Watch the Skies Interview, March 27, 2013

I would like to preface this (interview) with a little back history perspective. I began my art career painting covers for fantasy and science fiction books, fresh out of art school. My published artworks started with New York City book publishing houses in 1976. At the time of my career introduction, Frank Frazetta, James Bama, Boris Vallejo, Michael Whelan, and John Berkey were among the names appearing on book cover art. I have been very fortunate that my early art was desirable in the growing field of science fiction and fantasy mass market publishing. For the last twenty years I have been married to Janny Wurts, a novelist and artist working in the book publishing industry. I have been a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) following my authorship of two art book collections.

Q: Do you think we are in a new golden age for fantasy and science fiction and the art that goes with it?

Yes, this arena has become accepted by a wider audience than ever before. Mass media has opened up a large audience for imaginative subjects. I recall when fantasy and science fiction titles were shelved in the dim back corners of bookstores, behind the westerns. Science fiction and fantasy today are enjoyed without the social prejudice of the past. New York Times best sellers now include fantasy and SF titles and the largest budgeted and top grossing motion pictures and TV programs have science fiction and fantasy subjects. Images today have become more pervasive than text, given a generation familiar with comics, graphic novels, gaming, television, movies, and now imaginative computer imagery. The aware inpidual has a very advanced level of visual sophistication.

Last summer, at the Allentown Art Museum (PA) an exhibition titled At the Edge: Art of the Fantastic displayed 200 years of fantastic art with 160 paintings and sculptures from generations of imaginative artists. In past years, the Delaware Art Museum (DE), the Canton Art Museum (OH), and the New Britain Museum of American Art (CT) exhibited published art largely based upon book covers featuring imaginative subjects. That art museums have recognized contemporary work on a par with artists that inspired the Golden Age of American Illustration is a testament to the quality of today’s leading artists. (The Allentown Art Museum is hosting this year’s IlluxCon September 11- 15, 2013 where many of these modern talents will personally display their work.

Has the accessibility of computer generated graphics improved or diluted art in general and cover art specifically?

I believe this situation to be a two edged sword. Computer graphic technology has revolutionized everything. With the internet and desktop publishing, promotional avenues have expanded world wide through a simple cable connection. Sophisticated treatments and manipulations that were once expensive, time consuming, or nearly impossible to create are accomplished through simple keystrokes. The shorter time involved reduces deadlines and layered files and pixel manipulation allow for radical last minute changes. Accomplished digital artists excel at electronic imaging tools and create truly spectacular images.

Cover art within the book industry is about acquiring art of the highest caliber from the most competent artists on a budget. The publishing staff hopes to match an artist’s ability with the book’s content. Often, if a book sells well, the author is credited, while the cover art is blamed if the book fails. As fewer mass market publishers are producing fewer print titles, small press publishing, and self publishing is on the rise. These enterprises do not normally have budgets to commission artists. As small press publishers rarely have full time art directors, and most authors are not visually trained, cover art gets published that does not draw interest. A great cover suggests an exciting story. Computer generated graphics (or any art) at the entry level, offers an inexpensive alternative. However, the aesthetic skills of an accomplished artist are worth the added expense. Digital art done without serious art training is easily available, and on the surface, looks finished. Before digital imagery, the lack of training and self discipline was much harder to hide. Although there may be jewels found in emerging digital talent that will enhance a book, for the most part, premature publication hurts the author and the artist’s reputation.

An alternative for fledgling publishers would be to seek finished art that is unpublished (or otherwise available) from accomplished artists which may fit the story at hand. An established artist’s image makes the product hold up better in the eyes of the consumer who is visually sophisticated enough to see the difference. It is not easy for a newly graduated art student to find a market and small press publications are a great place to make a start. Every great writer and every great cover artist has their share of rejections, and these lead toward improving their work. Reaching for a higher standard builds the incentive to hone one’s craft.

Has the instant gratification culture changed the way you work?

No. And... yes. I still create art using traditional media, oil paint, acrylics, and watercolors applied with hairy sticks. No matter the media, the results become essentially frozen moments viewed in the moment it takes for the image to register on the retina. Conversely, reading a book takes time, so for instant gratification, reading is at a disadvantage. Yet, with e book publishing, downloading a book into what amounts to a hand held library, makes obtaining a book instantaneous.

Scanning, digital photography, Photoshop, web sites, e-mail, blogs, twitter, Facebook, desktop publishing, print on demand - all of these have changed the way I work on a daily basis. With technology a part of the delivery system.

As an artist with access to digital imaging and having retained my reproduction rights. I have the opportunity to reproduce my work on a large format printer in my studio. This technology allows cover images inspired by popular books as wall art to be offered worldwide as a print in various sizes without the published book’s typography.

Do you believe book covers are a dying art, or merely transforming to meet the new nature of books?

Ha! ... Is the book cover half empty, or half full??

Since book covers attempt to capture the essence of a story, they serve a purpose in selling a book. Given the popularity of e-books, not so much concentration is on the presentation. Cover art is not highly regarded as a necessary attraction. Once the dust settles, I believe a new assessment of the purchase value of a book through it’s cover is due and if consumers demand quality images, the industry will likely supply them. I only hope the pay scale for the images will reflect the talent and time involved since the lack of paper costs could allow for increased payment allowances directed to the creativity behind the product. Writers traditionally are contracted with an advance against royalties that allow them to write a book on an income that enhances if the book sales exceed expectations. Cover artists receive a one time payment. The longer it takes to create a cover image the less is earned, so the option of a quick, superficial treatment offers a reward. Thought provoking approaches, in depth research, and luxurious detail become penalized in low budget arenas with short deadlines. Average payments for traditional book cover art have not appreciably changed in the last 25 years which is another factor in assessing cover art. Unless consumers demand high quality, we will see more clip art, type only treatments, and minimalist cover images as these yield greater profits. If consumers choose to purchase books with no art and minimum type design, the bean counters are happy with the bottom line because the numbers look good - even though the product does not. Also, books purchased through smart phones reduce a cover image to a tenth of the size of a paperback which is not a plus for cover images.

Where do you see book covers going in the future?

Optimistically, I see the talents of cover artists given their space to shine with cover art being electronically used to sell e books as part of the downloaded package, perhaps offered with and without the typography layer. Some publishers choose not to credit artists. I would like to see credits added in the same manner as at the end of a film, listing the editor, the author’s agent, art director, cover artist ( - in really big type! - grin), the book’s designer, sales manager, copy editor, the president of the publishing house, and so forth. What if e-books became like DVD s where you get “Special Features” like an author’s perspective on the book’s background and the artist’s preliminary sketches or perhaps the work in progressive stages of completion? I would like to see rates for e-books to be reevaluated. More of the profits shared to author, publisher, and artist. Basically, to those who provide the creative content and the actual product. with less awarded to the delivery system given the ease of electronic downloads.

Pessimistically, it seems the creative talents which supply mass market publishing are forced into tighter constraints with heavier workloads as more value is attached to marketing and distribution than to the actual item made for purchase. More responsibilities are placed upon fewer employees in house. Most authors love writing and most artists love to create beautiful images. Book publishers - the president, the editors, art directors, and staff, want to produce good books to fulfill the consumers desire to read. Unfortunately, there are exterior elements exploiting these interests, constantly jockeying for greater profit margins. When the hands that produce the creative material are not rewarded, the infrastructure is strangling the golden goose.

 As an artist, I would like to see more illustrated books. With print on demand capabilities, specialty publishing, and small press, a viable way exists for more such books to bring a profit. More art book collections featuring works by inpidual cover artists. Many Spectrum type books are being produced but fewer that spotlight one artist. Kickstarter offers fans the opportunity to take a part in publishing, and applications and hardware now allow the printing and binding of quality art books. Yet marketing and distribution of these books is difficult for an artist oriented solely to the creative process. Perhaps print on demand art books where the content can be selected by the consumer could become an inventive solution.

Until recently, fantasy and science fiction book covers were one of the few places where artists enjoyed imaginative subjects could make a living. Today, technology has expanded opportunities for such art to be appreciated. When publishing was king, and images were shared through early printing techniques, the big budget movie stars then, were artist / illustrators like Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, N.C. Wyeth, and Norman Rockwell. Their art work drove the sales of publications.

As the entertainment industry realizes greater profits in music and movies,  these venues claim much larger shares of the entertainment industry. So the future of books - and cover art, is in the consumer’s corner. Interestingly, many of the top grossing movies and their successful soundtracks are based upon books.

J.R.R. Tolkein, whose work has been allotted third place of ALL published books (after the Bible and the Koran), has inspired generations of readers and fathered the fantasy industry as we know it. Alan Lee and John Howe, both illustrators of Tolkien’s writing were integral to the visual impact of the films. Other cover artists also have been drafted by the film industry, as their visual interpretation of the written word is so powerful.

J.K. Rowling with her Harry Potter books also profoundly impacted publishing. Her writing popularized young adult fiction and founded a phenomenon.

In high school contemplating an art career, I was introduced to the art of Frank Frazetta. He not only inspired my imagination, but vitalized the pulp fiction marketplace. His influence pulled many writers out of obscurity and created an in-demand genre which increased opportunities for other cover artists.

Perhaps other innovative talents will appear to positively alter the perimeters of book publishing and artwork derived from stories. 

My wife, Janny Wurts, is the author of some eighteen fantasy novels and, like J.R.R. Tolkein, she also visualizes her writing in images. Her art competently graces her book covers worldwide. Howard Pyle, who I mentioned, has been acknowledged as the father of American illustration and was an author as well as an illustrator of books. The connection between the written word and imagery has a long tradition. One of my favorite examples is Michaelangelo’s collection of illustrations from biblical texts, painted upon the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Society will not permit technology, profits, and apathy to rob such riches from our culture.

Since those were questions of a more serious nature - I find it's important to include a little whimsy. Our standard interview closing question: If you could have ONE super power, what would it be?

Super speed. While I’ve longed to clone myself so I could multitask effectively, super speed is better, since I could finish my endeavors very quickly without bumping into myself...

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