I was lucky enough to win a competition recently. The prize: a cover for an ebook created by artist and writer, Les Petersen. I’m in the process of compiling a special edition of my Witch Honour and Witch Faith novels, complete with extra material. To your right you’ll see the magnificent cover Les created for the book.
I’m delighted with the result, and particularly with the different elements of the two novels he’s managed to weave into the cover without clutter. The picture has a lovely balance and he’s captured those two characters very well.
Les had created cover art for a lot of Australian writers, including Ian Irvine, Karen Miller, Trudy Canavan, Isobelle Carmody, Tony Shillitoe and Jennifer Fallon, so I feel especially chuffed to have my own Les Petersen cover!
Cover art is a specialist skill, of course. We’ve all been won over by lovely covers, or been disappointed by covers we didn’t think captured the essence of a favourite novel. I decided to ask Les about the process of creating good covers, and some other things about his own work.
Les has a special offer for people who need cover art either for their ebooks or their published-on-paper books. More about that at the end, though.
Les's cover of The Stone Key by Isobelle Carmody from her Obernewtyn series. (Design by Cathy Larsen of the Penguin Group)
You captured the essence of my two Witch books very impressively for the cover of The Witches of Tyne. How do you go about absorbing and synthesising someone’s novel to achieve that?
It’s a kind of magic. I suppose synthesising someone’s novel is like capturing the images that form in your mind when you read books. You hear the writer’s voice and it creates a texture of a story: best described as the internal movie that plays in your daydreaming mind. Then it becomes a purely mechanical action of putting together an image that gets as close to that movie as you can.
All illustrators have a personal visual repertoire and style/language they use, an arrangement of symbols and parts of symbols that go up to make the whole image, which they feel more than see in the beginning. So, it’s taking that personal repertoire, challenging your skill in using it, using a few references to help make sense of the vague ideas you have, and making the image work as best it can to fit the story.
Or, if you prefer a simpler explanation – “it’s magic!”
A lot of your cover art seems to be for fantasy or SF books. Do you prefer to create art for those genres? What other genres do you work in? Is there a genre you’d like to do art for – crime, westerns or romance for example, that you haven’t done yet?
I’ve been lucky to work in the fantasy genre, with a smattering of sci-fi as well – and they tend to be the kinds of commissions that come my way.
I’d work in any genre, except maybe overtly romantic images with bare-chested men and frocked women. That doesn’t challenge the image creation enough when you are restricted to a very narrow visual language. Horror also doesn’t interest me that much though I have done a few. My preferred direction would be to do more relaxed, “childish” images, like the cover I did for Ford Street. James Roy’s The Gimlet Eye.
You’re a writer as well as an artist. Has that influenced your approach to designing covers?
What an interesting question! At first I was willing to say the act of writing hasn’t really influenced the style of image I create, but on reflection, as we all know, both writing and image making are ways of telling stories. All images have narratives, or should, IMHO, so I suppose the construction of an image includes beats or suggestions of the story you are illustrating.
You should be able to look into the image and see details that suggest plot points. Insufficient image details make it all feel slick, I suppose – and maybe that’s the difference between design and illustration. Both look interesting, but one tells you more. Or maybe I’m getting to wrapped up in answering the question…let’s move on.
What do you think is the essence of a good cover?
Ok, I’ve spoken about the narrative of a cover, and that’s important. Also, there are the craft-based requirements: composition, colour harmony, style etc. And all publishing houses have their own ‘livery’ (for want of a word), but the difference between a good cover and a bad cover probably is ‘intrigue’. The art of being able to draw a reader into picking up the book off the shelf. If the marketing team have done their job well, the customer will buy the book. How do you create intrigue in a design. Ummmm. My, doesn’t the sky look wonderful today!
I know you are interested in animation. Who would be your favourite animation houses?
Les's Firebug, from his portfolio work.
It’s hard to go past the work coming out of Pixar, which have great story lines and wonderful character designs, but the ones that I am continually drawn to are Studio Ghibli’s collection – magical to look at and wonderful stories.
Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is also superb (I’ve watched that over and over again) and as he’s a gob-smacking amazing illustrator, I’d almost say he’s the top.
However, if I was to choose just one animator to wave the flag for, it would be Jonathan Nix and his inspiringly beautiful work, with evocatively whimsical music. I recommend his The Missing Key.
For the tech-heads – what are your favoured tools for creating cover art?
Photoshop. Smith Micro’s Poser for figure marquettes, Vue. And a Wacom Tablet to draw with. BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY pencil and paper. Without using those, for me the rest is distracting and I end up with rubbish.
Les's cover for the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild's anthology, Outcast. (2006)
Les has very kindly offered a special rate to readers of my blog who need cover art for their e-book or print book.
Until the end of June 2012, you can commission Les for an e-book cover for $300. If you want the full works with e-book, high res and small images suitable for print as well as digital, he’s offering the special price of $1200.
If you are interested in taking Les up on this generous offer (the prices are significantly less than his usual charges) email me on email@example.com with the subject line Les Petersen and I’ll get you two beautiful kids together.
See more of Les’s work at his website.