04-28-2011: MilSciFi.com interviews artist and author Michael J. Sullivan of
MilSciFi: "Welcome. Please tell us a little
Sullivan: "I'm actually not an artist
At the age of eighteen I set my sights on a career as a book cover
artist and rode a scholarship to Detroit's prestigious Center for Creative
Studies. I dropped out of college when I landed a job as an illustrator for a
design studio that did jobs mostly for the car companies. I worked there for a
year before quitting to raise my kids as my wife was making a lot more money as
About ten years later, after moving to Raleigh, I returned to the workforce as a
designer for a software company and instantly became their entire marketing
department. A year later I started my own advertising agency where I was the
creative director and my wife filled in the business side as the company's
president. We were very successful, and after twelve years I retired to write
When my first publisher showed me the proposed cover sketch that
they were planning on using, I quickly painted my own and sent it over. They loved
it and I ended up doing all my book covers. When my first publisher was unable
to continue publishing my books, my wife and I established the publishing
company, Ridan. We picked up a number of other authors and to save time and
money I did their covers. I've also done a few other book covers for some
authors not associated with Ridan, one of the most recent being Leona Wiosker's
Secret of the Sands.
Now that my books have been picked up by Orbit Books of New York,
I am not longer doing the covers, although my wife may still twist my arm into
doing a few more for Ridan. But these days I am writing full time and the art
is just a hobby."
MilSciFi: "What training did you have to
become an artist?"
Sullivan: "I attended CCS in Detroit for a year and a half, where the only
thing I learned was that colleges are not terribly good places to learn
anything. I picked up art much the way I learned writing, or anything really—by
trial-and-error and emulation.
I started back when lettering was still done by hand in some
cases, back when computers were just appearing in the art world. When I was in
college there was this big fear that computers would steal our jobs. The first "art"
computer I used was at the studio back in 1984. It was huge, about the size of
an elbow couch and was brought in and hooked up by an installation team, who
then trained some of us on it. I fell in love with the idea of doing art on
computers and worked all night, long after everyone else left, just playing on
the thing. So when the first programs hit the Windows platform (yeah I always
used a PC) back in the late 80s, I began playing with them.
By the time I moved to Raleigh I had taught myself how to use all
the primary programs, the thing was, I was way ahead of the technology curve.
No one else knew anything, and only a few printers knew what to do with a
computer file. I had never done a professional printing from a file either. I
remember calling all these printers and asking them questions about how to set
up a file for them, and they all responded as if I was insane. When I did find
a printer savvy enough, I went down and had a meeting with their production
staff to have them tell me what they needed me to do to make their life easier.
I remember the manager looking at me and shaking his head. "Man, I wish
more people did this," he said.
The thing is, there were no courses, or classes, no how-to books;
everything was figured out by trying and failing and asking questions from
friends and such. Everything was being made up. I remember some of us Photoshop
artists being mad when they came out with the bevel command, or the drop-shadow
option. We had worked out the multi-step techniques for these effects through
sweat and toil and here they went and dropped in a feature set that allowed
anyone to press a button and do it.
So to answer your question, I'm mostly self-taught."
MilSciFi: "Which programs do you use (or prefer),
and how are they employed?"
Sullivan: "Nowadays I use just what you would
expect: Photoshop for most of the artwork, InDesign for layout, Illustrator for
drawing. I also use Bryce for roughing out images and getting the lighting right,
and sometimes TrueSpace for building more precise models that I then import
So in order, I do sketches often from photos, then (I often, but
not always) build a model in TrueSpace, create a scene in Bryce, bring that
into Photoshop and using it as a guide paint over it to create the finished
image. Then I bring that image into InDesign and add text and any line
drawing/logo needed to complete the finished work.
That's how I do covers, mostly because they need to be printed. I
also paint oils on canvas, but that is just for my own personal fun. Those I
hang around the house."
MilSciFi: "What would you consider to be the "key"
aspect of any cover project?"
Sullivan: "Coming up with an idea that
conveys the look and feel of the story that is going to turn heads, make people
pick up the book, and which I can actually do a good job at painting."
MilSciFi: "Do you have a favorite artist or
Sullivan: "I'm really not that great of an
artist. I'm a damn good designer, but I lack the talent and skill of a good
artist. So I don't have a lot of flexibility in style. I do what works for the
most part. That said, I try to match the style to the story, or what the author
wants. For my books I was looking for an Alan Lee mystical watercolor style. I
failed miserably, but by shooting so high, I think I managed to hit something.
Growing up I was always a fan of The Hildabrandt Brothers, and
Brian Froud, and a lot of my early stuff mimicked them."
MilSciFi: "What advise would you give someone
who was thinking about becoming an artist?"
Sullivan: "Do it. Right now is the best time
there has ever been to become a book cover artist. With a minor talent and
self-taught skills in the base programs, there is a sea of jobs begging for
cover artists. With the rise in popularity of eBooks, self-publishing is huge
right now. All these authors are desperate to get decent art and layouts done
for their books. You do a handful for a couple hundred bucks each, and if you
do a good job, you'll get a name in this pool of tight-knit potential customers
and soon you'll be able to charge a thousand a pop for what should be about
three or four day's work and you'll have to make a waiting list for customers."
MilSciFi: "Do you have a preferred genre,
example Science Fiction, Horror, Fantasy, etc?"
Sullivan: "Nope. I don't think it works that
way for artists. It would be more a matter of
figure art, landscape, open design. The subject/genre of the book is irrelevant
to the subject and style of the art."
MilSciFi: "What inspires your art, and do you
ever us real-world images as your basis?"
Sullivan: "Almost always. That was one of the
things I did learn in CCS—artists almost always use reference. That's why you
see Disney flying their art team to Central America or Africa, or at least the
zoo to study and sketch what will be the landscape and characters in their
animated movies. Being able to make stuff up is great, but that usually comes
after years of experience drawing from reference."
MilSciFi: "How do you plan out a project? For
example do you read the story and then talk to the author?"
Sullivan: "Usually the author has no idea
what they want in a cover. And in the few cases where they have an idea, it is
usually unworkable, or would result in a boring image.
In almost every case I read the book. There have been a few I
haven't had time. In those instances I listen to those who have, including the
author. In the case where I have read it, I don't usually talk to anyone. I
just do the rough sketches and send them to the author. In ninety percent of
the cases the author loves it and I tighten it a bit and I'm done. If not, they
ask for a few changes."
MilSciFi: "Have you won any awards for your
Sullivan: "Not for the cover art. I won some awards
back when I was working at our ad agency, One for an ad another for a corporate
identity. On the other hand, I've never submitted to any contests. Keep in
mind, I'm not an artist—I'm an author. I only do book covers if my wife twists
my arm or if I'm moved to help someone."
MilSciFi: "Do you have a website?"
http://www.michaelsullivan-author.com/ and it is in an awful state of neglect."
MilSciFi: "Do you do the art for your
Sullivan: "Yes, but I really do need to revamp
the whole thing and my blog. It is all very dated."
MilSciFi: "Do you have any upcoming events?"
Sullivan: "I'll be at the SFWA Nebula Awards
in DC May 19th, and at Balticon Memorial Weekend.
MilSciFi: "Thank you, for your time."