Who did the Last Circus* cover?
Roy Chen did, that's who.
Sydney-based artist and illustrator, Chen blew me away when I saw his cover for The Last Circus on Earth. I loved it, and many people have asked me about it. And because they did, and I wanted to know more about the shy-to-the-point-of-mysterious Chen and his work, I interviewed him.
Hi Roy! You created the cover for my debut novel, Brio Books' The Last Circus on Earth. If I told you my reaction to seeing it for the first time was a jaw-drop and a very loud 'f*** me!', would that seem weird? [Disclosure: I was wearing a huge grin when I said it.]
I'm happy that you loved the cover! I had a lot of fun putting it together (though now that I think about it, maybe the cover should have just been a shot of the elephant with the machine gun).
The Last Circus is a 400-page spec-fic road-trip from England to China in which a whole bunch of stuff happens. What's your process to pick just one mental image you feel sums up the book?
Usually, I'd just read a few key excerpts (often hand-picked by the author or editor) and be given some 'mood / style reference' images, and the cover would be based around those. But in this case, David [Henley, Brio Books publisher / editor / author] just handed me the manuscript. 'Dystopian apocalyptic sci-fi circus...and elephants. With guns.' So I read a few chapters and also kind of spoiled the ending for myself.
When I start reading to do an illustration, I'm mostly trying to get a feel for the tone first, with the specifics coming later. Often, you end up not needing much more than just the tone. I also go through a couple of different ideas and options before settling on the final [image].
People I've shown the cover have responded with very firm approval - they like your image, and are intrigued to find out more about the book itself. Did you paint this image as if you were the potential reader?
Kind of. I've sort of got one foot stuck in the 'design' door, and the other in the 'artist' door. I start by doing whatever I want, but always end up asking 'does this actually make sense for a fantasy / sci-fi / [insert other qualifier] cover? Full disclosure: my initial concepts for this cover didn't make sense.
For other illustrators out there, what media did you use, and how much is involved in font, layout and overall design? What size is the original artwork? Do you scan that and shrink in Photoshop? It looks like a lot of work - is it?
The image (and the title type) is done entirely in Photoshop. The illustration is a mix of photo-manipulation and digital painting, a process referred to as 'photobashing', which is often used by illustrators and concept artists in the film / games / vfx industries.
The technique is mostly a pragmatic one - it's just the fastest way to get a detailed finish without having to painstakingly draw every detail from scratch. There is still a lot of work integrating elements, painting over things, and drawing in details that don't exist, but far less than starting from nothing. It also means any WIP you might show tends to be more representative of the final image, so other people get a better idea of what they're getting.
The rest of the text is added afterwards in inDesign, which is software more specific to publishing.
What else are you working on, and how can people see more of your art?
I'm still collecting a proper body of work. My older stuff is not really up to par, so my online presence is a 'little' empty. I swear I'm doing something about it!
Can people contact you about commissioning illustrative art / book covers?
For the time being, and particularly if it's a book cover, you can find me through Fantastica / Brio Books - firstname.lastname@example.org
[header image, Roy Chen, blatantly stolen from the wonderful Seizure magazine.]
*See cover below
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