Meet Cover Illustrator David B. Mattingly

- by BlogMistress

Welcome this week’s industry guest, David B. Mattingly, who is not only a cover illustrator–he also teaches digital matte painting at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Tell us something about yourself and your work in general.

I was born in Colorado, and my father was an inventor. His most famous invention is the “Water Pik’, an oral hygiene device that cleans your teeth with pulses of water. I went to Art School in Los Angles at Art Center College of Design. Right out of Art School, I got a job at Walt Disney studios, where I worked as a special effects matte artist. I started working as an illustrator in 1979 while I was still working at Disney , and I moved to New York in 1984, where I remain.

I moved across the Hudson River in 1985 to Hoboken, New Jersey. I am married to Cathleen Cogswell, the beautiful daughter of Golden Age science fiction writer Ted Cogswell. We currently have 3 cats and no children. I am a devotee of the New York theater, yoga, and good food.

How did you get interested in cover illustration?

My childhood idols were Frank Frazetta and Jim Steranko, and for some reason I always knew I wanted to be an illustrator. Not an “Artist”, but an illustrator. I think I recognized that distinction early on where I read an interview with Norman Rockwell.

He stated that he considered himself an illustrator, not an artist. I think Rockwell’s work has historical legs, and in the far future he may be considered one of the best artists of our time, but his love of making pictures for a purpose stuck with me.

How did you get your first cover assignment?

I mailed out samples to every publisher in New York, and Don Wolheim at DAW books was the first publisher to give me a chance. I will forever be grateful to him for one of the happiest days of my life when I received the letter and a manuscript from him with my first assignment. Judy-Lynn del Rey gave me the confidence to come to New York by offering me a 3 year contract that guaranteed me an income when I first moved from LA.

Have you worked for more than one house?

I have worked for just about every house in New York–I can’t think of one that I didn’t do a cover or two for. My longest running relationship was with Jim Baen, and I have worked for Baen Books (or the earlier Jim Baen imprint) for almost 30 years. Next to the death of my mother and father, Jim’s passing was one of the saddest times of my life. I still miss his phone calls. I continue to work happily with Toni Weisskopff, a worthy successor.

Do you work with the art director at a house or with the cover designer? Can you tell us more about this?

I turn in the artwork (for the most part) and have almost nothing to do with the design. I have done a few designs myself over the years, but in general you are in the hands of the art director.

Sometimes I am unhappy with the final cover, especially when the designer puts type in unexpected places, but my original painting still exists. I have also been lucky enough to have my covers designed by some wonderful people–Carol Russo at Baen is exceptional. I also enjoyed working for the long time Del Rey art director, Don Munson, partly for his brilliance, and partly because he was such a character. I also love the “Animorphs” art director Karen Hudson–her work is always fresh and interesting. So overall I am pretty happy with my designs over the years–I won’t mention that book where the designer ran the author’s name over the key character’s head!!

How much freedom do you have envisioning your illustration? What kind of approvals do you need?

Science fiction is less art directed than a lot of genres, in that generally the artist reads the book, and turns in sketches that the publisher chooses from. Also, with rare exception, sci fi books aren’t the big tent-pole books of the season, like the new John Grisham, so the artist is given some leeway as to what the cover image will be. If you do a really big book, it will be art directed to death, but publishers generally want good sketches from a science fiction artist, and the cover is chosen from those ideas.

Does the author have any input?

Not in general. Many houses have a rule that illustrators should not contact the author, since that can lead to complications if the author demands to take a hand in the cover illustration. Baen books is very liberal about author/artist contact, but that is a rarity. Often authors have a firm idea as to what the cover image should be, and it isn’t always what the publisher wants. The worse case scenario is where an artist contacts an author, gives them some idea what they have in mind for the cover, and the author demands another approach. In a perfect world, I would love to have authors get exactly what they want on their covers, and I hate covers where the illustrator has flat out gotten some detail wrong, but as an illustrator you also don’t want to get caught in the middle of an author/publisher dust up.

My advice to authors–you can always send a letter (or e-mail) to your illustrator with character descriptions, and any ideas you have, if your publisher permits. I always love that kind of input. But if the cover doesn’t come out as you envisioned it, realize they may have been other pressures on the illustrator to go in a different direction from what you had in mind. That’s not to say that if you get a cover that completely misrepresents your book, or has a glaring inaccuracy, you shouldn’t complain. But if the cover just isn’t what you had in mind, you might hold your big guns for when you get a real disaster of a illustration.

Describe the process of completing an illustration.

I get the manuscript, and read it all the way through for pleasure. Kelly Freas always recommends enjoying the book, and not worry about taking notes until the second time through. I’ll do 2 to 6 sketches, and turn them in. The publisher will choose one, or in the worst case, combine a bunch of different ideas, and I’ll proceed to final.

If there are figures, i’ll shoot models, and construct in 3D any important elements, and I paint away on the computer. I should mention that after 20 years of working traditionally in actual paint and brush, I made the switch to the computer 15 years ago, and never looked back. I love working digitally, although I do miss having the original to sell at conventions!!

Tell us about your deadlines.

Most publishers are reasonable, and I do my best to meet deadlines. I have never been a fast artist, and most people who work with me have realized I need a reasonable amount of time to do a cover. I do a cover or 2 a month in general.

Can you share any interesting stories about covers you’ve worked on?

Judy-Lynn del Rey was the titan of an editor who helmed the Del Rey line before she died suddenly in 1986. One of my favorite stories about her, and there are many, is that I was assigned a book I hated. That is a rarity for me–I generally enjoy the books I am asked to illustrate, but this was an exception. My problem with the book is that it had nothing going on in it–no sci fi element, no interesting character, nothing to base a cover on. It was also badly written to boot.

After reading it, I made an appointment with Judy-Lynn, and laid out my complaints. She stared me straight in the eye, (no easy thing for a woman who stood well under 4 feet tall when I stand 6 ft. 5 inches) and said “first off, you are an illustrator, not a literary critic, so frankly i don’t care what your thoughts are on the book.” She went on to explain that the book was being published as a favor to an elderly author, in failing health, who badly needed the book advance. Then she said “The book happens in a universe where space ships exists, right?” I responded “Yes, but the author never has them featured in a scene”. To which she said “Who cares? Do a space ship!! And make it a good one–we need some people to buy this book!” And she sent me on my way. I put the book aside, and did the best space ship painting I could….

Do you have a favorite cover?

Forgive me for mentioning two.

The cover for “Orion” by Ben Bova. My cover appeared on the trade paperback, and for the paperback, they had Boris re-do it, so look for that original edition. It is based on a painting by Ingres, one of my favorite neo-classical painters, and still hangs in our living room.

My other favorite cover is for “Honor Among Enemies,” by David Weber. It was one of my first fully successful digital covers, and I still think it is one of my best.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

No, thanks for your interest! If authors have any comments, feel free to e-mail me at ” david@davidmattingly.com!!

Thanks to Pati Nagle for arranging this interview with David.

5 comments

  1. Thanks for such an interesting look into the work of illustrators, David!

    It’s wonderful to see a cover artist blogging here.

    Laura Resnick

  2. I enjoyed the interview.

  3. Hey, David – Thanks! I’d love to hear about the tools you use for digital artwork.

  4. A quite engaging and informative interview! It is always fascinating to learn about and gain a better appreciation for the work of all the other creative people who help put our books in readers’ hands … and entice them to turn to page one!

  5. That was a great interview! As an illustrator looking to get into book illustration it was good to hear some of the nuts and bolts of it as well as some of the challenges. Thank you!