By Julian Norwood
Word Branch Publishing is bound by technology. Our talented team members are spread over several continents and work through Google Docs and Skype, and we take advantage of all of the latest developments in publishing. But we steadfastly hold onto one vestige from the heyday of book publishing: the hand-painted cover. This alone is the concept and execution of our talented illustrator: Julian Norwood. Because of this, WBP is able to stand out from the pack of overdone, overused stock covers and tip our metaphorical hats to a tradition that has all but faded from the world of books.
You can see more of Julian’s covers and other artwork by clicking here.
An old saying is to never judge a book by its cover, and while it stands well for people, it’s hardly true for books. The cover is often what makes or breaks a sale; it’s the first thing to catch someone’s eye; it is the hook.
As an artist, I find myself especially judgmental. When I painted in the café of a bookstore chain, I found myself pouring over the stacks, waiting for delicate layers and washes to dry, or my tea to cool. These days, overused font and stock photography have become the norm, and I’m so immersed in their world that I can often name the font they’ve chosen, and easily pick out an over-used photo which has graced far too many a cover. It’s hard to find art gracing a cover these days, unless you go hunting for it. The last cluster of it exists in my favorite nook in the corner. It’s where the science fiction section and manga are tucked together, and throughout the rest of the store, the painted cover has become extinct.
These days, you can pick up the average book, and what you will see is stock photography, clip art, and layers of filters to mask it all away. Stock photography has become to norm, and even then, has made its own clichés from itself. There are images of single objects, or a held object in limited color (the byproduct of piggybacking on a popular series). Female figures for the sake of art, not even featuring female characters, are common, often with a hefty dose of a nude back-view, a sensual shoulder, or the mysterious “Half-face” view. Things sitting on a blank background are common, like a still-life waiting to occur. Beyond the realms of stock photography, there are even less original techniques. These books have no images at all. Text on a black background has become common, almost the norm. More often than, this approach is modern, “safe,” truthfully it is safely dull. At times it can work to astounding effect, such as on Augusten Burrough’s “Dry,“ which is secretly one of the rare hand-made covers left on display these days. It was printed on paper, and in a fit of genius, doused in water. It’s physical; it exists.
The hand-painted cover has almost disappeared, and it is not for a lack of illustrators in the world. Digital painting has taken the place of oils, and the illustrator’s studio is no longer a room of canvases and paper stacks, with the scent of solvents and printer’s ink in the air. These days, illustrators work at their computers, pulling stock photography, and air brushing, applying filters, and working with the all-purpose media of Photoshop rather than an arsenal of tools. The traditional artist has almost entirely gone from publishing, and is nearly never seen in the world of anything less than the major publishing houses.
The use of stock photography and a little digital magic has dominated the self-publishing industry. Traditional covers are sparse, almost unheard of, especially when most self-published authors often make their own covers using what they have on hand. It’s easier, and cheaper, to take a photo, throw on some text and call it a book, than it is to hunt down an illustrator to craft something for you. Just recently a favorite author of mine, who’s delicate gouache covers first caught my interest, has gone to the side of digital media. I can’t judge her for it, hand-made paintings are time consuming, and she could not afford her own time for cover work, but they will be missed.
As a painter, and an illustrator, I feel like I am sitting on a lone island. I create covers, and my own stories, with the paint I have come to know and love so well in the past few years. When I paint a cover, I’m reminding of the work I loved from my childhood, the alien worlds laid out in delicate gouache and acrylic, by hand. Even beyond the heyday of pulp, I wonder if I will ever find another embossed book cover, with an elaborate, beautiful bookplate in the front. I know the dead arts of embossing, etching, and engraving, and wonder if they’ll find a place in publishing again.
I carry on the craft where I can; I do graphic design by hand, with cut paper and clever scanning techniques, the techniques I learned from a professor who mastered her craft before the era of Photoshop. I lay down paint, I carve into metals, I strain my shoulders for the perfect print on a machine older than I. Some days, I take my work out, and create stories in the sunshine on my porch, with painting techniques that pre-date anything I have lived through, but remember all too well on library shelves. I maintain and continue a dying art, and I hope that over the years, there will still be a place for me.