Tag Archives: art

Interview: Les Petersen – Cover Artist

I was lucky enough to win a competition recently. The prize: a cover for an ebook created by artist and writer, Les Petersen. I’m in the process of compiling a special edition of my Witch Honour and Witch Faith novels, complete with extra material. To your right you’ll see the magnificent cover Les created for the book.

I’m delighted with the result, and particularly with the different elements of the two novels he’s managed to weave into the cover without clutter. The picture has a lovely balance and he’s captured those two characters very well.

Les had created cover art for a lot of Australian writers, including Ian Irvine, Karen Miller, Trudy Canavan, Isobelle Carmody, Tony Shillitoe and Jennifer Fallon, so I feel especially chuffed to have my own Les Petersen cover!

Cover art is a specialist skill, of course. We’ve all been won over by lovely covers, or been disappointed by covers we didn’t think captured the essence of a favourite novel. I decided to ask Les about the process of creating good covers, and some other things about his own work.

Les has a special offer for people who need cover art either for their ebooks or their published-on-paper books. More about that at the end, though.

Les's cover of The Stone Key by Isobelle Carmody from her Obernewtyn series. (Design by Cathy Larsen of the Penguin Group)

You captured the essence of my two Witch books very impressively for the cover of The Witches of Tyne. How do you go about absorbing and synthesising someone’s novel to achieve that?

It’s a kind of magic. 😀 I suppose synthesising someone’s novel is like capturing the images that form in your mind when you read books. You hear the writer’s voice and it creates a texture of a story: best described as the internal movie that plays in your daydreaming mind. Then it becomes a purely mechanical action of putting together an image that gets as close to that movie as you can.

All illustrators have a personal visual repertoire and style/language they use, an arrangement of symbols and parts of symbols that go up to make the whole image, which they feel more than see in the beginning. So, it’s taking that personal repertoire, challenging your skill in using it, using a few references to help make sense of the vague ideas you have, and making the image work as best it can to fit the story.

Or, if you prefer a simpler explanation – “it’s magic!”

A lot of your cover art seems to be for fantasy or SF books. Do you prefer to create art for those genres? What other genres do you work in? Is there a genre you’d like to do art for – crime, westerns or romance for example, that you haven’t done yet?

I’ve been lucky to work in the fantasy genre, with a smattering of sci-fi as well – and they tend to be the kinds of commissions that come my way.

I’d work in any genre, except maybe overtly romantic images with bare-chested men and frocked women. That doesn’t challenge the image creation enough when you are restricted to a very narrow visual language. Horror also doesn’t interest me that much though I have done a few. My preferred direction would be to do more relaxed, “childish” images, like the cover I did for Ford Street. James Roy’s The Gimlet Eye.

You’re a writer as well as an artist. Has that influenced your approach to designing covers?

What an interesting question! At first I was willing to say the act of writing hasn’t really influenced the style of image I create, but on reflection, as we all know, both writing and image making are ways of telling stories. All images have narratives, or should, IMHO, so I suppose the construction of an image includes beats or suggestions of the story you are illustrating.

You should be able to look into the image and see details that suggest plot points. Insufficient image details make it all feel slick, I suppose – and maybe that’s the difference between design and illustration. Both look interesting, but one tells you more. Or maybe I’m getting to wrapped up in answering the question…let’s move on.

What do you think is the essence of a good cover?

Ok, I’ve spoken about the narrative of a cover, and that’s important. Also, there are the craft-based requirements: composition, colour harmony, style etc. And all publishing houses have their own ‘livery’ (for want of a word), but the difference between a good cover and a bad cover probably is ‘intrigue’. The art of being able to draw a reader into picking up the book off the shelf. If the marketing team have done their job well, the customer will buy the book. How do you create intrigue in a design. Ummmm. My, doesn’t the sky look wonderful today!

I know you are interested in animation. Who would be your favourite animation houses?

Les's Firebug, from his portfolio work.

It’s hard to go past the work coming out of Pixar, which have great story lines and wonderful character designs, but the ones that I am continually drawn to are Studio Ghibli’s collection – magical to look at and wonderful stories.

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing is also superb (I’ve watched that over and over again) and as he’s a gob-smacking amazing illustrator, I’d almost say he’s the top.

However, if I was to choose just one animator to wave the flag for, it would be Jonathan Nix and his inspiringly beautiful work, with evocatively whimsical music. I recommend his The Missing Key.

For the tech-heads – what are your favoured tools for creating cover art?

Photoshop. Smith Micro’s Poser for figure marquettes, Vue. And a Wacom Tablet to draw with. BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY pencil and paper. Without using those, for me the rest is distracting and I end up with rubbish.

Les's cover for the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild's anthology, Outcast. (2006)


Les has very kindly offered a special rate to readers of my blog who need cover art for their e-book or print book.

Until the end of June 2012, you can commission Les for an e-book cover for $300. If you want the full works with e-book, high res and small images suitable for print as well as digital, he’s offering the special price of $1200.

If you are interested in taking Les up on this generous offer (the prices are significantly less than his usual charges) email me on narrelle@iwriter.com.au with the subject line Les Petersen and I’ll get you two beautiful kids together.

See more of Les’s work at his website.


MONAA few weekends ago, Tim and I went to Hobart for the weekend to visit the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA). We have been anticipating the opening of the museum for some years, partly because of the MONA billboard on the Republic Tower on the corner of  LaTrobe and Queen Streets in Melbourne. For years now, odd and frequently disturbing images have appeared, several storeys high, at that intersection, a promise/warning about what we could expect when David Walsh finally finished building his private museum.

The gallery does not disappoint. We approached it by ferry from Hobart and climbed the stairs to the entrance. The gallery is set partially below ground, although one windowless wall faces the outside. The entrance is a building with a reflective surface and a tennis court, across which people stroll. A staff member says the tennis court was built there basically because Walsh likes to play tennis, and since he could build it, he did. It was at that point I realised that, in a fictional world, David Walsh would either be the eccentric billionaire who costumed up and fought crime by night, or he’d be the eccentric billionaire who will take over the world with his cunning technology unless James Bond can stop him in time. Not knowing the man, I figure he could go either way.

Whatever his superheroic/supervillainous tendencies might be, Walsh has an eye for the startling and fascinating in art. He has bought some of my favourite pieces seen either at galleries in Victoria or on my travels. Some pieces are shocking, some silly, some dull, some beautiful: and of course, how each piece falls into which category is totally in the eye of the beholder. That’s one of my favourite things about art—the way it embodies that line of Shakespeares that “Nothing is good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.”

MONA was purpose-built to showcase Walsh’s collection, including the massive work by Sidney Nolan, “Snake”.  MONA is unique for other reasons too. Walsh paid for the whole thing himself, then opened it up to the public for free. This means that no-one—no government body, no tabloid paper shrieking about wasting taxpayer’s money, no unhappy customer—can tell him what to do with it or what to display. If you don’t like it, leave. If you don’t think your kids should see some of the pieces, the gallery guide highlights the sections where the more ‘challenging’ pieces can be found,. Everything else is up to your own discretion And it’s not like you can demand your money back if you’re displeased. This is a gallery where every adult is treated like a grown-up who can make their own decisions.

One of the other things I love about this gallery, besides the amazing selection of work, is the way information about each piece is presented. Instead of having tiny placquards on the wall telling you the title and perhaps a snippet from the artist or an art critic, each visitor gets a customised iTouch to carry around. The device tunes into wireless points throughout the gallery to display whichever pieces are nearby. You can tap on an image to find the title, artist and medium and then choose a number of further options.

Some pieces are accompanied by one or more audio tracks, often interviews with the artist. Other interactive options are labelled Artwank (serious essays from art critics), Ideas (snippets of ideas or comments from the artist, David Walsh or one of the other people involved in the gallery) and Gonzo (extracts from emails between the gallery and the artists, or between the David and other gallery folk, or just essays from David Walsh’s sometimes skewed perspective.)

The genius of these elements is the way they provide several voices that offer ways of interpreting the art. You can go the serious approach, or you can find out that Walsh hated the piece when he first got it, or that he bought it on a whim and hates it now but the others won’t let him get rid of it because they like the interview thatt goes with it. The commentator makes fun of art, or sees something unusual, or draws curious, personal conclusions from it. Every voice is different, and every voice tells you that it’s okay to take it seriously, or not. It’s okay to like it, or not. It’s okay to have a different opinion, and to express it.

This makes MONA different from other galleries in other ways, too. It’s not a muted space, full of hushed reverence for the art on display. In fact, it’s full of quiet chatter as people talk about what they are seeing with their friends and even with strangers. By presenting the multiple voices through the iTouch, MONA breaks down the idea that only ‘qualified’ people can have a say.

Without going into detail, the gallery is full of pieces about sex and death, but more than that, it’s full of art about living and life. It is full of ideas about being human, and sex and death are a significant part of that. I didn’t like everything there, but I loved a lot of it. I was challenged, amused, moved—and sometimes completely unmoved.

The final thing for which I adore MONA was the ability to enter my email address into the iTouch so that the gallery could email a ‘virtual tour’ to me. Every item I tapped on and read about (and voted whether I LOVE or HATE) got tagged. A few days after I got home, MONA had sent me an email link to my tour. The link led to a page with every piece listed, accompanied by a photo and the Artwank, Ideas and Gonzo information. I can revisit my tour and pour again over my reactions to Claire Morgan’s exquisite Tracing Time, or Jannis Kounellis’s display of two goldfish in a white bowl of water containing a carving knife, which caused so many exclamations of pity for the fish, despite the fact they were in no danger at all.

The current exhibiton, Monanism, ends in July. I can’t wait to get back to Hobart in the second half of the year to see what else David Walsh and MONA have in store.

Repurposed memories

I lived in Egypt in the early 1990s, when my husband and I taught English as a Foreign Language at a school in Cairo. When we left after two years (to go to Poland), as a farewell present I was given a watch which had the numbers in Arabic lettering. The strap was a slightyly odd design so when it broke the first time it was a bit tricky to replace it. Over the years it broke several times, and eventually a replacement couldn’t be found. I hung onto it for sentimental reasons but it sat in a cupborard.

Then my friend Mary began making jewellery. I gave her the watch and asked her to use her imagination, and this is what she made for me.

It’s so wonderful to have this memento of my life in Egypt made into a new memory, incorporating my friend’s creative gifts and her thoughtfulness in appling her talent and imagination to something that was meaningful to me. I also love the solidity of it, the weight of it against my skin, as though the memories associated with it have become more tangible.

If you like this, please visit Mary’s Etsy page, Subtle Lunacies. She gave me the pendant as a gift, and I would like to thank her by encouraging everyone to discover her work. Mary is also the author the The Wolf House series, the YA vampire series I so often plug on my blog.