Illustrating Speculative Fiction

An Editorial By Derek Newman-Stille

"Persephone" by Derek Newman-Stille. http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

“Persephone” by Derek Newman-Stille. http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

As an artist, I have always been fascinated with the art that accompanies Speculative Fiction novels. So many readers focus on the cover art when making their decision about which books to read, and often the author has little or no say about which art is attached to their book.

The art of a book is often the first thing that a reader encounters when picking up a book. They see it as they open the cover and it shapes (in sometimes subtle and sometimes significant ways) their experience of the book and what they read.

Various articles keep popping up in my Facebook feed about gender and SF, and particularly the gendering of book covers and how this influences which books for teens are considered “boy books” and which are considered “girl books”.  I gave a paper about 7 years ago on the role of cover art in sexualising books of urban ‘dark’ fiction, particularly the use of cover art that largely focuses on representations of parts of women’s bodies, and what this suggests about the bodily focus of these paranormal novels. The art of book covers can significantly shape the experience of the book, and yet, it is often something that is disconnected in many ways from the author’s experience of creating a book. There is not a back and forth conversation between visual artist and author, but rather a mediated conversation between publisher and artist that only occasionally (and in limited ways) involves the artist. Book covers often follow marketing trends and interests rather than the desires of the author or their focus.

As an artist, I often wonder what processes artists go through to create their cover illustrations. For some, I wonder if they have read the book at all (since the cover is often so dissociated from the plot and general feel of the book).

"Cosmic" by Derek Newman-Stille, http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

“Cosmic” by Derek Newman-Stille, http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

I was recently asked to do an illustration for a Canadian SF volume, and had to go through the process of figuring out how I would approach it. I can’t reveal details yet until the book is closer to publication. I had to consider how I would approach illustration and how I would both include my own stylistic trends (which were what attracted the publisher) while also making sure to capture the significance of the story and its general feeling. I read through the story I had been given to illustrate several times, feeling through the general experience of it, waiting for certain ideas and images to surface. I jotted down these images – writing text about dominant ideas that surfaced and sketching the various images that bubbled up through my brain as I read. I noticed that my creative mind was having a conversation with the text of the story, responding to the words I was seeing and sending back images that I then checked against the overall experience of the story.

My art work is complicated and difficult to define with a singular paradigm or easy categorisation, but I tend to approach my work through the feeling that various experiences evoke. When painting natural scenes, I try to capture the conversation that is happening between the environment I am seeing and my own feelings. I watch the land and then close my eyes and see how the land changes as I imbue it with myself, with my feelings.  Similarly, when I am trying to capture a theme or idea, I pull the images that filter through my mind out and pour them through my brush (or pencil or pen) into the canvas (or paper), letting ideas flow with feelings. I often capture images that obsess me, a particular curve of a branch or the way snow has drifted, but don’t try to confine them, rather letting them participate in the art, filter through myself as the artist. In a similar way, I approached illustrating a short story as a conversation between the story and myself as an artist, exploring the sensations that it drew up through me: Rorschach patterns, the play of light and dark, hooded figures, conflict, the image of the fist. The story was complex, and I wanted to bring that complexity through into my art, creating a representation that captured the feel of the work rather than a snippet of the action. I wanted my work to explore the complexity that the story represented, the weirdness of it.

Painting a story is a process of estrangement, entering a world created by the author and feeling yourself dissolve into it as ideas and thoughts surface. It is a meeting between artist and text, the strange terrain betwixt one person and another. It was an incredible experience and one that I would like to participate in again at some point.

"Smoke and Shadows" by Derek Newman-Stille, http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

“Smoke and Shadows” by Derek Newman-Stille, http://dereknewmanstille.ca/works.php

I would love to see more conversations between various art fields – writing inspired by a painting, stories inspired by songs, drama adapted from poems, dance inspired by novels. I am fascinated by intertextual communications, when one type of artistic text speaks to another.

You will be able to see my art work in the upcoming volume of Postscripts to Darkness 4, and I will post further details closer to the release date. You can find out more about Postscripts to Darkness at http://pstdarkness.wordpress.com/

My artistic work tends to be speculative in nature, so readers of Speculating Canada might be interested in it. You can check out my artist page at http://dereknewmanstille.ca/ . Click on Artwork to see some of my paintings.

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2 thoughts on “Illustrating Speculative Fiction

  1. Derek, I believe a story such as the Okal Rel collection should be raw material to be interpreted by multiple artists in different styles — like the legends of Camelot. I invite you to take part in a 2013-2014 project by multiple artists to illustrate Amel in all the stages of his life. For sharing on the Reality Skimming Blog and facebook page.

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