Behind the cover – vNBy
Madeline Ashby‘s sublime science fiction novel vN is, even as you read this, powering in vast container lorries to every corner of the globe, ready for its publication at the start of August. Madeline herself has been out and about talking about the genesis and writing and themes of her book, so we thought it would also be interesting to catch up with the guy who did that amazing cover, Martin Bland.
We’d seen his work on Gavin Smith’s military SF novels for Gollancz, and marvelled at some stunning darkly futuristic work displayed on his website. He was surely the go-to guy for this job, and that turned out to be exactly the right decision. He kindly clambered up from his underground bunker to answer a few probey-probey questions…
What do you call yourself – graphic artist, illustrator, designer, part-time spacecadet, etc?
Just “Artist”. I have a hard time cornering myself into the usual suspects, and ‘visual storyteller’ doesn’t look great on a business card. Part concept artist, part illustrator, part fine artist; it’s easier to cut out the niches than to try and find one.
How did you get into “all this”?
Natural progression, I was always creative, loved my pencil work when I was younger, fell into the social chasm for ten years, then was offered the chance to find something I loved doing by my wife, worked my way through design, photo manipulation, web design and eventually found my stride in painting. It felt right straight away. Taught myself the basics, and continue to teach myself every day since.
What’s your balance of artwork – covers, graphics, editorial, personal stuff, etc?
I have worked in just about every area at some point, collaborated with some great people in most fields of art, magazine ad campaigns, album design, game concepts, portraiture etc. I do favour cover jobs though, CD and book, as I love to tell a story in a single image rather than a progression or sequence, and like a healthy balance between work and personal (personal turns into work with print sales).
What’s your typical approach to a piece, if you have one? Computer or sketches?
90% of any image I do is mental, I think a lot about how I am going to construct, and often see a completed image in my head long before pen touches surface, then it’s usually digital, blocking in large areas and refining details as I go, using form and values; I don’t tend to start with a sketch (in the traditional sense of the word, line art), a more organic approach works better for me.
Do you typically like a brief stuffed with detail, or the freedom to do whatever you want?
A bit of both really, it’s important to be able to visualise someone else’s idea, so the more information you get, the easier it is to nail it first time, I like a lot of visual stimulus, style guides. Setting the mood is more important than the details of subject matter. A good amount of freedom is always nice to have but I like to get the sketch stage down, and agreed upon, before I get to play around myself. That way, the changes are taken care of before the refining; it streamlines the process, I have enough of a library behind me for the client to know they will be getting my usual standard or better.
And how did you work on vN particularly?
It was a dream brief. I was given choice, style sheets, and a detailed description, and also a lot of freedom and trust in the later stages, Madeline had built a very believable world, rich with detail, so the excerpts I received were easy to absorb, and Marc’s art direction was great. Madeline had written somewhere that when she saw the cover, she saw Amy (the protagonist) – there’s no better feeling than that.
What’s a typical day, if you have one?
I’m a full time Dad, so my typical day is rather boring, full of homework and school runs, I fit my work around my son, and work from home, so it’s definitely not as “rockstar” as I’d like to imagine it is, I also procrastinate far too much… ooh, a biscuit.
Are you much of an SF fan yourself?
I’d like to say no, but all evidence points to yes :-). I like gritty, dark worlds that you can relate to and instantly believe, so I love the Blade Runner, Event Horizon, Dark City side of sci-fi, the Asimov side. I’m not the hugest fan of anything in particular, but I think that in itself adds a more unique twist to my own work in the genre, as I try my best to approach subjects with a fresh perspective – there are a million paths to tread but only one is mine.
What would you kill to illustrate?
My own IP. I have a project that hasn’t been put down to paper properly yet, a novel/screenplay/movie that has garnered interest from a couple of major movie studios, and almost optioned, just on the strength of the few images and brief idea/backstory pitched. I would love to bring it to fruition one day; illustrating/producing a movie based on my own art would pretty much be the pinnacle of my existence, and would make my kid proud.
Anything you really hate/struggle with drawing?
Not as far as subject matter goes, I can handle pretty much anything. If I can imagine it, then I can paint it, in my own style. I’ve painted everything from angels, to death metal covers, from an English country garden to a huge Yeti. I have been asked to take on work in other styles, and have struggled with it before, like colouring line art, or very technical perspectives and constraints. (I was once asked to paint, from imagination, a 20mm aperture lens view; couldn’t fathom that one, as I am not a camera.)
For vN you went absolutely bananas building robot fragments in the computer; is this sort of thing conducive to your mental health?
Well, they say the devil is in the details, so I’m probably 80% evil :-). I love getting stuck into it, if I’m honest. The best way to get someone to spend more time looking at an image is to pack it with detail, more to discover, and it gets quite cathartic after a while, you lose yourself, I haven’t noticed any problems yet. *twitch*
Tell us about five (or more) cool things – music, movies, comics, books, toys, whatever…
I do have quite a cool collection of tiny things, as I’m a sucker for detail – like a penny, with a bone-handled knife carved out of the middle and sat perfectly back into its hole, and a 2mm high, full colour printed book. I’ve got a couple of 6mm Bibles too, a bag of 1.5mm glass marbles. I’ve amassed quite a good gathering of very unusual miniatures. I’m also very good at collecting dust, and empty Pepsi bottles.
Which other artists do you rate?
I tend to rate the art, rather than artists, as the best can have an off-day, and the worst can produce a masterpiece. I see hundreds of images each day, and collecting the best of them has turned into a bit of a hobby. I have folders packed with inspiring imagery from every level of artist.
Do you have any other skills? What would you do if you didn’t do this?
I would always have to have a creative outlet of some sort, I do a bit of everything: sculpture, photography, traditional, so I think I would always gravitate towards making things look good. I was a manager/lithographic printer for 10 years too, so at the very worst, I could fall back into that, but it would have to get quite bad, haha.
And what are you working on next (don’t worry, we won’t tell anyone)?
I’ve just acquired a small stock of giclée poster prints so I’m currently approaching galleries and organising shipping and framing options, starting to turn what I do into more of a legitimate business, expanding that side – but also working on more covers, and also trying to pump out a few personal images as I feel like I’ve been neglecting that side of things this year.
Click on any image for a larger version – and see a hell of a lot more great artwork at Martin’s website, spyroteknik.com