The Art of the Cover

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When the race has been run and my brushes and pencils have been set down, my output of book covers is going to be very small in comparison to that of any commercial illustrator. I pick and choose very carefully from the offers that come in, and I spend incalculable amounts of time reading manuscripts and making notes and developmental sketches. I care with a passion about what I make.

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Below: for Charis in the World of Wonders Ignatius took the unusual step of allowing me to design their publishing imprint for the front cover. Interestingly because the imprint is now so integral to the narrative imagery of Charis’s story, it has a much stronger presence on the cover than it might otherwise have had, though the publisher can’t have known that when granting me permission.

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Though things are different now, in the past I underwrote the time it took me to make book covers with the income from my work as an easel artist. I did it because I simply love books. I love the art of the book. I love the way that a cover can reach someone who may never walk into a gallery to look at art.

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I work with publishers I’m comfortable with and who are comfortable with me as we all progress toward the desired conclusion. I don’t make covers for books I don’t like, or for authors I’m not convinced by or for publishers who haven’t taken the trouble to discover how I think and work. I don’t have the time to make those kinds of errors.

To date I’ve made more covers for Marly Youmans than I have for any other author. She was the first to suggest I might come up with a cover image for a book. Until then publishers had asked only for permissions to use my paintings – or details from them –  for covers, and with mixed results. So the idea of making a cover from scratch was an attractive one. The first book for Marly was her novella Val/Orson, and I’ve been been working with her ever since. Thinking about it, I see a pattern emerges, and at the heart of it is the certainty that I don’t want to make banal covers. All the authors I enjoy working with create layers of mysteries and ambiguities in their writings, and those qualities give me the space to grow images that interest me. If I’m not interested, I don’t want to make the cover.

Below: the front and back wrap-cover for Val/Orson (PS Publishing, 2009), before the title and author were added. It was a hardback without a dust-wrapper, which is quite unusual.

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Below: front and back wrap-cover for The Book of the Red King. (Phoenicia Publishing, 2019) After Val/Orson I began to include title and author to the cover artwork of all my books for Marly, the better to integrate words with images. It’s a practice that whenever possible I’ve held to with other authors.

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Since becoming the artist most associated with the published works of Marly Youmans, other writers have approached me with requests to make covers for their books: Damian Walford Davies, Mary-Ann Constantine and most recently Simon Armitage, who wanted not just a cover, but my entire suite of fourteen Penfold Press Sir Gawain and The Green Knight screen prints to illustrate the Faber & Faber revision of his translation of the medieval poem. Simon and I have since produced Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes for Design for Today, and I’m currently working with him on a yet-to-be announced book.

Below: Hansel & Gretel: a Nightmare in Eight Scenes (2018, Design for Today) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2018, Faber & Faber)

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I’ve been in love with books all my life. Because as a child I read prolifically and precociously, from the moment I was allowed out by myself I could be found in book shops where wall-to-wall paperback covers offered endless visual stimulation. I was gazing raptly at the covers of novels long before I experienced art in galleries. To begin with it was the covers that led my reading. At best the book cover can be an invitation to a new realm, but it needs to catch your attention or it’ll remain unexplored. When opportunities allow for an image to wrap to the back cover, I enjoy the possibilities of springing a surprise. The front cover for Judas (see below) only offers a part of the picture. The spine runs a centimetre or two to the left of the title, and so it’s only when the book is flipped in the hand that the monstrousness of the distorted animal becomes apparent.

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Whenever I begin making a cover, the guiding principle is to make it catch the eye of a passer by. I will never deceive, but there has to be an element of the sideshow barker calling attention to the tent and the wonders within. All I have to do is get the punter to the tent-flap, to lift it and to look inside. Thereafter it’s all down to the author.

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Charis in the World of Wonders by Marly Youmans and with cover artwork and interior decorations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, is due out from Ignatius in the US in the Spring of 2020.

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