Don Maitz and Janny Wurts on Illustration
Interview by Logan Kaufman, Adventures Underground
Don Maitz attended the Paier Art School from 1971 to 1975, and immediately made the jump to professional illustration. Since then, he has illustrated hundreds of books by authors such as Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury.
His artwork has been published in two collections: Dreamquests: The Art of Don Maitz and First Maitz.
Janny Wurts is a well-published science fiction and fantasy author, as well as an accomplished artist.
Don Maitz and Janny Wurts married in 1989 and live together with a small menagerie of cats and horses.
Logan Kaufman: Where were your interests in illustration first born?
Don Maitz: My interests in illustration were born in comic books when I was about ten years old. I read them and drew the characters throughout my early teenage years, entering into the Famous Artist Correspondence course advertised on the back of comics when I was 13. This led me to take high school art classes that further developed my art training. My interests in comics led me into reading adventure and science fiction novels of such authors as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, and the Doc Savage paperbacks that were being released with Frazetta and James Bama covers. All this led me to enrolling into an art school right after high school where I prepared a portfolio of paintings that reflected my interests in such reading, which geared me into the book illustration marketplace.
Janny Wurts: Undoubtedly, reading books in early childhood and seeing the fascination of words and pictures working together. I have always loved stories. The concept has been pursued across media - in music and a deep interest in ballads, in pictures, and in stories and novels I have written and published. I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which was home ground for the great illustrator, Maxfield Parrish. Nearby, the Brandywine school of illustration steeped the area in works by Howard Pyle, N C Wyeth, and Frank Schoonover. Museums there and in Delaware hold many of their original paintings, and in school field trips, I stood in awe of those pictures - larger than me in size, some of them, and painted with drama that was bold and larger than life. There seemed no end to the possiblilities made accessible through the magic of words and paint! The dream from within could be brought out and shared - and passed on for others to play with. How could a young person with an inquiring, intelligent mind not find a fascinating attraction? Books at that time were as good as friendship - better, sometimes, as they were always accessible. It seemed natural to step out of the stories of others, and into crafting my own.
Logan: Was there someone early on that drew your attentions towards that relationship of words and pictures? It seems that people are often drawn towards one or the other, not necessarily both.
Janny Wurts: Early exposure to the great writer / illustrator Howard Pyle was a major inspiration - he did both and left a marvelous legacy. I was always drawn to writing and drawing, and "saw" the pictures in my head. The desire to put that down was all but irresistable, but what really moved me to go the distance and invest the time into doing a professional job on both sides was the style of the illustration of the times. I wish to preface this by stating, flat out, that I admire and am in awe of many of the pulp illustrators. They could truly paint, and capture action, and encapsulate the impact of a dramatic moment, none better than Frank Frazetta, whose work was quite prevalent at the time. Where I really wanted to draw for my own work was that that pulp style of barely clad, hugely muscled, weapon wielding hero was not my vision. The idea of seeing characters and settings I had pictured done in this style was - well, not at all how I "saw" the people in my stories! Rather than settle for having one of the greats of that era do that treatment to my work, I chose to learn how to draw to allow the characters to come to visual life as I imagined them to be. Now, there are more versatile styles of illustration, and the industry recognizes different appearances for individual works. I was the "product" of the times when I dreamed of starting, and the pulp art very much inspired me to take my own vision in hand.
Don Maitz: In my case, there was no one person that drew my attention to words and pictures. It happened as a process. Inclinations became firmed as I grew and I gravitated to the place where words and pictures mixed. I am deaf in one ear, which makes team interaction challenging. I am more geared to gathering information and stimuli visually, and solitary pursuits like creating and reading are comfortable. Many people influenced my relationship with words and pictures, mostly by virtue of their creations. I have always been more attracted to images that suggest a story being communicated than an image based solely on emotional expression and conversely, I have been drawn to writing that lent itself to visual descriptiveness. My favorite classes in school were those of art and literature. I mentioned comic books as a very fundamental meeting place of words and pictures, and I was exposed to a lot of comics in my teen years. These gave me a meeting point of both words and pictures, and my subconscious responded to their interaction. As my interest grew, my tastes expanded to embrace storytelling from a single image, sophisticated painting techniques, and novels of depth and imagination.
Logan: How did each of you first break into the professional illustration field?
Don Maitz: After graduation from the Paier School of Art in 1976, I took my portfolio of student artwork that I had especially prepared for the book and magazine market to New York City paperback publishers. I traveled by train after making a series of appointments to see art directors ahead of time for the same day by phone. A fellow Paier graduate and friend also made appointments, different ones, and we traveled together each seeing our respective art director contact and comparing notes on our reception as we trained homeward. On one visit, my friend saw an art director at Popular Library, whom I had seen on our previous excursion. He said my friend's portfolio reminded him of an artist he saw two weeks ago. My friend told the art director how we went to the same art school and were traveling together interviewing art directors for work. Since my visit, two manuscripts had arrived needing covers. The books were intended for Frank Frazetta to do the cover art but he had declined the work. So, the art director gave one to my friend and the other was passed on to me. My story was Virgin and the Wheels by L. Srague De Camp.
Janny Wurts: My very first illustrations were done for Daniel P. Mannix's novel, The Wolves of Paris, published by E. P. Dutton, and consisted of chapter head graphics and a frontis piece in pen and ink.
From there, I did early work for various war gaming publications - magazines and covers for Mayfair Games modules. As my skills sharpened, I progressed to doing cover art for publishers in New York, and on from there to illustrating the jackets for my own novels.
Rather than risk falling into the rut of a day job, I freelanced straight out of school. It didn't matter whether the work paid well, or if it was exciting - as long as it was graphics or publication related, I felt it would be of benefit. This led to all sorts of odd work, from graphic design, paste up, and calligraphy, to logo design and spot illustration. All of this helped to educate me! By the time I reached my dream goal of writing and illustrating novels, I had a very clear idea of what a printing press could do, and how to typeset and copyedit text - all about how to lay out a page, and what production did behind the scenes. This sort of knowledge is invaluable to the artist - keeping one aware of what other hands are doing along the line as a book is produced, not to mention giving an expertise to production of the self-promotional materials and business cards needed for handout to potential clients.
Logan: Had you done work in various media, or were you learning on the job?
Janny Wurts: I did not attend an art school, except for a few classes as a visiting student. This meant I was left to myself to self-educate - and to experiment widely to see what media suited my preferences. I tried everything - from watercolor and guache, to acrylic and alkyd, to airbrush and scratchboard - and yes, pen and ink. This play in all directions gave me a nice range of skills. It also settled me, solidly, into oils, as I decided they were "it" for where I wanted to go. This first job was interior illustration - and no publisher in their right mind illustrated a novel for the mass market in color, due to the expense. My experience working with printers taught me enough to know that simple line reproduction, then, was the cheapest to reproduce, and also, gave the cleanest image. Unlike pencil or half- tone that required a screen to set it into a dot pattern for the press, line work, done just so, for offset reproduction, could look almost precisely like the original work with very little degradation. This dictated the choice for the first job.
Logan: How did you approach that first job? Were you each fairly nervous as to how it would be received by both the audience and the author?
Janny Wurts: The first job - any job - the most important approach is enthusiasm and excitement. The best work only happens when your heart is engaged to the fullest. First job or last job, it is imperative to do the very best quality every time. Some work will turn out better on some days - this is inevitable. But doing the best possible execution of any assignment means the effort won't come back to haunt you later! I tend not to think of the audience at the time of creation. I am the audience! When I am pleased, there's a certain implicit trust that the feeling will carry through. Your next jobs are determined by the last thing you painted - or the last thing a client recalls with your name on it. The sustaining factor is the mystery of not knowing quite what is coming next.
Don Maitz: I approached that first commissioned book cover from a New Your City publisher with enthusiasm. I remember sitting back on an old couch in my initial basement studio and reading an actual author's manuscript, looking for inspiration to fuel an image that would be reproduced on the cover. I remember deciding to paint a wrap-around cover even though the payment was for a front cover only. The nervous part kicked in later, after I created the color sketch. I chose a scene with the naked heroine lashed to a mast as two characters battled on the deck before her. I had cleverly positioned an upraised sword to hide enough of her exposed chest for a modicum of modesty. The art director had me move the sword.
Logan: That first cover looks like it could have been done by Frazetta. Were you asked to push it in that direction?
Don Maitz: The Virgin and the Wheels was a story earmarked to have a Frazetta cover. This was communicated to me when I received the commission, so there was the implied inference that the more the art looked like his work, the happier my new client would be. Book publishing is a business with a product and profit as the goal. Frank Frazetta's Conan covers of Robert E. Howard's re-released stories published by Lancer Books were very popular at that time and other publishers were looking to cash in on that success. Any book hoping to have placement in stores needed to get attention from the people involved in bringing the book to market. At that time, the distribution firms selected which books would be delivered to the various booksellers. Many of these distributors select books based upon cover flats salesmen provided from the publishers to the distributors at sales meetings. Many of these distributors were former truck drivers who worked their way up the company ladder. They were not necessarily avid readers. Frank Frazetta's artwork appealed to them, as did scantily clad women. Having a portfolio that showed to be influenced by N. C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, and Frank Frazetta's paintings, the art director hoped I would create a cover that would appeal to the buyers of their product.
Logan: Are you inclined to get feedback directly from the author at all? Are you thinking about meshing an image with their original vision, or does that over-complicate the project?
Janny Wurts: When working for another author, I tend to paint the image and mood as the story moved me. This may or may not coincide with the author's original vision - though I can hope that it does, and that somehow I've captured the gist of the idea. Yet in the case of working with a major publisher, sometimes the art department or the editor had their say in the matter, regardless of what the text of the book intended. One is not always given the ideal: total free rein.
When I paint for my own books, there is complete transparency. You see the idea as I envisioned it, to the very best of my ability as an artist to capture the thought. The publisher, editor, and art department have very little to say. If they wanted another vision on the book, it follows that they would have hired another artist to have their take. I had to be firm on this point once when a publisher had me paint for other than my vision, and it went down very rough with me. I chose then not to work "to order" on my own novels. Either my vision flies, or I won't draw for it. This does not mean I dictate to them! There is still a team effort involved, to create the look and cover that suits the market the publisher wishes to tap. I have done everything from portrait- style covers, to landscapes, to sharp little icon graphics based on images from the story. The publisher determines the look they wish to achieve, and I select and compile and execute the images to fit that. Yet even the graphic representations still have the accuracy of the vision. The iconic images, the background scenes, and the symbols portrayed are all my own choice and execution.
Don Maitz: It depends. The author wants the book to sell well and reach as many people as possible. The publisher wants to continue to make profit on their product line. The artist wants a paycheck and, hopefully, repeat business from his creative services. Usually these three concerns line up and make for a successful venture, and anything that works towards this goal is helpful. An author might run late in delivering a manuscript, or a publisher needs to effect a scheduling change, an artist might drop the ball and another needs to be hired. Books are largely sold by cover flats taken by salesmen to venues that agree to buy a certain number of copies. This number determines print runs and they get their order when the book is available from the printers. Sometimes to meet the publisher's schedule change, or assist an author who is behind, or to catch up a last minute artist selection, the book may not actually be finished when the cover is created. In such a case, the artist can contact the publisher to get more information from the author, as the manuscript is not completely available at the time the cover needs to be done. Sometimes the author has negotiated the cover approval for his book, or has indicated that they want a particular artist and the publisher has agreed. Sometimes an artist and an author have met and know each other and enjoy pooling resources for the cover and the publisher reaps the benefit of their collaboration. Being in the middle of these two creative forces and responsible for the bulk of the profits from the venture, the publisher would rather not have them displeased through a bad experience dealing with each other, and so prefer to relay messages back and forth between them. The publisher, through careful editing and creative art direction, takes the best from the talents offered and improves upon them.
Usually, the author has written an engaging manuscript and it is all that is needed to inspire me to make art that creates the mood and intent of the story, as well as an accurate interpretation of the characters presented in a way that incites the purchase of the product. I have experienced great help from art directors many times, as I have also been provided with excellent additional information from authors that know their story and characters well. Authors might not need to put all the visual information in a story for the sake of keeping the action moving, but that is not because they are not fully versed in their creation. Some authors write with a lot of descriptive images that stimulate images where others are more concerned with plot and character interaction and the visual qualities are more open to interpretation.
Logan: Janny, when you're illustrating your own books, do you treat it the same as if you were assigned to the project? Do you wait until you have a completed manuscript?
Janny Wurts: I can't always wait until I have a completed manuscript. These days, the book's initial sales orders are solicited off the cover image, which means the paintings must be done some nine months in advance of publication date. Often the draft of the manuscript is finished by then - sometimes it's not. Since I know the book's course, usually I have the gist of the idea for the cover well in hand, so it's not a problem to create the cover early. The biggest challenge is breaking off the hot run to the finish and thinking in words, to shoving pell mell into painting and thinking visually. These are two different modes of thought and don't always mix well.
Logan: Will authors typically comment on the finished project?
Don Maitz: I am pleased when authors respond positively to the covers that I have painted for their books. Sometimes there are frustrations when the direction of the art is not as I would wish due to circumstances beyond my control. Authors usually understand the inner workings of the print process. There are many hands at work in publishing a book. Editors, type setters, art directors, designers, typographers, embossers' foil treatments, marketing and sales personnel- all putting in their contributions. Authors may not know who did exactly what to the look of their book. But if the art rings true, they generally are very happy as it is then likely the book will then attract the right reading audience. A sophisticated book with poignant moral issues will not be well- served with a light-hearted, superficial cover appearance. When I feel I have made the cover complement the nature of the book, told a visual story that reflects what a reader will find within the pages, and pleased myself, I have succeeded. Many projects have gone that way and were successful - some have gone that way and been unsuccessful. The artist's job is to allow others to "Tell a book by its cover." There is another policy that might be familiar to those involved in book publishing - "When a book sells well, the author was on their game. When the book sells badly, it needs a new cover treatment." If an author is expected to sell themselves, then their name is large, the title small, and the art smaller still - if any is reproduced at all. When the novel is in the science fiction or fantasy section, an image generally helps the purchaser decide if the flavor of the book is to their liking. This theory is currently going through changes as the marketing of books evolves and media tie-ins provide familiar characters and recognizable icons.
Janny Wurts:Authors will say if they are wildly happy, or wildly disappointed. I haven't had any particularly bad experiences. Once, perhaps, an author was not pleased, but it was due to a preference of the publisher's, and in that case, the one who hired and pays the check gets the choice.
Logan: How do you go about your collaborations with each other?
Don Maitz: We have done very few collaborations. Those we have done are presented on the collaborative area of our website. We share similar interests and have each our own specialized skills. When the occasion arises, we seem to be able to produce a work that benefits from both our strengths. The re-release of Guy Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry was a true collaboration. Guy and the publisher wanted us both to come up with the artwork. It was to be one painting used on three books. We worked on one horizontal surface to be vertically divided into thirds photographically. We both sketched in a sketchbook using each others work as the image sorted itself. We got a finished line drawing, copied it, and mounted a few to illustration boards, then we each did color treatments. We picked the one we liked the best and submitted that one to the publisher. We then projected / transferred the enlarged drawing onto a prepared masonite panel and passed the support from drawing table to drawing table. We each worked all over the thing but not both at the same time. We would stand by or look over the work the other was doing, and pick the spots each decided to work next until it was finished.
Janny Wurts: We have only done four projects together. One was a rum barrel, where we repainted a disintegrated copy of a painting that hangs in a bar in the British Virgins. We just danced around the barrel, which stood upright on the ship's deck, and painted as we pleased. We credited the original artist - this was a light-hearted effort that adorned the rum barrel on a tall ship, and was the captain's pet project. We got free beer and T-shirts from the ship's store for the fun.
One was a painting done on an egg for a charity auction - and this we just passed back and forth, from pencil drawing to painting.
One was a sketch for a print project that was to have become a series of three paintings, but the publisher folded before it was complete. We did three concepts, and several black and white drawings, then completed a color sketch which is framed on the wall.
The last, and most serious, was cover for The Fionavar Tapestry, a trilogy by Guy Kay. This followed suit - we passed back and forth various drawing concepts in pencil - begun at a slow signing at a con. Then produced a black and white drawing, then progressed to a painting. One painting had three "panels" that were used as covers for the three books. The original was done on a piece of masonite that was painted a flat red orange. Then we painted the scenes overtop, passing the painting back and forth until it was done. This work can be viewed on our website under the "Collaborative Worlds" page.
Logan: Is there any one project you'd love to work on or fully illustrate? Either as a team or individually?
Don Maitz: We are considering working together on a graphic novel treatment to one Janny's unpublished stories.
Janny Wurts: I personally would love to finish up the three concepts we started for that print company. They were fun, and the ideas are still valid. We have bandied about the idea of doing a graphic novel together, but have not yet carved out the time to pursue it. House renovations have been taking some of the free time lately, but who knows when this phase is done? I've scripted the story, and we've discussed in depth how we want the pages to look - but as yet, nothing else has developed beyond the scribble stage.
My dream? That one day one of my novels will sell as a movie option, and we can both dig in and play out our ideas conceptual artists. Motion pictures require a lot of joint talent to bring out the best ideas for a story - and it would be really fun to see Don and even more of my favorite artists all pooling talent to bring something of this magnitude alive. We all have our individual strengths, and it would be awesome to see a vison of that scope happen.
Interview Conducted by (Information)
Copyright © 2006 Adventures Underground