Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Ink & Sigil

Published this week is ‘Ink & Sigil’ by New York Times best-selling author Kevin Hearne, which has its US release on 25th August and its UK release on 27th. 

In a 'career first', I’ve illustrated both the North American and UK editions of this murky Glasgow-set novel involving enchanted ink (obviously), mysterious symbols known as ‘sigils’ (look them up!), craft cocktails and the cursed Al MacBharrais, whose apprentices keep...dying. 

In ever-bizarre and unexpected ways.

It’s published by Orbit Books US and is the most recent of Kevin’s myriad fantasy and adventure novels. I have been most pleased to make his acquaintance while working on his books! This is the first in a planned series which is a departure from his usual style of novel, so the cover had to reflect that. Influences for the US cover, which came first, included tattooing, Victorian medicine bottles and apothecaric ephemera, whisky bottles, etchings and classic maps. 

Here's my 'sigils reference board' - fascinating, mysterious symbols with immense power - for go0d, in the right hands, and in the wrong hands, well...

These had to be pulled into a cover that made sense in a very readable but detailed way - the initial suggestions I made were a little contemporary and stylish, using a free-wheeling lettering based on real sigils without too much of the meaty detail, and some really bold colours - several ideas were sent based around these two proposals:

Since I happened to be in New York while I was working on this cover, I went for a meeting at art director David Stevenson's office at Penguin Random House, to discuss where next to take the cover. (Ah! remember the good old days - meetings at people's offices!) We ran through the suggested inspirations and talked over the vibe of the manuscript, which I'd read a couple of months before, and re-framed the direction with a lot more murk and intrigue. Here was my next set of suggestions:

It was THIS one that hit the spot - this is the more evolved, final-pencil version:


Once this was inked in, it was scanned and put together with its hand-made ink backgrounds - three of them, all layered up to create that dank, wet Glasgow-street feel - again presented in an assortment of options. I remain convinced to this day that that ampersand isn't quite right - but the art 
director liked it, so it stayed in!

With the addition of colour the final art looked like this; I made a full wraparound:
and with some slight adjustment to those colours by David, the cover was done!

A few months later came the request for the UK version of the cover, from British art director Duncan Spilling at Little, Brown. The request here was for the same cover, but rendered in a more detailed style of line work - less 'tattoo', more 'etching'. The research for this was most engaging, ploughing through image after image of the full spectrum of etching work, and pinpointing whereabouts on the spectrum of 'etching' this illustration should fall, exactly.

I did a practice run to establish just how tidy or neat the line needed to be:

The beauty of this version was that I didn't have to think about the composition and layout - just focus on the rendering, which was really quite different from the US version; smaller, finer lines, more of them; cross-hatching, pointillism and sketching - and the opportunity to rectify that ampersand I'd never been happy with!

Here's the final art, all black drawing ink on paper:
And here's how that looks with its antique paper background and ink spills:
Again we added some colour and by mid-April - we had non-identical twin covers!
Two completely separate pieces of art.

You can buy a copy of Ink & Sigil in the US from here

and if you're in the UK, get it from here.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Thanks and sorry, but no.

For a large part of my career I've received emails asking me to do work for free, usually for some scheme, a project someone is very excited about that will make big money one day; a charity, a collection of postcards that will head into a gallery, a children's book that's been written by someone who hasn't got the budget, but when the book sells they'll have some...

Most of these people mean well, and don't mean to offend. They often, however, simply don't think about their email from the point of view of the recipient. Even now the notion lingers that artists work for the love of it, with money as a nice but inessential by-product, or that they create because they 'simply have to', and payment is somehow vulgar or selling out.

Those attitudes may sound ludicrous, but they do still exist, lurking right along the edges of the creative world, often by those who like to look at and be involved with creative stuff, and don't or can't do it themselves, but want something for free, for their own hopefully money-making scheme.

I handle all such requests with politeness and grace, because to do otherwise would be rude and pointless - they wouldn't learn a thing. If it's not a straightforward case of not wanting to do the project (because, occasionally, if the circumstances, timing and criteria are right, I will), I'll always to help the sender see where their approach might have gone awry.

The most recent one, received yesterday, was an example of this.

Here was their open paragraph (you may even have received this one yourself):

I stumbled across your illustrations earlier this week. They are really good :)

'Stumbled'? Dreadful choice of word. They weren't even researching, or honing down a shortlist; they hadn't trawled websites, Instagram, or bought a book in which the illustrations hit just the spot for their project. They merely 'stumbled' across me (and no doubt myriad other artists).

Why is this a problem? Well, it says nothing at all about why they picked me, what they love about the work enough to ask for it to be created for free, what my profile could lend the project, or what my experience in book illustration might bring to their project.

I could just have been a name scraped from anywhere, one of 500 emails fired off at once hoping that one at least will stick.

'They are really good'. What on earth does the even mean? 'Good' is massively subjective and says precisely nothing - merely a lazy word presumably chosen to suggest flattery. They don't say why the work is a good fit; why the media is a sound choice. They betray the fact that they probably haven't even looked at the work in any detail with that solitary choice of word.

And that was the only part of the email which spoke about my work - the work they then went on to ask for for free, with virtually all of the rest of the email telling me about their project.

So I replied, politely declined, and explained why I wasn't going to do the work:

I get a lot of enquiries like yours but don’t have the time to engage with them all, so I am going to say ‘no’ to this one, sorry. I also have very specific organisations which my business supports, and we endeavour to keep our free-of-charge work to those.
All of which is completely true.

I went on to suggest how they could improve their approach:

I will give you a little advice though, about how to contact someone when you’re asking them to supply their skills and services for free. You say you ‘stumbled’ across my work, which is not a good start - it makes it look like the individual who you’re asking to work for you, for free, is just a random find, rather than someone you’ve carefully researched and chosen. This does not make the artist feel good, and won’t help them to feel enthusiastic about working for free.

Also, all you say about my work is that it’s ‘really good’. What does this mean? Why do you like it? What makes it good? More importantly, what makes it ‘good’ for your particular project? Where did you see the work? Do you know how long the artist has been working, or what famous or high-profile projects they’ve worked on? ‘Really good’ again could make the artist confused, because it is such a subjective word, and says nothing about what YOU like about the work, and why it’s suitable.

This throwaway line also makes the recipient feel like you’ve just copied and pasted the same email to an unknown amount of artists. Which you may well have done; I can’t tell.

And then suggested what a better approach might look like:

A better opening paragraph would be something like this (an example):

“Hello (name of artist),

We know your work from the ‘****’ series you illustrated for **** (name some real work they've done, that you like) and we love your ink and wash, colourful illustrations, especially the recent work for author **** *****. We know you’ve worked for a long time and have real experience with book illustration and story telling - we follow you on Instagram - and we’re contacting you about a project we would love you to be involved with, if you have the time and the energy. We appreciate you will be busy, but would be grateful if you would read about our project.

And at the end - ALWAYS, ‘thank you for taking the time to read this email’."

Finally,  what was also missing from the email is 'what's in it for me'. Not even a mention, in this particular email, about 'feeling good about' helping the particular group they're working with, or contributing to so-and-so, or suggesting any kind of kickback in terms of involvement, or seeing the project through - though there was the teeniest dusting of emotional blackmail via reference to using the skills to help someone 'not as blessed as you are'. 

A little strange, but then, as I mentioned, every email is different!

I hope my emailed replies never come across as, well, cross - certainly I always wish the best for them and genuinely hope they get their project off the ground - but I can never just send a 'no' without suggesting how they can improve their approach - which they very often need to.

Exceptions are requests from agencies or corporations, which at best can be a little entitled and over-keen; at worst, demanding a whole load of stuff in return for 'exposure' when they should know better. 

Money makes the word go round, but so does charity and collaboration, and I have and will continue to do work that isn't for pennies. But if you're going to ask for a creative handout, at least do it properly.

So in summary, here's my checklist for senders!

1) Do you know who you're writing to?
Have you familiarised yourself with their work, medium, clients? 

2) Do you know why you're asking that artist specifically, and can you articulate that?

3) Are you able to tell the artist where or how you found them, and what drew you to their work?
They will want to know they're not just a name on a 'fingers-crossed' email list.

4) What's in it for them? Besides basking in a glow of having given to charity, or the promise of 'exposure' (which the artist likely doesn't need, or you can't meaningfully provide).

5) Can you be flexible in your timings?
Artists may want to help, but can't do so right away. All good things come to those who wait, so be prepared to. You can't have 'on-demand', fast, AND free.

6) If the artist says no, do you have your reply ready? ALWAYS send a 'thank you anyway' email. It's very poor form to simply fail to reply. Unless you really have sent out 500 emails en masse.

7) If the artist says yes, do you have your reply (and your gratitude) ready? 

8) What happens after the work is created/donated?
Explain how the artist is involved in the project beyond just handing over the booty.

9) Tell the artist who YOU are, and what this is important to you.

and finally

10) Say please. And thank you. Always. Even when you reply to their 'no' email.

'Manners maketh man', and every human wants to feel like they're important and valued in a project or team. If you're asking an artist to be involved, for free OR for money, you're asking them to be 'on your team'. Start out by writing to them as if you believe that, and you'll be off to a much more hopeful start.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Last Lie

A new book is out in hardback on August 1st - the follow up to Patricia Forde’s ‘The List’ (published also as ‘The Wordsmith’) which I illustrated a couple of years ago.

This cover was created for Sourcebooks USA, and was made with a combination of large, hand-drawn inky pieces and elements made in Procreate.

 I loved putting it together this way - for me, tools are tools, and I get as much out of slopping inks onto a big sheet of paper as I do creating worlds within Procreate, which I still feel like a novice with, but I’m getting there!

What Goes Up

Out today is this book by Christine Heppermann, for which I made this cover using just ink on paper for Greenwillow Books, USA.

This is a YA story told in prose, an unusual format which lends the book a slightly magical, wistful atmosphere, despite dealing with some heavy topics - secrets, regret, mistakes, break-ups. And the narrator is a teenage spore print collector - which, yes, had me bungee-jumping into an online search too.

Unusually, although I suggested seven or eight different roughs, this cover went to press almost completely unaltered from the rough that was chosen. Always a lovely thing to happen! Made with ink and pencil.

Thursday, July 23, 2020


I wrote about my 26 year relationship recently with my local gym, John’s Gym as it was then, now known as Empire Fitness, in my blog ‘Two Habits.

I’ve been going to this gym for more than half my life, and it feels like a second home. Over the years it’s had many logos, and looks, and changed names of course, but it’s been Joe’s gym rather than John’s for almost two years now, so when it was forced into closure by The C That Shall Not Be Named, it was an excellent chance to rebrand.

Owner Joe seized on the notion of several weeks (we didn’t know it would actually be months) of closed doors to reorganise the rooms, build new spaces, clear out old kit and invest in new. He's hung new lights, got little electrical jobs sorted, reconfigured the reception and catering spaces, re-thought the pathways through the various workout areas, grouped kit together in ways that make more sense, repainted, and installed all the necessary new distancing and health and safety measures.

I’d always wanted to rebrand the gym. The existing logo of a roaring lion, though I could always see its intention, never really felt like a good fit for the area’s largest and most down to earth gym, set up over 30 years ago for those serious about lifting heavy lumps of iron. Though it’s always had cardio spaces and, eventually, classes, coffee, saunas and a supplements area, it was always the gym for people who are less interested in lycra selfies and Instagram and more focussed on the grunt and face-contortion of Heavy Lifting and Doing The Work. With personal training and advice on tap, should you want it. It’s a no-nonsense, businesslike, inclusive space for all genders, shapes and sizes, housed poetically in the building of one of Hinckley's many old hosiery manufacturers. 

Set in the epicentre of the Druid Quarter, you could in fact say it's a proper fitness factory - you're there to work! - and no-one will try and sell you a subscription or a discounted T shirt with an 'inspirational' quote on it as you walk in the door (though you can get a nice free coffee after your workout).

We think (though are not 100% sure) that Puffer's Factory became the home of Empire Fitness. We think this because the iron columns and the shape and styling of the windows match exactly. The Druid Quarter, in which we live, had a great many factories like this!

So setting aside that little advert for the gym itself, when Joe asked me to create the logo I immediately felt the weight of pressure; the kind of pressure I put on myself when I’ve wanted to do a job so much I’ve freaked myself out when it actually comes to doing it. It’s the kind of specific pressure I feel when a friend or family member asks me to do something. After all, I knew this gym inside and out - was I too close to the subject to do it justice?

I originally wanted a particular, non-verbal logo  which I'd been visualising for weeks, taking the emphasis off the word ‘Empire’, which the owner wanted to keep. I've not shown it here, but try as I might I couldn’t make that route work, so had to set back and re-think.

Though I did really like this one with its prominent weight belt and sneaky kettle bell (sketch + Procreate work-up):

A lettered solution in the end was the answer. I played with calligraphic, spiky letters, a little bit on the Goth/metal side, which would work as just a simple 'E' too:

These weren't popular with anybody except me, but these ones, taking inspiration from the dumbell-wielding strongmen of old, the big top of the circus and the flex and stretch of muscles themselves, were.

Not a font or even derived from one, the letters were hand-drawn one at a time (sketch + Procreate work-up again):

Originally it was suggested with what was going to be a multi-purpose dumbell-holding hand in the centre over the top. However, a fist of triumph at finally deadlifting your own bodyweight, or defeating the grappler, or losing that final half stone, is still a fist, and with all its attendant suggestions of power, rage, protest or politics, we decided to leave it out.

Drawn in Illustrator from the original sketch, here’s the final:

The final logo is clean and robust and I’ve since painted it as large as possible on the reception wall, and is gradually being rolled out across their stationery, website and gear. It will eventually go on the outside of the gym too - but that’s for down the line!

The finished thing. I know I'm gonna be asked 2 questions: 1) is it vinyl and 2) what font did you use? :D

Previous wall and mural work includes this one for Hilton's Canopy Hotel chain in the US - during which we worked for a week in Baltimore city centre, having been flown 3000 miles at ten days' notice and just a week to design the piece, which was still being finished on the plane and in the client's office on arrival.

You can also see the largest piece we've ever done, on retail design kings' Briggs Hiller's wall - a 15m mural created in the studio but painted on a scaffold in a half-finished building with no power. Generators and bags of chips ahoy!

Seven Stories, aka The National Centre for Children's Books, in Newcastle, asked us to paint a wall piece in their café too - for which we lived in the next-door B&B and drank exquisite coffee from the roastery across the rover.

Finally, if you fancy viewing something more local, we designed and painted the brand new logo for the re-opened Bounty pub in Hinckley, as well as gilded details for the interior.

As you can see - we like to paint on walls!


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