Janelle Monáe’s Cover Artist Sam Spratt On Painting ‘The Electric Lady’

24 year-old illustrator Sam Spratt recently revealed the incredible paintings which will serve as the cover artwork for Janelle Monáe’s forthcoming record ‘The Electric Lady’. Read about his process – and Prince’s reaction – and then scroll down to watch a video of the painting coming together.

I normally prefer to draw and paint much looser — rough brush-strokes, crazed colors, that sort of thing. Working with Janelle was a challenge because everything about her: her appearance, her fashion, her attitude, and her sound, are all flawless, and I’m far from it. Leaving overly loose strokes on her cheek as I might normally do stood out far more than they would on a portrait of pretty much anyone else.

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This involved a higher level of realism/accuracy than I’m accustomed to, and despite being provided thousands of reference photos, professional and candid, to help craft the covers, I had to study all of them closely and repeatedly to make these scenes. Doing so wasn’t a straight shot, I struggled, especially on the Primary cover with several of her where I’m mentally piecing together these poses, lighting, props, and expressions from pictures that don’t have any of these elements individually or at all.

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Her creative director, Chuck Lightning (Of Deep Cotton) was a huge asset in marrying my ideas with his and Janelles’. We made larger conceptual changes like building them with robotics, energy circuitry, exposed and unexposed skin, various hand gestures, part way through we were unhappy with its direction so I injected a bit more color, a skull, and heavy coat of nostalgia, that skull was done in 5 different ways ranging from fully human to frighteningly alien to the reflective android skull it is now (The reflection of the figures being another challenging visual to try to create).

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I researched Egyptian and Afrofuturistic literature to design her jewelry and neck piece for the Target Edition which went through a number of iterations, and these changes trickled all the way down into facial nuances — if I told you that I have recreated Janelle’s eyebrows, lips, nose, and hair 40+ times each in various ways, that might be lowballing it. Some of that was exploratory, wondering what feel it’d have with various expressions and subtleties, but there’s was definitely a component that was my own technical struggle to try to properly capture her likeness and give her justice.

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There were many scrapped concepts, a lot of sketches/studies for things as minor as how hands look when they hold, one entirely different cover that was pushed fairly far before it was abandoned that involved her head opening up with mechanics, many times I made changes to both covers only to be changed back, and overall it was the most revision-heavy and iterative process I’ve ever been involved in (In the best of ways).

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I was brought on early enough that all this time Janelle’s image and music are evolving and changing alongside the art — musicians at her level tend to not be too concerned with album artwork, but she’s an artist and fortunately got incredibly involved from the technical understanding of her look, down to critical but more abstract things like the feelings of color in the images and their relation to the “colors” in her songs. Ultimately, despite the intense and challenging process, every change, everything I had to make only to be scrapped, it all built up to the final covers and while I can only attest to what went into them, I do hope others enjoy them. At the very least, I was informed last night that Prince (who collaborates on a track) loves them, so I’ve got that.