Sunday, April 11, 2010

Interview with cover artist Cathleen Elliott, part 1

This is Cathleen Elliott - aka girl genius - aka the creator of the Dreaming Anastasia cover - aka the creator of the soon to be revealed Haunted cover. Trust me when I say, this woman rocks!
Cathleen took time out of her busy artist/designer/baker/sculptor/every other creative endeavor known schedule to let me interview her about her creative process. It's beyond fascinating. During the next few days, we'll get to see how she thinks, works, and creates. She pulls back the veil on how she takes her image of a novel and works it into a cover and how she uses raw images and changes them into what we'll eventually see on a book. Very cool. She even shows us the REAL Ethan - who let me say is just as hot as the cover Ethan and the fictional Ethan and the Ethan that was in my head when I wrote. I can hardly wait for you to see!
So let's begin with a few questions and answers today. And then tomorrow - pictures.
1. So, Cathleen, tell us about you. What is your art background? How did you get into the business of cover design? Was it a typical journey?

I have a Fine Art degree (BFA) with an emphasis in Graphic Design from, a very small school in Ohio - Ohio University. I actually don’t think there is a standard path for book designers. My training was intense, but it was in all forms of print design. It was the summer I spent at school taking extra classes in paper making, print making, book binding and letter press that really opened my eyes to books. I combined the skills of the four classes and started making my own little books. Hand bound and printed. Paper made by me, type set by me (letterpress), die cuts and embossing by hand etc. I was in love, and I swore I’d never use a computer!! Ha. In fact, I had so little money that I hand painted most of my projects. Color prints were expensive! When I interviewed for my first job one guy commented on my “hand skills” and said “Wow, you could have gotten
a job 30 years ago.” I guess that was a compliment?

2. Do you do other types of art?

I love oil painting and drawing. I have done stained glass, photography, print making, pottery and I enjoy Sculpture in all mediums. I’ll try anything and I do anything I can to keep my hands busy. I cook, I sew, I knit, I fix things constantly around the house...

3. When you’re creating a cover for a book, what exactly is your process? Do you read the entire book? Part of the book?

Typically, I start by reading as much of the book as I can. One trick is to read the beginning, middle and end. I read as much as I need to - This can vary from project to project, depending on the subject matter and time constraints. I am also a good skimmer.

Does the publisher give you certain parameters?

I am given a design brief. It lists basic information, the trim size of the book, cover text and a blurb about the story (usually from the Amazon description, or the back cover copy) It also lists the competing books.

What exactly are you looking for?

When I am reading I am looking for the author’s tone. I try to get in their head and get a sense of what they think of the book. Then I imagine myself as someone from the audience picking the cover up off the shelf. What are the things that attract this demographic? What is the mood of the potential reader? What books sit next to this book and why does someone pick this one up? I try and find a “moment” or a visual in the story I can leap from. Something that triggers me. Most times I wind up creating a general sense of many moments in the story that speak to me. My desired outcome, which can be extremely tricky, is: -
- To have the author say “That’s what I pictured”.
- To have the publisher or Barnes and Noble representative say “That cover will sell”.
-To have the end reader, who is blind to all of the above, just look at the cover and feel like it depicts a world that they want to escape into. I like to say “there are a lot of voices in my head as I work and I have to listen to them all equally.” The publisher is my client, but I sincerely hope I deliver for everyone involved. The best way to sum it up: when I work I am not thinking it’s my job to make a pretty picture. I am not motivated by self interest or just impressing my fellow designers (although that would be nice bonus).

4. Exactly how do you create covers anyway? Do you use stock photos? Take actual photos with models? Draw or paint? At what stage do you show your ideas to the publishing house?

After I’m done reading and looking over my brief, I start to research. That is sometimes the longest part of my process. Research includes learning about the audience, what they wear, what they like, what they read. It includes sifting through hundreds of photos and illustrations online. I use stock photos mainly for budget and time constraints. The images that appear on book covers are usually the product of very careful shoots from skilled photographers. Ideally, we would all love to hire a photographer, the model and direct the shoot. So that our images are exactly what we envision. Often, we find ourselves with the seemingly daunting task of finding “The right girl, at the right age, in the right dress, the right lighting and time period.” It can be challenging. So, that’s why a lot of manipulation happens. Changing hair color, dresses, coloration or switching out backgrounds. It’s funny, I can grumble in my head as I work, thinking “Oh, I’ll never find it.” Then at the same time, I love it. I find that huge limitation of needing to use “what’s out there” can lead to some very creative solutions!

I start every job sketching my ideas on paper. I also return to paper if I get stuck on the computer. Once I have moved the computer most of the “painting” and “drawing” happens in Photoshop and Illustrator. When I’m designing I have to keep in mind that meeting room and what they are going to say about what I have done! I REALLY want to help my Art Director get a quick approval! So, I have to be organic, creative and remember my responsibility to get an approved cover. Sometimes, I get an approval on the first round. That always feels good. On average though, a selected direction comes out of the first round and is then tweaked or revised for 2-3 rounds. I also like to try and hand projects in a little early if I can. That always helps to hit deadlines. The turnaround for projects can be anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks. I would say that 1 week is my average time line for the first round of designs. I am always asked to give 3 unique ideas, but I usually hand in more like 5. Or 3 unique, with some variations. I like to give as many distinct options as I can, in order to show different moods of the book.

1 comment:

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Fascinating! I always wondered what the process of cover design was like!

Anxiously waiting the big reveal ...