Swords & Sorcery, Screens & Pixel Logic
June 18, 2013 § 4 Comments
A few months ago, I was contacted by Open Road Integrated Media—a New York-based digital publisher and multimedia content company—to design and illustrate some covers for e-books by two well-established fantasy and science fiction authors.
Four of these books, which were originally published in printed form in the 1980s, were written by Jane Yolen; a prolific wordsmith with scores of eclectic narratives and multiple accolades to her credit, including the Nebula and World Fantasy awards, as well as the Caldecott Medal.
It was a refreshing challenge to work on these covers, since I knew very little about science fiction and fantasy before this assignment came along. Being an avid comics reader while I was growing up, I became familiar with the work of some esteemed illustrators of the sword & sorcery genre like Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, and I even had some exposure to the spaceships and Martians of Frank Kelly Freas (who I knew through his terrific covers and ad parodies for some 1960s issues of MAD Magazine that my dad had). However, these fleeting acquaintances came only through the casual overlapping of these artists with the world of word bubbles and leaping superheroes.
As much as I admired those lavishly rendered vignettes populated by dragons, robots, and scantily dressed women, it’s something I’d rather let the real pros handle. My own approach to this assignment (and to book covers in general) does not differ greatly from my take on poster design: the more simple and bold the graphics are, the more immediate and direct their impact.
And so, to officially embrace this new era in book publishing—and to prove to the gods of pixels that I have nothing against them—I temporarily put my brushes and paints aside while surrendering to the slightly perverse allure of Photoshop (which, it should be noted, I usually use for scanning and minor retouching). Except for some “special effects” and all of the typography (which were indeed rendered on-screen), I actually drew most of the elements and textures that you see in these covers by hand. These were then scanned in, composed together and colored digitally.
Working with the computer startlingly dissipates all notions of an “original” drawing, since there is no “finished artwork” per se; any image can be dismantled, reconstructed, and reinvented with a few clicks on the mouse. In the case of these covers, they were all assembled from “scraps”, given that all the elements were drawn separately and then altered significantly on-screen.
Truth be told, this new way of working answered to pressing time constrains as much as it mirrored my approach to graphic design. I only had a few weeks to complete all four covers and make some necessary revisions, and the computer allowed me the luxury of working quickly and confidently. Art director Andrea C. Uva, the Open Road editors, and Ms. Yolen herself were very receptive to the fruits of labor, only asking for minor changes once the initial visual direction and typographic treatments were agreed on.
I unfortunately didn’t have the chance to read these books before I worked on their covers (again, those pesky deadline bells), but the art director did send me detailed briefs for each book. Cards of Grief deals with the futuristic discovery of a planet whose habitants regard grieving as an art, with no knowledge of love as an emotion; Merlin’s Booke offers tales that attempt to uncover the mysterious origins and the various ventures of the sage magician from the court of King Arthur; Sister Emily’s Lightship presents re-imaginings of folk tales, featuring one fable dealing with reclusive poet Emily Dickinson and her unlikely source of inspiration; and as its title suggests, Dragonfield And Other Stories compiles stories and poems about dragons, kings, mermaids, and bards, all told from an imaginative, universal perspective.
These titles were just released digitally today, and are currently available through Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, and various other online booksellers. In the coming weeks, I’ll post five more covers I did for Open Road, once those e-books are released early next month.