|Battleaxe (book cover), gouche and colour pencil on paper, about 1995|
Following a request to show & discuss some early work, here is my first commercial illustration job, a cover illustration for the fantasy novel Battleaxe by Sara Douglass. I was about 21 at the time, mostly unknown and unemployed, so it was a very important assignment.
I'd been trying to get work at the time as a freelancer, legging my folio around and sending samples by post to publishers (this being a largely pre-digital time – much easier now). I'd had some black and white illustrations published in small-press SF magazines, but nothing you could pay rent with, so I was keen to get something more commercial. This was surprisingly hard as an unknown artist, as I'm sure many of you know. The publisher already knew of my work, but (as I heard from an insider) did not believe I was competent enough to paint a wraparound cover, because I'd never been offered one before - that old chestnut!
However this novel, Battleaxe, had already been published a year previously and become very popular. Sara Douglass disliked the original cover – rightly so, it was a very cliched, super-buff he-man figure on horseback – and really pressed for a new artist to have a go. She also happened to be visiting an SF convention in Perth, where I had a small exhibition of some personal paintings (a few in colour) and was impressed by my work. Apparently she then pressured the publisher into giving me the assignment. The argument was this: if I screwed up, they already had a cover to fall back on, so no risk. They would only pay on acceptance ($1,500 - not much even in 1995, but as good as I could hope for) otherwise a modest kill fee if it fell through.
So I got the job. I read the novel (I'm not a big fantasy reader but I knew the genre well enough) went to my local suburban newsagent to study newly released fantasy novel covers on their rotating rack, trying to figure out how to do them, what composition and style and so on. I then went to the local library and borrowed a book about polo, figuring this was good visual reference for 'swordsmen on horseback', which the publisher insisted I paint; they were very specific in their brief, about the landscape and everything, taking no chances! I spent about two weeks painting this image, allowing space for title, spine and back blurb, sent it over, and they all loved it.
They immediately asked me to do cover art for sequel volumes, which I did happily. What a difference in attitude! I subsequently illustrated many covers for Sara, and this was an important source of income at the time, given that I was also working on picture books such as The Rabbits and The Lost Thing, which generated next to no money, at least not until much later on. So I have a lot to thank both Sara and this publisher for. I did manage to raise my price over time, by the way, just by polite request.
I think it's a lot easier these days with online exposure and communication, but either way a social network is important, friendship with like-minded creators. I think it would have also helped a lot if I visited the publisher in person, but at the time I lived 3,000km away and couldn't easily afford to travel. I generally encourage new illustrators to try and meet with publishers if they can, it does seem to make a big difference. Of course, you have to be good at what you do, but often that's not enough for people to really see what it is you are doing.