Interview with Geoff Taylor

Interview with Geoff
How did you come to be an artist?

"I'm sure I was always interested in pictures. When I was very young I must have been aware of narrative illustration. In one fairy tale book I can remember a particular illustration, which was so disturbing I always had to try and avoid that particular part of the book. It had the quality of a recurring nightmare. When I was tiny apparently I used to spend hours scribbling on everything that was at hand. My mum said if I couldn't ask for something as a toddler I would draw it for her! I’m still scribbling now, so that early programming is still the driver. School was a long hopeless experience; the only thing I enjoyed was art. I was good at cross-country
running, but just not the age for commitment. College... for some reason I decided on a Graphic Design course, the natural progression from there into advertising, however, I seemed to have more affinities with what they were doing in fine arts department"

Although his artwork is now quite widely known in the fantasy world Geoff explains that he’s only met a handful of authors, and talked to a few over the phone. Most commissions go by without even exchanging pleasantries with the author in question.

"In the past I did have an agent and it was he who was approached by the art director of the publishing company or he would go around and show the work of the artists on his books and they would discuss whose style would be suited to produce artwork for the genre of book to be illustrated. I have done covers for all sorts of books in the past, including classics likeRobinson Crusoe and Robin Hood, other children’s books and Bible stories. Now I am freelance and the publishing companies I get work from are the same ones I worked with in the past, but they approach me."

"Usually a commission involves reading the manuscript or book, or sometimes a detailed synopsis. Sometimes this isn’t easy if the book itself is not all rewarding. In that case I will cover the majority of the book until I get some definite feeling from it. I don’t think it is always necessary to have some totally literal interpretation."

Authors also offer their own suggestions.

"On occasions I would get sketches from the author with a detailed description on what their cover should look like, very prescriptive!"

Contact is usually from the art director or designers in the art department of the publisher, however. Any image the artist comes up with must also be within the structure of front and back cover format and whatever the designer decides as important (size of type, etc).

"The next stage would be to read, plan, research, select, refine, modify and prepare a ‘visual’, which is sent to the art editor allocated with the responsibility for overseeing the job. The team of people responsible for artists get together and have a cover meeting and discuss visuals sent in (as far as I know they only brief one artist for the job and what usually happens they will make suggestions to improve the composition for lettering specifications or if they want other changes. If they are not happy I could be asked to do a further visual.) At this stage the authors are contacted if they have requested it and ideas and suggestions can be discussed over the phone or in writing, sometimes I do get some visual reference to work from but mostly I have to do my own research. This preliminary process can take a week or more.  Then when the visual is approved the finished artwork goes ahead. This part of the artwork can take on average 10-14 days of full time painting. For people who think art is often overpriced, multiply a basic wage by total amount of time spent on one piece of work and your eyes may be opened!

So we understand how the process of commissioning covers works, but what about the actual painting process?

"It’s got to be entirely acceptable to use every possible strategy to achieve the image. After all this is commercial product and more importantly there are deadlines to meet!"

"I paint mainly in acrylics and mostly brushwork, but whenever I need to do large areas of colour I use an airbrush. I used gouache paint some years ago, it’s very easy to use and it’s brilliant for detail but it is powdery and therefore the colour is very easily scratched. So I switched to acrylics which I tend to use like gouache paint, not like oil paints, I do love all that thick impasto effect but I’ve never been able to work that way, so mostly my style is just the traditional paintbrush techniques - three brushes, big, medium and small. Occasionally I am asked to do some black and white illustrations, then I use Indian Ink, fineline pen, even felt-tip pens, not good if you have to use a white medium on top though! I’ve resisted the digital stuff because truthfully I’ve never had the time to learn."
"When on final artwork sometimes a cunning hybridisation of imagery fails, so I have to dredge deep on my own skills, and guess what? it gets harder.Marianne, my wife and technical wizard, will scan research images for me, size them up and print them out. Then it’s the smoke and mirrors bit! The rest is just hard work and pushing against deadlines."

"As for ideas and research, anything goes, from cave art to contemporary"

"Over time I’ve accumulated lots of diverse reference. I am continually looking at artists work. I love the work of Casper David Freidrichs, Gustave Moreau, Karoly Ferenczy, Eaun Uglow, Gustave Dore, Andrew Wyeth. There's got to be many more too numerous to mention and the list grows by the day.
I also do my own photography to help with authentic detail, especially light and shade. Yes! we have to get the picture books out now and then for authenticity. But I'm sure a lot of reference is internal and is part of one's own direct experience. I rely heavily on reference material to hopefully "spark off" a visual idea. There is so much visual reference out there and occasionally nothing seems to work. This is the time I have to get through and it can be awful. It is a question of perseverance."

How would you describe your work?

"I seemed to have fallen into 3 very different genres of art - the Science Fiction and Fantasy book cover art, the "Games Workshop" graphic images (they are the largest role-playing fantasy gaming company in the world) and the wildlife painting I do which is more fine art."

What would be important for amateur artists who would like to make cover illustration their profession?

"Confidence in knowing that whatever frustrations may occur, vis-à-vis the commission, the deadline is seriously important and must be met. Freelance work by it's very nature is a very solitary occupation - there are many distractions/temptations when working from home."

"Also, it may sound boring but it's essential to keep all receipts, copy invoices, and all that business stuff, organized for accountancy purposes.
Be inspired by other artists' approach to commissions, but it's essential to bring your own individual vision. Get a trustworthy agent!"

Geoff feels it’s impossible to be objective about your own work, In book cover commissions Mythago Wood and Lavondyss by Robert Holdstock was a good piece for him...

"I thought the books were just incredible. If any of the wonder and magic came through in the painting I would be well pleased"

But among his own favourites are his wildlife subjects, particularly the wolves, of which he is a great admirer.

"In literature and mythology the wolf has always been imbued with great power, until recently mostly negative. The native American Indians always admired it’s great hunting skills but also the cooperation between all the individuals within the pack to make a cohesive unit. I’ve also been fortunate to see wolves at a sanctuary in Shropshire, England"

Geoff’s answer to questions about his free time is ‘I don't have hobbies I have passions".

"Mainly just getting away from the drawing board. I love going on long walks in the Lake District mountains taking my camera, doing the garden and look forward to each season's wonders. Outdoors locally looking for, and photographing wild deer and other wildlife as reference for future work. I used to go rock climbing until I had a hand injury, I like reading for my own pleasure when I have the time, and listening to a wide selection of music much of this during the long hours whilst painting."

So can he see himself doing book cover commissions in ten years?

"That's incredibly hard to answer. It's dependant on whether people will still wish to commission me in the future. I would like more time to paint wildlife subjects, definitely!
That's a joke; I never seemed to earn enough to pay into a pension scheme.
Perhaps this should have had a mention earlier -

Freelance Illustration – EQUALS - Absolute Financial Insecurity!"