While PB illustrators get their names on the front cover, the artist who create beautiful covers for MG novels is hard to come by. We tracked do Neil Swaab, the artist behind GIRL ON A WIRE, and asked him a few questions. Luck for us, he agreed to answer!
Alison Hertz: When you get hired to illustrate cover and/or interior art, do you read the book or skim to get an idea?
Neil Swaab: I try to read every book I illustrate. However, sometimes the deadline may be too tight to do so or I may have too many competing projects and not enough time to read everything. If a manuscript is available (they aren’t always), at the very least I’ll read a third of the book to get the tone and what the basic hook of the story is.
AH: How much direction do you get from the art director or editor?
NS: It really depends. Sometimes an art director or editor has a very clear vision and they’re just hiring me to execute it. Other times, they don’t have any clue what they want and it’s completely up to me to generate ideas. Usually, though, there’s at least some criteria of who the audience for the book is, what some comparable books are in the marketplace, and what kinds of things they’d like to emphasize on the cover. Once the initial comps are presented, the art director and editor will have a ton of feedback and I’ll work with them to refine the cover and address all their concerns.
AH: Have you also illustrated picture books and if so, how is that different from mid-grade novels?
NS: Nope, I haven’t illustrated any picture books yet.
AH: Do you have an agent or art rep? If so, where and how did you meet or did you connect online?
NS: I do. I’m represented by Shannon Associates. I actually knew them for quite a while because I used to be a designer at HarperCollins and interacted with them a lot in my role there. When I left HarperCollins to pursue freelance full-time, I also started writing long form work (previously I had just done comic strips). I showed a sample of what I was working on to my old editor who had also left Harper and coincidentally was partnered with Shannon Associates to represent author/illustrators. She loved my sample and, much to my surprise, offered to rep me for it! Since Shannon also reps for illustration as well, it was a no-brainer to add that aspect of the relationship to the deal. Having worked with them on the other end, I knew firsthand that they were top notch and represented their clients well. And they knew me as well. Couldn’t ask for better reps.
AH: How would you describe your style?
NS: I have a bunch of styles, but they’re all fully realized. I have a comic/cartoon style which skews middle grade or hip adult comix/animation (I’ve worked on shows like Superjail! and Ugly Americans), a more graphic silhouette style, and then a photomontage digital style. I get a fair amount of work in all three of them, surprisingly.
AH: Where did you get your artistic training?
NS: I went to school for Illustration at Syracuse University.
AH: How do you keep your illustrations fresh?
NS: For me, it’s not about style, it’s about voice and concept. And that just means always pushing and pushing to make sure I’ve got a concept that I feel really good about. And the only way to do that is to sketch. A lot. I probably do something like 100 – 200 comps/sketches for every book cover I work on. I try to explore every possible direction to make sure I’m giving the absolute best cover I can.
AH: What is your favorite media to use?
NS: I do most of my work in pen and ink and brushes and then scan in and manipulate in Photoshop.
AH: Please share a little about your process with us?
NS: Well, I have a few styles and each process is a bit different. But, I’ll talk more about my silhouette style since I do more cover work in that one. Basically, I hand draw separate elements and ink them using a variety of materials. Then, I’ll scan them in and play with positioning and coloring them in Photoshop as well as adding textures and other enhancements. And then I’ll tweak and redraw as necessary once I see how everything’s starting to work. It’s a pretty organic process.
AH: Where do you like to work or what is your studio space like?
NS: I have a studio in the Pencil Factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s a shared space with 3 other illustrator friends of mine and a bunch of other ones in nearby rooms. The building is a converted pencil factory that’s pretty raw, but has nice light and is in a great neighborhood.
AH: Fun Question: Do you have a favorite snack to nosh on while you illustrate?
NS: Chocolate chip cookies from either Cookie Road or Ovenly just down the street.