Interview with Chris McGrath, Book Cover Artist
Whether it’s the right thing to do or not, we always judge a book by its cover. A book’s cover is an invitation, a mini-preview, the way we decide whether or not we even want to read the book’s cover blurb. Authors are very aware that the appeal of a book’s cover, even for ebooks, makes a big difference in sales.
We here at One Book Two love book cover art. Not only is it gorgeous art, but it elicits memories of the story it illustrates, so it carries a lot of meaning. There is some amazing art going into book covers. So in 2016, we’re doing a series of interviews with book cover artists and designers to highlight these talented individuals and the industry of book cover art in general.
To kick things off, Kat was able to interview Chris McGrath, one of the top artists in the fantasy and sci-fi genres. Chris creates cover art for such series as the Dresden Files, October Daye, MythOS, Vampire Empire, Thieftaker Chronicles, Craft Sequence, Cal Leandros, Fated Blades, Rogue Clone and many others. His covers feature realistic characters and beautifully atmospheric scenes that use shadow and light to amazing effect.
How did you get started creating book cover art, and what would you consider your “big break?”
My first job that got me in was a job for ACE books which is a publisher within Penguin Books. The art director there was recommended to me by Dorian Vallejo (son of Boris). I had shown her my portfolio but didn’t actually get a job from her until several months later… maybe even a year. The first job was an oil painting for a book called The King.
How long have you been creating book covers? How has your art changed over that time?
Going on 15 years now. I think my work has become more precise and streamlined. Also more refined. Basically a better version of when I started… at least that’s what I hope.
What kind of art did you create before book covers?
I always did fantasy and sci-fi, even had an interest in comics on and off, but realized illustration was what I preferred. When I was in college I became more interested in the old masters and Victorian era painters. Mainly when I was in school studying, I was pretty much doing life drawing and painting most of the time. I felt getting that skill set down was crucial in what I wanted to do.
Do you only create art for sci-fi and fantasy books, or do you work on other genres as well?
For now just sci fi and fantasy based stuff.
What kinds of thoughts go into creating the cover of a book? What kinds of discussions do you have with cover designers or authors about the art you create?
Haha… am I going to pull it off or is it going to be a mess? That’s usually what I’m thinking. Lots can go wrong and the cover is never clear to me until about 75% of the way through. As far as art direction, it’s just the art director and me. Very rarely is the author included. Most of the time I’m left with a lot of freedom based on the publisher’s notes. For example, the first Dresden cover I did, Dead Beat, was very open. The publisher gave me a brief character description and asked to have him standing somewhere with his staff with a city backdrop.
I read an article once (and I can’t find it now, sadly) about the “language” of cover art – that certain images communicate essential things about the story. Is this true in the art you create?
I usually try to just set a mood and atmosphere for the story, and try to keep things within the vibe and spirit of the book. Sometimes a scene from the story is used but not always.
What is your process for creating cover art? Is it all digital or do you create something physical, such as a painting?
I usually draw out a sketch in Photoshop, occasionally in my sketchbook but not so much these days. After the art director approves one, I do a photoshoot with a model, and once I have all of my reference, I start the final piece. Everything is done digitally with my Wacom tablet and Photoshop.
How long does it take you to create a cover, and how many can you do in a year?
A cover can take up to 10 days depending on what it is. There’s a few days in the sketch phase, then the photo shoot, then once I start it could be a week or more. Sci-fi stuff with cities and armor take longer than urban fantasy.
Do you read the books for which you create the cover?
Sometimes I get a chance to read them. Usually I’m trying to listen to them on audio book.
Which covers have been your favorites? Which were easy to create? Hardest to create?
I’d say this last year (2015) I’ve been having a lot of fun and have done some of the best work in my career. I love doing the Max Gladstone covers for the Craft Sequence. Heirs of Empire is one of my better covers as well…I think. Basically I feel most of my strongest work has been done for TOR Books. One of the hardest covers I ever did was Kenobi. As simple as that cover looks, it was a lot of work.
Do you have time to do art projects other than book covers? If so, what other projects do you like to work on?
Not so much, and when I’m not working I prefer to play guitar or create music. I’m planning to do more hopefully soon.
Some of your prints are available for purchase through your website; but not all of them. Is there a way to get some of the ones that aren’t listed? Say, if one wanted all the Dresden Files covers, for example? Or an older book, like the ones in the Webmage series?
Selling prints from right out of my studio became too much of a hassle so I started using a service. At the moment it’s limited but over time I will add more.
Do you own the rights to your art, or are the rights bought by the publishers?
Most of the time they are owned by me. Sometimes it’s a buyout but that’s pretty rare.
Who is your favorite artist?
Way too many to name, and they change through certain times in my life. Rembrandt, Sargent, Steve Assael, Dean Cornwell to name a few.
How does the area in which you live (NYC) inspire your covers?
I guess it gives me an dark urban vibe. There’s a lot of energy in the city so I try to feed off that… or be distracted by it.
Gargoyles and wolves (like on the Heart of Stone and Crimson covers) are featured on some projects. What are your favorite fantasy/sci-fi creatures to work with on covers?
One day a dragon would be cool. Haven’t done that yet. But most of the time creatures are not requested. My career has been pretty light on creatures.
If you could put yourself in one of your covers, what would it look like and what would be its epic title?
I never do! Although… there is actually a cover with me on it… somewhere. I prefer to be behind the scenes. But if I were on a cover I’d like to look cooler than I actually do… like a witcher or something.
Thank you, Chris and Kat, for a wonderful interview! Personally, Chris’s art is a favorite of mine. I’ve bought several books just because his art was on the cover!
What are your thoughts on cover art, dear reader? Do you have a favorite Chris McGrath cover? A least favorite? Who is your favorite cover artist? Who should we contact for the next interview? Chime in and talk to us about your favorite cover art.