Paul Normansell thought it was a joke when he took a phone call from The Killers' manager, asking him to design the cover art for the band's third album. "At first I thought, 'someone's having me on'," says the 30-year-old artist from Solihull. "And then I spoke to Brandon Flowers."
It's a long way from the Birmingham dormitory town, whose most famous musical sons are the long-forgotten Ocean Colour Scene and Ritchie Neville from the boy-band Five, to Las Vegas – the city of sin and birthplace of The Killers. Nevertheless, the band spotted Normansell's mosaic-inspired portrait of Kate Moss in GQ magazine in May and within a month had called him up to ask him to create the back cover for their latest album, Day & Age. As time went on, he was commissioned to do the front cover and individual portraits of the four band members, too, all in his trademark colour-spot style which echoes the band's own dot-matrix logo.
Normansell's portrait of The Killers' leonine guitarist Dave Keuning also adorns the cover of the current single, "Human", and his work plays a leading role in the video as the band hold their individual headshots in front of their faces and playfully swap them around. The epic final shot has them linking arms to watch the sunset over Utah's Goblin Valley, which fades out to become the lilac-hued landscape of Normansell's cover. The paintings on screen are not the originals, though. "I was shipping them out for the video but they never got to the desert in time," says Normansell. "They've got all the originals in their recording studio at the moment. When I saw the band after their gig at the Royal Albert Hall, they said they'd like to keep them, but the record company has paid for them, so whether they get to keep them or not, I don't know."
Even if the painting doesn't end up above Flowers' mantelpiece, it's quite an honour to be Killers-approved. Since the band formed in 2002, the evolution of their sound, from indie-glam to synth-pop via blowsy Springsteen-iana has been mirrored by its imaginative image-making. The flamboyant yet enigmatic frontman, Flowers – who recently said he would feel "petrified" if he were to make his stage costume a T-shirt – has moved with Madonna-like ease from rocky leather-and-eyeliner for Hot Fuss to deranged Wild West ringmaster (complete with bushy moustache) for Sam's Town to his current favourite, a sharp tuxedo with owl-feather epaulettes, designed by Fee Doran (who memorably draped Kylie in a white hood for "Can't Get You Out of My Head"). The Killers' last album, Sam's Town, featured a trailer-trash beauty queen on its cover, shot by Anton Corbijn, the director of the award-winning Ian Curtis biopic, Control, and countless music videos for U2, Nirvana and Coldplay.
The cover for Day & Age went through a month of negotiations and several versions – including a cluster of palm trees and a Mexican ruin – were rejected before the band happened upon an old photograph of a nocturnal desert scene which appealed to their Nevada roots. It is not, as one blogger has suggested, "a depiction of the place Brandon went to kill the animal he wore on his shoulders in the promo pics". From there, it was a slow process of getting the colours just right. Flowers was, apparently, particularly keen on pastels.
Normansell graduated from the University of Central England in 2001 and started out producing abstract paintings which were snapped up by, among others, Radio 1 DJ Pete Tong and British Airways. One particularly keen collector bought a painting and asked the artist to design a tattoo based around it in 2004. "It's quite bizarre that someone's got a tattoo of my work on them. It's there for the rest of his life, so fingers crossed he really likes it." Inspired by a picture of Kate Moss in a magazine, Normansell began to apply his spot technique to portraiture a couple of years ago, rendering his famous subjects in thousands of meticulously applied dots of gloss paint on aluminium sheets. The reflective materials give his pop art a magazine-shoot high sheen at the same time as producing an unsettling distortion effect. "Depending on where you view the image from, it can go in and out of focus," he explains.
Normansell is working on another portrait of Moss, commissioned to hang in the head office of the cosmetics giant Rimmel and has just completed a Jimi Hendrix for an exhibition at The Gallery at 94 in London. Other subjects on show there include Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Agyness Deyn, posing in candy-pink Wayfarers, on sale for around £5,000.
It's Art... Bitch! is at The Gallery at 94, 94 Cleveland Street, London W1 ( www.galleryat94.com ), to 4 January