As part of r/fantasy’s Artist & Illustrator Week, Tommy Arnold conducted an engaging AMA (Ask Me Anything) thread in which he talked about how to make a living as an illustrator, the importance of having a “goal” folder, and—the most fun part—some of his favorite book covers and cover art. Arnold has illustrated many covers for Tor books and Tor.com Original stories, plus the cover for Patchwerk (above), a forthcoming Tor.com novella by David Tallerman; you can also see his art on Orbit Books titles, the Game of Thrones card game, and Magic: The Gathering cards. We’ve rounded up the highlights of his Q&A, plus included the specific pieces of artwork he discusses. Read on and feast your eyes!
Sharing insights from his process, Arnold discussed the many (sometimes hundreds) sketches that go into envisioning an idea, using his art for the Tor.com Original “First Kill” as an example:
The process usually begins with a brief. In the case of book covers the brief is usually a scene or a mixture of characters, and if I’m lucky, a manuscript. In the case of short stories and novellas I’m often set free with the story alone as a brief (card and game art is another issue entirely – the briefs are incredibly specific and often certain elements within the specified composition are already designed, making my job more one of execution).
Once I’ve read the story (a crucial first step for sparking imagery and establishing the mood I feel is right for the image), I sit on it for a couple days. I let the images sort of brew in my mind – strange though it may sound – and this helps me commit to images that I see again and again, rather than wasting time on every little idea that floods in. It also gives me distance from the manuscript, and leaves me with only the mood, rather than the details. Details should never influence a piece so early!
Next I try to commit these mental apparitions to paper (or in my case, digital canvas as I work completely in the computer via Photoshop). Sometimes this process is quick and painless, other times it takes longer than the final painting. I remember on my first tor.com assignment I did over 400 sketches! You can really see if things are working or not even in simple sketches. It’s all about finding images with good bones and a soul. Bones are the structure – the values and the shapes. Soul is the feeling it gives you – the impression it leaves upon the mind. I’ll admit I’ve only recently begun to appreciate how crucial that second part is – the soul of an image. I was sort of doing this without realizing it at first. When my images stopped resonating with me at a certain point, I had to do a lot of searching to discover what I’d lost, and it was this.
And the final version:
Arnold talked inspiration, from both other artists and writers:
I think the best authors and the best artists have something in common here: ambiguity, what is left unsaid. The very best leave so much to my imagination that I can’t hardly help but see something good in it. At the same time, they are responsible for everything they HAVE bothered to draw or write, and therefore all that I imagine is imbued with a great sense of authenticity. Artists that come to mind are David Grove, Greg Manchess, David Downton, Robert Heindel, Richard Anderson, John Harris, and so many more… Specific authors will be impossible to name as words are, in truth, so much better at inspiring imagery than are images (which is one of the things I love about my job). It’s hard to read any story and not see images! Of course some do this better than others but my level of taste regarding stories is not nearly as developed (yet) as my taste in images. Of stories that I have worked on, David Dalglish’s Seraphim series I can say, definitely, gives me a wonderful feeling of excitement.
“I was just wondering what’s the best Joe Abercrombie story you’ve had the huge pleasure of illustrating?” asked Joe Abercrombie. Said Arnold:
Hmm well I guess it would have to be Two’s Company, which you can read for free on Tor.com. This one is a real gem ;)
All kidding aside, I loved this story through and through. I re-read it more times than was governed by the needs of the assignment…which basically never happens. Seriously everyone, I don’t know who this “Abercrombie” character is but he can really write.
From an illustration point of view, this one was an interesting challenge because the very nature of the characters and the mood of the story IS a sort of reveal, and I try to never spoil reveals on a cover. For this reason I went with a broader shot than usual, keeping almost all specificity out of the characters. This way, they are shells for the reader to fill. A person just seeing the story might see one thing in the cover, whereas after the reading the story, see another thing entirely – yet both perceptions will have felt accurate. That’s the hope, anyways…
Redditor elquesosgrande complimented “the no-fear motion” on the art for John Chu’s “Hold-Time Violations,” prompting Arnold to share his inspiration:
That hand positioning came from observing actual parkour runners when they vault—so the hand I had in mind was pretty much the same from beginning to end.
While Arnold doesn’t have too many opportunities to work directly with authors, he did praise Krista D. Ball for giving him a lot of creative freedom in working on the cover of her book The Demons We See:
Ball chimed in with her own praise:
I believe I said the general theme and tone, said I wanted it a bit more artsy than normal fantasy covers, and “absolutely no T&A” :D
When ashearmstrong asked what constituted a dream project, Arnold was ready with an answer:
I love drawing the human figure, but basically all of my assignments already include figures (these days). I’d love to do a series that was connected, something like a Folio Society book where I can do justice to different parts of a story and really immerse myself in one body of work for a time. I was (and on occasion still am) working on a book like this full of Philip K Dick short stories, but the project is self-published and continues to be delayed by, you know, real work ;)
Arnold on style:
It seems crazy to me when people tell me they can pick my work out of a line-up…it certainly doesn’t feel that way when I’m making it. But what DOES start to take your work in the “you” direction is having the courage to throw out solutions that you don’t like. Only work towards your favorite type of images – try to make the images you MOST want to look at. And decide very strategically WHAT that means. Some people mostly paint from a slight distance on the scene, which allows them to really abstract things and play with gesture and shape (flaptraps), while others always get right up in your face so you can see every gritty detail (Sam Weber). These people have directing styles that are an integral part of their voice – see if you can’t find a type of solution that you really enjoy, and stick to it. Don’t be bound to it…but understand that it can be a powerful part of your brand.
You can read the rest of the AMA highlights, but we figured we’d close out this post with more of Arnold’s work:
All art by Tommy Arnold