Cover Corner: Christopher Silas Neal

I’m delighted to welcome illustrator Chris Silas Neal to Turn the Page today!

As soon as I saw the beautiful cover for May B by Caroline Starr Rose I knew I simply had to have it. After stalking checking out his website I fell in love with his work and Christopher very kindly agreed to chat with me about creating the image for Cover Corner.

Did you get to read the book before working on the cover illustration?

In this case, I was lucky enough to read the manuscript before starting work on the cover. For various reasons mostly due to the schedule I often only read a portion of the book and in some instances only have a synopsis. Though, a summary of the story and a few notes from the editor are enough to inspire a good cover. When I do get a chance to read the completed story I often become attached to the work and Murphy’s Law dictates that the more you love a book, the more likely your cover sketches will be killed and never see the light of day. Well, not really but it does happen. That’s the worst, when you’ve invested a lot of time reading the material, falling in love with the characters, sketching and brainstorming- only to have your cover rejected before you even make it to the final art stage. That’s just part of the business and when you do get a good cover through to final for a story that you love, it’s something special.

How much input did the publishers/design team have? Were you given a strict guideline to work to, or more or less free reign to go with your ideas?

I worked with Art Director, Rachael Cole which was a real pleasure. We didn’t start with any preconceived ideas. It wasn’t until I did my first round of sketches that the publisher had more specific thoughts on the art.

Brainstorming ideas for May B (image courtesy of Christopher’s website)

How did you go about designing the typography for the book?

Since this is a period story, I new typography would help set the time and place. I spent a bit of time finding samples of typography from reader books similar to the ones that May B. reads in this novel. I found a type face in a Dover catalogue that matched pretty well and used that for the basis of my lettering. Everything was lettered by hand.

What idea or atmosphere were you hoping to convey?

I mostly wanted to convey loneliness. I like drawing solitary figures, creating visual emptiness and using color to create a somber mood. Those elements paired nicely with the narrative in May B. and the ideas for the cover came from this line of thinking. I gave my Art Director a lot of ideas in the initial rounds and after reviewing my sketches and discussing the book, we landed on the profile face with the sod house in the distance.

What media do you work in? How long did it take you to find a media that worked best for you/that you were comfortable with?

I use graphite, colored pencil, pen, acrylic, gouache, ink and cut paper, all of which gets scanned into the computer and assembled in photoshop. I worked for roughly 4 years as a graphic designer before working as an illustrator so utilizing the computer is second nature. It’s always been a part of my illustration process.

Can you tell us a bit about your creative process? How long does it take you to create a final piece of art work?

Brainstorming and sketching can happen really quickly and intuitively or require weeks of banging my head against the drawing table. Same with the final art. It depends on the image and the complexity of the piece. Sometimes, I spend hours upon hours finding the right colors or tweaking little details and textures. In that case, it feels like a battle with myself to produce a good piece of art. I know there’s a good image waiting inside of me- I just need to wrestle it out of my brain.

What inspires you?

Books, movies, artist talks, New York.

Have you always wanted to be an illustrator? Where did you study? 

I studied music at the University of Colorado and wanted to play the drums professionally. Somehow along the way I ended up drawing pictures instead.

What kind of specific challenges come with designing a book cover compared to other illustration? Do you give a lot of thought to the age the book is marketed for?

One of the biggest challenges is arriving at an idea that is liked by the editor, art director, author, sale department, sale rep, Barnes and Noble book buyer, etc. . There’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen and in today’s economic environment, publishers are often tepid about taking risks with book jacket art. It’s the one downside to book design- too much importance rests upon conventional marketing and fear that the wrong cover art can ruin sales. Fear is a horrible motivator and creativity killer. For me, a cover is more about peaking the curiosity of potential readers and enhancing the overall experience. With a good jacket, a book becomes a precious keep-sake. But it’s the merit of the writing that will really sell the story. In terms of thinking about the age of the intended reader, I do think about that but hope that any change in approach is subtle.

Are there any illustrated book covers out there you particularly love?

I love Art Director Peter Mendelsund’s Illustrated Kafka covers and his paper cut illustration for the Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus. Paul Buckley at Penguin hired a good friend of mine, Jillian Tamaki to hand embroider cover art for a series of classic novels which are both amazing and delightful. My studio mate, Sam Weber illustrated the cover and interior’s for Fahrenheit 451 published by the Folio Society. Stunning! I love Josh Cochran’s cover for Zombie’s vs. Unicorns by Holly Black, published by Simon & Schuster. I’m also really keen on Brian Rae’s illustrations for Malcolm Gladwell’s repackaged books designed by Paul Sahre. Last but not least, my buddy Grady McFerrin made a real beauty for The Vanishing Act by Mette Jackobsen.

A few of my personal favourites. Click the images to view slideshow.

A big thank you to Chris for taking the time out to answer some questions. If you’d like to know more about the cover of May B, I highly recommend checking out this great post that goes into the whole process of creating the cover step by step, along with other projects.

Also, do check out Chris’s blog and website for some more great posts about ongoing projects and working as an illustrator.


3 thoughts on “Cover Corner: Christopher Silas Neal

  1. Love this post, Amy! Chris’ illustrations are absolutely stunning and really unique. It’s so interesting to hear about the “behind-the-book” process 🙂

    I’ve wanted to read this one for ages, too!

  2. I love May B – the cover, the story. Really enjoyed this post. It’s so interesting to get a peek at the process and watch the idea evolve from rough sketch to finished product.

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