Monday 13 July 2009

Artful Problem-Solving: An Interview with Mick Wiggins

Last week I posted a quick survey of the beautiful work of illustrator Mick Wiggins. Mr Wiggins was kind enough to agree to be interviewed for this blog, so I started off by asking about how he creates his art. (For all book covers below, click for bigger versions.)

“First, I should note that I am basically an illustrator, and have not been asked yet work on a cover design. Sometimes the illustration has to work within existing design or format, or the designer will bounce off of the composition of my image. Often, I don’t even see the cover design until its ready to go to press.

The original artwork for Gerald Durrell's Menagerie Manor

“Starting out years ago, I painted with oils, but eventually shifted to a digital format back in the 1980s. As the technology matured over the decades, my style drifted to its current state. Technically, I feel like I work pretty simply: sketching in pencil first, scanning, and building the image in Photoshop. As a hangover from the previous century, I still use a mouse (as opposed to a tablet stylus), which is probably the source of the screen-print or woodblock feel for much of my work. With a mouse, one kind of carves shapes, rather than drawing them, which takes away the immediate and sensuous line that drawing by hand gives. Any sensuality that does come through seems to have a slightly more formal, starchy feel.

“I have a couple of sources of textures I use: most commonly an old piece of papyrus that has a peculiar weave I like. I’m liking the random noise generators these days, and the textures that can be derived from them.

Details of some of the textures from Mick's work

“In the use of textures, I am mostly interested the opportunity to throw in flecks of different colours in a field, rather than suggesting or imitating another medium. The flattened use of that kind of tonality does suggest screen- or block-printing of course, and it’s pretty obvious—to me, anyway—the influence that Japanese woodblock art plays in my work. I can never get enough of not only Hokusai and Hiroshige, but the whole floating world canon.

“I love working on book covers: the pace and focus of cover development for a book is far different to that, say, of a piece for a magazine or product. All of which fits my personality, I’m finding.

The original artwork for Nicola Upson's Angel with Two Faces

“I really prefer to read the books I work on, which strangely enough surprises many of the designers with whom I’ve worked. Seems a rather minimal requirement to me. That said, even with a few years of experience with the market, it's still kind of mysterious to me: there are marketing, editorial, authorial and sales issues whose gears grind behind the scenes—or at least out of my view— all of which can dictate the visual direction eventually taken. There's no doubt in my mind that some of the best covers for the Steinbeck series were left on the drawing board for reasons I can’t figure.

“The Steinbeck gig was about as dreamy a gig as an illustrator can hope to land: 24 covers to date, I think. It was not difficult in the sense of inspiration—he’s so good at evoking mood, and his settings are described so beautifully—but the flop-sweat for me was intense. Steinbeck's such a classic figure in the literary landscape and bookshelves, delivering art that disappointed was not an option.

“Fortunately, Paul Buckley, senior designer at Penguin, knows how to lean in and back off as an art director, which resulted in a pretty good batting average for the set, I think. Since Steinbeck's writings were a diverse lot, the danger for me (besides failing), was whether they would hang together as a group. My ‘style’, such as it is, can drift in odd directions, and I’m frequently inconsistent in a ‘look’. Anyway, if there is any consistency within the series, well, I got lucky.

“On the other hand, once I worked on a series of regional detective novel covers that became increasingly difficult to illustrate, due to the sameness of the story formula from book to book: same character, same location, and not a whole lot of variation. Not so inspiring.

“All that said, as an illustrator I sometimes feel I am more a craftsman, perhaps a cabinet maker, than an ‘artist’. There is an assignment, there's a purpose and there are forces above to be pleased, all of which can trump my own personal tastes. But I like the process of problem-solving artfully, and like to think that is one of my strengths as a professional.

The original artwork for Andrew Martin's Murder at Deviation Junction

“My dream job? Easy: Mark Twain. Most immediately what comes to mind are his travelogues—this would be a cover and chapter illustrations for Roughing It, or The Innocents Abroad. Give it to me!

“Currently there are no book projects in front of me, but I am staying afloat on other freelance assignments. When the inspiration and the time happens, I like to work on my own projects.

“I have three picture story ideas in development, with no commercial potential that I can see. Nevertheless, I am very drawn to the potential of a story told with a stripped down narrative and the use of formal compositions, as opposed to, say, the multi-panelled graphic novel/comic book stylings). This could work in print form, but perhaps more ideally as a video with soundtrack. I've been mightily impressed with the 1962 short film ‘La Jetee’ which used still photos and narration to tell a mesmerizing and mysterious tale eloquently, and I’m thinking this holds a lot of possibilities with all of the new media platforms coming into use.

The original artwork for Andrew Sean Greer's Story of a Marriage

“The sound projects that I have on my site are just little personal vacations that I enjoy now and then—‘found’ sound that is reframed and shaped a bit, no matter how crudely sometimes, can be oddly transporting and powerful. In the ‘Dieter Talfdum’ story you mentioned, I used one of the recordings for the soundtrack, which was very satisfying. I really hope to pursue that direction in the near future.

The original artwork for Nicola Upson's An Expert in Murder

“One of the drawbacks of being an illustrator, for me, is the difficulty of enjoying my own work. It’s so much easier to spot the flaws and experience the burn of missed opportunity than simply enjoying a job well done. I spend so many hours in front of an image in process, that I can become somewhat numb to what the picture does exactly: the feeling, mood, whatever, if that makes any sense. But I think that’s a pretty common experience amongst illustrators, and part of the whole craft is to have the discipline to work through those difficulties.”

Thank you, Mr Wiggins!

(For a little more on 'La Jetee' and books, see the end of this post.)

UPDATE: Read this interview in Spanish here!


H3NR7 said...

Mick's work is gorgeous.

I haven't had the pleasure of commissioning a new piece from him, but I got to work with his art on our Picador paperback edition of Andrew Sean Greer's Story of a Marriage. Beautiful mood.

JRSM said...

Thanks for that, Henry. For anyone reading these comments who hasn't looked at Henry Sene Yee's cover design work, YOU MUST DO SO NOW!

Óscar Palmer said...

Great interview with an artist I greatly admire. I was wondering if you'd let me translate it to Spanish for posting it in my own blog (fully credited, of course!). Drop me a line at info(at)espop(dot)com if you can. Cheers and thanks anyway!

JRSM said...

Please do. I'll email you.

Anonymous said...

great interview. i should add that with mick you get a home run every single time. he brings absolutely everything to the table, and working with him is as fluid and as smooth as his art. we've done 30 some odd covers with him now and not one glitch, not a snag of any sort. absolutely. one of the absolute very best working today.

-paul buckley

JRSM said...

That's very pleasing to know, Paul. Thank you for that. I love his stuff-it's gorgeous.

amateur idler said...

Good Lord. It's weird to come back here to say this, but I realized in a "duh!" kind of moment that, by chance, I'd seen a post you'd written about Mick Wiggins a long time ago and admired it all greatly - and I'm now taking an editorial illustration class from him. It's a little intimidating, to say the least. He's terribly nice.

JRSM said...

i'm envious--but, yes, i'd be a bit intimidated too. he's great!