Hey there Void™! Found a very interesting article written by art extraordinaire Irene Gallo waaaay back in April of 2006, but the lessons stated here are priceless. They are especially useful since, at t the time of this writing, the bulk of my "work" is centered pretty much on science fiction/fantasy. I suppose I'll post large excerpts from the article and see if I have something to say or add to it.

The article is actually about making a successful commercial artist's portfolio that you can show to science fiction & fantasy book publishing and magazine companies. Ms. Gallo describes the distinction by saying that:

"While I’m sure there are some things in common, I would bet there are many differences in preparing a portfolio for comics or concept work in film and gaming."

Alright, sure! I'm sure that's an interesting debate, but another time. Lets get down to business! Here's another interesting quote in the foreword part of the post:

"... Remember, when an art director is speaking to you professionally, they are thinking about the concerns of their jobs. Art directors see TONS of work that they adore but haven’t found a way to utilize. Being hired is not the same as doing great work... I need to get all my covers past all the fickle opinions of a Sales and Marketing department, booksellers, and the readership."

My thoughts:
I suppose that is the most heartbreaking thing, isn't it? Especially as an artist, where you slave on a piece for four hours, only to have your boss reject it out right. In my position as an 'amateur' commercial artist, I (fortunately) do not really have to worry too much about market statistics or research or things of that sort. Just make great art that I feel would sell. Whether this is all a good thing or a bad thing is yet to be learned by yours truly.

Now for the rest... How do you make a good Sci-fi/Fantasy book cover??!

Irene Gallo:

Know who you are showing your work to. Don't show your still-lifes and say, "But what I REALLY want to do is fantasy book covers." If that's what you really want to do, then sit down and create a new portfolio. And don't offer to do a job on spec to prove that you can switch gears.
Create different portfolios for different clients. The presentation you show a card gaming company may be subtlety different than the presentation you show a book publisher.

The “Weakest Link” principle reigns supreme. Especially when looking at portfolios from young artists just out of school a couple of years... If you have seven paintings that you really like and three that you’re not fond of, sit down and paint three more pictures. An Art Director will always fear that they could get you on a bad day. ADs don’t want to take a chance on new talent, they want to feel comfortable and excited about working with new talent.

Remember that the day you graduate, artists like Donato Giancola, Todd Lockwood, Jon Foster are your competition. You need to give me a reason to hire you instead of those guys. I don’t say this to make it seem hopeless but, rather, to make younger artists realize that they really NEED to work hard to get their foot in the door. And they need to work smartly. Look at your work critically and constantly work to improve.

My thoughts:
I figured as much. It's rare to see terrible cover art on anything the shelf these days.

Figure drawing, figure drawing, figure drawing! The most important thing for a book publisher is figure drawing. You may get away with faking the rest (for a little while) but you need to have 100% solid figure drawing that does not look stiff and cartoonish.

There are only a few artists who are willing to include more than one or two figures in a painting. If you can handle a crowd scene, it can go a long way to separating you from your competition.

My thoughts:
Now you tell me! This is my greatest waterloo.

This is tough. Action often looks stiff or fake. The trick is getting good reference so that the pose is accurate and then deviating from it to give it some life. There are only a couple of people that I trust with real action...but when it works, it’s kick ass.

Yes, we constantly show sexy, big-breasted babes on our covers. BUT, there is a fine line between sexy and freakish. If you are using Hustler for your reference, you're on the wrong side of that line. Along with sexy, they usually need to look like they can kick-ass. Slave girls don't impress art directors. Book publishing does not use pin-up. And breasts are NOT perfectly spherical.

Luis Royo. This figure is sexy, strong, and in command of the situation without being obviously posed strictly for titillation. Royo explores all kinds of dark and erotic themes in his personal work but, for his book covers he is able to pull back a bit for the more conservative book publishing market.

This applies more to artists that have been in the industry a decade or two but let this be a cautionary tale for young artists: It’s not a great idea to always use your girlfriend/wife in every painting. As people get older their sense of what is fashionable sometimes ends shortly after college.

It’s slightly painful when I see a figure in the painting whose clothing and/or hair is clearly from the 80s. (Fantasy paintings are amuck in mullets!) Unless it’s a historical piece, costuming should attempt to be as timeless looking as possible.

Looking “dated” is the kiss of death for an illustrator. (Men’s fashion doesn’t seem to be as identifiable so I don’t often see this problem in male figures.)

Too much detail in the background flattens the image out. Artists working in PhotoShop love to show every brick of the castle that is resting on the mountain across the valley. Not good.

Stephan Martiniere (image above) is a master at implying detail with abstract shapes. It keeps the image alive.
We don't need to see every leaf in Greg Manchess's painting to know that there is a jungle back there.

Book publishing (outside of gaming tie-ins) does not show many monsters. I know that games use tons of them and they look great, but a portfolio full of monsters isn't a help to me.

Showing an example or two of some classic mythic creatures is good - dragons, unicorns, trolls - but I don't need to see tons of it and they should not be of the twelve arm, five eyeball, gooey variety. Good anatomy on animals and creatures is critical. The people are still more important, but if you can also sell me on horses and dragons, you’re golden.

Not so interesting. Even horror books stay away from gore. Grit is fine, a little bit of subtle blood and grime is okay, but no Marketing Department will let an evisceration pass.

My thoughts:
Irene states that you gotta show this sorta thing with class. Like showing loss and tragedy and all, and not mountains of blood and stuff. Ah, I never much like drawing gore anyway.

I don’t care if you have to stand on your head to make a good picture. Most likely, you’ll need reference. Use it. Don’t be a slave to it.

There’s never a second chance to make a first impression. Make people WANT to turn the page.

If you are showing off a portfolio you are asking a busy person to take their time to look at your best work in its best presentation. Never explain why the image didn't come out as well as you hoped or how bad the print looks. It will either make me nervous that you'll run into the same problems on my job or make me wonder why you are having me look at a portfolio that even you feel is not ready.

It's surprising but people do this all the time. The best artists can point out mistakes in their paintings...but they don't. Be professional and stand by your work.

I’ve had people get on their knees and beg for a chance. This kind of behavior embarrasses the art director and should embarrass the artist. Don’t chase an art director at inappropriate moments, such as an awards ceremony, while at dinner, etc.

Much of my time at work, and after hours, is spent thinking about who should do what covers. If I make the right match between artist and book, then the months ahead of me are smooth sailing. If I make the wrong match...it can be months of wrestling with the artist, killing a budget on a book by having to create a second cover, or, worst of all, letting a book go out into the world to limp along with an inappropriate cover.

Note, inappropriate does _not_ mean that the cover is bad...it just means that it is not the right cover for that particular book. There are plenty of covers that are not my favorites but they are right for that book, just as there are plenty of beautiful covers that may not be right for a particular book.

My thoughts:
Very helpful! What else can I say? I was thinking of attaching a cheesy sci-fi video game intro, but I think I'll skip it for this post. I just I actually listen to the advice given here.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. what a lot of men fail to realise is that carrying such sizeable assets all their lives makes these women prone to spinal injury

  3. Anonymous Says:
  4. Thanks for the post it's pretty good, I just got commissioned to do a book cover so your post is very informative, thanks

  5. ChrisK Says:
  6. You can thank Irene Gallo for her wonderful insight in the world of publishing! I got her blog link somewhere in here...

  7. Carradee Says:
  8. I can ditto that "spinal injury" comment. And bad support = bouncing = discomfort. Being well-endowed even messes up your balance--or at least it does mine.

    As a bit of a side note, even freelance writers should have varied portfolios for different types of clients. Just a thought.

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