Interviewed by Kathryn Linge
Nick Stathopoulos has painted some of the best cover art in Australian science fiction, winning eight Ditmars for his work. He has also been nominated for a Hugo Award, while his cover for the anthology Dreaming Down Under was nominated for a British SF Association Award. He is currently working on a feature film based on the life of the famous aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira. His website is: http://www.geocities.com/nickpaint/
1. You’ve received lots of critical acclaim for your cover art, including numerous Ditmars. What sort of information do you need about a book before you can design its cover? How important do you think the cover art is to the total book package? Finally, what keeps you illustrating speculative fiction?
Thanks, I highly prize recognition from fans. They’re the ones that count. After all, they’re the audience.
I always like to read a manuscript and capture the mood of the book. This became a real problem in the 90’s when most publishers outsourced their art departments and marketing departments began dictating what appeared on covers purely on their perceived “sale-ability”. This resulted in two things: covers that all looked the same; and covers that tried to appeal to all demographics at the same time – ultimately failing to reach target audiences – or any audience for that matter.
Obviously I think a cover is critical to the total package. It’s a visual cue to the written universe between the covers. I still believe a book is an object of desire, not just a commodity. So I try to make it a beautiful object, and make it intriguing enough for someone to want to pick it up off the shelf. You can see that in Terry Dowling’s Rynosseros series. I think my covers for Josephine Pennicott succeed, although I’d probably go more adult if I were to do them again. The covers for Jack Dann’s Man Who Melted (both versions) and Gathering the Bones do it. I don’t always manage it. My worst covers have been for publishers that told me exactly what to do without me ever seeing a manuscript.
Why do I keep doing it? Not the money. (I’m getting less for a new Terry Dowling cover than I got 17 years ago.) I love the genre, and I love painting. Where else do I get a chance to blend both? I’d like to do some big spaceship paintings sometime. Miss them.
2. You also seem very passionate about portraiture, with your (fantastic!!) portrait of Norman Hetherington and Mr Squiggle selected as a finalist in the 2003 Archibald Prize, and your portrait of Barry Crocker selected as a finalist in the 2007 Doug Moran Art Prize. What differences are there between portraiture and illustration? Do you need to build a relationship with the subject to do them justice?
I love portraiture. It’s the hardest form of painting. Ummm…with a cover I try and capture the spirit of the book. With a portrait I try to capture the spirit of the sitter. Most of my Archibald subjects tend to be people I know. I have a huge portrait of Shaun Tan on my landing. I use it for voodoo.
I carried around the painting of Norman and Squiggle in my head for a decade. I painted it in a week. Barry Crocker was remarkably personable and funny, but the painting captured a sombre dark side. Nothing like his public persona.
Surprisingly I found rap-comic TV personality John Safran hard to get through to. He was very shy. I asked him to change a T-shirt and he came out wearing one with what looked like Hebrew text on it, but if you turned it upside down it read: “Go fuck yourself”. I never did ask him if that was for my benefit….
I guess you don’t need to build a relationship to capture a likeness, but it helps if you want to breathe life into it.
3. You’re currently working on a feature film based on the life of the aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira. You wrote the screenplay, and will be recreating many of Albert’s watercolours for the film. The whole project sounds fascinating! What significance does Albert Namatjira hold for you? What unique challenges have you faced so far in this project?
As you might guess, this is a project that is very dear to my heart. The director and I recently returned from a trip to Alice Springs, seeking approval from the Namatjira relatives, scouting locations, researching. I went through 10,000 photos at the Strehlow Research Centre. Some of the aboriginal camps we visited were rough. Anyway, everybody seems keen about the project, and it’s taken a very real leap forward. Fingers crossed.
Namatjira has fascinated me since early childhood. The hardest thing has been finding the right “take” on the story. Only now after 2 solid years of research are all the pieces starting to fit together. There are so many contradictions. It’s been mind-numbing. I’ve unearthed some real heavy stuff.
Film-making is such a mug’s game. The problems the project faces are those of any film maker trying to get a film up in this country. It’s incredibly difficult, and there have been two previous attempts to make a feature film about Albert. One, in the early seventies, would have starred Peter Finch as Albert’s mentor, and Sidney Pointier as Albert!
4. What’s the best thing you’ve read this year (Aussie or otherwise)? What cover art has stood out for you?
Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. Brilliant. His masterwork. Every page is gloriously designed and rendered. I’m reading a couple of Capote biographies and they’re fun. My partner Adrian Robinson has a book of poetry out by Five Islands Press, and it’s thrilling to see his work in print. I don’t get a chance to read much fiction these days. As for covers…woah! I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff out there. But I still see covers that give me that warm fuzzy feeling…I think it’s called envy.
5. Finally, and perhaps most lasciviously, you’re given the opportunity to ‘get it on’ with the fictional character you fancy most. Who’s it gonna be and why?
So many writers totally wussed out on this question. (But not Ben Peek…brilliant answer mate! Wrong on so many levels.)
It’ll come as no surprise that I have a highly developed graphic sensibility, and that I find certain cartoon or comic characters cute or sexy. I also love red hair and kilts. Herge’s Tintin is cute, especially when he’s wearing a kilt. I wouldn’t mind being Captain Haddock and going on a Tintin adventure. Blistering blue barnacles! Dr. Benton Quest from Jonny Quest is hot too. It’s the red beard.
I often think my friends have cartoon character counterparts. For example, Terry Dowling is totally Geppetto from Disney’s Pinocchio. Jonathon Strahan looks like Totoro. Yes? This is going to get me into trouble….