Cover Artist Series: Chris Roberts, Dead Clown Art
Welcome to this month’s series on cover artists! This month we’re talking with Chris Roberts of Dead Clown Art.
Hi! Thanks for having me over! Love what you’ve done with the place! Is that lava lamp vintage?
Your style of art is radically different than anything we’ve looked at in this series so far. It’s has a cool collage style that I really like! Tell us a little bit about your artistic style.
Awww shucks thanks! (blushes) Glad you dig it! Hmmm. My style. Guess I always think of it as a lack thereof. People have told me they can detect a certain style in my work, especially when viewing a bunch of pieces in an art show or via my online portfolio. Having a style must be unavoidable.
I’m a process junkie, so maybe I’m not able to observe my work the same way as others. When you’re attached to a piece from start to finish, it’s probably pretty impossible to see it the same way as a viewer who is looking only at the finished product.
Sorry. Back to the question. I tend to stray.
Collage. Assemblage. I’m a hobo squirrel. A hoarding crow. I pick up bits of wonderful trash on sidewalks or in parking lots. Bottle caps. Buttons. All manner of future-useful detritus. I spend hours in antique stores; strolling, scanning, rummaging, sniffing and snortling about. Looking for that perfect whatsit that I may or may not ever even use.
Yeah. Sounds mental. I know.
Not until you show up on the Hoarders TV show. 🙂 What is your background and how did you get started in this style of art? Why do you think this style speaks to you so strongly?
My background is in graphic design, which is why I design my covers [put together the whole cover, including print elements] whenever I’m able. One problem I have with a number of book covers that I see is a disconnect between the artwork and the typography. Not all cover artists have graphic design backgrounds. I get that. Most mainstream publishers wouldn’t let a cover artist near the cover design. Which is why I absolutely adore smaller, specialty presses. These presses also tend to be more open to giving weird/niche artists like me the opportunity to make covers for them.
But I digress. Again. What was the question? Origin story…
The graphic design jobs I worked after college always felt way too formal. I was always trying to dirty my projects up. Scratch them. Gouge them. Roll them around in the mud a bit. I was always trying to incorporate handmade elements into those projects. My employers and clients were always trying to steer me back to center along a tidy, straight line. And did that shit get old? You bet your ass it did!
To counter my antiseptic day-job tasks, I’d cut loose and make personal pieces after hours. Found objects and paper on found wood. Spray paint. Rub-off letters. Literally etcetera. Balance points achieved! CHA-CHING!
Long story short(er): I stumbled upon a couple of presses that dug my crazy collage style. One stumble led to another. Lucky I’m clumsy. Fast forward to today… 15 covers; 8 presses; a veritable gaggle of inside black and white artwork; and a 2013 World Fantasy Award nomination. Not too shabby.
Tell me about the name Dead Clown Art. What does it signify?
This one’s easy: I hate clowns. Loathe them. Don’t see any real reason they should still exist in these modern time. Except to give us nightmares. Except to steal our children. Then eat them. With clown sauce.
Therefore and hitherto… all clowns shall be exterminated and otherwise eradicated. Death to all clowns! Yes, the sick and pathetic humans hiding underneath them as well. The only GOOD clown is a DEAD clown.
I’m not encouraging people to seek out clowns and destroy them. But if you happen to see one doing something particularly dastardly, feel free to bop them on the noggin with a crow bar a couple (hundred) times.
Note to self: Don’t invite Chris to the remake of Stephen King’s “It.” Got it. You created a cover for a Ray Bradbury short story collection. What was that like? Can you tell us about that process?
My Bradbury cover. Wow! I got a phone call from Pete Crowther, publisher, PS Publishing. I’ve worked with Pete and Nicky at PS before. Actually just finished working with them on Blind Voices by Tom Reamy (June 2016). But never via phone. Always email. What the fiery hellbeast?!?
Basically: Have a cover for you. Need it quick. Ray Bradbury. Are you up for it? No pause. HELL YES! That cover could’ve been due in 4 days and I still would have snatched it right up. Are you kidding? Ray Effing Bradbury! Pretty sure that’s his real middle name. No need to fact check me on that one.
Step 1: Read the collection. Found a first edition of A Medicine for Melancholy at the library. Cover to cover. Rapidly. Take good notes. Rough sketches. VERY rough in my case. Send to publisher. Wait for APPROVAL, or “WHAT THE EVER-LOVING BLEEP IS WRONG WITH YOU?!?” The latter has yet to happen. Usually just minor tweaks and pokes.
Pro Tip #1: Always read the entire manuscript. If time doesn’t allow for a full read, ask for more time.
Pro Tip #2: Get in touch with the author if that’s cool with the author. They wrote the book. Pick their brain. And be sure to ask them what they DON’T want on their cover. Huge timesaver!
Step 2: Gather. This is where my squirrel and crow skills come in handy. I comb the drawers and boxes and containers that I have filled over time with mounds and pounds of tasty found stuffs.
Step 3: MAKE THE FREAKING COVER ALREADY! Holy shit! Look at the calendar you flaming idiot! You wasted all of that time reading and noting and sketching and gathering! ART! ART! ART! You deranged seal!
See. Just 3 easy steps! Anybody can be a cover artist! HA!
But seriously, I had an absolute blast making that cover! A highly stressful blast, but easily one of the most challenging and rewarding cover projects I’ve ever worked on.
Do you also work with independent authors to create book covers?
It starts with the presses, but I usually get in touch with the authors in some capacity; it really depends on the project. I always prefer working directly with the authors if possible. My favorite thing in the world is working with authors on an ongoing basis…
For example, Helen Marshall. Amazing writer/person! I met her (and her equally amazing sister Laura) at World Horror Convention 2011 in Austin, TX. Something clicked. She had a poetry collection that she was looking to release into the world. I offered to make some art for it. That collection, Skeleton Leaves, is stunning! I immediately created a color cover and six black and white interior pieces. She loved them!
I found a kindred spirit in Helen. We understand each other. We trust each other. We’re connected in some weird way. Her words. My art. Some odd series of tubes and wires.
I went on to make a metric ton of inside artwork for her second poetry collection, The Sex Lives of Monsters, and her two short story collections, Hair Side, Flesh Side and Gifts for the One Who Comes After. Gifts won the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award in 2015, and was short-listed for the British Fantasy Award, Bram Stoker Award and Aurora Award. I know, right?
Helen is such a wonderful GIFT (see what I did there?) to the world of words! I’ll follow her wherever she goes.
Although I know your style of art can work for any book, what genres do you feel your art speaks to particularly?
Thanks for that! Every book is a problem that needs a visual solution in the form of its cover. I’m uniquely equipped to provide a solution to that problem. That solution probably won’t be a perfect fit for every press/book/author; but for a certain type of book it’ll fit like a glove. Those are the presses/books/authors I seek out.
Lucky for me, the genres that I feel my art speaks to are the same genres I enjoy reading. In a word, WEIRD. I read weird books. And every book that I’ve been lucky enough to cover, I would’ve been thrilled to read otherwise. That’s where my personal and professional worlds blur.
And bonus points for working with specialty presses that allow me the space and freedom to make those covers the way I need to make them. A book is not made by author alone. They have the bulk of the work to be sure, but it takes a village. Which probably makes me the village idiot, but so be it.
So you are a reader of the “weird.” What does weird mean for you?
Avid reader. Wish I had more time to get through my towering to-read pile. I’m gonna freaking drown in it. It’ll be an awesome death.
Weird. Horror. Zombie. Some sci-fi (near future stuff).
Favorite authors, besides the insanely gifted authors I’ve worked with: William Gibson; Lauren Beukes; Neil Gaiman; Sarah Langan; Joe Hill; Sarah Pinborough; Gary McMahon; Lou Morgan; Conrad Williams; Tom Piccirilli.
To name a few.
You said you consider yourself a fine artist rather than a graphic artist. Do you take commissions for other types of art as well as book covers? What other types of projects have you worked on?
Did I say that? Shit. How am I going to dig myself out of that hole?
I’ll leave the FINE portion of that statement to the viewer. Goldfish memory, but FINE versus GRAPHIC really speaks to process and purpose. Handmade versus digital. Nearly every scrap of any given piece I make is handmade or found. When my hands are done with a piece, I break out my digital camera and scanner.
Fun Fact: I rarely clean my scanner. I delight in the tiny blips and blurps from prior scans showing up on current scans. Ghost dust and scratches, haunting my present work.
Handmade art, assembled with our phabulous phriend Photoshop. No originals. Digital ghosts. Again with the ghosts.
At my core I see myself as a painter. I also don’t see any difference between my personal and professional work. I approach every piece exactly the same way, whether the finished product is a painting on a wall, an illustration in a magazine, or the cover of a book.
Every piece is a personal piece. I’ve never had to stop and think about it. Never had to flip a single switch. This piece is for a magazine. This piece is for a book cover. Nope. This piece is exactly what it’s supposed to be. Does it quench your project’s thirst? Fantastic!
How would an author contact you about commissioning art for their books?
If you dig what I’m doing, and you’d like me to make some art for your project, let’s chat. Let’s do something completely freaking batshit!
Check out my online portfolio: http://deadclownart.com/
Covers behind the Covers link. Artwork behind the Artwork link.
Pretty nifty navigation, eh?
Like what you see? Email: email@example.com
Chris, you’re hysterical! Thanks for stopping by to talk with us. I can’t wait to see what you’re going to create next.
Thanks so much for your time and hospitality, Invested Ivana! You’re a rockstar and we should totally hang out some time! I’ll bring the ferrets!