The Artist Behind Your Favorite Rock Album Covers: Don Brautigam

Mar 3, 2020

What do Metallica's Master of Puppets and Mötley Crüe's Dr. Feelgood have in common? Of course, beyond being the two of the most important '80s albums on opposite ends of the metal spectrum (Dr. Feelgood being some of the most polished hair metal of the decade and Master of Puppets setting a new gold standard for thrash metal). Both of their album covers were painted by American artist Don Brautigam.

Brautigam was born on September 12th, 1946 in Paterson, New Jersey. He attended and graduated from The School of Visual Arts in New York City in 1971. Throughout his 35 year career, he painted over 3,000 book and record covers as well as numerous advertisements and magazine covers.

His paperback cover art for Stephen King's The Stand won "Cover of the Year" by the Marketing Bestsellers in 1980 and he is often credited for pioneering the use of black paint on book illustrations. A technique that revolutionized paperback and hardcover jacket illustrations forever.

The first edition of another Stephen King novel, 1979's Night Shift also featured Brautigam's artwork. As explained by Suntup Press, "...the first edition is identified by the outermost front cover's "keyholes," which open up to a full page color step back graphic underneath."

By the mid '80s, it was abundantly clear that Brautigam had a talent for passionately capturing another artist's work with his own original artwork. However, prior to his album artwork in the latter half of the '80s, Brautigam had been commissioned to do the album covers for James Brown's The Payback(1973) and Reality (1974) and Chuck Berry's punny Rockitcover in 1979.

After creating the artwork for Metal Church's The Darkin 1986, his dalliance with hard rock and metal really took off. He is credited for the cover art on albums by Ace Frehley, Newcity Rockers, Mötley Crüe (as mentioned above), AC/DC, and numerous Anthrax, and Vicious Rumours releases. Brautigam continued to do album cover art and record sleeves until the late 90s, when the industry underwent changes in technology and cover art became easier to produce.

By far, his most recognizable and undeniable contribution to cover art was his painting for Metallica's Master of Puppets album in 1986. The artwork was designed by both the band and their manager Peter Mensch and painted by Brautigam. The album's critical and commercial success has made Brautigam's painting one of the most iconic album covers of all time. In 2015, the album was the first record in a metal genre to be selected for preservation by the Library of Congress.

Sadly, the artist passed on January 27th, 2008 after losing the battle to stomach cancer.

Don Brautigam may not be a household name, but his artwork sits in homes, music shops, and proudly emblazoned on the chests of music lovers all over the world. For an artist, that is more than enough validation.

In 2007, Brautigam told Revolver Magazine, "It leaves a warm feeling in my heart to see artwork that I did over 20 years ago plastered on T-shirts and posters all over the world. I hope it has something to do with the painting and not just the popularity of the band!"

While Metallica's album full of heavy hitters like "Battery" and the title track are the reason why it's so revered today, the artwork has taken on a life of its own. Just compare it to other albums that are deemed essential. You don't see nearly as many t-shirts and posters of album covers like The Rolling Stone's Let It Bleed or Blondie's Parallel Lines, despite them being just as vital to contemporary music canon.

Brautigam's artwork was timeless in its attention to detail and in the way that it so effortlessly captured whatever album it was representing. He prioritized the artistic mission of the book or record instead of artistic norms and conventions of the time.

The band's great music and Brautigam's unforgettable cover is what makes Master of Puppets an absolute classic. If you look closely at the bottom right corner of the album, just above the "S" in "Puppets" you can see the initials "D.B." You can't have Master of Puppets without Brautigam.