How long have you worked as a professional illustrator?
Since I was in college in the early 1970’s.
- In college I painted signs, worked on a barber’s manual, and did medical illustration for the “Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery”. I also sold cover art rights to some of my portfolio pieces to book publishers in Europe before my work was published here.
- As a science fiction/fantasy book cover artist since 1975.
How would you rate the college you attended and how prepared were you afterwards?
I went to San Jose State University in San Jose, CA. I wanted to learn Human Anatomy and Art and for that it was close to ideal. My instructors there were great, but after graduating I still didn’t feel ready to go into professional illustration without a little more experience. For about 9 months I attended Art Center College of Design. I got a job offer from a publisher in New York, so I dropped out and headed East.
What was your first cover art job?
While I was still at Art Center I sent slides of my work to Donald A. Wollheim at DAW Books. His encouraging reply is what motivated me to move near New York City and my first commission from him was the cover for THE ENCHANTRESS OF WORLD’S END
by Lin Carter. (It was pretty bad – I’m still amazed he hired me again!) I also sold some of my portfolio pieces to Marvel Comics and did some comic art for Neal Adams’ Studio.
LIFE AS A PRO
Are there any negative aspects about the profession?
There are negatives with any profession, and many of the ones in freelance illustration are due to being self-employed: no health plan, pension, etc., without spending enormous sums to cover all your bases.
- The hours are long, often not a steady income, there can be constant fighting to get paid and against rip-offs and stolen rights.
- There’s a lack of respect illustrators receive compared to “gallery” or “fine artists,” and most freelance illustrators have to be perpetually looking for new jobs.
I have been very fortunate in that once I started working for DAW, I have never been without an assignment.
- But success can bring problems too – you can do anything too much. If you accept every assignment offered, you can burn out in a surprisingly short time.
- Once you have succeeded in a particular subject or look, your clients want more of the same. A desperate boredom can set in which is death to creativity. It’s like being typecast as an actor.
- Illustration is like any other art form – there is a star system – and the top stars earn a lot more than the bottom rung names. This competition and struggle can be tough to deal with.
Have you read all the books you have illustrated?
Yes, often 2 or 3 times, with the exception of a few that weren’t written yet and had to be illustrated from a synopsis. I always thought it one of the perks of the business that I got to read the books before the public did! Unfortunately, over the years I have forgotten a few of them and I often don’t know how to answer specific questions about a character in a book I read 2 decades ago!
How do you decide which scene to feature as a cover image?
I can’t say definitively. It’s a subjective process that is still something of a mystery to me. In the end the choice is derived from a balance of my impressions of the story and its characters, the intent of the author, my own artistic concerns, and the publisher’s wishes.
How do you research a fantasy picture? Do you use models, photographs, or historical books?
Yes, all those things.
- With a book cover illustration, the main source is the manuscript.
- I have thousands of photos I’ve taken in the UK of castles, abbeys, and ruins and ones from museums with armor and weapons.
- I have costume and other reference books and a lifetime of pictures I’ve cut out of magazines.
- Sometimes I pose myself in a costume in front of a mirror and occasionally I do photograph professional models, but the most fun is when someone I know fits a character so well that they are pressed into service.
- Anything else in the story is my business to invent. My job is to do it in a way that is consistent with the narrative of the story, and to make it real enough to bring the story to life. The Pern Dragons may violate known laws of physics, but it was my job to paint them as if they could fly.
How do you make a reader feel fear in a horror image?
I just think about things that seem eerie, or recall frightening situations from my own experiences. I don’t go for blood or gore; that’s about creating revulsion, not fear. I’m more concerned with setting up a situation that creates more of a feeling of unease than anything else. It’s very hard to create a sense of fear in an image alone. We live in such jaded times and viewers are accustomed to hearing sound tracks with scary noises and music to trigger fear.
I am actually not doing horror images much anymore. I feel that there’s enough horror and bloodshed in the world already that I don’t feel compelled to add to it.
Do you prefer science fiction or fantasy?
I find SF illustration to be more interesting, because it has the potential to be relevant to current events and experience. When I was younger, I enjoyed both equally, but now fantasy often seems like pointless daydreaming or wish fulfillment much of the time, so to me it seems less relevant. Of course all this is coming from a guy whose favorite books of all time are THE LORD OF THE RINGS! I still listen to them on tape at least once a year.
What do you think of digital art?
Some digital art is excellent, some is not. It’s neither better nor worse than other forms of art, it’s just different. A computer is a tool for producing a finished work of art and just like with paints and brushes, the most important part of the process is the artist who is doing it.
What are the advantages of using computers in art?
Unlimited, nondestructive editing. I have integrated them into the beginning stages of my working procedures. In a situation where there are likely to be many changes or where I want to show many different approaches to a design problem, the computer is really great. I can copy areas and recombine them endlessly. It is also easier to chart out complex grids for pictures with complicated perspective plans.
The digital media are well suited to the publishing world. For art directors, it is a huge boon to be able to make changes easily in the art, to lay over type designs or to upload ready-to-print cover art.
Do you think digital art will replace conventional painting?
Probably not for me. I would miss the tactile sense of actually holding and physically manipulating my art by hand. There’s no comparison between the “romance of the studio” and sitting in front of a monitor!
It’s certainly the direction that the illustration field is going. Among new illustrators, I’d guess that the majority of them work digitally. It’s ideally suited to the publishing world for artists, art directors, and printers.
The fine art/gallery world is not moving as quickly that way. My guess is that art collectors still like owning a painting not a print of a digital image. But with the amazing resolution you can get today with prints on canvas, etc., who knows?
What are your projects and plans for the future?
My focus is mostly on my personal work, but I do accept commissions from time to time. I have really enjoyed being an illustrator and helping to bring other people’s ideas to life, but now I am exploring my own ideas.
All the paintings I expect to do will still be about a “sense of wonder” and dreamlike interpretations of my experiences as a human being. I imagine that commercial applications will be found for some of it and you may see it as book or CD covers on occasion. So in that sense I will still be an illustrator.
What is the best preparation for becoming an illustrator?
I would give the same answer to anyone wanting to go into the arts of any kind. Get a good liberal arts education: read and study literature, nature, science, history, art, music, etc. The more you study, learn, and grow yourself the more you have to say in your art. If you can’t afford a formal education, read and study as much as you can on your own.
What would be your best advice to an aspiring illustrator?
Work hard and stay true to your vision. Don’t waste time imitating others’ work; do the work only you can do. There’s only one person who has lived your life, and that is you. Your job is to create the work that you and you alone can do.
How do you prepare to become a science fiction/fantasy artist?
You have to want to paint fantastic subjects and have a good imagination.
- Learn how to paint the “real,” then apply those techniques to the “unreal.”
- Learn how to draw and paint the human figure. The biggest complaint I hear from art directors is that there aren’t enough artists who are proficient at that.
- Look at the work already being done in the field you are interested in (ie.book covers, comics, gaming) and practice until you are as good as what you see.
How do you break into the field of SF/ fantasy illustration today?
I don’t really know. When I started more than 30 years ago the book industry was a different world. But from what I can understand, getting your work seen in the first place is the the main obstacle.
- Art directors are swamped with work and rarely have time to look at portfolios. Enter competitions like the SPECTRUM ANNUAL OF THE BEST IN CONTEMPORARY FANTASTIC ART, or THE SOCIETY OF ILLUSTRATORS student competitions.
- Frame and show your work in one of the leading SF or fantasy convention art shows. It is likely to be seen by some people you’d like to show it to and you have the added benefit of seeing how your work stacks up to the competition. You may meet other newcomers and professionals and I dare say that if you display your art in these shows and you don’t win any awards or ribbons, you need to work at improving it before you seek work as a professional.
How do you succeed as a science fiction/fantasy artist?
I must repeat that you have to practice until you are as good as what you see already being done in the field. Because you are new, you’ll charge less and once you are in, keep getting better, until you are so good that you are considered indispensable and you can raise your rates.
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