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I love to read, so I consider creating a book cover a distinct privilege. I sometimes fantasize about creating a cover for every book I have ever read and imagine what kind of life long project that would look like. Maybe in another lifetime.
Not long ago I got involved with an online manuscript editing company called The Editorial Department. They were expanding their repetoire and looking to offer design services as well as manuscript editing. After a bit of back and forth I signed on as one the the designers in their roster. The first project I worked on for them was the second book in a series of swashbuckling adventures from author John H. Cunningham. John’s stories feature a main character named Buck Reilly. Buck is a bit of an Indiana Jones type who lives in the Florida Keys, flies a Grummon sea plane and looks for sunken treasure.
The title of this new book was “Green to Go” and John wanted some continuity between this cover and the previous one. The first book, “Red Right Return” features Buck’s seaplane in a a circular logo design. John felt strongly about keeping the plane and the logo look. He also wanted to incorporate the idea of color since both book titles make mention of one.
This is all well and good, but for me to get hold of an idea I need to explore what comes to my own mind first. To that end I do loads of thumbnails. Each one an embodiment of a particular concept. Sometimes these concepts are good. Sometimes bad. Sometimes they are rip offs of something I have seen before. The intention is to spill out on to a page all the junk that is spinning around my head regarding the subject. Below are a few pages from my sketchbook that show some of this exploration process.
From here I took four or five of these ideas, blew up the the thumbnail and added color to them just to get an idea of what they might look like. The ones that stuck out the most for me were those that were modeled from cigar or rum labels. For all intents and purposes a label is a logo and if I stuck with that concept it would afford the continuity John was after. As an added benefit it would also speak to the more colorful aspects of the lead characters swashbuckling personality.
With the help of Chris Fisher, the Creative Director at The Editorial Department, I moved though the design, adding the coin, missile, tobacco and Cuban flag to the layout. The final touch was selecting a sun bleached weather beaten green background for the label to sit on. And with a few more tweeks and changes we arrived at the final cover.
Finally, I would like to give thanks to illustrator Tristan Elwell. At the same time he happened to be working on an image of a plane and talked about how he made the propellers look like they were spinning. I used his technique in the final cover.
I love to read. If I ever teach an illustration class I intend to make students read some, if not all, of these books. Why? Because I don’t find a lot of well written stories that feature an artist as the main character. If you are a lawyer, police officer or writer there are tons to choose from. But not so much if you’re an artist. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but more like a countdown, in no particular order, of some notables that left a mark on me. And please, if you have a recommendation, don’t hesitate to share.
Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce: I start with this because it’s a classic that just about everyone has read a piece of, most likely in college. For those that haven’t its pretty well self described. In the truest sense it’s a Day In the Life portrait of the main character Stephen Dedalus. There’s not much narrative to speak of. What makes this story unique is not only does Joyce effectively “paint” a portrait of the main character through words, but he gets a lot of mileage out of the first person point of view. When Stephen is five the narrators consciousness is too. As readers we get to watch the artists’ consciousness develop and mature as we follow the story along.
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand: Not an artist, but an architect, the author tells the story of Harold Roark an ideal man of independent-mindedness and integrity. His challenges are about maintaining his artistic vision without compromise. Rand creates a whole range of architypal characters that are less and less idealistic variations of the main one. By Rand’s own admission, Roark is the embodiment of the human spirit and his struggle represents the triumph of individualism over collectivism. A dense and fulfilling read.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon: The only Pulitzer Prize Winner on the list this story is set in New York City with the 1939 Worlds Fair as a centerpiece. It follows a couple of Jewish cousins that grow up together and create a Houdini inspired comic book character called The Escapist. The Holocaust plays a large role in the story as well. Interestingly, Dark Horse Comics made an actual series featuring the Escapist character.
Time and Again by Jack Finny: This story is about an illustrator working for a New York Ad Agency that gets recruited by the US government for a top secret project. The top secret? Time travel. And not just anywhere and any time, but the Dakoda on Central Park West. I love books about cities I’ve lived in. There is something so cool about reading a story that takes place in a book hundreds of years ago, then actually visiting that place in real life.
The Art Spirit by Robert Henri: This was one of the first books I ever read about an artist. It’s not fiction, but more like a collection of journal snippets, notes from students, quotes and letters from Henri himself. An Ashcan School painter who taught at the Art Students League Henri’s book is not about technique as much as it’s about the philosophy of art itself.
My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok: Recommended to me by Kim Anderson this book is set in Brooklyn and is about a boy named Asher Lev who is born into an orthodox Jewish family. Asher is on track to become a Rabbi but is diverted when he discovers a love for art. With the history of art seated deeply in Christian mythology Asher and his family struggle to reconcile it with their jewish heritage.
My Adventures as an Illustrator by Norman Rockwell: The first time I saw this book was on vacation in a vintage book store in Seattle. I couldn’t live without it and ultimately spent half my entire vacation budget on that book. Later that night my travel companions and I missed our last boat home and found ourselves stuck at the Ferry Terminal overnight with time to kill. So I cracked open Rockwell’s book and started to read aloud. The first couple chapters not only kept my friends and I occupied, it drew in a small crowd of homeless seeking shelter in the terminal.
Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut: One of my all time favorite authors, this is the story of a fictional engraver/illustrator turned Abstract Expressionist. It takes place on an estate in the Hamptons, where many of his contemporaries lived. The lead character has become a joke of the art world because he used an inferior brand of house paint in all his paintings which are now falling apart and losing their value. This book is in my personal Top Five and has a great great ending.