We’re excited to share the cover for The Bard’s Blade, the start of a new fantasy adventure from Brian D. Anderson—publishing January 2020 with Tor Books. Below, cover artist Félix Ortiz shares his journey as a SFF fan and fantasy illustrator, and some of the inspiration behind this particular cover.
I always liked to draw as a kid, but playing Dungeons & Dragons was what really got me hooked on the fantasy themes when I was around 13, particularly portraying the player characters. I would get lost on the illustrations by the early D&D artists (Elmore, Easley, Brom, and others). There was a sense of wonder back then, and at that age, that really sparked my imagination.
By the time I was in high-school I knew I wanted to be an illustrator. But back in 1992 in Puerto Rico, before I had internet and social media, lacking proper mentorship, maturity and vision, and studying visual arts at an arguably mediocre local school, my dreams were deprioritized for the most pressing need to make money. Back then I had no idea how to become a fantasy artist short of moving to the US without any money, nor did I know if I was good enough for it (I wasn’t by a long shot).
So when I finished college I had no idea what to do. Literally. But a few months after I graduated I was lucky to be hired by an advertising agency where a friend’s mom used to work. From then on my career was mostly as a graphic designer with a topping of art direction with different agencies in Puerto Rico and New York. Through all that time I kept doing fantasy illustration on and off, but nothing serious, just for the fun of it.
It wasn’t until a few years ago (at the ripe age of 39 or so) that the need to listen to my innermost dreams overtook my need of making money. So I decided to switch from my established corporate graphic design and art direction career to full on fantasy illustration. I was always an illustrator at heart, and even though I like graphic design, the child in me kept calling and I couldn’t ignore him anymore. I kept working in advertising, but all my energy was spent researching and studying the current fantasy art landscape, and practicing like a maniac.
Then I joined the Facebook group Grimdark Fiction Readers and Writers, not to look for work, but to get reading recommendations. I think the books that inspire me the most to do fan art are those that are not only of great quality in their storytelling but also cater to my gamer side. Big monsters, big battles, grandiose heroes and anti-heroes, colorful environments, things like that. They must also have either extremely good prose, be original, and/or super sharp wit, something to make me talk about it to my friends. It also helped that the GFRaW group was very encouraging. They are mostly indie authors, and understand the struggle of being a starting creative. Their support that inspired me to keep going. In that time I’ve made some very good work partners, friends, and acquaintances.
Little did I know that joining the Grimdark Fiction group would lead me to some great opportunities. It all started with Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames. I loved that book so much that I started doing tons of fan art for it. Unlike a lot of grimdark fiction, his book is full of very colorful characters (like a winged succubus with black armor and a scythe, for example). This was very inspiring for me. Also, Nicholas loved my art so he shared a lot of it, giving me more exposure.
Posting my fan art on social media lead to inquiries about cover commissions, which lead to my first gigs. Now, against all odds, I recently achieved one of my foremost goals of doing a cover for Tor Books.
I had no idea the editor for Kings of the Wyld had taken an interest in my work after seeing my fan art, but she brought me in for Brian Anderson’s The Bard’s Blade. I’m still pinching myself. Back in late March early April when I started this project, the whole thing felt that it came out of nowhere, pure luck. One day I just received an email from Peter Lutjen, one of Tor’s art directors, asking if I was interested in working with them on a fantasy cover. My reply was a big “Absolutely!” At the same time, Brian Anderson reached out asking if I had been approached, that he had known for a while but couldn’t tell and was about to burst with excitement.
One big reason working with Tor was such a big deal for me is that I love their covers, particularly Richard Anderson’s style. He is the main reason I grabbed Kings of the Wyld, which is what inspired me to paint so much and be noticed. I also absolutely love Tommy Arnold’s work, he is up there with the legends.
After signing up with Peter, it was all pretty straight forward. They had a very clear idea of what they needed in terms of concept, and their brief was specific enough for me to have a clear focus but vague enough that I felt I was doing my own thing. So after a mashup of elements from my different sketches, we narrowed down the specifics. After that it was just polish.
While reading the brief and considering the title, I kept thinking of the original Legend of Zelda, especially a piece of art where Link is looking into the distance, and of the looming menace that is Ganon. So I decided to try to evoke the same sense of wonder about the unfolding world and the peril that the main antagonist poses.
Now, my whole internal experience was not as smooth as the painting process. All the while, my thought was “I better do this thing right!!” This is my first commission by a big publisher, so the pressure to deliver was real. In the end it all worked out, which I’m so happy about. Now, to the next nerve wracking experience!
After reading this it may not sound like it was a hard road, but my last 5 years have been very tough, full of doubt and creative blocks. And as if doing art was not hard enough, I also got married and had a daughter (who just turned 1) during this time. So all in all, the last few years have been very hard, but also very joyful and rewarding in every way.
As for the future, who knows. Until I’m a well established artist, the road will continue to be as tough and as rewarding as it has been. Luckily I have a very supportive wife, an inspiring daughter, and a relentless desire to paint, as well as a great community of writers and artists to draw energy from.
Mariyah enjoys a simple life in Vylari, a land magically sealed off from the outside world, where fear and hatred are all but unknown. There she’s a renowned wine maker and her betrothed, Lem, is a musician of rare talent. Their destiny has never been in question. Whatever life brings, they will face it together.
But destiny has a way of choosing its own path, and when a stranger crosses the wards into Vylari for the first time in centuries, the two are faced with a terrible prophecy. For beyond the borders, an ancient evil is returning, its age-old prison shattered.
The two must leave their home behind, and in doing so will face sorcerers and thieves, con-men and assassins, treachery and greed. How far down this path will they have to go to stop the rising darkness and save their home? And how much of themselves will they have to give up along the way?