A couple of airbrush sleeves here, one of which I got back in 1975 when it was released, the other found recently in the back of a second-hand bookshop for 50p. Both turned out to be by the same American artist, David Willardson, who reckons he did “hundreds” of album sleeves in the seventies.
Willardson got into commercial airbrush illustration after art college when the technique was largely forgotten, and began to use it seriously in his work in 1967 after he went solo. After doing lots of airbrush illustrations for The Los Angeles Times magazine, in the 1970s the technique enjoyed something of a comeback and Willardson was also doing a lot of retro pin-up illustration following his work on the American Graffiti film poster. His album sleeve illustrations span at least 1970 to 2000, but he now works for the Disney company. David’s work must have been prolific as he was asked to design the cover for a book of contemporary album sleeve covers in 1977 (Phonographics).
Even back at the time I found the Rainbow cover concept a little forced, and it’s not known who came up with the idea of a guitar / castle. Willardson had the job of executing it, but the result doesn’t really convince, which a fantasy illustration needs to do. It all looks a bit flat and two dimensional. That said, in 1975 when the album came out, the cover was very colourful, different to most of what was about and stood out as a result. The best thing about it was the lovely retro lettering, which David may well have done. The illustration continues over the back of the gatefold. [Cover prepared by AGI, Hollyood].
By contrast comes the Carpenters sleeve from 1981. This is a really accomplished cover and it’s almost hard to believe it’s the same guy. It works both as a great illustration, but also has some of the fresh faced feel of forties and fifties advertising work, you can imagine this being on a large billboard over a highway selling toothpaste. It even recalls the illustrations on the side of WW2 bombers. Nice touches are the loose lines round the necks and the sprayed background, something Willardson has really developed in his work since. It’s just a single sleeve, though the hair is taken across the back which suggests it might have been designed for a gatefold. [Art direction Chuck Beeson and Jeff Ayeroff, Design Lynn Robb]
And I’ve just realised that the Rainbow album was that band’s first, the Carpenters one their last.
There are plenty more Willardson designs to look out for, some better than others. Three are shown here. One of the earliest is a cover for Pacific Gas An Electric, the Are You Ready album from 1970. I also particularly like Nutbush City Limits by Ike & Tina Turner, released in 1973 but who Cecilio and Kapono were beats me! A a Hawaiian pop music duo according tothe web (hence the shirt on this 1974 debut album).