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Detail from the artwork for Behind Closed Doors

I took the decision quite early in the publishing process to have different covers for my ebooks and paperbacks. And for the latter, I needed a fine artist. My inestimable designer, Jane Dixon-Smith, who creates the covers and formats the interior, found just the right person.

James Lane. As soon as I saw his work, something felt absolutely right. He lives in California, I live in Switzerland, we’ve never actually met, but our creative collaboration has been a joy.

I asked James if he’d talk about the process, answering and asking some questions. As always, he exceeded expectations.

Jill: How does the artistic approach differ when trying to reflect 80,000 words, as to portraying a mood, or a moment in time?

James: When creating an image we’re working towards that “Aha!” moment that the viewer feels upon that first glimpse. It should spark someone’s interest quickly while remaining true to the content of the story. Having said that, the “Aha!” moment is exactly what I’m trying to avoid while working with an author because it behooves us both to know what to expect as we move through the process. It doesn’t make any sense to leave the author in the dark in the hopes of loving the image at the final stage because if it doesn’t work, it’s back to the drawing board for both of you. Once we have arrived at a basic idea of how the painting should turn out, I can have fun with it and let the inspiration come through.

Detail from James’s original painting

Jill: Have you collaborated with other creatives from other media, such as graphic designers, musicians, dancers, etc? How did you find the process?

James: As a musician I collaborated often, but painting and writing can be very solitary endeavors, aside from the feedback we receive. Paintings and books are generally not co-authored. I would love to see collaborations by contemporaries like Gauguin/Van Gogh or Sargent/Sorolla. It can be helpful for painters and writers to sympathize with each other and realize that you’re often in the same boat from a psychological standpoint. While working on these book covers it has been a tremendous help to be given a specific passage with a lot of visual imagery from which to draw. This also shows me that the author has taken the time to think of their story in visual terms.

BCD kindle
Behind Closed Doors front cover

Jill: What were your initial concerns about a) working virtually and b) on a book cover?

James: Working virtually was never a concern for me because it’s so common these days. It helped to have a few skype chats so we could get to know each other. I think small talk, joking around, brainstorming and commiserating will always help any creative process, rather than simply emailing back and forth.

Working on a book cover poses specific challenges, especially when you are painting it because you can’t just hit the “Undo” button in Photoshop until you get back to a previous stage in the image. Again, as long as you both agree to a plan you can move forward without too much stress.

Detail from Raw Material artwork

James: I appreciated receiving a list of influences from you, including other artists and works that you admire, the palette and general mood of the painting, even musical scores. How do you go about determining what you need for your covers and what recommendations do you have for communicating those expectations to the illustrator?

Jill: While pondering this question, I realised I approached working with you purely on instinct. I had no formula or experience of collaboration with a fine artist so I admit to a certain amount of trepidation. But I have previously worked as a theatre director – communicating concepts to lighting and set designers whose methods I don’t really comprehend – so I know that when different types of artist understand each other, it quite simply works.

I remember trying to find a designer for Cyrano de Bergerac. I interviewed many slick, classy, experienced people, but didn’t click. Then a young Edinburgh design graduate turned up, bursting with enthusiasm and just ‘got’ it. We finished each other’s sentences, extrapolated on our ideas and she created some of the most beautiful and evocative stage moments I’ve ever seen.

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Raw Material front cover

As for determining my covers, a key feature of all my novels is place. Art also plays a minor role, yet each reference is carefully chosen to play its part. I wanted my paper covers to have a fine art feel, a Golden Age quality which states: This Is Not Your Average Crime Novel. The covers should suggest depth, culture, location, and be something people want to look at, touch and pick up again.

So I think an author, director or any kind of collaborator can use random references to illustrate the image – music, art, fabrics, food, seasons, imagery and lines from the book which encapsulate its essence. If the artist is worth her/his salt, they can appreciate a synaesthetic vision.

James: Most authors and publishers work with illustrators who use Photoshop and Illustrator. What tips would you give to an author who is working with someone who uses traditional methods such as oil paints, pen and ink, etc?

Time. Give the artist space, time, and do not expect results in 24 hours. One of the things I loved most about the creation of the first cover is the video you created of its gradual emergence. That gives such a clear perspective on how much work and thought goes into such a piece.

The original painting for Tread Softly

Also, and this goes for all kinds of media, be receptive to what the artist can introduce. The line between knowing what you want and micro-controlling is a tough one to call. Creative skill comes of talent, experience and training … and vision. If I hadn’t trusted you and followed your judgement, my books would look a great deal poorer. So I recommend openness and communication, with a healthy dose of respect.

Lastly, a reader pointed out how very dull and generic he found a lot of book covers. He picked up mine because it was different. As an independent publisher, thankfully, I am not dictated to by marketing departments or sales teams. That creative freedom is priceless, so should not be squandered. Finding an artistic partner who’s willing to take risks, who’s prepared to tackle new sets of parameters, who’s happy to cope with creative direction via email/Skype and who even reads the books first … it sounds a near impossibility. I guess I got lucky.


Tread Softly, in paperback and ebook, is released on 1 June 2013.

Tread Softly pb cover
Tread Softly – complete finished cover

    1 Response to "Creative Collaboration – Interview with an Artist"

    • Liza Perrat

      Thanks for this interesting interview! I just ADORE this Tread Softly pb cover!

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