Monday, 11 April 2016

Battleaxe (book cover), gouche and colour pencil on paper, about 1995

Following a request to show & discuss some early work, here is my first commercial illustration job, a cover illustration for the fantasy novel Battleaxe by Sara Douglass. I was about 21 at the time, mostly unknown and unemployed, so it was a very important assignment.

I'd been trying to get work at the time as a freelancer, legging my folio around and sending samples by post to publishers (this being a largely pre-digital time – much easier now). I'd had some black and white illustrations published in small-press SF magazines, but nothing you could pay rent with, so I was keen to get something more commercial. This was surprisingly hard as an unknown artist, as I'm sure many of you know. The publisher already knew of my work, but (as I heard from an insider) did not believe I was competent enough to paint a wraparound cover, because I'd never been offered one before - that old chestnut! 

However this novel, Battleaxe, had already been published a year previously and become very popular. Sara Douglass disliked the original cover – rightly so, it was a very cliched, super-buff he-man figure on horseback – and really pressed for a new artist to have a go. She also happened to be visiting an SF convention in Perth, where I had a small exhibition of some personal paintings (a few in colour) and was impressed by my work. Apparently she then pressured the publisher into giving me the assignment. The argument was this: if I screwed up, they already had a cover to fall back on, so no risk. They would only pay on acceptance ($1,500 - not much even in 1995, but as good as I could hope for) otherwise a modest kill fee if it fell through.

So I got the job. I read the novel (I'm not a big fantasy reader but I knew the genre well enough) went to my local suburban newsagent to study newly released fantasy novel covers on their rotating rack, trying to figure out how to do them, what composition and style and so on. I then went to the local library and borrowed a book about polo, figuring this was good visual reference for 'swordsmen on horseback', which the publisher insisted I paint; they were very specific in their brief, about the landscape and everything, taking no chances! I spent about two weeks painting this image, allowing space for title, spine and back blurb, sent it over, and they all loved it. 

They immediately asked me to do cover art for sequel volumes, which I did happily. What a difference in attitude! I subsequently illustrated many covers for Sara, and this was an important source of income at the time, given that I was also working on picture books such as The Rabbits and The Lost Thing, which generated next to no money, at least not until much later on. So I have a lot to thank both Sara and this publisher for. I did manage to raise my price over time, by the way, just by polite request.

What did I learn from this? The trick was winning people's confidence, and getting an outside referral. That is, none of my own approaches to this publisher worked even though my folio was very strong, it was an established author's insistence that allowed me to get a foot through the door, backed by a good word from a more professional illustrator who knew me and freelanced for the same company, who vouched that I always met my deadlines in the small-press world. A similar thing happened with my first children's book The Stray Cat, and picture book The Viewer: authors (Steven Paulsen and Gary Crew) who requested my work specifically, where the publisher had otherwise overlooked it, or were unsure of my abilities.

I think it's a lot easier these days with online exposure and communication, but either way a social network is important, friendship with like-minded creators. I think it would have also helped a lot if I visited the publisher in person, but at the time I lived 3,000km away and couldn't easily afford to travel. I generally encourage new illustrators to try and meet with publishers if they can, it does seem to make a big difference. Of course, you have to be good at what you do, but often that's not enough for people to really see what it is you are doing.


  1. very nice work and interestig article. ew

  2. This was a great read! And a really different art from what is now seen by you. An illustrator friend told a story alike. She coincidently met an author and he then decided she should illustrate his books. Really the best thing to happen!

  3. Yes, this is often how projects come about, likeminded writers and illustrators meeting. Interesting footnote: some publishers discourage, even block, communication between writers and artist on projects, I'm sure they have their reasons, I'm just not sure what they are! One reason I stopped doing covers was I found the process a little frustrating, and the art form not highly respected by sales and marketing departments.

  4. Whoa, Thanks, Mr. Tan! :D

    The thing that strikes me the most is that at that time you were already working on The Rabbits and The Lost Thing! They were published only after quite some time. If I may ask, how did that work out for you? You worked on them as personal projects while earning for this kind of cover illustration?

    And, most of all, what's your take on how you express graphically? I mean, I avoid using the term ≪style≫ superficially as I don't agree with that and I read you were somewhat against it on some other post on the blog, but it's remarkable that you change so much of your "graphic language" throughout your stories – even when you work on them simultaneously!

    Taken that you went to research other books, it seems you are very aware of this public/market aspect. Of course, by that time, I think you didn't want to take any chances, but looking back on it, could you elaborate on how you choose how to express graphically? I mean, today you would have much, much more freedom: would you choose the same way to paint?

  5. Those are all good questions, hard to answer as a lot of this was long ago. I'm ambivalent about the idea of style, I do refer to it a lot, but more as an outcome than an objective, if you know what I mean. Best not to be too self conscious about it. You are right with this cover, and other jobs, it's almost like forgery or imitation, for the clients needs. I could never do it all the time, fun but unadventurous, hence the picture books and other personal painting. I also retain copyright for the latter, which is valuable long term (I sold copyright on the covers, only reproducing them here because nobody would care anymore!). I've always had two jobs: commercial and personal, one to support the other, at least until the other actually gets commercially viable - lucky for me that happened, but it did take a long time.

    Would I paint the same way again, choose this style of some covers? Yes, if the idea called for it. But again, even if I tried it would turn out differently. Style picks you, more than the other way around I think, at least in the long term.


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