Friday, July 10, 2009

Artist Corner: Chris McGrath

For this week’s Artist Corner I have someone real special, who has touched million of urban fantasy readers. I present to you Chris McGrath, the cover artist behind the instantly recognized Dresden Files covers as well as covers for authors like Vicki Pettersson and C.E. Murphy. With him I prod in a new direction aimed at the not-so-much-known niche of cover art and I hope you guys are satisfied with the end result.

Harry Markov: Hello and thank you for accepting my invitation. Having you here would be a major treat for my readers, since you provide UF readers with some of the best covers in the industry. So let’s start with the essentials. What was the first encounter with the visual arts to stir you in that particular direction?

CM: Actually I had no intention of doing that sort of cover art. Not that I didn’t like it, it’s just that I didn’t know much about the genre and it was still just starting to take off at the time I came in. I was doing a sci fi series for Roc at the time and the art director thought the “noir” style that I had would work well for the Dresden Files “Dead Beat” cover.
But I don’t think either one of us had a totally clear vision as to how it would look in the end.
When I had finished the cover I felt that it had been a turning point for me as an illustrator and really finding myself as an artist. The next cover I did was Night Life by Rob Thurman. After that I was pretty locked down as an Urban Fantasy guy.

HM: Another tradition with the “Artist Corner” is to share something a bit more personal, so that all nosy about the person behind the artist can be satisfied. Who is Chris McGrath in the daily routine?

CM: Nothing special really. I work at home so I can control my schedule a bit. I live in Manhattan so that's always fun (and helps with UF covers). I usually go to bed around 3am, wake up at around 10 or 11am. Go out for a cup of coffee, then sit down to work. I usually take a break before dinner and play my guitar for a couple of hours, then around 7pm I work a little more. I can’t really complain I guess

HM: Who are the artists and photographers that inspired and influenced you the most?

CM: My painting teacher Steve Assael was a huge influence on me as well as Dorian Vallejo.
But there is a huge list. I’m traditionally trained as a realist painter, so I like a lot of the 19th century painters. Odd Nerdrum is a modern favorite of mine.
Sci Fi guys, I really like Enki Bilal, Frazatta, Dorian Vallejo and so on..
I do like photography but I can’t really pick any one in paticular. Maybe Bresson.

HM: So the essence of your work involves a great mastery over Photoshop and other programs from that caliber. What I want also to know is, whether you shoot the picture material for the covers yourself as well?

CM: Yes. I shoot everything. Even when I was oil painting I still shot all of my own reference. It’s the way I was trained. I’m not really that good with photoshop in the traditional sense. I learned it by myself by just trying to get it to work the way I would do my oil paintings. The process is the same and so are the rules.

HM: Doing covers for fantasy books must mean that you are also a fan of the genre in some of its aspects the least. What attracts you to the out of the ordinary and fantasy? Different people find something entirely unique for themselves and I always like hearing a new answer on the subject.

CM: I’m actually more of a science fiction fan. My three favorite books are Dune, Hyperion, and Veniss Underground. As far as Fantasy books, I do love the Elric series.
I like this sort of stuff because visually it’s creative and in a lot of ways it’s more believable than regular action or supspense fiction. I can never buy into the mainstream action books because I live in this world and I know how things work and how rediculious those plots are.
But when you move it all into a far fetched world, it becomes much more believable because it’s an unfamilar setting.

HM: Do you have to read the manuscripts you receive to get an idea what the best possible cover might be, inclining that you have full creative freedom over the process or do you have to abide already set down standards and vision o the publishers?

CM: it’s a mix. A lot of the times I just get an outline. Sometimes a manuscript.
Some companies have more control over the cover than others.
Every publisher seems to have their own rituals as to how they work and get things out, but there definitely are a lot of people involved quite a bit.

HM: Another completely customary question would be about your work process. How much does it usually take to complete a piece from start to finish and what’s your way of doing things?

CM: Finish time really varies on the project. Sci Fi stuff generally takes longer.
The most difficult part is the sketch phase and planning. If I do that well, I have less trouble but quite often there is a bit of a struggle. Plus I’m really hard on myself and things always seem to be a disaster as I’m working on them. But Sketches can take a week sometimes.

HM: In the same line of thought, provided you are the photographer as well, how does a typical photo shoot go for you? Bringing in humans as an aspect of your work certainly contributes its unexpected bumps and turns to the whole process. Does it take long to achieve the image you require or is it strictly individual?

CM: It’s funny, everyone I know who does photoshoots and has been doing them for 10 years or more still has days where everything goes wrong. There is a lot to try and control and get right. And trying to get what you need from a model can be hard too. That's why you’ll see a lot of the same models on book covers in the stores. If you find one that is good and you know you’ll get what you want from them, they get used a lot. It’s tough getting a good model.

HM: Since your job requirement and description basically demands achieving maximum realism for a very otherworldly concept, how do you manage to layer the magical elements into your compositions? Do you get to shoot against Hollywood’s beloved green screen?

CM: A lot of stuff is made up or pieced together and repainted the way a lot of concept guys work. But it’s all painted in Photoshop.

HM: Speaking of compositions, where do you get your inspiration from? What brings out new ideas for compositions and covers?

CM: Sometimes the story dictates that sort of thing. When you begin to establish the main elements of the concept a rhythm begins to become apparent and sometimes you just follow through with that instinctively. Other times a movie or something like that will give me an idea.

HM: Also to rewind a bit, how did you get involved in the cover art making business in the first place? Your profession is extremely interesting and a small niche, so there has to be an interesting story behind your involvement with it.

CM: When I was around 12 years old I saw Frazetta’s work and that pretty much inspired me to go into doing book covers. It is a long story, but to sum it up: I finished college in 1995 and really didn’t have a portfolio finished. I was kind of into doing the fine art thing at the time and it distracted me a bit from the sci fi stuff. Plus there were a lot of other things going on in my life. Becoming an artist is not always a reality for family members to support. But I pushed on because I really couldn’t do anything else. While I worked on my portfolio I gave guitar lessons to make money. In 1999 the industry really seemed like it was headed for more digital stuff so a friend introduced me to photoshop. I didn’t want to get involved with it but soon I began to like it. In 2001 the art director at ACE books gave me my first job doing an oil painting of all things. I had showed her my digital portfolio and I had one traditional painting in the back,. I’m suspicious that my friend Dorian had called her and said to make sure that the job she gave me was done in oil not PS. At that time digital was still “evil” to painters. The cover is on my website still. Entitled “the King”. But that was my only traditional cover. The other weird thing about that cover is that I started it the morning of sept.11th. so it has a erie vibe to me.
From there work was slow. I started at 3 covers my first year. 6 my second. Maybe 10 or 12 my third. And in 2004 after I did Dead Beat I did around 16 covers. It started looking good but It wasn’t really full time until late 2005.

HM:As a final question, what are your future plans? Would you deviate from what you do right now and pursue different projects and if so, can you share?

CM: that's a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately and I really don’t know yet.
The publishing world is changing and it’s not getting any bigger. I would love to continue to do covers full time but I don’t really see that happening. Unless book sales pick up or it shifts into something else. I don’t really want to do full time concept work and I’m not sure if I want to do traditional fine art either. I honestly don’t know where things are headed but you never know. I would be happy just doing sci fi stuff.

1 comment:

Kat @ FanLit said...

I love his work and am always drawn to his covers. I have actually read books JUST BECAUSE he did the cover.

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