Thursday, July 21, 2011

Interview with Artist Amanda Wood

Today's guest is American artist, cartoonist, illustrator and humourist Amanda Wood, the creator of the bison gracing the cover of my novel Strings Attached.

I've known Amanda for quite a while, relatively-speaking in internet terms. We first "met" online in 2006, through our blogs and our mutual love for Groucho Marx. She was an artist, and I was a grad student seeking a vision. Eventually, I sent her a little manuscript I had written years before, called Strings Attached. It wasn't until I finished graduate school that I thought to submit Strings for publication, and Amanda graciously read it for me again, offering editorial advice before I submitted the book - about a year ago, in June of 2010. The rest, as they say, is history. Wild Horse Press accepted Strings Attached, and I could think of nothing more perfect than my friend Amanda to paint the cover.

We went through several sketches and ideas of what could go on the cover, and we finally had an epiphany: A bison, standing alone in the snow under the northern lights. The isolation, yet strength, would symbolize the themes of the novel perfectly, combined with the iconic landscape of northern Manitoba. I also knew it would showcase Amanda's skills perfectly, since she is so very skilled with animals. She was a real trooper to attempt the northern lights for me - those look terrifying to paint!

We worked so well together, I am hoping we have more projects in the future - especially my self-publishing debut story, and possibly a few other surprises.

So, with this week's theme of covers, I could think of no one I wanted to interview more than Amanda Wood, my friend and cover artist.


Tell us about yourself, Amanda.

Hi, my name is Amanda Wood and I am a freelance artist who happens to live in Cincinnati, Ohio. I share a house with the boyfriend, three cats, and a ferret. I have other interests outside of illustrating and art, but those do not seem particularly relevant at the moment. Hi!

"Self portrait."

Tell us a little about how you started doing covers and/or illustrations.

Well, I have been drawing since I was a little child, pre-Kindergarten, I'd say. In seventh or eighth grade, the yearbook staff asked me to draw the school mascot animal all over the margins of the yearbook. So I drew a bunch of little cartoon tigers for them. That was likely my very first illustration gig that was published. Since then, I have always just been an artist, and people occasionally hire me to do art for them - a variety of arts - but I'll get to that later.

"Created at age two or so, this sure is a little drawing on a pamper."

I have a friend who runs an entertainment website, and I frequently illustrate articles there so that we have images of our very own, something on the internet that isn't just the same old recycled pictures over and over, seen everywhere. I think because of that site, I had a blog in 2006 or so, and you ran into me on the crazy world of blogger. We became fast friends and eventually when you had a book that needed a cover, you asked me to do it! And that is the Story of My First Cover.

What other covers have you done?

So far, I have only done two covers, although I am right now working on a third. And maybe if you ask me this question in a year, I'll have done SEVENTY.

I have done the cover for the delightful first novel by someone by the name of Anne Holly called Strings Attached, a romantic story from one spot of the world I haven't been to a completely different place I've never been - AND BACK.

I have also done a cover for a textbook intended to be used in summer camps, I believe, in Texas for the next foreseeable future, I guess. It is for Texan children who are around eight years of age who would like to (or whose parents want them to) be introduced to the Mandarin language. The lessons are pretty surreal, sometimes, and I illustrated the entire thing, so they asked me to also do the cover and to sort of encapsulate the feel of the entire thing. I did my best.

"It's beneficial to learn! And maybe even FUN!"

How do you decide which projects to take on?

Whenever a new project is presented to me, I have to sit down and calculate how much time I actually have available. I usually am doing around five projects at the same time because variety is said to be the spice of life, so I have to figure out which ones need the most focus, factor in new self-imposed or other-imposed deadlines, and also, honestly, I have to factor in when and how much I will be getting paid. If I have too much on my plate, I have to ask the newest potential client if they can wait a few weeks for me to get back to them. Normally though, I am an optimist, and I am not like flooded with offers these days anyway, so I take on all comers.

When and if things pick up, though, I will have to learn how to treat myself right and not force myself to overwork when it comes down to the wire. "Valuable life lessons."

However, sometimes things really are out of my ability range. If that happens, I have to admit to the person that I am not the right artist for them and wish them all the best in the world. Ordinarily though, I enjoy the challenge and expanding my range, so I like to try things artistically that I have never tried before. I just give out a lot of warnings to the client beforehand that I am untried at a particular task, but hopeful. Always hopeful.

How important is the genre of the book to whether you do it, and to how you design a cover or illustrations?

Oh, the genre is not particularly important to me at all. All genres are sweet. HOWEVER! I am reluctant to paint traditional bodice-ripping smoochy-kiss romance covers because I am sometimes shy and modest about things. I want to be able to show the covers to my parents without blushing or feeling awkward. Yes, I am a grown up.

I am generally wary of trying the kinds of science fiction covers that want robots or really intricate looking technology because... Well. I just never had an interest in that type of thing, so I have not spent years using my imagination to play-draw a bunch of technological marvels and futuristic machinery. So I think that lack of experience would be very evident in the finished piece.

As an aside, I would like to mention that because I have been drawing most of my life, I have racked up just oodles of drawing experience. When I was a child (and still now sometimes), one of the ways I would play on rainy days would be to draw out adventures. Or maybe try to draw realistically with my Zoobooks magazines or even encyclopedias as references. I would draw all of the things I imagined, and all of the things I was interested in. As I got older, my interests expanded and I drew those, too. Like, if you want me to do horse pictures? I have like thirty years of experience backing me on drawing horses. But cars? Airplanes? Factory equipment? No. I just never was into that stuff. I think I could do something with them if I had reference pictures and patience, but I'd never be fully satisfied because I would think that the viewer could TELL that I was just going through the motions, rather than liking anything about it. That would trouble me.

How closely do you work with the writer of the books you illustrate/cover?

It varies on how important the cover is for the author. For example, the textbook cover, they just said something like, "Could you do the cover?" And I said, "Yeah!" And they were like, "Could you make it so that you show all of the characters, maybe some of the settings somehow? Could you show, in the cover, the overall spirit of the lessons while still making it bright and entertaining for children to see?" I was close to overwhelmed feeling for a second, but I plunged onward and sent them the sketch of the cover they wound up choosing with explanations of why I included the things I did, and they said, "Exactly what we wanted!" Whew. I made a few compositional adjustments and sent it off to them as soon as possible.

With Strings Attached, there was more dialogue between us. I made several different kinds of sketch, and you chose the one you liked best. Also, you helped to find pictures of the sort of bison stances you preferred, things like that.

The cover I am currently working on is very involved with the author. I am making many sketches of characters that will be seen so that I can get them just right. I am drawing people, and the author is choosing the bits and pieces of the people for me to combine and draw over in new sketches until I can find exactly (or close to) what he is imagining. It's a little hard to do, but I think it is well worth the effort.

"This is a tiny example of a sketch I made for the current work I am doing. I needed to design a dragon. I also put people all over it so that scale could be seen, and comparisons made. There have been changes made since this sketch."
How do you decide what medium/materials to use?

Well, when I am introduced to a project, there is a little Q&A session between us. I ask to know what exactly they are hoping for, as far as content and detail, and then I decide which medium will look best for it. It seems to me that covers often would look best as a painting. I don't do oil painting because of the price, smells, and space issues here at home, so I normally stick with acrylic paints. The textbook, however, was done with an ink pen and watercolor. As far as illustrations go, sometimes it is pen and ink, sometimes watercolor, and sometimes graphite. It really depends on what sort of look the author would like to represent their story words.

Do you read the books you illustrate or cover, and how useful/important for your work doing so? 

I will always ask to be able to read the book, and not JUST because I like to read fresh new books for free! When I get to read the book, I then get a better idea of the tone of the entire thing, and understand the characters' personalities and relationships. I get to clearly visualize the settings. Of course, this is most important if I am doing a cover that actually shows characters or even a scene from the book. If the author would like a more generalized cover, then it is not necessary that I read the entire book at all. I can just ask the author what sort of feeling they would like me to convey and that is often good enough for my purposes. I have always hated when I have read a book and realized that the cover is not at all what I imagined the characters to be like, or worse, when it is obvious that the artist was given vague directions such as, "depict three girls, one blonde, one brunette, and one red head. They are in a barn with one horse looking at them from a stall. The horse is a palomino with a face marking. Get it to me by deadline." And then, in the book itself, you see that the horse in question also had a nose wound or some distinctive quality about it, and the girls just look completely different than what was shown. Yes, the hair colors are right, but that is all. Oh, that always drives me crazy to notice. I strive not to let that happen, and I do that by asking to read the book.

What particular effort goes into doing a cover or book illustrations (as opposed to a stand alone painting, etc)? How are the two activities different?

That is actually the biggest difference between doing the cover and just doing another sort of painting-based commission - I read the book. There is no book if I am not doing a book cover, or illustrating the story inside. Although, that is not to say that when I am requested to do a certain sort of animal painting, for instance, that I do not ask a lot of questions that range from: "well how do you imagine it should look?" to "where do you plan to hang this painting? Which room? How is it decorated and what are the colors of the room and what else is displayed around it?" I feel it is good to know what the intentions are of any commission so that I can hopefully exceed expectations.

"There was no actual way to prepare for this one, though. The guy was like, 'go nuts. Just include two things I want, the rest is ALL up to you.' Easy to please! Just like I like 'em!"
What are some of the technical aspects – scanning, digital manipulation, etc?

I am not so keen on choosing fonts or manipulating images on the computermachine, so I prefer to just offer the painting, or drawing. I leave space enough for where I suppose the title and names should go, but that is about as far as I am comfortable with designing an actual book cover. I do not have font knowledge, nor do I want to decide on spacing matters, and heaven help us all if I am asked to do anything more than scan an image at a decently high resolution. I actually prefer, even, to do the painting and send the actual painting to the author or publisher, so that they can get a professional to scan it the way they want, rather than try to understand them when they ask me to do the things the way they want them done. I mean, I have tried plenty of times, but in the end, it is just a gazillion times easier for us all if I can just stick to what I enjoy doing and send it to them. No one likes headaches.

So, do you judge a book by its cover?

Yes and no. I mean, I would probably read a book whose cover was white and just said "Book Title" in plain black lettering. I think, more, I judge a cover. End of sentence. Some of them I don't even notice, some are so so so good, and some are soooo bad. But that doesn't really dissuade me, or encourage me, to read/judge the story inside. I think a lot of the time, the author gets absolutely zero say in what their cover is, so it is not my place to judge their content for that reason. And I don't always judge the cover artist for an inaccurate cover, because maybe the circumstances caused them to have to work on very little information, as I speculated earlier. But when a cover is perfect for the book - a perfect match - I love it. And THAT is how I judge. Those are the ways that I pass judgments.

What other kinds of art do you do?

I like to think that I am good at all sorts of things and styles. I am self-taught, and most of my experiences come from not shying away from new challenges. Really, it feels like each new project is a brand new challenge. In my life, I have drawn and painted portraits of humans, pets, animals in general, landscapes, strange abstract or surreal things - many subjects. I enjoy cartoony looks, realistic ones, and making comics sometimes. I've illustrated books, of course, and done a few murals. I know I said that I don't enjoy working with computers, but I have always had a soft spot for illustrations done in MS Paint. I have even been involved on an animation project or two. I have done a few logos, but honestly, I am not comfortable with doing them.

I enjoy the crafting of sock monkey style animals, and a few little other sorts of dolls, too. I want to get into puppetry and puppet-making soon. I also really enjoy sculpting, but have not had access to a kiln in quite a while. In the meantime, I sometimes make little figurines out of polymer clay.

"This is a small cat made of Sculpey and painted with acrylics."

Tell us a bit about the business of covers – do you work mostly by referrals, and what’s the consultation process? How do you decide on a price, and what kind of drafting/revising process happens, etc?

I am very much a word-of-mouth sort of freelance artist, at the moment. My friends know someone who knows someone looking for someone who can draw. They then get us together and it works out or not. In the past, my friends haven't always been able to judge if the person seeking an artist is serious or not, so I didn't have that filter in place. There are a LOT of people out there in the world who think they should hire an illustrator for the children's book they haven't even written yet! So I have had to write my own fair share of "hey cool, well when you finish it, let me know, okay?" emails. Lately, however, my name has been passed around amongst more serious circles, so that is fortunate indeed. Maybe some day I will be part of a stable of illustrators for a company. Or maybe I will get an agent or manager or something? When and if that day comes, then I expect all of this will change.

Normally what happens is that I am approached via email by an interested party. They give me a basic overview of the book and ask if I am available to work on a cover for them. Then, a series of emails are passed back and forth, covering all the questions that I have and that they have. I want us both to be comfortable with the entire ordeal. Then, after they feel like they have an understanding with me, I begin my own personal auditioning process, where I make some sketches based on my ideas. Eventually, they decide if they want to hire me or not. I normally don't bother with making them sign contracts - so far - as I feel a verbal agreement is binding enough. But I do prefer to be paid in advance, or split the pay. It seems like the good way to go, and also makes life easier because then I can afford groceries and things like that while I am working.

How do you deal with copyright issues?

What copyright issues? As far as I am concerned, they buy the picture I am making. It is theirs. I assume that they will give me credit or a head nod if they use it for whatever they want. I sign the paintings, so my name is on there. It would be different if I was making these paintings on my own and then selling off the rights to use them. Or something. But that's not what I do. In this regard, to me, making a cover is the same as being commissioned to paint a portrait of someone's great aunt. After it leaves my hands, it leaves my mind. It is another piece to my portfolio; it was a way to gain practical experience. If they choose to make a million greeting cards off of that portrait, then that's sort of flattering. They can put in tiny print on the back "portrait by Amanda Wood," that would be nice of them. Equally, if they choose to line the kitty pan with the portrait, if I ever even found out about it I would just sigh and wonder what people are doing with their money these days, but - it's their decision to treat it that way. Perhaps I am woefully naive? I don't know.

What does it feel like to show the cover to the author for the first time?

I find it to be a sort of odd blend of thrilling and panic-inducing. I really, really want them to be pleased by the end result, but oh gosh what if they aren't?? For the record, I have never had a disappointed client, but I am always so anxious that this new person will finally be the one who is just eternally dissatisfied. So I have that inner horror that they will be like, "Oh. Well. Good effort. Thanks." Or worse, "Even though I agreed to every single sketch and talked to you at length about how this will look, it turns out to be nothing like I wanted at all! I WILL SEE YOU IN COURT FOR SOME REASON." Oh, how awful to consider. But, on the flipside, whenever they are happy with what I have done, it is the best feeling in the world. The happiness is so good. It makes all of the anxiety look like a PEANUT. And for that reason, I will probably be doing this line of work forever, or as long as I am physically able. I enjoy it.

"Illustrating things is enjoyable!"

Thanks for the cover, Amanda, and thanks for visiting!

Amanda Wood is available for commissions, and can be reached via her blog Never Not Amanda. Please visit the site and take a look around for some more funny/incredible/compelling drawings, cartoons and paintings.


Robert Marda said...

Nice interview. Now I know even more about Amanda. For the record, I found Amanda because I saw Anne's cover on kindleboards and then went to see what else Amanda drew. I liked what I saw and so sent an e-mail to Amanda to find out if she could draw dragons.

I believe Amanda will do a wonderful job on the cover for my book.

Thanks for interviewing her Anne!


Anne Holly said...

Hi Robert! I hadn't realized it was you who Amanda was doing the dragons for. I'm glad you two found each other, and I'm looking forward to what she comes up with for you.

Good luck on the book - and feel free to drop by for an interview, yourself, one of these days. :)

Robert Marda said...

Yep, it's me she is working with now on a book cover. As I read the interview I was wondering if Amanda was talking about me or someone else.

Then I saw the sketch she sent to me and knew it was me she was talking about.

And I learned about this interview from your post on Google+.

As for the book, with each critique I get I learn more and more how much work is still needed. I need to start thinking of doing blog interviews and other things, but I am mostly focused on getting my book ready for publication. When I'm ready for interviews I'll let you know.

And I really like the dragon in the sketch Amanda included with her interview.

Andrew Ashling said...

Fantastic interview.
I simply adored the Sculpey cat.
I wonder what a cover, consisting of a photo of a landscape and figures made out of Sculpey would cost? Or if Amanda would even be interested in doing something like that.

Anne Holly said...

You know, Andrew, Amanda is not generally one to shrink from unusual or challenging projects, and that sounds pretty neat.

Amanda can be contacted via email at nevernotamanda(at)gmail(dot)com as well as through her blog.

Amanda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amanda said...

:3 Hey everyone! I am glad you enjoyed my candid, tell-all interview. I tried not to be incredibly dull, anyway.

To answer Andrew: That's actually a very interesting idea. I bet that could look pretty spiffy for a cover. And I imagine I would charge about what I charge for painting - maybe even less, really because I can't imagine it would take any more time or effort. But I have no way of knowing how much time and energy it takes until and unless I ever actually do it. I mean, it would be an effort, but it could very well wind up being worth it.

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