Interview with Lou Harper, Book Cover Artist
Welcome to this month’s Cover Artist Feature! Lou Harper is an author AND a cover illustrator and designer. You’ve seen her work on fantasy titles such as The Eldritch Files by Phaedra Weldon, the Deathspeaker Codex by Sonya Bateman, the Between Life and Death series by Ann Christy, The Thrice Cursed Mage series by J. A. Cipriano, Mudman by James A. Hunter, and the A World of Shadows boxed set.
Welcome, Lou. Thanks for talking with us.
Thank you for inviting me!
In this series so far, we’ve talked with artists that do all digital illustration and artists who do photo composite work. What technique do you use for your art?
Photo manipulation all the way. I greatly admire and envy artist who are good at illustration. I loved drawing since childhood but eventually had to accept I don’t have the talent. So I took up photography as my major in college.
Some of the art on your covers looks like photographs, but some looks like digital illustrations. How do you achieve that effect?
It’s all in Photoshop. I build up the images with lots of layers, some filters, adjustments, etc. and then keep tweaking them till they look the way I want them.
How did you get your start as a book cover illustrator and designer? And how has your own work as an author impacted that process, or vice versa?
I’ve been doing image manipulations in one form or other a couple of decades. My first experiments combining images happened in the darkroom in college. Fortunately for me, the art department also had a small computer lab, and I plunged into Photoshop for the first time. It was a wee little program back then; it only required 4MB of RAM to run.Later on I worked in various web design and related fields.
I got into book cover design doing covers for author friends, and eventually went freelance. I know the frustration of not having control over your cover.
Your website says that you only use stock photography for legal reasons. Can you explain the legal reasons to us?
This rule of mine is not quite as hard-set as I make it sound, but I have several good reasons for it.
Whenever you use the image of a recognizable person for commercial purposes, you MUST have their permission. If you don’t, they can sue your pants off. Stock photo sites have signed model releases on file from the photographers. If anything’s amiss they’re on the hook, not you.
While stock photos are copyright free, the legal status of images from other sources can be iffy. (On a side note: graffiti too might fall under copyright protection. Terry Gilliam was sued by street artists.)
Even if you get the photographer’s permission, or use images from legit sites like Unsplash, you have to consider trademark protection. For example, if you want to use New York’s Time Square as your background, you need to know that restaurant and store signs, theater markers, billboards with movie and product advertisement, even company logos on the sides of taxi cabs fall under trademark protection–you are not allowed to use them for commercial purposes without permission. Even buildings and other landmarks—like the Hollywood sign—are trademark protected.
Using stock photos provides legal protection. I break my own rule on occasion, mainly to use some of my own photographs of alleyways and such in backgrounds.
What is the biggest challenge of using stock photography? Limited number of good images? Reuse of popular images (see our Pinterest board for the Hoodie Hottie)? Maintaining consistency of a character across series covers?
Yes and yes. I spend hours every week searching through stock photos and I often despair. Half of the pictures seem to be of business people smiling and shaking hands. Another big block is taken up by fashion models in awkward poses. Female models are either sex kittens or happy home-makers. Action poses are far and between. And don’t get me started on photos that are so goofy you wonder what the hell the photographer was thinking.
The hardest part is finding the right photo, especially when it comes to people. Locating the right model with the right expression, hair style/color, clothing, pose can be maddeningly hard, and you have to get innovative. My covers are always composites of many parts, often even the characters, so even if though the model I use might appear on a different cover by a different designer, my design will still be unique.
What kinds of thoughts go into creating the cover of a book? What kinds of discussions do you have with art directors or authors about the art you create for books?
I always give my author clients an art form to fill out. It gives me a mental picture of the story, characters, and also the author’s expectations. Many of my clients have firm ideas and expectations along genre styles. Of course, every single project is a bit different. I think I have knack for catching the atmosphere of a book from the author’s description. One thing I try to impress upon my clients is that the cover doesn’t have to be literal–it needs to represent the story, not illustrate it.
Your gallery seems to include art for a number of genres. Do you have a favorite genre to work in as an artist? To read?
Mystery, historical fiction, and speculative fiction are my top genres, but I’ll read almost anything as long as the prose and the characters grab me. To be entirely honest, I have little time to read, but I listen to audibooks as I work.
I don’t really have a preferred genre to design for. If anything, I like a variety to spice things up.
Do you also do the treatments (title/author text, series name, back cover text) of your book covers? How do you decide on fonts and other graphic elements to use?
Yes, I do my own typography—I consider it an important part of the design. Genre is a major factor in font choice. Urban fantasy is pretty flexible, but you probably don’t want to use chunky sanserif for high fantasy or historical fiction. The overall design, and style of the story are also important considerations.
You offer premade covers on your website. Can you tell us about those? How would an author use those?
It’s straightforward—the client buys the cover, tells me what the text should say, and I deliver the updated cover.
I like playing around with designs, build covers around interesting stock photos I haven’t had a chance to use. However, I haven’t had time to make new premades for a while, and might have to shut down the store.
Do you work only with independent authors or do you work with publishers as well? What services do you offer and how would an author go about contacting you?
I mostly work with authors directly, but also with some publishers. Interested clients should check out my web site for rates and services. I can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I must add I’m booked well into July already.
Which projects have been your favorites? Which were easy to create? Hardest to create?
Usually whatever is the latest is my favorite, then I flitter onto the next one. Hardest… I dunno. Creating a convincing golem for Mudman was a touch of a challenge. People Behaving Badly probably has the most individual graphic elements I used in one cover. Every bit of that back ally garbage was placed there with utmost consideration. The trashcan was shiny and new with zero bullet holes when I started.
Thank you so much, Lou, for taking the time to answer our questions!