- by Dara Girard
Hi Dara…thanks for inviting me to chat.
I’m an illustrator living and working in Boston… My background schooling was in architecture and fine art, so I was well versed in traditional art before I started playing with computer images in the mid nineties. At that point I began experimenting with the capabilities of Photoshop, and slowly began incorporating it into my process. Now I typically will develop a piece, either entirely digitally, or I will bring it up to about 80% complete, and then make a large print, and finish it in oil paint.
How did you get interested in cover illustration?
I’ve been making pictures for as long as I can remember, and throughout high school and college, I was a huge fan-boy and collector of comics and science fiction and fantasy genre image art books. After a dozen years as an architect, I decided to leap into a career of making illustrations.
How did you get your first cover assignment?
Hmmm… initially I hunted up a local illustrator in order to buy some of his original art that I had seen exhibited in my local comics shop. We hit it off and began collaborative painting over late-night Irish whiskey…. He had a gig art directing for a small collectible card game company (ccg), and asked me if I wanted to do some landscape card images. I said yes, and after another well know artist dropped out, he assigned me several character images. That work got me more card art for the big game in that industry, Magic the Gathering, and after a few years of soliciting, I got to do a couple of cover images for role playing game books… that was technically my first cover art, though not for a novel. My first novel assignment came after I picked up an agent via a pair of images accepted in the fantastic art annual Spectrum. They took me to TOR books, where they gave me my first assignment for a mystery novel.
Have you worked for more than one house?
Oh sure… I can only think of a few that I haven’t worked for… * though most work has been in the science fiction and fantasy genre, as opposed to romance. It’s actually a very small and incestuous industry, and once you’re known, you’re over the hump per se. It takes effort to stay on the radar screen, but typically if you can keep your clients warm and fuzzy… you can add a few repeat clients each year.
Do you work with the art director at a house or with the cover designer? Can you tell us more about this?
Always the art director. The art director typically works with the type designer independently, either in house, or freelance….or in some cases, the art director IS the type designer. As the illustrator, you need to be a bit careful about stepping on the toes of the type designer. Of course I always have an opinion about the type solution, and often it’s disappointment. That’s natural though, because typically I’d like to see less type and more picture. Book buyers often have the opposite perspective, and publishers understandably cater to the big book buyers.
How much freedom do you have envisioning your illustration? What kind of
approval do you need?
That varies widely and totally depends on the project. Sometimes a client will ask me to read the book and let me know what I think would be best… and other times, they will want a specific scene or pose, right down to detailed costuming and expressions. Of course, as a cover image, the picture needs to get across several very important bits of information to a casual book browser… so those “constraints-opportunities” are always in my mind…and I have become more familiar with those as I have become more experienced.
How do you get inspiration for your covers? Do you read the novel? Talk to the author? What?
Again, there is a big range for that. I will read the novel if the art director is soliciting me for ideas, and if the book is available… Often it is still on the author’s computer in a formative stage. If the book is a series, I will go to wikipedia to get some history. Often important information is lost in translation in the chain of author-editor-art director, and I can avoid misunderstandings down the line by checking wikipedia. Typically, publishers try to keep authors and cover illustrators from talking to each other. I think there is a widespread belief amongst publishers that authors don’t know what is good for book sales, so they need to handle it. When authors get readership, and more clout, they can assert their preferences, though even then, there are typically contentious opinions about the success of that. Unfortunately, as authors have influence, often the type solution has also ballooned in proportion.
Describe the process of creating and completing an illustration.
At the outset, I will have one or more ideas that I want to pursue. When I worked in traditional media, I would start by pencil sketching based on those ideas, gather and shoot photo reference, refine my drawing, transfer the drawing to a surface, and oil paint the image … but now that I work primarily by collaging photography to build images, I will search through my collection of photographs in search of what I think I want. Inherently, what photographs I find in my search will influence what else I am looking for because I will establish the primary lighting and color schemes along the way.
I have a collection of about 100,000 images in a searchable database, composed of pictures I’ve taken, or stock photos that I’ve purchased. I also use several internet sources for stock when I don’t have what I need. At this point, I am cutting, pasting, arranging, scaling, distorting, and digitally painting to cobble together my primary picture. When I think the idea is “legible” enough, I flesh it out with rough digital paint, and send a “sketch” to my art director for approval. If I get a thumbs up, I will work up my image in photographic detail to about 80% compete, and decide at that point if I will finish it digitally, or print it out, mount it, and oil paint it. That decision is made based on what my client is after stylistically (in a range from photographic to abstract/painterly), whether or not I have the desire to make a physical painting from the image, and if I have the time to do that.
When I want to physically paint the image, I’ll typically cover figures entirely, and then pick and choose background elements that I want to further abstract in paint. I love crazy complex detailed backgrounds, and often the digital process is best for those areas so I feel they look best digitally finished, and will leave those exposed between the painted parts. If I decide to finish the painting digitally, I will approach it very similarly, but do the painting with a stylus/pen and tablet in either Photoshop or Painter.
What media, if any, do you prefer to work in?
Can you share any interesting stories about covers you’ve worked on?
My primary venue has been science fiction and fantasy genres, so forays into romance were initially exotic. In SF&F… the heroes, of either gender, are often featured on the cover in a pose that shows either action, or concern and introspection – so conflict of some kind. In romance, you most often find the male love interest, either with or without the heroine, and he tends to be more objectified as a focus of desire, so when romance art directors are looking at folios of illustrators they might want to hire, they are not seeing a lot of the latter in mine.
I got assignments for two romance series a couple of years ago, and curiously, after three
issue in each, I was replaced… so clearly romance publishers are not so sure I’m right for THEM… and I can only assume that I was giving them images that might not have been immediately identifiable to the target readership…and that is probably the “prime directive” of any book jacket image. One of the series was for Linnea Sinclair’s science fiction romance work being rebranded for Ballantine, and the other was for Rachel Caine’s Weather Warden series for Penguin/ROC. I wasn’t aware that either was a romance series until I was reading them, and …actual sex scenes!!!! SF&F is oddly chaste…especially given a future of genetic tampering and medicine that allows for physical beauty and fitness as the new norm. I’m thinking that it must be the puritanical roots of the target audience, or at least the retail outlets.
My first Linnea cover went totally smoothly… my art director loved my sketch, I finished it, and everything was warm and fuzzy… the next one was a little less “slam dunk”…. and then the third one was a bit of a disaster, where the art director sent me her own sketch to “execute” after mine were rejected, and I was told that my ideas were not “the Bantam way”(???). I was replaced on the series, though more painfully, I was wrongly credited as the illustrator on the fourth book.
On Rachel’s fantasy romance series, initially the art director wanted only the Mach 1 Mustang on the jacket, Joanne Baldwin’s bad-ass ride, and Jo herself was a last minute addition. I suggested that we do her facing away from us, to give it that “fill in the blank” mystery… Penguin thought that was so successful that we did the next two books the same way. My art director told me I could reveal her face in the next one…but I found out I’d been canned when I saw the fourth book on the stands… though still no face, and definitely looking much more overtly “romance.”
I’ve been in contact with both Linnea and Roxanne via email, and they both seem like very cool, smart, and fun ladies. Either they were both very happy with my work on theirs, or they were too well-mannered to say otherwise…but clearly their publishers were of a different mind. I hope to cross paths with them at some point in my conventioneering.
I was hired by Harlequin a year ago, after meeting the art director at Comicon International in San Diego, where I exhibit each July. I thought I was going to get another crack at romance, but he put me on a series called Deathlands, for their Gold Eagle imprint… and it’s a dark apocalyptic SF&F series for BOYS. He seems very happy after 6 jackets, so maybe it’s time to ask for a romance title.
Do you have a favorite cover?
I will always have current favorites…. And they change over time. There is typically a “honeymoon blush” on new pieces, but that often fades. Conversely, there are some pieces that weather the test of time much better than others. There are still images in my folio that I did a decade ago, but not many… and most of what I did a decade ago would embarrass me to show you now.
Additionally, I find that I am influenced by what is well received. If a piece is accepted to juried annuals, or if people often point out a pic as a favorite of theirs, I will think of it as a stronger piece than I might otherwise. That is not always the case… and there are pieces that I think are really strong, but don’t get the attention they deserve. In general, I am less confident about identifying my best pieces than I would have been a decade ago, because of my dodgy track record in predicting the long-term popularity of any given image.
Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
As much as there is a publishing predisposition to keep authors and illustrators apart, I’d recommend that you have as much dialogue with your editors as you can about what you’d like to see on your covers, and what illustrators you feel would be good for you. Editors tend to be very influential in the commissioning of book jacket assignments, so even if they sound disconnected, they may not be. I’ve gotten any number of commissions because of those author/editor dialogues.
Once you’ve got the illustrator you’d like, be cautious about direct contact with them. If you’d like that, then ask your editor is they would be comfortable with it first. I did a job recently where I had no direct contact, but the art director gave me a form filled out by the author in which there was section titled “author’s ideal vision of the cover,” and while that was not “pushed” as mandatory, it heavily influenced my thinking. Once the cover “goes public”… let your editor know if you’re happy with it (or not) and let your illustrator know if you’re happy with it (and not not).