Stephen King Art Interview, circa 2009

This interview took place with Juliana Kho of Blue Sky Books.

On Donald M. Grant's Desperation

How do you decide which of the scenes to illustrate in the Donald M. Grant's Edition of Desperation?

While I read the manuscript, I made mental notes as to scenes that portrayed the influence of the evil entity which King unleashed in the book. When I selected a scene that I wished to illuminate, I would reread that bit in the book taking notes of descriptions that would help with the accuracy of the art.

What are your processes in illustrating a book cover?

Covers involve selling the book as a product to those who may wish to read the story. Boiling an entire novel down to one image that encapsulates the action, mood, characters, and environment is the plan. To do this feat in a way that instills enough interest to entice people to purchase and read the content is the goal. The process is finding those sparks in a manuscript that will trigger an image that attracts an audience. Think of freeze framing a motion picture at the precise moment that suggests what the whole movie is about, and you get an idea of the process. I usually take notes and dog ear pages as I read the manuscript. From the notes, I research related visual aspects of the story and make small, rough drawings, including compositional elements, simplified figures, and the mood of my interpretation of the "frozen moment" that intrigues me. I then enlarge and refine the small sketch that best suits, do a color sketch, and then enlarge the pencil sketches to the final size. I secure more accurate research materials and paint the cover art.

How long does it take you from start to finish to illustrate a book cover?

It varies, which is why it is the biggest challenge! I take as much time as I can get, because it is rare that one cover commission is being done start to finish without other commissions, or aspects of a self employed life style happening in the midst of a job. Lots of pots on the boil make it difficult to accurately time a job, unless one is relentless with a stopwatch, note pad, and can see into the future, how long it takes, is at best, a guess. Size and complexity add another variable. Some works just flow along, others hit an obstacle and drag. A few weeks of drawing and painting after the sketch is determined is a guess for a medium sized work, although the length of the workday may vary considerably.

What is your favorite medium and why?

Oil paints are my favorite as they allow me to be flexible in application and there is a richness of color and depth that I enjoy more than other mediums.

Who currently own the original artwork for the Desperation book?

I still have The Buzzard, and The Well, paintings. I sold The Cop to a private collector some years back. The other two works, The Wolf and The Dream were stolen. I can't seem to find the original pen and inks either...

The story behind the oil painting theft is as follows: In the middle of this commission, I attended the World Fantasy Convention in Baltimore, MD. I chose to take along those original paintings I had completed, to show how the project was coming along to the publisher, as he was attending the show. I had one of the works, The Cop, with me in my carry-on luggage. The two other completed works, The Dream and The Wolf, were shipped in a crate with 21 other paintings - twenty were mine, and three were oil paintings by my wife, author and artist, Janny Wurts. The crate containing the artwork was taken from a Fed Ex truck in Baltimore before delivery to the Convention hotel. Fortunately, I had a transparency of the Dream and I had a slide of the still wet, Wolf spread, so I did not have to redo the art to get it placed in the book. The paintings have yet to be recovered.

Desperation Remarque

What is your process in remarquing a book?

I try to do justice to the story in some way with a Remarque, rather than just make a drawing of a generic nature. However, if someone hands me a book in person to sign on the fly, I am likely to put forth a quick educated scribble if asked, but a serious remarque will entail some thought and a preliminary sketch to solidify my final rendering.

For the Desperation remarques, I chose to do watercolors. Perhaps not the best choice for the nature of the paper stock, but the medium would allow me to bring forth a more fully realized image. I tried a few using colored pencil and watercolor pencil. They came out ok, and the paper stock received that medium well, but to my sensibilities, there was something missing. It is difficult to quantify. The nature of the book's content seemed to require painting rather than drawing. The story flowed along with a lot of blood, venom, and tears, so a liquid medium seemed to fit. I also decided to make the remarques coincide chronologically with text. Meaning the early remarques were of scenes at the beginning of the book and progressed with the text to the end, so the edition numbers reflect where the art originated from the text.

Most of these remarques involve the cerebral process I described to start them and some involved aspects of my cover art process. I picked a scene, then I browsed through my collection of reference books and photo clippings looking for an image that would help me depict the scene from the book. A pencil drawing in a sketchbook followed. Then I would trace my drawing onto rag tracing paper, position it in place on the title page of the book, and using a home made graphite transfer sheet, I would re trace the pertinent lines into place. In some cases, I found reference that was to size, and fit perfectly into the situation and just needed additional elements and tweaking. When that happened, I made a loose tracing outline and refined the sketch on rag tracing paper, then performed the transfer process, eliminating the need of a preliminary pencil sketch. The resulting transfer lines appearing on the page of the book are very faint and contain little "character", so I would erase them with a kneaded eraser till they were fainter still, and redrew the faint image lightly in pencil with more confidence. I then applied the watercolors. Through some trial and error, I managed to work the colors without a lot of water, as the paper really did not like getting wet.

Which is your favorite remarque and why?

Hard to say, I think my favorite involves it succeeding. Success surrounding a series of works falls into something like a bell curve, dictated by opinion. My favorite contains success on different levels. Some,I feel could have been better had I the luxury of a paper stock that liked getting wet, or had the tenacity of a heavy watercolor paper stock. I particularly like those where the elements I used became both symbolic and literal which I believe is where King was going when he wrote the story. Beginning a book with a dead cat obscuring a speed limit sign with no visible means of it staying in place, was graphic that contained a visual, a literal. and a visceral "sign" that beyond this point bad things are happening. A "remarque-able" starting point for a tale! So, the first remarque is my favorite. When Tak, as Collie the cop, pulls down his lower eyelids and looks at the David character, that confrontational moment of "looking fate in the eye", "seeing eye to eye", "eyes being the mirrors of the soul" and other clichés come to roost as well as a disturbing idea of something behind the cops eyes seeking David's soul. So, that one is my favorite. The painting of the bizarre statue that caused people to loose their sanity, their will, and their lives, sitting innocently in a tray is my favorite. Showing the slavering, possessed wolf confronting a suspended hammer was another confrontation - evil meeting the hammer of God. That one is my favorite. I enjoyed the process in painting some of the other remarques, so by sheer fun in execution, those were my favorites.

How are the remarques different than other work you have done?

I did a little teaching some years ago and one class assignment I offered was, "Scare me!" It was a challenge to the students to choose a venue - be it a book cover, a greeting card, a movie poster or other publication and then their job was to choose the right degree of "scare" to be appropriate to the product being presented. With art reproduced inside a book, or interior art, there is no agenda to actually sell anything in a big way as that is the job of the book's cover. So, interior art can have a lot of latitude in content, design and intensity (it can go for the gross out, which avenue may not be appropriate elsewhere). These remarques were very liberating as I could go places other published art formats would not take me. It was like getting to illustrate the story all over again in a completely different way. I could leave a personal, visual "remark" or comment about an aspect or scene in the story within my remarque which was outside of the publisher's ability to edit or art direct. Not that the publisher was at all interfering or anything but encouraging as I produced the original art. Actually, when Donald M. Grant produced a Stephen King illustrated first edition, the publisher provided King with a short list of artists appropriate to illustrate his manuscript, and King made the final selection of the artist who would do that particular book.

What are the challenges you encountered in remarquing a book?

Placing the art within the constrictions of the other graphics and type on the page, the paper itself as I have mentioned, and choosing that image that both a reader and I would enjoy as an introduction to both my art and the content of the book. Also, the situation might be challenging. When I am in public and someone wants me to do a remarque on the spot, or leaves a book with me for a few hours to work on, that situation is quite challenging due to the lack of available research, limited art materials, and a time constraint.

Any other comments that you would like to add to the Desperation Remarque project?

I would like to add that this edition allowed me artistic access to a story that I truly enjoyed and had the opportunity to revisit with an illustrator's hand that has a few more years of experience. The remarques collectively, were like doing another illustration assignment for a manuscript I portrayed before, allowing me to fill in areas I did not get a chance to include and revisit scenes I did from a different perspective.

Knowing Darkness – Artists inspired By Stephen King

Knowing Darkness: Artists inspired by Stephen King is an anthology measuring 11"x 15" containing over 600 works most printed in full color recently released from Centipede Press. You were one of the artists featured in the book and also worked on the Duma Key illustration commissioned just for that edition. What is the size of the original Duma Key illustration?

The art is oil paint on stretched linen and measures 24" x 20".

How was Duma Key selected as an illustration?

I call the painting I did for this book project, Ghost Ship, for lack of a more original title. Perhaps a more inspired identifier will come to me. The selection occurred through the publisher contacting his contributing artists to see if any would be interested in being commissioned to create a painting for a King story which would be introduced in his publication. I inquired if Duma Key was one of the stories by Stephen King where Jerad Walters did not have corresponding art.

I chose this assignment for many reasons. Being that it was specific to this publication, I did not have to sell the story as if it were a book cover. The nature of the commission was to portray the story. Period. No type to worry about, no blurbs, no marketing plan to adhere to, just create an image. The story takes place in my home town, and the main character is an artist.

What kind of research did you do for this project?.

The story takes place on a fictional key south of Casey Key, where Stephen King has a winter residence, and near where my in-laws used to live, and also was where I was married. I have a friend who lives in an old house bearing a resemblance to the haunted house King described in the book. This house is within walking distance of King's residence, in fact, my friend sometimes sees him pass by the driveway as he takes evening walks. I waited for a clear cloudless sunset and set up a canvas on an easel on the beach across the street from my friend's driveway. I set up another canvas on another easel beside it as a prop and I painted one as I photographed the other. I also photographed nearby palms and oat grass silhouetted against the setting sun. I used a ship model and other research to complete the painting in my studio. The idea was to use the same inspirational setting that King was exposed to when he wrote the novel.

Was there any other image considered for this project?

I had other scenes in mind, but soon zeroed in on this. Since the main character was an artist, who painted works inspired by his location on the key, and that the works themselves haunted both the artist and the viewers, a painting of a painting seemed very appropriate. The artist had visions revealed by the paintings through blackouts while he created them. The first artistic effort from the main character, upon setting up house on the key was a colored pencil drawing of a mysterious ship far out on the horizon at sunset. The story had Salvador Dali visiting the Key in years past, where he too, produced a sketch of a ship on the horizon at sunset. So it seemed fitting that my artistic encounter with Duma Key would be a mysterious ship on the horizon at sunset.

Was this different in any way to other projects that you have done?.

It sure was. I got to choose the book I would illustrate. As I mentioned, there was no sales motivation for the art. I could have a free hand selecting what to paint, I just described what I wanted to do, provided a very rough pencil scribble to show the direction. And, I also had a nice looong deadline.

If someone is interested in requesting a commission, can they contact you?

Yes. I am open to commissions. I prefer receiving requests via email:

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