One of the high points of my career as an editor was the time I spent working with illustrators on a series of children’s books back in the late 90s. I wrote the stories and then they brought them to life. Though the deadlines were tight, it was amazing to sit in the same office with these guys as my words and art suggestions migrated from rough thumbnail sketches to inks to color-coded digital files to printed books. It’s been 14 years since I worked on the project, but I still read the books to my son and still feel the satisfaction that sprang from that team effort so long ago.
One of the illustrators on that team was Wayne Miller. A master with pen and ink, Wayne also decided to leap into color and then digital painting. I still have a poster-sized print of his on my wall—an eerie depiction of Father Time as a tree (right).
In this age where authors are encouraged to go it alone, it’s important to remember that self-publishing still requires a team, and in addition to a good editor, an experienced cover designer/illustrator like Wayne is a must-have. Readers do judge books by their covers.
I had a chance to catch up with Wayne and pick his illustrator brain on how cover illustration has changed in this age of e-books and self-publishing. I also asked him to explain what the process is like from concept to glossy cover (or thumbnail as is the case if you go the Amazon route).
Can you briefly describe how you initially broke into publishing?
Wayne: My first published work appeared in Deathrealm magazine in 1995. I was working in pen and ink at the time and was scared to death of color work (not to mention painting!). During the next five years, I published hundreds of black-and-white ink works for various magazines, small-press book publishers, and role-playing game manuals.
By the time 2000 rolled around, life had reared its head and events took me away from freelancing. It was not until 2008 that I had work published again, but during the hiatus I had learned to paint, and was confident with the use of color in my illustration work. I have been published steadily since then.
You made the transition to digital painting without your work looking as if it was created on a computer. Are you enjoying this new medium and has it made easier for you to work with publishers?
Wayne: I made the move as a means to work more quickly, cleanly, and remove the always problematic scanning of original paintings for printing. I was actually spending a few hours digitally retouching each image to make it look acceptable after scanning. It was a natural progression to cut out the traditional stage, and I have enjoyed playing in the digital realm immensely.
As far as working with publishers goes, it hasn’t had an effect that I can discern, except to make getting the work from canvas to client as fast as uploading a file. Now I get to work to the last minute on a deadline…Not that that ever happens, of course!
Can you talk about the process of creating a cover from concept to completed product? How do you start, and does the author or writer ever have much input?
Wayne: My process begins with reading the manuscript of the story or novel (or a short description from the publisher, to save time), and creating a few monochrome concept paintings that capture my ideas. I love working with authors, as they know what they envisioned when they penned their work, and many times their input really helps an image sing. Only on rare occasions have I had problems working with authors, thankfully. From the concept stage, one image is chosen to take to a full painting. I’m happy most of my final paintings have been soundly approved!
Wayne: From conception to final product, usually about a week, though I’ve worked faster on occasion. Ideally, a more comfortable lead time is preferable, as I work on multiple projects at once to keep my business viable.
Are there things you would like editors and authors to keep in mind when they make art suggestions?
Wayne: I’ve found that working with writers who speak visually and understand a visual mindset is a true pleasure. Even more so when I can supply a fast concept painting and they “get” my explanation of what I have in mind for the final.
Some writers I work with are less visually minded, so there is more explanation, and frequently, either the author or I provide examples of other works to give an idea of what we are trying to get across. Quite often, the editors bridge the gap between author and artist if needed. From my end, I always strive to be easy to work with and keep in touch throughout a project so things flow smoothly.
You work mostly in the sci-fi/fantasy and horror genres, which each have their own distinct look and feel. What are some of the basic rules for creating a cover in those genres and can you describe a time when you felt that you had some success breaking those rules?
Wayne: I’ve always been a fan of horror and sci-fi, but never really pursued the genre. I wanted fantasy a la Dungeons and Dragons. However, I think that first black-and-white job for Deathrealm put me on the horror path that has kept me going for years now. I love the genre, but I’m not a fan of really gory imagery. The magic moment for horror is the moment just before the blood and gore, so that’s where I concentrate my efforts for book covers.
More and more I’m enjoying sci-fi work because it’s a nice departure from horror, and the possibilities are endless, literally. While horror dwells in the negative, sci-fi can bridge the gap into positive.
Another genre I intend to explore is young adult. I love to walk through the YA shelves at bookstores and enjoy the covers. Ultimately, I see that genre as my future, because once again, the possibilities are endless, and the audience is huge. I can dabble in horror, sci-fi, and fantasy all at once with YA and still maintain some fun and innocence. My biggest hurdle is to show YA publishers that I actually can do less frightening stuff, so they will hire me!
As far as breaking the rules of genre, I think I do that with most every project. With any job, I try not to use the trite and overused tropes that come with genre. That in itself is a tiny rebellion, but beyond that, I’m not one for horrible graphic violence or blood, which is a standard for horror. One of the most horrific projects I have done—which creeped even me out—was still tame next to what was depicted in the novel. All that being said, I am a realist when it comes to the business of illustration, so I don’t turn away work by prejudging a client, and I always do my best to represent their work with my own.
Now with the rise of e-books, many publishers are creating covers that reduce easily to thumbnail size. Will this affect your work since so much of it is highly detailed?
Wayne: To be honest, that hasn’t been an issue. While my work is detailed, I’ve always worked to make the image read clearly at a glance, which serves the double purpose of making an image read well at small size. More and more, I’m working at print size from the start, so I remove the temptation to throw in more detail that the image can handle (it is very easy to do so digitally, where one can zoom to crazy levels). Additionally, it saves time working on a smaller canvas, which is becoming very important as I am building more and more clients and needing to produce faster to meet multiple deadlines.
Do you have any say in the font treatments for your covers?
Wayne: Generally, no. Most clients provide design in house for their covers, so a high-res file is all they need from me. It is a surprise (most of the time good) when I see one of my covers finalized. A few times a client has asked for my design services on a cover as well, which I enjoy. That is something I treat as an additional service, as the time investment for design can rival the painting itself.
Are you getting more requests from self-published authors to create covers?
Wayne: Definitely. The e-book market has opened the door to many self publishers, and I have done several. Most of the time, they find me through Facebook, DeviantArt, or Kindleboards, where I keep my presence updated as much as possible.
What has your experience been like working with these authors?
The biggest issue I’ve found is the ability of self publishers to pay a working rate for illustration work. Many are individual authors who have a dream, but not deep pockets. With such clients, the negotiations for price are usually much more intense, and on several occasions I have lost projects because they would not meet even a reduced rate. I imagine that is both good and bad. On one hand, I hate to lose potential clients, but on the other, some jobs are just not cost effective.
With the industry changing so much and so fast, where do you hope to see yourself in 10 years?
Wayne: With the advent of digital working environments, high-end schools for illustration and video-game art, and the omnipresence of 3D illustration, I’m certainly staking my claim on the backside of the curve. What I’m doing is staying mindful of the curve, and striving to improve my skills and keep my produced work looking current. I’m also trying to maintain a strong published presence in the industry.
I’m incorporating 3D workflow into my work with Google Sketchup, giving me the value of solid perspective without having to shift fully into a 3D workflow, which would involve a sizable investment in schooling, software, and equipment. I see 2D illustration remaining a viable career choice as long as publishers need cover or interior imagery for their products, and my work suits the needs of a percentage of those publishers. If I’m still working as a full-time illustrator in 10 years, I will be truly blessed and very happy that I’ve had such a run! I certainly plan do all I can to make that happen.
Thanks, Wayne! If you’d like to learn more about Wayne Miller’s work, check out http://www.mwaynemiller.com.