Joining us today is renowned artist Chris McGrath. Chris is responsible for some the best cover art in fantasy today. He’s done covers for Jim Butcher, Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson, David Gemmell, and many more. Seeing his art alone is usually enough to make me buy a book. In honor of Chris’s visit we’ll also be giving away a copy of Justin Gustainis’ Evil Ways (Chris did the cover). So with out further delay….
Justin: Thank you Chris for coming by. I’m really excited to have the chance to talk with you. I see your artwork everywhere and it never ceases to impress. What is the process you go through to create one of your covers? How much of the process is done on the computer? How much is done before getting to the point where you are working on the piece digitally?
Chris: After the publisher commissions me for a cover, I usually get a break down of the story from the art director and editor. They tell me what they are looking for for the cover and from there I begin the sketch phase. Sometimes a manuscript is provided, but that seems to happen less and less these days. The sketch phase is usually the hardest part for me nowadays. After you’ve done 9 years of covers it gets hard to come up with new ideas, especially when you are collaborating with a publisher. Some companies give you more freedom than others and the bigger the title, the less room you have to play a lot of the times.
Sometimes an idea comes to me quickly because the project already has an interesting story concept and setting. Other times I go through tons and tons of sketches before I’m satisfied with something. The media for my sketches is anything from a pen drawing to using my wacom tablet in Photoshop. After the sketch is chosen by the art director I can get going on my final version.
Justin: Is it just Photoshop you use to create the final piece once your sketching is done?
Chris: I just use Photoshop. I basically use it in the same way that I use oil paint. The rules of drawing, tonal value, and color still apply. I tried to learn some 3D stuff a few years ago but it was too time consuming and really boring. For me it’s just easier to use the same process as when I was painting.
Justin: Are you actually a fantasy fan? What have you read recently that you really liked? (Or SciFi, for that matter.)
Chris: I like fantasy. I’m a huge fan of Haruki Murakami. His book Kafka on the Shore is a true work of art to me, and one of the best books I’ve read along with The Wind-Up Bird. Fantasy fans should check him out. Jeffery Ford is also awesome. I really loved The Well Built City and The Portrait of Mrs.Charbuque. Brandon Sanderson is great, too. As far as SciFi goes, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion books are right up there with Dune for me. Jeff Vandermeer‘s Veniss Underground was really beautiful. These are just to name a few. My SciFi and fantasy list goes on and on. Oh yeah, the Elric saga was an early favorite of mine.
Justin: Some really good books in your list. On the topic of favorite books, some my personal favorites are the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. That’s a series I believe you are familiar with. As a Dresden fan I am required by law to ask this question, which I know is one that you have gotten a lot: What’s up with the hats on Harry Dresden covers, and how much crap do Butcher fans give you over it? I’ve never seen a book signing where Jim doesn’t get asked that question. He always says the publisher has Chris put the hat on Harry.
Chris: The Butcher fans have been very kind to me. They could rip me apart, but for some reason they seem happy with the covers for the most part. They have even come to accept the hat. But I do see a lot of questions on the forum regarding the hat. I try to answer that and the staff questions when I can, but it seems that the older forum members take care of that these days. I’d like to say “Thanks!” to them. It gets tiring. I know how Jim feels. But one last time ;-) yes, the publisher wanted the hat on Harry because it has a more eye-catching and iconic look, even though it was a mistake at first. But it seems to have worked and it does look more mysterious.
Justin: Thank you for answering that one. :-)) I’m sure it never gets old and, for what it’s worth, I like the hat. Speaking of cover art direction: I know that most authors don’t get much say in their cover art. In your experience when working with a publisher to do a cover, how involved does the author get?
Chris: Most of the time the author does not have any say in what goes on a cover. Some of the bigger authors have some input and have it in their contract to do so, but most of the time it is up to marketing, the art director, and editor. In the end you want to have an attractive package to make potential buyers stop and pick it up. That’s why a lot of the time there are a lot of liberties taken with the actual story. As long as the cover captures the mood and feeling of the book, the inaccuracies of the details are OK just as long as you don’t go too far off the mark.
Justin: Have there been any particular covers that were extremely difficult for you?
Chris: There are many. KOP and Midwinter to name a couple. The difficulty happens when I’m not totally satisfied with my approved concept, so during the time I’m working on it I try to improve on the idea and that’s when I start going in circles. Also, if I do not have a clear idea and don’t plan properly, I can get myself in trouble. The cover usually ends up taking much longer and stressing me out when this happens.
Justin: There is a ton of bad fantasy art out there, so tell me, aesthetically, what makes you cringe as an artist? And, what gives you a good shiver?
Chris: I’m not one for throwing stones, so maybe I should keep quiet on that one. But I will say that good drawing and painting skills will always attract me. When an artist does something that is tasteful and well-crafted, with a good understanding of what they are trying to achieve, it’s commendable. Class and good taste are everything.
Justin: Nice dodge. I know you have to hate those pictures of furries, the crudely-drawn man-tiger with a six-pack… everybody hates those… Anyway, I want to know a little about you before you became one of the biggest names in cover art. So, before cover art, how did Chris McGrath keep utilities paid? Was Ramen noodles a major staple of your diet? Was there any particular moment or breakthrough in your career where you finally were able to think … “I can do this for a living”?
Chris: Yes. There were many hungry nights after college. I didn’t have my portfolio ready when I graduated, so I spent the next three years developing my portfolio in traditional media (oils). Then around 1998 I was introduced to Photoshop. I was pretty slow at painting and realized I could never make a good living at it because it took 4 to 6 weeks for me to finish one piece. So PS became more attractive to me. I spent some time learning the software on my own — basically applying the same rules of what I new about oil paints and drawing and gathering reference. It all works the same in the end. To pay my bills I gave guitar lessons and worked a couple of days a week at a doctor’s office doing medical drawings. That wasn’t too fun and I felt like it was never going to end.
Finally I finished my digital portfolio and started to show it around in 2001 (from 1998 to 2001 I did a lot of life drawing as well) I got my first job with Ace books (Penguin Putnam) and it was funny that they wanted me to do an oil painting for them instead of a digital piece. The cover’s title was called “The King”. You can find it in the Drawings section of my website. After that I got a commission from Random House for a Babylon 5 cover, so things were looking pretty good at that point, or so it seemed. Then after those two jobs I didn’t get much work. I got maybe 4 jobs my second year, then around 8 my third year. Then in 2004 I got about 16 jobs and in that mix was Dead Beat for the Dresden Files and Nightlife for the Rob Thurman series. Those covers hit the shelves later that year and after that it became a full-time job. I guess I did the right kind of cover at the right time. The urban fantasy market really took off and I was lucky enough to be doing covers for the top authors that were driving the field. So those two covers really solidified my career.
Justin: Any words of wisdom for budding fantasy/SciFi artists?
Chris: The main thing is is not to give up. It’s really tough and very trying at times before you have a full-time career. But if you really feel you have talent to make it, you should hang in there. It really does come down to that. I was very stubborn and figured I couldn’t do anything else, so I was willing to take the heat and starve a bit before it all worked out.
Justin: I know you’re a busy man, so I won’t keep you further. Thanks again, Chris, for stopping to chat with us, it was an honor to have an artist of your caliber visit us here. If fans want to check out more of Chris’s work, or purchase prints, please head over to his website at www.christianmcgrath.com. And if you want to win a copy of Justin Gustainis’ Evil Ways, leave us a comment.