Jul 27 2010 1:22pm

Embodying Mercy Thompson In Person and In Paint

mercy thompsonDan Dos Santos created the quintessential urban fantasy cover when he painted Patricia Brigg’s Moon Called cover. As an art director, seeing the printed proof was one of those professionally jealous moments, “Damn, I wish that was ours!” (Luckily, Dan and I are friends; pride outweighs jealousy.)

Like most artists, Dan utilizes models to create his paintings. I asked him to introduce us to the woman behind “Mercy Thompson” and a bit about the process of taking real-world elements to bring fictional characters to life. Five “Mercy Thompson” books later, and a sixth around the corner, Dan and Jaime, the model, have created a series of paintings defining one of urban fantasy’s most beloved heroines.

Jaime, what do you do when you are not being “Mercy Thompson”?

During the day I am an architectural draftsperson. I have had experience designing and drawing high-end residential homes, commercial buildings, and interior renovations. Architecture has been a passion of mine since a young age.

I am a bartender by night at a tavern where I have been serving the local crowd for seven years.

How does it feel to see your self on the New York Times bestseller list?

It’s very exciting! But that credit is all due to Dan’s awesome work on the cover and the author Patricia Briggs, of course.

Do people ever recognize you on the street?

I wouldn’t say I get recognized on the street, but many friends and family have not known about it and called me up from the bookstore asking if it was really me on the cover. It’s fun!

Dan, how did you find the right woman to play Mercy Thompson? 

Jaime is a bartender at a tavern I used to live across the street from. I would go there almost daily to shoot pool with a friend of mine. He and I discussed how I should use her for a model for quite some time, but I never had an appropriate job since I was doing a lot of YA at the time. Eventually I was commissioned to do the cover for Moon Called, which called for a tough, athletically built woman. After reading the brief, I felt Jaime was perfect for the part, and just needed to convince her of the same without sounding like just another drunken customer. Fortunately, she was intrigued by the prospect rather than scared off, as many prospective models often are when approached in public. From there, it was just a matter of setting up a time to do the shoot.

Mercy Thompson, Patricia BriggsArtists tend to take many photos of their models...what is it you are looking for in those shoots? Why isn’t as simple as copying a single photo?

If it was as easy as copying a photo, my job would be a lot easier. Unfortunately, some things look fine in photos that just look odd when you paint them. We have been taught to accept photographs as truth, so we don’t question the details. But when you look at a painting, everything is open to scrutiny, and suddenly subtle things like the positioning of a finger can become really awkward. Because of this, I pay very close attention to details when I do a shoot, and often focus more on individual body parts than I do the entire figure, ensuring that every little body part looks the best it can. And yet, despite that attention to detail, even the prettiest of models still needs to be idealized even further. Mixing different photos, stretching limbs into impossible positions, emphasizing features, and changing hair styles is pretty much a given in every piece for me. On this particular series, I have the added challenge of adding tattoos, of which Jaime has none.

You’ve done a number of covers with Jaime at this point. Do you think that both of you are able to inhabit the character to a greater degree than working on a one-off book with a new model?

Absolutely. I was really fortunate that Jaime was a great model right from the start (which is rarer than you’d expect), but even still, there is obviously always room for improvement. With each successive cover Jaime embodies the character more and more, and achieves the desired result faster and faster.

Being an ongoing series also provides an opportunity to really develop the character much further than a single image permits. There are many sides to an individual’s personality, and having multiple images to work with permits me to explore those nuances. Mercy may be tough and proud on one cover, and yet sexy and vulnerable on the next. This goes a long way to making Mercy feel like a real person.

What are the challenges of doing artwork for a series?

There are actually a lot of unique challenges on this series.

Because the covers are printed with a metallic spot coating over the background, I have a lot of compositional restrictions. I can’t use too soft of an edge on the figure, because the Art Director needs to be able to provide the printer with a well defined mask where the spot coating should begin and end. This is particularly challenging when painting hair. The spot coating also means I can not have any foreground elements overlap the figure, since they would have a metallic finish like the rest of the environment, and make the figure’s silhouette look really weird once printed.

There is a fine balance between consistency and redundancy when working on a series. You want the whole series to look good together and have consistent themes that run throughout, yet you also need to ensure that every cover looks distinctly different than the last.

On this particular series, we decided to maintain consistency through the use of the metallic background and the actual composition. You’ll notice that every cover depicts Mercy at the exact same size, from head to knee, centrally positioned. This is no accident. It was actually a request of the Art Director, ensuring that the covers maintained a steady look. Given that restriction, I need to pay close attention to the manner in which I pose the figure, as well as the overall color scheme of the cover in order to make sure each one looks different than the last. Unfortunately, I tend to let a single color dominate most of my compositions, so after six covers, I’ve just about gone through the whole rainbow now!

Mercy Thompson

The image had so much buzz about it, do you think that affected you artistically or professionally?

Prior to the Mercy Thompson series, John Jude Palencar had done some brilliant covers for the Kushiel series, which depicted a woman with a large, prominent tattoo. But aside from that, I can’t recall any other previous covers that depicted a woman with quite that many tattoos, done in a modern rockabilly style. Apparently it struck a chord with people, because I became absolutely inundated with requests for tattoo-centric jobs. I literally could have painted nothing but tattooed people for a full year. I accepted a few of the sweeter ones (some of which remain my personal favorites), but I really did have to make a concerted effort not to accept too many of them for fear of typecasting myself.

Aside from the type of job, the popularity of the series has actually affected the quality of jobs I receive as well. Not only does having a cover in the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list really help an artist’s business through notoriety, but it actually helps me produce better quality covers.  

So much of creating a striking cover comes down to what the publisher does after the painting is complete. One might argue that it is even more important than the painting itself. When a publisher expects that a book will debut at the top of the bestseller list, they are much more inclined to throw money at the project. This means I can spend more time on the painting, and that the image is going to get extra special treatment when it comes to type design, print quality, advertising, point of purchase displays, etc. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts, and in the end, everyone ends up looking pretty good.

Irene Gallo is the art director for Tor Books

This article is part of Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Leigh Butler
1. leighdb
The person who originally recommended Patricia Briggs to me said that she picked up the books solely on the basis of liking the cover, so well done.
Morgan Crawford
2. Jenesis
Thank you for the post and Beautiful Covers.
3. Angiegirl
I am a huge fan of Mr. Dos Santos' work and the Mercy covers in particular. It's wonderful to see and hear the behind the scenes story.
4. Patty Briggs
Great interview, and once again, HUGE thanks for the amazing work you do. It's lovely to see a photo of Jaime, who looks exactly live the covers.
Mike Conley
5. NomadUK
It's lovely to see a photo of Jaime, who looks exactly live the covers.

Except, mercifully, minus the tattoos. Hooray for Jaime; lovely, indeed.
Christine Evelyn Squires
6. ces
Good interview! Dan's work is always a joy to view!
7. opramum
Love the covers, just adds to my enjoyment of the great books.
8. Nfty
@leighdb: It was that way for me, too. I picked up Moon Called solely on the basis of the cover, having never read Patricia Briggs before. And the cover for Bone Crossed is my favorite. Love it!
9. Kevin James Breaux
Dan is an amazing artist. His covers are perfection. This is why I hired him to do the cover of my novel SOUL BORN. You can see it on his site. Traveling down the road of sketches to final product was an amazing journey. His attention to detail and ability to submerse himself into the subject matter is incredible.
10. judy Riggenbach
I love all of Patricia Briggs work and have read the Mercy Thompson series since its inception and loved the covers.
Meeting Dan at IMC and seeing an original of one of his covers I was blown away to put him together with the art work. Why it had not clicked before I do not know! I do know the covers are as impressive as the writing.
Dan's work helps to sell the books! The covers are beautiful, strong, and evoke the feel of each story!
Great job!!!
11. Skyros
I've enjoyed his work ever since his Magic: the Gathering card artwork. He's really good, and Silver Borne is a great cover. Too bad he has any restrictions at all on how he does the covers.
12. Tinatre
They're awesome covers. However, I would like to see more of Mercy's native american ethnicity come through. Still, the covers rock!
13. Alias_girl
If they ever do turn these books into movies; I think Jaime should have first dibs on playing Mercy. It would be more complete (at least to me). I've been reading the Mercy series (as well as Patricia Briggs Alpha & Omega series) since I first saw the cover for Moon Called. I have no idea exactly why I choose to pick it up and never even read the back before I bought it, but I'm glad I did. Fabulous journey and it keeps getting better.
I think that Dan's amazing work accents the stories perfectly. They both are incredible.
14. Songspirit
I picked up Moon Called because of the cover...and the Mercy books have become one of my top five urban fantasy series to read.
Fun to read Dan's comments about the Kushiel series art as well...another series that is a personal favorite purchased because of the fantastic cover art.
15. Samanthald
I may be the only one, but I strongly dislike these covers. They are beautifully done and both the artist and model do a great job, however, I think they do a disservice to the books. With the Mercy Thompson series, we have a nontraditional heroine: she's over thirty, a mechanic, not supposed to be pretty, and ethnically mixed. She is such a likable character because she's down to earth, brave, and very caring. I think Patricia Briggs has described her wardrobe as being composed of jeans and oil stained t-shirts. These covers make Mercy a sex object in a way that she's not in the books at all. She's in very provocative poses, in clothes that I don't think she would ever wear, and it's all about her skin and tattoos. Frankly, I'm glad that I read these in an e-book format, because I would be embarassed to be seen reading them based on the cover. I respect the work that the artist has done making these covers visually appealing, but I wish that the covers didn't make it look like I'm picking up erotica.
16. LiLivLife Reviews
This is super cool. To meet the woman for Mercy on the covers is fantastic. I love the covers and will admit I was drawn to the covers first- the story just happen to ROCK!!!
17. Nikki S
This was really cool to read about! Back before Blood Bound even came out, the cover of Moon Called caught my eye at Walmart while I was stuck at home for the summer between college semesters. I read the insert and decided to pick it up, and it has quickly become one of my favorite book series. If the cover hadn't been half as cool, I probably would have walked on, oblivious. Thanks to an awesome artist along with an amazing author!
Brenda Mihalik
18. BrendaM53
I must admit that I have always been influenced by the covers of the books that I read. After the cover and title catch my eye, then I read the inside covers or the backs. Although I now read most of my books in e-book format I still look at the cover art first. I loved the cover of Moon Called and the story by Patricia Briggs was fascinating. I stumbled across the article showing the model next to the cover by Dan Dos Santos and was very excited to know more about the people behind the books. Thank you all - author, model, and artist for giving me so much pleasure.

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