Friday 24 October 2008

An Interview with Nicholas Motte

A recent post looked at the beautiful and striking new covers drawn for Dalkey Archive books by Nicholas Motte. Mr Motte was kind enough to agree to be the first artist interviewed on Caustic Cover Critic.


CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: I know your work from the new Dalkey Archive covers: how did you come to be involved in this?

NICHOLAS MOTTE: My father, Warren Motte, had been working with Dalkey Archives for a while—he’d put out his Fables of the Novel through the press in 2003. Warren had finished work on his most recent book entitled Fiction Now, and he asked me if I’d like to design the cover. I was immensely touched by the offer and set about making the image.

I submitted the design to Dalkey and they responded really favorably. John O’Brien and Danielle Dutton asked me if I’d like to provide more material of similar tone for other books in their catalogue.

CCC: What's it like doing covers for such a wide range of books?

NM: It’s a real pleasure. I love getting a crisp bundle of books wrapped in my drawings hot off the press, and Dalkey’s a joy to work with.

The work has been an odd coupling of restriction and freedom. On one hand, it has been useful to produce work that is thematically unspecific because the designs can be applied to a wide spectrum of books. I have to parse my drawings with those restrictions in mind. On the other hand, the Dalkey team has not sought to limit my submissions in any way at all. I’m free to provide them with anything I find attractive/evocative—work is PLAY for these books.

Danielle is great at laying these things out. She’s got a fine sense for typefaces and she’s able to drop the designs into contexts of the titles nicely.

CCC: What cover work do you have coming up?

NM: The next line of Dalkey books, I hope.

CCC: What's your illustration/design background?

NM: I’ve loved drawing since I was little. I collected “albums” and comics as a kid and tried to mimic those drawings, studied architecture in college, started a t-shirt brand in 2001 (rxmance), worked as a ‘concept artist’ for a while and moved to Boulder in 2006 to work as a designer.

CCC: You work in a mix of pen and digital design: what's the process? Are the sketches done in pen and then coloured?

NM: I love the quill pen very much because of the varying line-weight that one can achieve with a single stroke. I love Chinese brush for the same reason, but the resulting work from that form is often too big to easily scan.

The scanner’s great because it totally transforms the native scale—a 2” drawing can become a building-sized monster. Because of the scanner, I’ve been drawing smaller and smaller. I guess my goal is to make all the lines in a drawing please me. Smaller drawings have fewer strokes, and my chances of making every line ‘correct’ increases at that scale.

I bring the black and white drawings into Illustrator and drop blocks of colour behind the lines.

CCC: What would your dream book be to work on, from any era, if you could do all of the design, the covers and interior art?

NM: One Thousand and One Nights!

CCC: Are there any other book designers do you admire?

NM: Jack Kirby, Moebius, Hugo Pratt, Enki Bilal.

CCC: Ever been asked to design/cover/illustrate a book you couldn't stand?

NM: No, but I was asked to make a McCain cool hip t-shirt. I submitted some cellphone camera shots of the inside of my throat.

CCC: Thank you, Mr Motte!


Ricky Lee Grove said...

What a wonderful interview. No wonder the covers are so well designed and colorful, Mr. Motte's personality shines through them. I love his notion of play as work for the Dalkey Archive.

Thank you so much for the interview and the pictures. Mmmmm...

JRSM said...

Thank you--he was a very informative and helpful interviewee. I'm deeply envious of him and his job!

Will said...

Awesome James. I look forward to more interviews with cover artists -- this is the perfect place for them!

Danielle said...

Danielle Dutton here. I'm Dalkey's designer and I wanted to say thank you so much for your two lovely posts about our new "look."

Nick's work came to us at a really interesting time. We at Dalkey had talked for a while about doing covers that used a detail from some larger artwork and had just a tiny piece sticking onto the bottom of the cover. This was the idea behind the HOTEL CRYSTAL cover (which was one of the first I designed with Nick's art) where I took a detail from one of his drawings and left most of the cover white. We liked that minimalism and this became the basis for the designs of the other covers. What we liked about Nick's art was his unexpected use of color but also, primarily, the looseness of his lines. There's a story about a Paul Klee scholar who happened to line up 50 or so of Klee's nonrepresentational pencil sketches and noticed that the lines from one ran into another. When he organized them a certain way, the result was a giant portrait, which Klee had secretly cut to pieces after it was done in order to isolate the rhythms of the lines themselves. This is more or less what we've tried to do with Nick's work. He sends us pieces without knowing what the books are, and I typically pull some detail or details to stretch or turn etc. to create the cover design. Lately, there have been a few cases where Nick did a straight-up representational image for us because the book needed that - that was the case with A NEST OF NINNIES, for example. For the most part, though, what's made these covers seem so vibrant to us is precisely the element of surprise that comes from this combination of constraint and collaboration. It's a kind of OULIPAN attitude toward cover design, I guess, which seems appropriate given that, as Nick says, he came to us/we came to him through his father, Warren Motte.

Thanks again!

Ian Koviak said...

great great interview.

JRSM said...

Thank you, Ian and Will. And Danielle, I'll repost your wonderful expansion of the process as a follow-up to the interview, if I may. Too good to get lost in the comments.