Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Life & Death of The Ace of Shades

Where possible, once a book cover is finished, I like to unite the original art with the author whose words inspired it. I've been collecting these stories at 'Where it Went' on my main website, but I'm adding them here too.

Now, I can't always share 'Where It Went' posts right away as I have to wait some months between finishing a cover and that cover's 'Reveal'. Sometimes this can be as long as a year. cover for Amanda Foody's new novel 'Ace of Shades' is an exception, as after several months' work on it, the completed cover was signed off then, at the last minute, swapped for a photomontage and font.

Now, this happens. It once happened after 9 months' work producing 47 - yes, 47 - different cover designs for a particular book of adult female fiction. 'Chick Lit' as it was (and probably still is) called - one of the hardest genres to get a cover approved for, due to its mass-market nature. The art director was happy, the author was happy, I was happy, sales were happy...the supermarkets weren't. You can't really get upset when this happens, because ultimately, your job as cover designer/illustrator is to help make a book sell, and if the Sales team at the publishers, or the buyers at the supermarkets - sellers of huge quantities of books - don't like a cover, no matter how beautiful or hard-grafted or loved by everyone else it is, it's not going to get through.

So, here was my completed cover for 'Ace of Shades', and below it, the one that the book went out with.

Along the way to the original version, there were many pencil sketches, revisions and two full size 'final' pencil renderings, before ink even touched paper. 

I always start a book cover with thumbnails, like these, to get my ideas down quickly and record them all, to weed out the weak ones from the possibles. And I do include the ones I suspect might be rubbish - because you never know where an idea will lead. I do this in my floppy Moleskine Journal - thin paper, lots of pages, I can carry it about, make a mess and abuse it a bit along the way, glue things into it and rip pages out - it's what a sketchbook's for! Here are a couple of thumbnail pages:

These'll often go to the client 'as-is'. Early on in my career I started to get a reputation for working up ideas too well - ie: making them rather too finished - and sending too many of those at once. Although it often impressed and delighted a client, this approach actually made their job harder, as it was more difficult for them to feed in to an idea, and to isolate one that wasn't working from one that was, because near-finished artwork can be very seductive, and can disguise the weaknesses in an idea or a layout. Plus, they'd have trouble choosing from the sometimes as many as 20 ideas I'd send in.

I still do that from time to time, but nowadays try to keep the number down to about 6 or 7 ideas, and resist the temptation to take the artwork too far before getting an opinion on it. Tough to do when you're really into a job and enjoying the process! (Having 47 options scrapped for a stock photo + font was definitely a turning point! That art director and I still work together, btw...and our record remains unbroken.)

So the ideas the client liked are then developed into large, A3  sketches - on paper, for this one, since this is the look and process I'd planned from the start. Not ALL my covers are paper-and-ink based - I've done all-digital ones - but most are:

From here, a final direction's agreed on, and a final pencil rendering is made. Tweaks might happen along the way - but with a good, fine pencil-stick Papermate Tuff Stuff eraser, this is no issue at all!

From here, the ink is added - my favourite black drawing ink on my favourite Japanese nib, helped by a handful of different sizes of gel pen - Mujis, and Mitsubishi Unipin Fine Liners:

...till myself and the art director agree it's finished and ready to have its colour added!

which is a process of very careful scanning with a very high-end professional scanner (worth the eye-watering investment) and adding layers of colour and texture created with ink on paper, sometimes combined with digital colour. This usually takes a few versions to get right - my initial 'vision' might not work when it's actually in front of me, or doesn't work when put through the 'Amazon Test' - which is where you reduce the cover to the size of an Amazon store icon, and check it for legibility, impact and muddiness!

Here are a couple of those colour tests (there were quite a few!):

and the final result you've seen posted at the top!

I wrote to Amanda to tell her about how much I'd enjoyed working on the cover, and that I had the original art - would she like it? She'd liked the first version of her cover, and wasn't sure of the reasons for going in a different direction but, like me, knows that these decisions are sometimes out of our hands. I posted her the original art, but kept these images as a record of the life and death of this particular favourite, so that it can live forever in blogland, as the one that was not to be.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

When Light Left Us

This beautiful book is out today, and I had an excellent time developing the cover for it - mainly because I was specifically asked to get inking, and the entire cover was do be created from the ink work I love doing so much.

The book is an unusual work of Young Adult fiction - yes, it has an alien in it, but it's not sci-fi, nor is it fantasy.

The Good Reads review - always dependable - outlines the story thus:

When the Vasquez siblings’ father left, it seemed nothing could remedy the absence in their lives . . . until a shimmering figure named Luz appeared in the canyon behind their house.

Luz filled the void. He shot hoops with seventeen-year-old Hank’s hands. He showed fourteen-year-old Ana cinematic beauty behind her eyelids. He spoke kindly to eight-year-old Milo. But then Luz left, too, and he took something from each of them. As a new school year begins, Ana, Hank, and Milo must carry on as if an alien presence never altered them. But how can they ever feel close to other people again when Luz changed everything about how they see the world and themselves? 

In an imaginative and heartfelt exploration of human—and non-human—nature, Leah Thomas champions the unyielding bonds between family and true friends.

Here are the many stages of evolution that this cover went through - I had so many ideas, but as ever, you can use only one!

There were several ideas. Rather than traditional rejections, with this cover it was really organic process, and I sent along a lot of initial ideas as I had quite a few after reading the synopsis and parts of the manuscript. Making the type to be the main attraction was important, as was creating an air of expectancy and mystery - this story does, after all, involve an alien life form.

The figure, though devoid of an obvious gender or age, was deemed too literal a representation of this kind, friendly life form, whose name is Luiz, and who is described as a ‘shimmering figure’. I did love the figure though, and he’s stayed pinned up in my studio ever since! The scrubby, desert landscape was important to capture, so that took centre stage. Donna at Bloomsbury was the art director on this; we’ve worked together many times, so it was an easy process - she is very clear about what she likes, and is great at seeing things I can’t.

I really wanted a glowing moon, and this was created with my age-old technique of drawing through the coloured ink with bleach. This is one of my oldest ink-tricks - I discovered it as a young teen having borrowed my Dad’s Quink and nib pens - and I still use it today; you can see it in a lot of my work. It's incredibly satisfying to have to wait a few seconds for what you've drawn to emerge on the paper. All of the art was created with ink on A3 cartridge paper, then scanned and the final cover pieces together digitally. There was no tweaking of the ink work - just the type, which is created of several layers of ghostly, fading-in-and-out typeset layers.

Thank you to Donna at Bloomsbury for asking me to create this one - I loved every second of it!

Buy the book here.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Hassan Massoudy at October Gallery

With his wide, calligraphic bold strokes made with sliced balsa, home-cut nibs and eye-watering water-and-pigment colours (so vibrant his catalogue contains a disclaimer about the camera not being able to capture the naked-eye colour) Hassan Massoudy's work looks easy and is anything but. In his 70s now, he's an absolute master of his trade, having studied calligraphy in Baghdad and travelled to Europe. As well as his art being beautiful, and mesmerising, seeing it in person threw up questions and ideas about his process and the definition of 'art'; now settled in Paris, he's made the shift from what he describes as being a 'just' a craftsman to being an 'artist'.

The difference?

"The objective of art is more complex - more profound - than the craftsman's aim. Art asks pointed questions about the human condition. Art deals with the entire range of human experience, it engages with life and death and examines what must be done to make something new.

"The craftsman, however, is concerned with the ambiance that surrounds us all, and with making necessary objects that are both useful and agreeable."

As someone who considers themselves neither, but is at the same time a bit of both - I've certainly spent a life making useful objects visually agreeable - I found this definition interesting and challenging. I've always felt a bit outside the world of 'art', but with the definition, purpose and remit of 'art' in perpetual, fluid transformation, it's hard to run a diagnostic and come out with any sort of accurate idea about what percentage of artist, craftsman, illustrator, lettering artist and anything else any one person's composed of. So I stopped worrying about that, and started enjoying the idea of being all of those things, at once and at different times.

Further material for pondering come in Hassan's next statement:

"The origins of art lie in the mysterious act of creation, whereas artisanal production is based upon reproducing what has been done before, using previously developed ideas, and often-repeated motifs."

I was a member of the Guild of Master Craftsmen for many years, and took a certain pride in that. It meant my work had been checked by an outside body and deemed acceptably 'masterful' - at quite an early age too: I was still in my 20s. But it was indeed all about 'the craft' - the hand skills, the use of a pen, the control of one, the levels of service I gave to my clients - all things measurable by what, and who, has gone before; existing standards. The Guild did not award membership for creativity, necessarily, nor good ideas executed badly in a frenzy of excited production, or for trying something that had never been done before. It simply recognised a set of skills, and standards. I wonder if this is what Hassan was talking about.

I'm not a member any more, as it's not relevant to the work I do. I'm no longer a member for the same reason I don't enter competitions (see my blog about this), and I look at Hassan's work and see someone so in control of his ideas and materials that he has transcended the need for any sort of external approval. Surely, the ideal place to be. And yet...

Hassan's work oozes confidence and professionalism, but what's really interesting was seeing the many copies of the same piece of work stored in files at the side of the gallery, for sale. He doesn't approach a piece of blank paper and hit a perfect 10 out of the end of his nibs first time. He makes the same piece, over and over again, and chooses 'the one' for public showing. This is why, when the guest at the gallery asked why the pieces in the folder were the same price as the framed version on the wall, the curator replied 'because it is the same piece'.

At 24 Hassan had his own studio in the centre of Baghdad, and did familiar work - editorial pieces, signs, ads, commissions here and there, becoming resident calligrapher for a cinema chain; that rather nice and sought-after thing, a regular gig with a single client. But he says that 'after becoming conscious of the necessity of exploring things more deeply, and of adding something new, I sacrificed that continuity of tradition to search for something else' - which he describes as a 'painful' step. He entered a place of uncertainty, where there were 'no guides' from the strict rules, formalities and structures of traditional calligraphy.

Now, I've never done any sort of calligraphy course, nor lettering classes, so I never had any rules to break, though the desire to break them was present regardless. Thinking back, I've never had much in the way of formal education in terms of methodology or technique other than a little life drawing, painting at school and a lot of typography study - ems, picas, x-heights, slide rules, justification, orphans, widows and so on. That bit I relished. Instead, we learned techniques for problem solving, meeting deadlines, idea generation, managing multiple jobs, answering a brief. So I can't imagine what it's like to put yourself and your output outside of everything you've ever learned and practised. I suppose the equivalent would be me entering a period of exactly that discipline and formality, having existed for most of my life in a world of loose experimentation, learning on the job and figuring-it-out from necessity. I tried to put myself in Hassan's lovely, imaginary polished shoes, but my imagination couldn't stretch that far.

That Hassan has to do his pieces over and over again was reassuring. It felt like he was 'like us' - unsure at first, pushing out some wonk before the magic, and maybe going back to what he'd originally thought was the wonk but was actually 'The One'. And the element of chance was surprising; he must surely sometimes do 50 and STILL not get 'the one'. I wonder what he does then?

I was more interested in the extreme detail of Hassan's work, though I had been drawn towards it by the long-view of the massive strokes. When you get RIGHT IN THERE, the way the ink scoots across the surface of the very specific paper and lands in weighty soaks at the edges, drying to miniature galaxies, it's a world of its own; these things were what got me talking and thinking most animatedly. There are entire illustrations in the edges of those apparently casual sweeps, and tiny inky rebellions up close where the material flew off, flicked, bled and refused to be told. Step back though, and the whole thing looks like a model of creative obedience.

Of course the pieces in the show aren't just visual exercises; they're illustrated quotes, poems and pieces of prose. That's what's written there in Arabic, tucked inside and next to the strokes, underneath in faintly-off-centre lines, and in pencil beneath that. 9th century philosophers, 16th century authors, pre-Christian saints and contemporary scientists, writers and thinkers are all explored by his pen. The shapes and sweeps didn't necessarily correspond to the words - we soon abandoned trying to 'see' the quote in them - it was more a case of feeling the sentiment. If you could read Arabic of course it would be right there. But I enjoyed relying on the exhibition card only and the tiny pencil words; I chose not to engage with the quote at all, I could ignore it till frustration kicked in.

I went to the show expecting to have my eyes stretched and soothed by seeing someone else's work in the flesh, to get close up to the movement of ink across paper which isn't my own, and all the good that comes from that. I didn't expect the experience to stimulate so many questions and so much rumination on my own work and where I am in life, and what comes next. Usually, those questions arrive in the middle of the night, weighed down negativity and anxiety, but here, they didn't. Maybe that's because I was in the presence of someone who's made that journey, has many more years on the planet than me, and whose work effectively said 

'whatever it is, and is going to be, it can be this, or it can be that; it can be everything, some of it, and none of it. And although it's up to you, it's just as equally going to be out of your hands'.
(Sarah Coleman, 2018)

There we go. I should go ahead and illustrate that now, in my own tribute to Hassan and his beautiful work. If, if...if I'm up to the job...whispers one voice, while a louder one tells it to get lost, stop worrying, and pick up a loaded brush.

Watch Hassan Massoudy working here.


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