must be decoded somewhat.
Are there any areas, techniques, mediums, projects in your field that you want to try?
Film, animation and interactive art are areas that I can see myself exploring more in the future. The connection between sound and image in particular has always intrigued me. With a device like the iPhone I think there are some amazing possibilities for interactive art projects.
What can we expect from you in the future?
Well I have a number of record covers I’m working on at the moment so you’ll be seeing those soon.
I’m also working with Jim Jupp from Ghost Box on a little book and CD project which should see the light of day next year.
We have some fantastic musicians and writers involved with this already and it really is shaping up to be something quite special.
How to do you find working within the Australian Design scene versus working remotely for International clients?
Well, I tend to operate mostly in hermit-mode and I’m not really one for scenes as such, but Adelaide is a great little hub for me. If I need to use people locally to help pull a project together, I have some good contacts here. Usually the work is for clients in Europe or the US, but it really is all about ideas for me, and where those ideas come from doesn’t matter a whole lot. There’s some fantastic work coming out of this country, but I’m not sure that it is work informed by any particular scene or sub-culture. I see artists that are pulling inspiration from anywhere and everywhere and that’s great.
The thing that I love about Australia is the landscape and the climate. There is somewhat of a laid back attitude here which I think is perfectly suited to my creative process. I’m in no hurry to move.