Interview with the Artist

February 16th, 2010

Not so very long ago a decision was made at the highest levels of the windowless spiked citadel of steel and adamantite that houses Orion publishing. No, not to invade Gondor and impose a second darkness upon the world, but that an alternative set of covers for the First Law featuring some of the characters from the books might a) appeal more to and attract more interest from our sinister allies in the book trade, b) stimulate new interest in the series simply by a new presentation, and, c) potentially draw a readership who might so far not have picked the books up because they just somehow didn’t look like their kind of thing. Parchment-haters, maybe.

The artist given the unenviable mission of contending with my pedantic and ungrateful readers was none other than Chris McGrath, whose gritty, dark and realistic style seemed to me a good fit for the books. Out of the considerable goodness of his heart, he has volunteered to come upon this blog and answer my questions, so, without further ado:

– You’ve been given a commission for a cover, and you’re more or less staring at a blank screen. What next?

Hey Joe, Thanks for having me on your blog.

Well, first I’ll go over the notes that I get from the publisher and see what comes to mind. Sometimes I’ll get an idea right away and jump into the sketch phase and sometimes I’m left scratching my head with no idea at all. When that happens I basically start looking through my movie and art book collection to get some kind of idea or direction to go in. Then I usually end up doing a ton of sketches driving myself crazy until I feel I’ve got one that is good or inspiring. At that point I show the art director my sketches, they choose one, then it’s on to a final.

I work from a combo of reference and making stuff up. A lot like the guys who do concept work for movies and games.

– How much guidance do you tend to get from art directors, editors, or writers as to what they want on a cover, and how seriously do you take it? Does your heart sink when they shirtily demand changes, or do you see that as an opportunity to reassess and improve the piece?

Every publisher is different and has their own rituals for getting a book out the door. Some give a lot of guidance and some give you a lot of room and freedom. I’ve noticed that quite often, the bigger the author the more art direction I get. In the case with the First Law Trilogy, the publisher had some compositional guidelines for their layout and text design that I had to follow, but other than that I had a lot of breathing room. Sometimes I’ll try to push things my way a little if I feel something isn’t working right, and usually the art directors are ok with it. But then sometimes after marketing takes a look more changes and guidelines can be set. Sometimes things get reverted back to what they wanted to begin with or sometimes they want things changed in a very different way. When that happens it can be good or bad.

My heart does sink when I’m asked to make a change that I feel is incorrect or technically wrong. It’s ok to push things in a technical sense a little but at a certain point it just looks like the artist doesn’t know what he or she is doing. So, sometimes when I see something on the shelf by an artist that I know is good but has a cover that just looks wacky, I know it’s probably not their fault and was forced into it by marketing or something.

– Do you always/ever read the books?

I do read some of the books, and….surprise!….it’s usually long after I’ve done the cover. These days things move much faster and quite often the book isn’t even finished when I get a commission. The publisher likes to get an image up on Amazon as soon as they can to start the hype. It’s like that with a lot of best sellers.

As with your series, I only got a brief breakdown of the characters and a little bit of the setting.

– What’s the method? Are you working purely on computer these days or are you still messing with that coloured goo – what do they call it? Paint?

In the beginning of my career I worked in oils. When I was in school ( very early 90s) there was no photoshop or computer classes. But now I work in Photoshop like most people in the industry. My method is still the same though as when I was doing them in oil. The rules of painting and drawing still apply. I can tell when a digital artist hasn’t had any traditional art classes.

– One of my readers complained that he doesn’t like photographs of real people on the front of a book, but prefers paintings. Clearly he’s insane. But within his madness lurks a grain of truth, because there is a photorealistic quality about your work. Is that a deliberate choice, or something that’s developed over time?

My work in oil and photoshop looks similar. I’m trained as a traditional realist painter because that was my interest. I love the old masters and their methods and wanted to do work like that. But yes, my work in oil was also very “photo” realistic. You can see a sample here, an old painting from 1996 that I did. I had the guy surrounded by alien captors but they looked pretty silly so I cropped them out on my site.

At a certain point I decided to go digital because it was way more convenient and much much faster. Plus it prints much better and the publisher can work on it right away.

– I think on the most recent cover I notice something in the background not entirely dissimilar to the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome (don’t test me on my fortifications). So I imagine you sometimes use photographic elements and tinker with and build upon them. Does that apply to the characters too? Do you use real-life models?

Yes. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s a combo of photo reference and making stuff up. Because I prefer realism and classical painting I use models and other elements. Sometimes I feel like I’m doing a movie casting when picking a model for the cover. Being an illustrator is very much like being a set director, especially when you are doing your own photography too.

But I do tweak features and poses and lighting and so on to they way I see fit. Almost always I have to do a lot of redrawing on the figure and adding a lot of stuff to the costumes. I work the same way on my backgrounds as a matte painter would. If anyone is interested to seeing this method you can just go to youtube and check that kind of thing out. I still watch lot of those videos to learn some new tricks.

– Clearly faces are a key element in any cover with a character. Do you start with a firm idea in mind of how you want a given figure to look, or is it something that emerges as you work? Are you sometimes surprised yourself by what comes out?

I agree. Faces for me tell a big story. Thats why most of my work is very portrait oriented. Faces and characters are what interests me most in a painting because there is so much going on in an expression and that fascination for me is endless.

I do start with an idea
that is given to me by the publisher and build on it. Usually what I’m given is basic stuff like, age, sex, hair color and length, clothing etc. And sometimes a brief description of the characters personality.
Also, yes at times things emerge as I work on a piece and the end result can surprise you. But I usually have a clear idea in mind for the characters. The backgrounds on the other hand can really change in surprising ways from start to finish.

– A cover consists of more than just your artwork – a designer will tinker with it to some degree, resize, add text, and so on. Are you ever disgusted by what happens to your work when it leaves the easel? And turning it around – have you ever felt a designer has improved on what you gave them?

I don’t want to get in any trouble so I’ll only say: yes and yes.

– Many of my sensitive readers seem upset that the characters aren’t uglier. I’ve tried to explain that a cover is a marketing tool, but they’re not hearing it, Chris. Do you want to give it a go? Why emphasise the glamorous aspects?

Ok. If there was more than one character on a cover I could have made Logen or Glokta uglier. For example if Jezal was on all three paired with either Logen or Glokta the ugliness thing would have worked because you still have an attractive hero type guy on the cover (your big movie star so to speak) to draw in the girls for the sex appeal and some macho type vibe for the guys.

When doing your covers it had been decided that each book would have only one character, and two of them are really ugly. So I thought to myself, in the grand view of the audience and people walking through a bookstore, who is going to pick up a book that has a figure on the cover showing off his missing half rotten teeth, a deformed eye and a skinny broken body? In the fine art world that could make an interesting painting but commercially for people who are looking for an adventure story to catch their eye on a shelf? The book company is in the business of selling books and attractive characters sell. I still tried to keep the vibe of the characters with the covers. Glokta and Logen are dangerous types so I still tried to get that across. I think everyone would have liked Logen better if I made his hair a bit shorter like it is in the book, but with the composition that I had worked out it would have looked flat. The piece needed something blowing to give a little more life to it. After all, it is this mountain type stetting. But I feel, that he still looks tough and dirty with nothing to lose.

With Glokta, I honed in on what he was in his past a bit more but still made him very bitter looking. He was a really handsome guy at one time so those elements will still be noticeable. Uneless he was horribly burned or something. So I hid his eye in shadow and kept his mouth closed and showed him in a light that for a brief second you could see what he once was. If he steps out of that, his deformities will become apparent.

Also I’d like to say, everyone will picture the characters differently in theirs heads from one another. If you give the same job to ten illustrators you will end up with ten completely different covers.

– Clearly, having worked on the First Law, the peak of your career is now behind you. But if there was one other book you could do a cover for, what would it be?

True. All of the other covers that I do now will be meaningless and boring, but if there was still one more that I can do that would have any meaning for me it would be the Elric series. I still love that character. I did do a concept piece of him on my site, but it would still be cool to do a narrative illustration of him.

– Thanks for your time, Chris, and for your hard work on the covers.

Thanks Joe, this was fun. And thanks to your fans for the feedback and critiques. They were fun to read.

Posted in artwork by Joe Abercrombie on February 16th, 2010.

36 comments so far

  • Khan says:

    "who is going to pick up a book that has a figure on the cover showing off his missing half rotten teeth, a deformed eye and a skinny broken body?"

    Me, and a lot of those sensitive readers…

    Seriously though, Your books have been like a breath of fresh air in the fantasy genre and I thought some of the art work would be too. But as technically gifted as the artist is, it has ended up being more about marketing and not so much the characters themselves.

  • Khan,

    Greatest of respect, but that's a bit like saying, "this advertisement seems all about the advertising." Erm, yeah. A cover has to be more about marketing than anything else. That's what it's for.

  • Great interview with some good insights, especially in to the how and why of the characters looks.

    Though I still don't see why Logen couldn't have looked more like Gimli. Gimli's a good looking guy and no woman can resist a beard. 🙂

  • Anonymous says:

    Fantastic blog, as usual, Joe. And a facinating insight into cover design…

    The Glokta illustration was, for me, the 'worst' of the three, looking decidedly less like the vivid character depicted in your books. But reading the thought process that went into it makes perfect sense…

    Still prefer the parchmenty ones, but things make a little more sense now.


    Mark C

  • Alex says:

    However, doesnt advertising need to be at least a little accurate to the product Joe? I mean i think the point people are making is that it will deter people who would like the books and buy all of them, and attract people who may not like them, and may not buy more than one? If you see what I mean?

    At first I didnt think Logen looked Viking enough – ie, a complete absence of fur or chainmail, the jacket he is wearing looks more Tudor. But then I thought about the descriptions in the book and hes usually described as wearing a jacket of some sort, not running around in fur.

    The reasoning behind Glotka does make sense.


  • ColdForged says:

    Great read. It's nice to have such a view into the process. I'd love to have those covers, personally. While the parchment covers are effective, these portraits — to my mind — are excellent, well thought out portrayals of the characters.

    I'll go against the grain. I think Glotka is my personal favorite. Glotka's portrait somehow manages to capture his hauntedness, bitterness, and arrogance in equal parts. Against the backdrop of a burning Dagoska it's just right.


  • IronMan28 says:

    Ummm. Off topic. This is the first time I saw the cover of Before They Are Hanged and I've got to say, the first thing that came to my mind was paranormal fantasy romances. Ick.

    Full moon. Check
    Dark, Sinister background. Check
    Person with his back on profile. Check

    Sure, that kind of cover would've attract the fans of that particular genre, but still. It's atrocious! It's an insult to the book it's representing. T.T

  • Wilfred,
    Why haven't you got a beard, then?

    Mark C,
    I would be disappointed if it wasn't grudging…

    They may not be exactly how some people who've read the books think the characters should look, but I think that's an awfully long way from false advertising. To me these still look like gritty, realistic fantasy, which is what they are. I'd like to think that the books can appeal to a pretty wide audience, from the more literary to the more pulpy, that readers of thrillers, historical fiction, or anything else (I read pretty widely myself) may still find things to like in these books. The whole idea of these treatments is to try and get readers who haven't bought the books yet. And let's not forget that people who love the parchmenty look can still get those books. No one's doing away with those treatments.

    Incidentally, Logen wears a coat. Part of the brief was to avoid making the characters look as if they were tied too specifically to a certain culture or time period.

    Likewise, I like the Glokta best of the three.

  • Rachel says:

    Interesting interview – thanks to you both.

    I think the covers look great, the art is fantastic, the characters expressive …

    But, I still don't think having visual depictions of the characters is ever a good idea. It narrows it too much, throws you out of the imaginative bubble the writing has (hopefully) cocooned you in. No matter how excellent the art is, it's always only going to be one interpretation – and not your own.

    Anyway, just my opinion. Good luck with the new covers and I hope they generate loads more sales for you.

  • Anne says:

    I'm sorry (though not surprised) to learn that publishers think books with ugly people won't sell as well as those with leading-man types. And I'd be interested to see the data they base those decisions off of… because I can't help but suspect that a really good cover featuring a single, really hideously ugly or scarred figure, might catch a potential reader's eye as effectively (if not more so) than a more traditional good looking figure.

  • chris says:

    Nothing wrong with the quality of the art.Its clearly excellent with the Logen pic being the standout.
    However I'd like to see fantasy be enjoyed by a wider section of the reading public and have a feeling covers like these will put people off. Fiction is far to ghettoised at the moment.

  • Anonymous says:

    So did he paint all those Adonises that my gran loved for 'Mills and Boons'?

    I'm sure you've written for some dodgy publications in the past.


  • Derek says:

    pfft. you'll be drawing maps next.

  • Sally says:

    I think I agree with Anne. A book with a hideous character on the front would be really striking and attract the right audience for the type of book it is. They are very vicious books (good thing!!) with people who have a taste for the cynical. Also I am not sure that 'ugly' people on the front cover does detract from the commercial success of a book. Look at Josh Kirby's covers for Terry Pratchett's Discworld. None of the characters depicted on there look exactly pleasant, but Terry Pratchett did just fine, methinks!

    This interview was very interesting to read and I think the covers are good works of art. I do however think they are quite misleading for the type of book it is, but then if you are searching to branch out in your audience, then they get the job done.

    Personally I do prefer the parchment covers, but that's 'cause they're the covers on my book that I own that I fell in love with. I must admit it was the parchment cover for Before They Are Hanged that caught my attention in the first place. It was the blood, I guess!

    x x x

  • Rachel,
    I think there's a lot of truth in what you say, and I've always been nervous about literal representations of characters. But there's a lot of books with literal representations that sell a shed load, so I can only shrug in your direction on that score…

    Anne, Sally,
    I guess there's a reason they call them leading men. It would be difficult to get empirical data since the definition of a good looking person on the the cover is rather subjective, and of course there are many other factors on a cover that might alter its level of appeal, not to mention factors between the covers such as whether the book is any good, and external ones like how its shelved or reviewed. So a proper statistical analysis to demonstrate the commercial success of prettiness on book covers would be tricky.

    Having said that, professional marketing and sales folks at a publisher do this a lot, and they have a pretty well informed (if not strictly objective) notion of what readers and booksellers will pick up or stock. Publishers take this stuff pretty seriously, as do booksellers. Of course there are going to be all kinds of off-beat covers that might sell for all kinds of reasons. Often there's a trade off to be made between trying to make a book stand out and trying to make it fit in. But the notion that (relatively) good-looking people are good for selling stuff is hardly controversial. You guys may be above such petty concerns, but I'm not sure humantiy is, overall.

    Not sure I agree with you that fiction is too ghettoised. I think it's about as ghettoised as makes commercial sense, which after all is the point of splitting it into genres in the first place. But if you want a look that's less overtly fantasy, I'd say the parchmenty covers have already done, and continue to do that admirably.

    Are you on crack again? C'mon, man, I thought you beat that shit.

    I spent half of the week before last drawing maps for the cover of the Heroes, as it happens…

  • Yulwei says:

    My dislike of the covers is being crushed by the relentless logic of both you and the artist. I wouldn't buy them myself but I can see why they were designed that way.

  • Rob Barrett says:

    Well, I actually like all three, and I think Chris's reasoning for the choices he made with the Glokta cover are dead on–after all, Glokta was once just like Jezal.

    I do prefer the Logen cover the most–Chris's art really pops where the eyes are concerned.

  • Tyson says:

    I agree with Anne's comment. Walking through a bookstore and looking at the covers trying to decide which ones to pick up is an effort in futility. They all look the same. A publisher with the guts to publish a book with some fugly mothers on the cover would definitely catch my eye and make me wonder what the book had to offer and why they chose to market it that way.

  • Matt says:

    Joe, I wouldn't worry all that much about all the critisism that your recieving from the veteran fans, I mean they've already bought your books, right?

    The new covers will attract new readers, like they are meant to do. If marketing was about selling products to people who have already bought the product, well then I'd be a bit pissed about the covers.


  • Brushy says:

    Photoshop? I have to admit, I am a wee bit disappointed. But of course, I understand that it is much easier, and still a lot of work and great art, to create a book-cover not on an easel with paint brushes and paint. But still … the romantic feel is gone with the wind; sniffle. (Dear Mr McGrath, I like the covers, they are great). My favourite one is Logen (he is dangerous, wild and very sexy looking, all at the same time).
    But I hope that Mr. Supercrombie will not tell as one day. Well, I used to write my books by myself, but nowadays my computer writes them for me. I only design the idea.
    And I do not like Ebooks. I love to hold a real book in my hands, with a great cover at the front.

  • Yulwei,
    Resistance is futile, and as Matt points out, if you've already bought the books, you're not the target…

    Quite so.

    Come now, the computer is merely a tool to produce the image. Surely the equivalent would be if I was to admit that I no longer used a quill pen, but had switched over to a word processor. You may be horrified to learn that I've actually been using Microsoft Word the whole time…

  • Matija says:

    I guess it's a question of art versus industry.
    I, as a customer, don't care how much book copies are sold, but am only interested in getting an object that conforms to my artistic taste as much as possible – primarily the content, but a good cover is a bonus.
    Saying that, I don't blame Joe and his publisher to make as much money out of it as they can. It's on their artistic consciousnesses (those who have them), not mine.
    So I'm happy I bought the books with their original covers. They're art, and the new ones are kitsch. Sorry.

  • JenMo says:

    Cool interview. The new covers are more fantasy-ish, but not cheesy fantasy that I always glaze over. I do most of my book buying on Amazon, and from the recommended reading list. I think these covers would stand out to me, while scrolling, as much as the parchmenty covers did. They're still gritty and unique.

  • Matija,
    I think it's a question of art and industry collaborating with the entirely noble goal of shifting units.

    I, as a writer, care deeply about how many books I sell, not just because of the money, though I'm not turning it down, but more importantly because as a writer I want my books to be as widely read as possible, and because good sales lead to better marketing budgets, to better shelving, to better word of mouth, to more resources for covers and promotion, to better sales, to more time for me to write, to better books, to better word of mouth, to more sales, and so on. Conversely, poor sales lead to me being ignored by booksellers, having to work other jobs to make ends meet, publishing less often and with less impact, getting less resources for marketing and publicity, being invisible to readers who might like my work, being ignored by booksellers more, and ultimately being dropped by my publisher and my books no longer being available. So you see that though many of these processes are invisible to you, they are in fact of enormous importance to the reader. The writers you enjoy will disappear from the shelves if they don't sell. And you may miss out on rafts of stuff you'd love simply because it never sold well enough to reach your notice. This is why it's nice if a cover is lovely, but it's of minor importance compared to whether it sells the book. Doesn't mean a given cover can't do both, of course. I think both the parchmenty covers and these ones are artistically successful, the parchmenty ones are already commercially successful, and I very much hope these will be too. We shall see.

    I wouldn't say these are kitschy at all, I'd say they're commercial, which is a very different, though related thing. I see no shame in desiring that your books should be as widely read as possible. But if these covers appealled to the exact same people as the parchmenty ones, they'd already have failed. Pardon me, but my artistic conscience is clear.

  • I'm not man enough to wear a beard.

    Plus my wife tells me I can't have a nice bushy beard. Case in point I guess.

  • Khan says:


    "This is why it's nice if a cover is lovely, but it's of minor importance compared to whether it sells the book."

    I think that pretty much covers everything I wanted to know.

    Can I ask you an off topic question, Joe? No harm in trying I guess. Any plans to make your books into films?

  • chris says:

    It should be noted that the Twilight series of books have very aesthetically pleasing covers.
    As for whats between them…………Oh dear.Possibly I'm putting too much importance on the covers and not the juicy stuff inside.
    Hmmmmm Joe Abercrombie writes Twilight fan fiction. Now theres a thought.

    It may be pandering to peoples pretensions/snobbery but I think the adult covers of Harry Potter was a good iea.(As well as putting them in the general fiction areas of the shops.

  • Anonymous says:

    Good stuff! But are there plans to have Chris do the MMP-cover for BSC in roughly the same style?

    ~Erik, NL

  • Anonymous says:

    Hmm… don't know about your feelings on the cover Joe. Marketing 'grit' instead of 'glamor' seems to work pretty well if you know how to do the 'grit' right. Frank Frazetta and Justin Sweet come to mind.

    I don't like the new covers either, and to be completely honest, if I didn't own the books prior to these covers, they may be enough to turn me off of it altogether, as they are much more akin to Fabio with a shirt and sword than Deathdealer.

    Love the books though, good job!

  • Peta Freestone says:


    As an aspiring author (groan, yes another one of those wretches), I just wanted to thank you for putting this kind of convo out there. I personally like both covers, though what I've enjoyed more is the insight you give us mere mortals into the pointy end of the publishing game. Obviously there are quite a few successful authors who wax lyrical on the web about their experiences these days, but you tend to give us a taste of the real rather than the usual Care Bear version (crud, I'm showing my age there, child of the 80s…).

    So, thanks. No really, thanks.


  • Kahless says:

    Interesting interview and nice to have some insight to what the artist was thinking and how he arrived at the pictures he did.

    I like both the parchment and picture versions, of the latter Luthar is my favorite even though the character himself is my least favorite, I think it captures everything about him perfectly.

    One thing I've only just noticed about Logan, his nose is straight yet it's always described as having been broken several times and so is bent and crooked.

  • Stephen says:

    I like the covers quite a bit. It is not how I pictured the characters, but I respect the artist's take and the logic behind them. Especially Glotka's. I really liked his reasoning.

    What I find interesting about all this was that the plain parchment cover of "The Blade Itself" was what got me to pick it up in the first place, because it stood out on the shelf from all the other "more typical" covers. Of course, as it has been said already, I own the books. I am not the target audience for these covers.

    Great interview!

  • Gemma Rose says:

    First of all, Joe, I love your books. They are such a refreshing change from other fantasy stories where the adventure is romanticised (where no one ever needs the toilet and battle is strangely mess free), I love the raw and grotesque depictions you use. It is very real. I am a university student studying creative writing and your books have been an inspiration for me. The tone of your books are unique and you are brilliant with characterisation. I really do aspire to be able to write like that.

    I found the interview very enlightening. It was a good insight into why new covers are created and the sort of process you go through.

    I have to say that even though the new covers are really good, I still prefer the old ones, as I felt it made the book more mysterious and alluring. Having characters on the front spoils it for me as you then get that image of the character in your head instead of your own.


  • Ashootingstar says:

    Can I admit that I did not have that image of Logen in my head. I didn't imagine him good looking. On the cover he looks pretty good. Slightly disappointed. I had a different picture of Jezal too.
    As for the covers, I really don't care. I bought the first book from a recommendation of I am waiting for the next SOIF to come out, and well…waiting a long time. So I have now read all your books and will be patiently waiting for the next. 🙂 Time to find another series. I don't normally judge a book by its cover, but what is written on the back is important.

  • radthorne says:

    On the subject of whom the covers are intended to appeal to, I would refer you to this excellent blog entry by Charles Stross:

    And scroll down to point 9. Book design, cover design, front and back flap copy, and cover artwork. Among the points Charles makes is this: "The goal of book design is to motivate shoppers unfamiliar with the author to pick the book up. Nothing more and nothing less. (Retail psychology tells us that shoppers who handle a product are more likely to buy it. Existing loyal fans will buy it anyway. So the book design is aimed at appealing to new readers.)" As someone who used to do marketing (before succumbing to author disease), that is a point I completely agree with. So many of Joe's already loyal fans posting here are not the audience for these new covers – they're going after people who are not posting here, and who didn't buy the books based on the original covers.

  • phil says:

    Hi joe i think the covers are great es..the cripple ha everyone thinks he looks like a monster cos he is scared and murders slowly ha..fin the herios 2week ago brutal stuff and funny to. aaah pour black dow .keep um comeing joe
    named men and all. phil

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