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On Creating Covers

Martin Springett shares his experiences of creating the covers for the first edition of The Fionavar Tapestry. At the end of the essay there is an opportunity to see some early sketches, with explanations.

Creating images for book covers is one of the most enjoyable and challenging jobs I have as an Illustrator. Let me assure you that the point of this little essay is not to convince the reader that I have created brilliant covers; it is simply a ramble around visual philosophies that have occurred to me over the years. These views can only grow during the working process. I have little interest in the intellectualizing of art, it's the "doing" that makes all the difference; where you begin your particular creative journey and where you end up are often only tenuously connected. As this site is devoted to the works of Guy Kay, I thought I would focus on the creation of the covers for the Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy, as many of the working attitudes I now have were formed during the period that I worked on those covers.

No one does anything entirely on their own. There are many unseen connections in the creation of any work, but perhaps especially in the area of book illustration, where one is part of a team including publisher, editor, art director, illustrator, and, of course, author. (I should add here that I haven't had as much input from an author on subsequent cover projects as I had from Guy on these books.) Generally the author does not choose the artist who will be creating the covers of his or her books, but will be consulted in the later stages, when the overall visual concept has been agreed on between artist and publisher. Some publishers will do this as a courtesy to the author, others will not.

When reading the manuscript of a book I am to illustrate, I make notes on those visual aspects that appeal to me and that I feel give an overall sense of the story. Reading a manuscript in galley form is in fact a very different experience from that of reading a finished, bound book. I recall my first reading of The Summer Tree was from an unbound galley. I was so caught up in the tale that my living room floor became covered in a blizzard of paper as I let the individual pages fall to the floor. Collecting them up again and putting them in order was a bit of a problem! The Summer Tree has a large cast of characters, and my first instinct was to try and depict this fascinating "parade", but it seemed to me and to the art director that that would be too literal and ungainly. The publishers, McClelland and Stewart, were I think aware that this was a special book, and wished to have a cover that would reflect this. It was agreed that I should depict an image in the style and manner of a tapestry, decorative rather than literal, with none of the usual western perspective. This was deliciously freeing. I discovered an entirely new way of "seeing". Instead of trying to convince viewers that they are looking at a three dimensional scene, I was concerned with form and movement on the surface of the picture, rather than attempting to create the illusion of depth. I became much more aware of design. It also gave me insight into images that were created in the medieval period.

Ultimately I decided not to feature any of the main characters in the images I was creating for the covers. I think this was partly a reaction to trying to portray them in earlier versions, as I found that the more "realistic" detail I put in, the unhappier I became, as though I was doing a bad re-write and watching all the mystery of the story drain away. This was exactly in line with the way that Guy saw things as well. Somehow the cover illustration should intrigue, should retain the mystery; avoiding being too literal and yet still draw the reader in. In other words the book cover should say "Hello darling, I'm all yours, buy me" - or words to that effect.

I met Guy for the first time when I was half way through the drawing of The Summer Tree cover. The circumstances weren't that favorable at the time. I had made a lot of changes to the design already, and here was this pesky author wanting more. Luckily as it turned out, we were in harmony on the depiction of Fionavar. Guy was generous in his praise of where the cover was at the time, and I was happy to make what turned out to be a simple change: the colour of the unicorn. I'm sure most readers will have noticed by now that I didn't give the unicorn wings, an oversight I have always wanted to correct.

When I came to work on The Wandering Fire I knew exactly where I was. I felt at home being in Fionavar, and by this point I began to feel that I was depicting designs that the people of that world would create for themselves: large tapestries that would hang on the walls to commemorate great deeds or moments in their history. Actually, I have to believe in any world I am asked to create, if it is to have any resonance in my work. There is a technical difference between the first and second covers of the Fionavar books: The Summer Tree is basically a line drawing with colour rendered in inks and airbrush, whereas The Wandering Fire is an acrylic painting, with sky and snow created with inks and airbrush. The sea monster in The Wandering Fire was originally drawn up in black and white ink, but having gazed at so many brightly coloured medieval manuscripts, I knew I wanted to emulate their look, and was frustrated by the harshness of the line work. I did a little experimenting with acrylic, painted out the monster with white acrylic, and began to lay in washes of green and blue paint. The Wandering Fire was my second painting. I had always used inks before this, and so not only did I learn a new visual vocabulary doing these pieces, I found a new technique as well.

When I came to The Darkest Road I wanted to take the image to another level, and it has become my favourite of the three. I had become a great admirer of Guy's work and we became friends during the creation of the trilogy. All that and more is in this image. I felt inspired during the work, and I painted the swan boat last, as I knew I was leaving the world of Fionavar, just as Leyse was.

I have painted many book covers since then, but the situation with the trilogy was unique. After the success of The Summer Tree, the Canadian and British publishers basically said "go ahead and do whatever you want on the covers" which of course I was happy to do, so I had complete freedom within the confines of the visual concept now worked out. Also, as more and more publishers around the world bought the images for their editions, I had a financial cushion so I could -- and these are the words every artist and writer loves-- take my time and get it right. Generally of course, a cover artist is a hired gun. You're not there to take your time and explore and ruminate to your hearts content; there's always a deadline. This is reasonable if not ideal: publishing is a business.

Along with Guy's input, the fact that the books were published in at least ten countries around the world with my covers, and can still be found on bookshelves here in Canada in their original covers sixteen years later, certainly makes the designing of these images unique in my career.

--Martin Springett

Click here for some examples of Martin's early sketches for these
covers, together with his explanations.





Art Gallery
Images of Fionavar
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Cover Art:
Covers: The Fionavar Tapestry
Covers: Tigana
Covers: A Song for Arbonne
Covers: The Lions of Al-Rassan
Covers: The Sarantine Mosaic
Beyond this Dark House
Last Light of the Sun
Ysabel
Under Heaven
River of Stars
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Bright Weavings: The Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay