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:
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.