2007 Snapshot Archive: Les Petersen

Interviewed by Kathryn Linge

First published at ASiF!

Les Petersen is a 2D digital illustrator who has created over 50 book covers for clients including HarperCollins Publishers, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and CSFG Publishing. He has been nominated numerous times for the Ditmar Award for Best Artwork and won the 2003 Ditmar Award for Best Fan Artist. His website is: http://www.lespetersen.com.au/

1. You’ve been working as a freelance illustrator since 2001 and have produced book covers for some of Australia’s best-known fantasy writers, including Trudi Canavan, Karen Miller and Isobelle Carmody. How much direction do you get from the publishing houses for these covers and how much creative input is your own? Are there any particular elements that inevitably appear in a fantasy cover?

There’s a fair bit of direction in illustration for the covers of the fantasy novels, but usually after-the-fact of my ‘creative input’. How it works is that the publishers usually give an illustrator a passage of text (or occasionally all the manuscript), to act as the seed to conceptualization, as well as a design brief that gives layout, similar illustration ideas, styles etc. From their brief I’ll produce three or four (sometimes a lot more if the muse is with me) concept roughs. They decide which they’d like me to continue on, then, as I work the idea up I usually send them development images which they comment on. There can be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, like being guided on a path, though as I’ve got used to the process it is becoming less of a trauma to deal with and now it’s very enjoyable. A challenge worth undertaking. Once the illustration is completed, it goes through the final approval process which includes the marketing department and this can, or very rare occasions, cause headaches, but usually it’s straight forward.

As to whether there are particular elements that inevitably appear in a fantasy cover – hmmm, not sure how to answer that. It’s more that there are things that shouldn’t appear on covers, really. Like blood, or nudity, or anything that might cause a particular genre illustration to step over the boundary of tastefulness/marketability. I think an illustrator has to be able to create a sense of narrative in the image, a sense of wonder, and a sense of dramatic reality. We don’t always succeed, but we try.

2. Much (All?) of your current work is produced digitally. What sort of process is involved in creating such detailed computer art? Have you always worked digitally or do you have a background in more traditional illustration techniques?

I do produce almost all of my work digitally, but they all start with a pencil sketch of some sort, which is either scanned in and then worked up, or which acts as a basis for the digital sketch that underlines what I create. I have an extensive background in traditional illustration techniques (20 years or so) but it wasn’t until I began to work digitally that I began to master narrative techniques – it seems like it was the medium I had always wanted at my fingertips – or more over, at the forefront of my creative mind. Digital tools are really just tools. Same as paint and brush. Everyone understands that, though there is always a legitimacy issue with using something that people think does the work for you. 3d rendering programs have allowed anyone to create a fantastic image, but if you look at the work of the really good illustrators who use digital media, you see the weight of effort there. Nothing that the program renders for me is good enough, in the end, so I go in and work it over again and again and again. Computer-aided illustration is delightfully ephemeral. I’m pushing ghosts of images long since destroyed or yet to be born, really. What I begin with is never what I end with. It’s that manipulation and discovery that I enjoy; sometimes it’s like digging in water, seeking seashells at the bottom of the ocean.

3. You were short listed for the 1998 George Turner Prize for your novel ‘Supplejack’, while your short fiction has been published in numerous anthologies, including ‘AustrAlien Absurdities’ and ‘Nor of Human’. Is writing something that you’re still pursuing? What are your plans for the next few years?

I still have two novels that I knock around every now and then, but I’ve since moved into scriptwriting and have a film script optioned and in development – which sounds great, but who knows if it’ll ever see the light of day – films can languish in development for forever. From all the feedback I receive it sounds like positive things are happening with it and we’re currently working up a lot of concept drawings for that. More on that as things develop. I’m also working on two television series – one a sitcom about a group of retirees threatened by globalization, the other a sci-fi series that is still in very rough form which I will go all cloak and dagger on and say I can’t tell you any more.

4. What’s the best thing you’ve read this year (Aussie or otherwise)? What cover art has stood out for you?

Best thing I’ve read this year… I have to sidestep this question. The best thing I’ve read is Red Sorghum by Mo Yan. Published in 1993, but still very powerful piece of writing. Best cover illustration…one of mine, of course.

5. Finally, and certainly most inappropriately, you’re given the opportunity to get it on with the fictional character you fancy most. Who will it be and why?

Glad to see you don’t take yourself seriously.

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