Words matter. But, when it comes to book publishing, so do art and design. During this University Press Week, we chose the theme “Our UP in Pictures” to go behind the scenes and show how the visual elements which accompany an author’s words are selected, shaped, and formed. In Part I of the post, we speak with JHU Press Art Director Martha Sewall, who discusses the work of book design and what has inspired and influenced her. Then, in Part II, marine science illustrator Val Kells takes us into her studio and lets us see the creative process unfold. In a short film, Kells paints a Rockfish, one of the many illustrations in her next book (with Luiz A. Rocha and Larry G. Allen), A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes: From Alaska to California. That book was five years in the making and will be published in Fall 2016.
Part I: The Art of Book Design
Interview with Martha Sewall, JHUP art director
Q: It may sound a bit like asking you to name a favorite child, but can you name a book whose cover image you are especially proud of? Why this particular book?
A: Cover IMAGE would be the quilt on Janneken Smucker’s Amish Quilts. I thought our title might stand out among the many quilt exhibit books, with a simple quilt designed and made for the cover. I have, however, seen an example of a quilt sewn for a cover that doesn’t look great, so it was with some trepidation that I promoted this idea. But the author was keen, so we discussed the best way to to go about it. She was thinking of possible quilters for it when she, then, said she’d like to do it herself, as she quilts and could do it over a break. It would be an homage to the quilters she presents. I sent her a preliminary design as a starting point. She liked it as it was and sent me several fabric colors that we settled on pretty quickly, and then she made it. For the type, I sent her a file that she had stamped onto white cloth and sewed in as a patch. For the back, she found an appropriate print. She made the quilt a little larger than the actual jacket to allow for the spine. John Cronin, design and production manager, took it to a shop to photograph it, the designer placed it in her file, and we printed the end sheets as the back of the quilt. It was a great experience.
Cover DESIGN would be the one for Reducing Gun Violence in America because of the subject matter. I don’t feel like it’s a great design but it was straightforward and very well received so I felt like it helped the cause. It had to be approved quickly, and it was. And any of (Press designer) Kimberly Glyder’s covers, especially the Guides to the Natural World Series, are great.
Q: Most of us don’t get to peek behind the curtain of book design . . . Is there an “average” number of passes between potential cover and final cover? What’s rewarding and challenging about this collaborative process?
A: An average would be hard to calculate. The majority of covers are approved with the first or one of the first designs (designers often send in more than one; for Collecting Shakespeare, the designer sent in nine because she liked working on it so much). Some require many more. The Renegade Amish cover took fifteen versions. That’s rare; if it happens, it’s usually for a trade book or a very important title, like Frederick Law Olmsted: Plans and Views of Public Parks, which had about six go-rounds, but there was a change in marketing strategy with that title (in a trade direction), partly because of the design. Additionally, there are authors we want to cultivate; some of those like to labor over their covers I think because they just like doing it. When I begin to see that happening, I will sometimes work directly with them to direct the process to a close.
Q: Is there one genre—perhaps because of your own interests—whose books you look forward to designing? What about the subject and its design possibilities attract you?
A: I can’t say that there is. The main thing is the design challenge. What’s helpful is to have an author who sends an image as a starting point or direction and lets us run with it rather than be wedded to it.
Q: If you were art director somewhere other than for a book publisher, what field would you choose?
A: I like being an art director for books most of all. So I probably would not choose another field, though I might want to try packaging. And books themselves are a kind of package design.
Q: During your day job, you are an art director. What other creative outlets are important to you? Do you have time to paint, sculpt, play the flute? Is being creative for yourself different from being creative for your work?
A: I did take a drawing class two years ago from an obsessive French man. It was great, but I have some problems with my right hand now, so that is pretty much out of the question. I have tried to find Chinese calligraphy classes without success so did try to teach myself a little. It’s hard but satisfying to try to do. And I have made quilts myself.
Q: Name a few of your favorite artists. How have they influenced your approach to book design?
A: If you mean fine artists, maybe Stuart Davis, Romare Bearden, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Alex Katz, Keith Harring, Seurat, Jim Dine, Charles and Ray Eames (technically not fine artists but to me they are), ones that tend to be more graphic and flat. But probably it’s just that I like them a lot rather than can point to any direct influence. They are on another plane than myself.
As for designers, John Gall, Chip Kidd, Peter Mendelsund, almost any covers done at the University of Chicago Press, also Duke, I do learn a lot from our freelancers. They are quite good so it’s a pleasure working with them. But most anything can get your attention. There was an old bank I passed driving into work that had beautiful letterspaced small caps on the side of the building, Bulleit bourbon bottles, some design/furniture magazines, tags on really nice clothing, etc., a Japanese magazine of hair styles at the salon I go to, really lovely.
Q: Computer technology has revolutionized book design. What are your thoughts about this ongoing transformation of your work and work experience?
A: It’s revolutionized everything, life in general. The main thing is to figure how to use it to your advantage. It is possible to be incredibly precise working in InDesign, in a way not possible historically. There are thousands and thousands of fonts now, so it’s hard to keep up with the latest ones and know what’s going to work well. Those that work well for print do not necessarily transfer successfully to a monitor and monitors come in all sizes.
What happens then is the inevitable reaction to all that. Right now hand lettering is big. A number of great book covers have a very loose, almost crude, brush work, or sometimes quite sophisticated, hand script. I don’t think many art schools were teaching lettering (they might be now) so people were learning that on their own.
Part II: The Art of Marine Science Illustration
Guest post by Val Kells. JHUP author and illustrator
Rockfishes are a diverse and highly successful group within the Family Scorpaenidae, or Scorpionfishes. There are currently 102 known species of Scorpaenids worldwide. They live primarily in temperate to cold seas in the northern and southern hemispheres. Most are demersal, meaning they live close to the bottom of the sea. Most are spiny, some are venomous. They have a bony structure on the cheek that I won’t begin to explain.
I am in the midst of coauthoring and illustrating A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes: From Alaska to California, a new book to be published by JHU Press. It will follow the layout and design of A Field Guide to Coastal Fishes: From Maine to Texas and will serve as a companion. The overall goal is to illustrate and describe in field guide form all of the fishes to about 600 feet from both coasts of the continental United States. It’s a Guinness Book of World Records kind of thing . . . nobody has ever done this before. I’ll be the first—with invaluable support from my coauthors, Larry Allen and Luiz Rocha, and my fabulous editor, Vince Burke. It is an enormous and sometimes daunting task. But having worked for over five years on the Atlantic and Gulf book, and having been rewarded by its tremendous success, I’m up to the challenge.
Anyway, back to Rockfishes . . . .
Two of the largest families I illustrated for the Atlantic and Gulf book were Gobies and Flounders. I toiled over Gobies for weeks. Flounders would have done me in if I hadn’t planned ahead and designated Fridays “Flounder Friday.” I illustrated one flounder per week for six months, thus avoiding insanity and bodily harm (think throwing myself out of the window). When I finally got to the flounder section, the paintings were done and I only had to complete the writing and design.
Illustrating Gobies and Flounders pales in comparison to illustrating Rockfishes. Gobies are slender, small, and mostly scaleless. Flounders are mostly brown, frustratingly spiny, and aesthetically boring. Regardless, I gave it my all and the illustrations are spot-on. But in true confession I was glad to move on.
Rockfishes rock. They’re deep-bodied, tall-spined, and often psychedelic in color and pattern. Complex. Complicated. Tricky. Many species resemble another. There are multiple variations within many species. They change color and pattern as they mature. And when they’re dead, most look nothing like themselves alive. Illustrating and describing all of the Northeastern Pacific Rockfishes will take the better part of three to four months, depending upon how many color variants we elect to include. What’s three or four months? A drop in the bucket on a grander scale. When Rockfishes are done, I’ll move quickly on to Greenlings and then Sculpins.
But guess what? There are even more Sculpins than Rockfishes. But that’s another story.
Below is a short and amateurish video I shot while completing my fourteenth Rockfish illustration. I shot it on a Friday after having been completely punch drunk on Rockfishes for five previous days. Enjoy!
This post was originally published in 2012. It seems fitting to share it now, as days ago, Val Kells completed illustrating this book.
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