FX Magazine Interview, circa 2009

With reference to your book illustration commissions - how does the process work? Do the publishers come to you with quite a specific idea or does it all come from you? And do you read the book's in their entirety or just get an idea of the plot?

I have been commissioned to paint book covers almost since I was set loose from art school in 1976. For the most part, fantasy and science fiction titles were my venue. Before I go into my specific process, I thought I would provide some observations as background. Some general information about the book publishing arena, drawn from my experience, might be helpful to those unfamiliar with this form of art commission.

To enter the area of book cover work, the artist must be proficient. Then, seek out publishing venues that produce the style and/or subject matter that the artist creates. Some publishers have a standardized approach others seem to be risk takers with regard to artistic styles. If the artist's work does not relate to the products the publisher is marketing, then a job is not likely to be forth coming from that quarter. Not that it can’t happen. Sometimes just being at the right place at the right time with the right work gets the job. It is hard to plan for that kind of luck and that is where persistence is important. Being at the door with a unique portfolio when, on the other side of that door, there is an employer looking for something really good and different, is the nature of the business and how making a go of it begins. That is why it is important to always have something you really like to do in your representative works, that you feel is really your inpidual expression. The artist is a creative a talent and that is the reason a publisher hires them.

Some artists prefer to work with agents to develop clients. Others self promote in a variety of ways. The process of getting art onto a cover has evolved since when I began to work at New York City publishing houses. The industry has changed, but some things stay the same. The publishing houses still want to sell products. At the time I was introduced into the market, Frank Frazetta’s covers were selling books effectively. This opened the door to a lot of other publishers looking to get sales from that marketing presentation. They encouraged a lot of Frazetta influences into their cover art. They looked for books that might be similar in appeal to those by Robert E. Howard and introduced them into their lines. They were receptive to artists who could hook a reader’s imagination like Frazetta’s cover art had. This is still true in today’s market. A best selling book is going to spawn look alikes. Similar cover treatments or fashions are part of a marketing plan to achieve predictable sales. A trend that is successful will be analyzed to see what worked. If cover art of a certain nature seemed to help the sales, then the art directors are influenced to work with the illustrators that reflect this pattern. Art is as unpredictable as public taste, things go in and out of fashion, so second guessing the market for book sales is a bit like predicting the weather. Sometimes you are spot on, and other times, well, your parade gets rained on unexpectedly.

This bit of nonspecific background sets the stage for what lies behind a book cover job. Upon the request from a publisher to do a cover commission, I usually find out what the book is about in general terms to see if the project will suit me. If the publisher has a specific idea they want done, they might announce it at this time. It can helpful to ask if they are looking for a hard edged treatment or a soft look, as this sort of generality can set the tone for the job. I find out the due date, payment, and rights involved with the commissioned work. Once those details are worked out, I ask to be sent a copy of the manuscript. Reading the story is very important to me. Even if I am asked to paint something specific, I like to draw directly from the source, the author’s written words. I feel it is important to read the book to develop the imagery that would attract people to read the story. Trouble may develop if the book is in the publisher’s schedule and the novel has not been finished by the author. Sometimes the manuscript is sent in pieces as the art is being completed. In the case of short story collections, anthologies, or stories based upon a theme, the stories may be read to just set the tone. Sometimes the deadline is so short, due to an unforeseen circumstance, that the publisher just needs something quick even if it is only related to the story in general terms. I have had color sketches to the job I was working on reproduced in publishers forthcoming announcements as a visual place holder in promoting the release. Books are actually sold to outlets using cover flats. They are printed versions of the book cover with sales information printed on them that describe the book’s projected market for distributors, and book stores, and chains. This flat basically sells the product. The actual buyers do not usually read the book in order to place it in a bookstore. These are the people the publisher sells to initially. The reader buys books that reach the shelves selected through the cover flats. Since I prefer to have my work reflect the content of the book, I feel better knowing that the cover relates directly to the Story within. I guess, I believe honesty in advertising and all that. I also enjoy reading a good story. My wife Janny Wurts, is an author and and artist, she paints her own book covers and so gets a true version of her story on the cover. Most authors take their chances that the cover will be be faithful to their work. Although, if a book sells fantastically with a cover that has nothing to do with their manuscript - they do not complain very loud.

But, I digress. After I have read the book / manuscript, partial book, synopsis or whatever materials are sent, I call the art director and discuss my ideas as to what I think might be appropriate for the cover. This helps us be on the same page and clarifies my thinking before I set a pencil to paper. I have an impression of how this book might be packaged. Sometimes the art director will check with the editor or present the direction at a meeting to see if where I want to go works. I do some research, then prepare several small pencil sketches done in a general way but with enough detail to understand the subject, the values and the action. If I have a preference, I may send only one, or send all of them with any preferences noted. I may throw in a wild card or an experimental idea at this time. Upon approval, I refine the drawing and rendering of the selected design. If one of the small ideas is not picked, but I feel strongly that it has merit, I might refine it as well and send it in, just in case my gut instinct rings a bell. Who knows, that idea may make a great final work someday as portfolio piece, or for another commission. Nowadays this process is easier with an email. Color variations can be noted either at this time or after the refined drawing is given a go ahead. Then the final art begins.

Where did you learn to paint?

I attended the Paier School of Art in Hamden, CT in 1972, just after graduating high school. I was there for four years and took extra classes whenever possible. The instructors at the time were excellent artists and teachers. Many were Yale professors, Yale graduates, and Pulitzer Prize winning artists. I attended before that school became accredited by the state and instructors taught within the school’s developed art program. The program suited me well. Each professor taught me something a bit differently and critiqued my student work from opposing viewpoints, which allowed me to hone my own visual expression based upon their knowledge, For example, I do not paint abstract paintings, but I learned abstract compositional construction, I do not paint still lifes, but my paint application, color theory, and attention to detail sprang from those basic set ups and painting sessions. We drew every day, all day and if we were not drawing, we were painting. There were hours and hours of figure drawing and painting. I loved it. I drew comics before I went into the art school program. I was encouraged to drop out of the art school and just do comics ( this was from professional comic artists). I had a few pieces published in comic publications and had “ghosted “ a couple of pages for Jim Aparo, a very well respected comic artist who is no longer with us. However, I found my heart was more into painting than drawing or inking. I discovered the art of Howard Pyle, Edwin Austin Abbey, Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, and Frank Frazetta. My student work was making the transition from comic outline to painted form and I was excited.

How did you develop your current working method?

Observation, experimentation, and trial and error. I go to museums and try to figure out how the work was accomplished. What was the first layer of paint? Why did the artists chose that color to lay down first? I might pick up a tip from somewhere that might be added to my bag of tricks. I have different methods for different tasks. Doing the same thing repeatedly and using the same process is pretty safe, you know the steps and approximately how long it will take to accomplish the predictable results. But there is a lack of challenge and the predicability itself can become boring - the fun goes out of it.

Sometimes the commissions themselves will dictate the methods used. If I were doing a particular kind science fiction painting, I might paint in acrylics instead of my usual oils to add a burst of airbrush to convey a mechanical aspect, although I am no fan of airbrushing. Watercolor may be the ticket to accomplish the task, or digital manipulation.

Are there any artists that have particularly influenced you? and what is it in their work that you draw from?

I have lots of art books and I love to see all the amazing artwork accomplished in the past and being done today. I remember being urged to go to the Yale University Art Gallery as an art school student and seeing a special exhibit of Edwin Austin Abbey’s art from their collection. I was astounded. I must have stared at that exhibit for hours revisiting every chance I got. For someone who came from reading comics, seeing incredibly painted interpretations of Shakespeare's plays with the characters in full period costumes, was quite a revelation. The Paier School of Art sponsored a bus trip for students to the Brandywine River Museum and we all saw Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, and Andrew Wyeth originals. These were special moments for me as their paintings helped me form the portfolio I took into the job market. I have also been attracted to the Pre-Raphaelite painters and had the fortune of seeing many of their works while accompanying my wife on her book promotional tours in England and Scotland.

I used to visit the Metropolitan Museum when I would hand deliver jobs to New York publishers and I would also drop in to see what was hanging at the Society of Illustrators and various New York art galleries. I try to get to museums when I travel. I am not alone in this. I once went to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford,CT to get a last look at a William Bouguereau exhibit and ran into four or five other fantasy artists at the show! Seeing original art is a great experience. Except for some age discoloration, you get to see what the artist actually did. Original art does not compare to reproductions. You cannot interpret the paint applications. What is opaque, what is transparent, how the paint layers overlap. The blending of colors is there to see as well as the application of materials. Reproductions do not tell the whole story.

Where does the interest in Pirates come from? and what do you think makes them such a popular subject for artists?

My name is actually Donald Raymond Maitz. I have been no stranger to ... arR. Maitz!

I mentioned Pyle and N.C. Wyeth. These guys really painted pirate subjects with inspirational flair. I have been in awe of their work since that art school trip. When I lived in Connecticut, I would regularly visit a small art museum, sometimes by bicycle, just to see the N.C. Wyeth painting, ”One more Step Mr. Hands” one of his classic Treasure Island illustrations. There are stereotypes and human emotions that can be expressed through pirates iconic symbolism and, they are fun to paint. There is so little actually known about them that they are open to interpretation. Besides, voyaging into the uncharted unknown, charting one’s course, rebelling against social norms, and making up rules as one goes along, is very similar to creating free lance artwork!

How has the Captain Morgan character developed over the time you've been painting him?

I developed the character for Joseph Seagrams and Sons back in 1982. I produced sketches with several approaches and evolved the character. I did a pen and ink drawing for the label art and an oil painting for the initial advertising launch. The product tested well in selected cities and then went national. There was an ad campaign following that used another artist’s portrayal of the Captain on billboards, but it did not seem to stick. I since have worked with advertising agencies hired on by Seagrams to develop four different national campaigns. The agency would art direct me, then send the ad mockups onto the client for approval. A few years ago, Diageo, a major distributor, took over interest in the Captain Morgan products. They have retained much of my art in their product packaging but have recently recreated the original spiced rum label using my art as a guide but rendering the image in simplified tones.

How do you use models and reference material in creating your paintings?

Carefully. Sometimes there is no model at all, sometimes I use bits from models, other times I use them extensively. I might be photographing each pose numerous times and extracting this hand to that body pose, switching a head that has another, more suitable expression. Whatever gets the idea in my head to look” right” on a surface. I wish I could be more specific. Sometimes models are used to attain the end result, other times they can act as the catalyst. The trick is, knowing when to use what! This is a continuing challenge. Suspending belief with the proper amount of information, is what it is all about. Not enough reference can result in an image that has shallowness, stiffness and predictable surfaces. Too much reference, and you can get lost in the surface and miss the drama or the point of the image. The old ways are still true. Draw and paint from life regularly. It keeps you fresh and observant. When you have to use photographic reference materials, all that life training is retained and kicks in to a degree. This allows a less fussed and manipulated situation. Norman Rockwell painted from life so much, that when he did use photographic sources, his experience knew what to do to keep things looking as fresh as if the model was present. All that beautiful Renaissance art was painted with daylight and candlelight from live models. Today, we have digital cameras, Photoshop and all sorts of software to enhance reference materials, and they are a definite plus, and a time saver but, they need to be used effectively through knowledge and experience.

You've recently worked on Jimmy Neutron and the Ant Bully, what was your role on those projects?

I worked as a concept artist. For Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius, the film was an expanded version of an animated short done by DNA Productions. John A. Davis, one of the two creators and the director, contacted various artists whose work he thought would add to the development of his initial animated short intended for Nickelodeon. When it was to become a feature length film, he needed concept artists to expand upon the basics presented in is initial video. A team of us, including Bob Eggleton and Fred Gambino, all started in, drawing ideas based upon this expanded version. We gravitated to the subjects that appealed to each of us. Bob, a Godzilla fan, worked on Poultra, a giant chicken monster, Fred fell into alien city scapes, and I worked up the egg/ body designs for the alien characters. Mostly, I did pencil sketches. I produced front, back, and side designs to help the digital modelers, and some watercolor and acrylic renderings for color.

For Ant Bully, John Davis got the creative band together from the Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius feature film and had us produce concept art directly from the script . Bob Eggleton produced some terrific pastels, and Fred did a lot of beautiful digital art. I did pencils and watercolors and acrylic paintings again. At least, for the first go round. We were brought in again a few months later and by this time I had taken a basic Photoshop course and when I went to DNA for a think tank session, Fred gave me some pointers, enough to allow me to manipulate my pencil drawings and apply some simple coloration to the sketches. After the meeting in Texas, we were all working from home and scanning concept art into a passworded internet site. Since the art had to be digital at some point to be presented and integrated, I played with my scanned sketches in photoshop before I sent them in. Seeing what the other digital artists were sending was quite intimidating. Later, I received a call from the creative director who was looking for more artists to work on the film. They needed to work at the studio facility in Texas. I consulted with my wife, and decided to commit for three months. Three weeks in Texas, one week home for that duration, was the plan. It was a great opportunity for me. I was familiar with the story and project and liked it very much. While I confessed not to be up to speed in digital rendering, I knew Mac OSX and had a basic grasp of Photoshop. I was introduced to a roomful of experts with whom I worked on a daily basis. Though I did not know the key commands, and sophisticated manipulation of images within the program, I took copious notes and with sustained practice, produced acceptable results within a relatively short time. It was a great experience, just watching the process involved in making an animated feature. From the script, concept art, and story board work, a simple black and white still picture, anamatic video was made. The production department where I worked took the black and white cartoon images and made digital renderings of what the shots would look like as if seen as still images on the screen. Our work was then mapped in by software engineers and given to various departments including the guys that did the workbook for camera angles, the animators, digital lighting experts, the digital matte painters, and the special effects department.

You wife has a career which is closely aligned to your own. How does she influence your work?

It is a great relationship. Janny Wurts, my better half, is as I mentioned a professional writer and an artist. She has written over fourteen published fantasy novels, very inventive and well written stories. She provides her own cover paintings, interior illustrations, and maps to her books. She ‘s like a modern day Howard Pyle! I admire her ability to write so effectively and paint so convincingly from her imagination. My favorite of her stories, To Ride Hell’s Chasm, is the best stand alone action adventure fantasy story I have read (and I’ve illustrated over a hundred fantasy novels- which of course, I read.) I may be a bit prejudiced but i am not alone in my opinions of her work. The first chapters of her novels are posted on our shared web site as is her artwork. There is a collaborative area showing work we have done in some manner together. We share a house that has a studio attached. She tends to spend more time writing than painting so, we are not on top of each other in the same area daily. I have a lot of respect for her opinions. She is largely a self taught artist who paints more from her gut than the way I go about things, with all the sketches and preliminary work. She is a welcome pair of experienced, fresh eyes that can observe a work in progress and sound an alert if something starts to go sour. Any artist working alone out of one’s home should have such a wonder!

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