How Illustrator Nikolas A. Draper-Ivey Went From Fan Art to Drawing 'Black Panther The Album'

“I remember thinking, ‘Who at Disney is watching me like that?’”
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“I remember thinking, ‘Who at Disney is watching me like that?’”

One day you’re drawing Black Panther fan art for your own pleasure, and the next day, Interscope Records is reaching out to have you draw the cover for Black Panther: The Album.

Read as: every artist’s dream.

For mid-20s illustrator and contender for the most humble man with an Interscope co-sign, Nikolas A. Draper-Ivey, that dream is now a reality. The New-York-by-way-of-Detroit artist has always been passionate about illustration, which ultimately led him down the road of fan art. The genre gave him the opportunity to spotlight his interests through his unique creative lens.

Draper-Ivey’s fan art frequently pulls from various Disney IP, be it Black Panther or Spider-Man, and while he boasts an impressive Instagram following and a history of virality, being tapped for such a high-profile gig didn’t seem in the realm of possibility. Despite having never done any official work for Disney, Draper-Ivey is certain his Disney fan art put him on the label's radar.

“I don’t know how else [connecting with Interscope] could have happened,” he muses. “I was a little scared at first, because I remember thinking, ‘Who at Disney is watching me like that?’ I guess it was one of those ‘We’ll come to you' sort of things.”

If “We’ll come to you” is the new way of saying someone immensely talented is rightfully getting their big break, then I absolutely agree—it was that sort of thing.

Humble and focused, Draper-Ivey’s initial fear only made him work harder. He concedes that the final cover is a drastic dressing-down of his typically ornate style. “It’s so radically different than what’s expected of me but I think that’s a good thing,” he explains.

Immediately after being approached about the cover, Draper-Ivey set to work, finishing the first mock-up before day’s end. What followed was a series of meticulous edits to ensure the minimalist artwork carried the quiet power of the Black Panther.

“I did spend days refining it and adjusting it for symmetry,” he recalls. “I’m very particular about these sorts of things and I really wanted to get it right and show the piece as much respect as possible. Especially for something like this. Even though the design appears simple, I didn’t want to approach it that way.”

From the very first minute, Draper-Ivey says, he was on the same page with the label while brainstorming the final design. “Like anything new, it was a learning curve,” he explained. “Overall they’ve been more than patient with me. I don’t know who was the most hands-on, but I do know that there is one person besides God himself in particular that has been in my corner throughout it all.”

The artwork boasts a subtle boldness and reads like a commentary on power. The sheen of the claw in contrast to the pitch darkness it cuts through is unexpectedly arresting, and according to Draper-Ivey, that was the point.

“I think the overall thought process with that particular piece was to hint at power, but playing it subtle, never showing the full strength,” he explains of the cover. “I think that’s what the music is for. That piece has a presence but doesn’t have to overstate itself. It doesn’t come off as boisterous and distracting, which is a lot like how the Black Panther is, I think.”

Black Panther The Album may be released on February 9, but the reality of Draper-Ivey’s success has yet to set in. “It’s an honor and at the same time overwhelming,” he admits. “I know this is a monumental moment for everyone I speak to about it. For me, just to be a part of something that so many people enjoy is mind-blowing and is still very surreal. It still hasn’t fully hit me yet.”

Prior to Black Panther, Draper-Ivey’s highlight placement was, as he tells me, “a project called XOGENASYS, which is manga by a company called Noir Caesar.” Though this manga is on track to be turned into an anime and while his name will forever be attached to the Black Panther album cover, Draper-Ivey still struggles to consider himself a professional.

“I would say it was right around the ending of my freshman year in college when things started to slowly move forward, but being professional didn’t come without rejection and hard times,” Draper-Ivey admits. “So much so that I didn’t feel very professional at all. I’d say things are just now beginning to feel more like that.”

As our interview came to a close, I asked Draper-Ivey what he would say to a young illustrator on the brink of giving up. His answer, further underscoring his humility, was to pray.

“Pray,” he tells me with full conviction. “I’m not even joking. Do your work, don’t slack off, and pray. Don’t beat yourself up too much and give yourself time to grow. You’re gonna make mistakes. You’re gonna have rough days. You’re gonna be hungry and there will be times when you’ll want to quit, but hold on! Just keep moving forward and give it your all—no matter what.”

He’s right, of course, because you never know when that pivotal email, call, text, or DM will hit your inbox.

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