Fantastic Fantasy Artwork: The Spooks Series by David Wyatt

David Wyatt is an illustrator with a highly  impressive body of work. On my own book shelves alone his artwork can be found on familiar titles like Peter Pan in Scarlet, The Hobbit, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Larklight. He has also illustrated for Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett and Brian Jacques but the artwork that will feature as the fourth part of our ongoing Fantastic Fantasy Artwork series will be the brilliant cover and interior illustrations that he creates for Joseph Delaney’s soon-to-be-completed Spooks series.

The original (and best) cover of The Spook's Apprentice.David very kindly took the time to talk with me about both his work on the Spooks books and his successful long-time collaboration with David Fickling Books. I first asked David to recount his memories regarding illustrating the first book in the series, The Spook’s Apprentice:

"When I did the first Spook’s book way back in 2004, I had no idea I would still be involved in The Wardstone Chronicles 10 years later (I’ve just received the manuscript for book 14). The original hardback cover was conceived to reflect the fact that the story was narrated by Tom in his notebook, hence the rather minimal, scuffed old tome look. It helped that the book was slightly smaller in format than normal, giving it a pocket-sized feel. The texture of the illustration was achieved by scanning in an old leather bound copy of Coleridge poems. I did the type and the little Spook design to look like faded gold foil – a bit of embossing at the print finishing stage helped to make it look authentic. We still use this look for the Amazon Special Edition release, although the recent books you’ll find on the shelves use a more modern, traditionally sized approach by another illustrator."

Not only do the Spooks books have beautiful covers they also feature illustrations that head each and every chapter. These perfectly encapsulate the book’s atmosphere and they consistently bring to life a character, location or, even better in my opinion, a creature of the dark. I asked David how he approached this interior drawings:

An interior illustration from a Spooks book #1

"I chose the interior illustration style to be reminiscent of old wood cuts, but heavily reliant on silhouettes so I didn’t have to show too much detail. Readers of the Spook’s series will know things can get a little gruesome so I have to be careful about how much of that I reveal. I think I’ve relied less on silhouettes with each book – they can be a bit limiting – but I’ve tried to keep the high-contrast, chunky blackness going throughout.

An interior illustration from a Spooks book #2

Normally I read through the manuscript and make notes about potential images. Then I read through again and do some tiny scribbles to see what works best. I’ve had no direct communication with Joseph – very unusually with illustration I don’t even send in roughs. I just get on with the images and hope they’re ok – I think I’ve only had to alter one picture in all this time. I must stress this is not a normal state of affairs in my line of work!

The actual artwork is drawn simply with a felt pen that is scanned in. The heavy blacks are added digitally, with some improvements made along the way. Sometimes I use a bit of splatter, which is made with a toothbrush dipped in ink – this is done separately and placed on the artwork where needed."

An interior illustration from a Spooks book #3

David has enjoyed a long and productive relationship with David Fickling Books whose name is, in my opinion, the literary equivalent of the royal seal of approval. I asked him if he found that working for DFB had led to working on some of the very best books, which in turn led him to create some of his very best work:

"I’ve known David Fickling since the early nineties, when he was at Scholastic in a small office off of Cambridge Circus. He and his lovely team of designers really gave me my start in children’s book illustration and I produced loads of covers at that time, as well as illustrating books by Terry Deary and Philip Pullman. Even back then, we were aware of each others love of comics as a way of telling stories, but it’s only recently that we have embarked on a project, the Tales of Fayt, written by Conrad Mason. It’s essentially a graphic novel, but will be published initially in episodes in The Phoenix, David’s weekly comic. David (along with his son, Will, who has inherited his father’s enthusiasm for good stories) has been very involved in the creation of this project, and we have had several long and productive meetings to ensure we make it as good as we can. David has a very positive, encouraging manner that really makes you want to dig deep and do the best possible work, which explains his success as a publisher. Also, he is not averse to taking risks, which is becoming increasingly rare in mainstream publishing."

I would just like to thank David for his time in answering some questions and in kindly supplying the beautiful illustrations that accompany the words on this page. I hope others found the illustration process described as fascinating as I.

David Wyatt is the fourth featured illustrator in our Fantastic Fantasy Artwork series. Please see also:

Fantastic Fantasy Artwork: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

The third instalment in our ongoing special feature entitled Fantastic Fantasy Artwork finds us talking to illustrator Portia Rosenberg about the delightful illustrations that she did for Susanna Clarke’s 2005 Hugo and World Fantasy Award winning Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

How did you come to be chosen to illustrate Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell?

Susanna Clarke and her partner visited my Open Studio – in 1996, I think (when I took part in Cambridge Open Studios – where artists exhibit their work in their own homes or studios during weekends in July) – and she liked my drawings, particularly some I had done at college to illustrate ‘Oliver Twist’. That was how we came to meet. But it wasn’t until much later – around 2002/3, when she had finished writing ‘Jonathan Strange’, that she asked me to do a few drawings to accompany the manuscript when it was being submitted to publishers.

At that time, we didn’t know whether the book would get a publisher offer, and if it did, I was convinced it was so unlikely for any publisher to have an adult fiction title illustrated, and if they did, then I didn’t know whether I would be chosen to illustrate it – so it all seemed very doubtful – which definitely heightened how great it felt when it did happen that way.”

A portrait of Mr Gilbert Norrell.

How much of a free hand were you allowed in the creation of the illustrations and how much of an active involvement did Susanna Clarke take?

I did the raven for the cover first – with some specifications about it being a silhouetted shape – although the bird was initially going to be rising out of a book.  I was glad that I went for emphasising to some extent the sinister feel of it, through its stretched neck and especially the clawed feet – I like using that kind of exaggeration in the drawing to stress the point you want to communicate.

“I met with Susanna many times throughout the period that I was doing the drawings – which was do-able as we both live in Cambridge. I appreciated her feedback – I think the whole project really challenged me to try to tune into what needed to be represented. Sometimes I adjusted things and often re-did drawings which weren’t working. Also, Susanna supplied me with many useful reference materials and helped me to locate references, too.”

How was it decided what the 28 illustrations would specifically be?

“Early on, Susanna and I thought separately about which scenes in the text should be illustrated and then met to discuss that. The choice was based on several factors – scenes I was keen to draw, scenes which Susanna wanted to be illustrated, and scenes that made sense to illustrate – taking into account the consideration of not giving too much away, and the basic factor of spacing the illustrations out evenly throughout the text.”

Was it necessary to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (including extensive footnotes) from beginning to end or was it only necessary to dip in and out of the books for the passages that were to be illustrated?

“I would always want to read the whole text for a book illustration commission (and in any case, I needed to, in order to take part in choosing which scenes to illustrate). I want to make sure I have all the information that may be critical to what is represented, to try to be true to the facts of the story, but also I think it makes sense to go into the world of the story in order to have a chance at grasping and conveying it fully.

One thought about the footnotes is that I enjoyed the ones containing powerfully evocative stories and characters themselves – for instance, the one describing Simon Bloodworth’s fairy-servant and the magical cupboard into which 17 people disappeared, in Chapter 5 – which conjures up imagery as equally inspiring as the main text itself.

Which characters really fired your own imagination? Alongside Strange and Norrell there is to be found a truly wonderful supporting cast: Childermass, Drawlight and Vinculus to name but a few.

“Yes – I love the characters, and the clarity with which Susanna communicates their particular qualities – including the gentleman with thistle-down hair too.

“Actually, as well as those character descriptions, the descriptions of magic are enormously inspiring, too – one that has stayed ingrained in my mind was of the ladies who Stephen dances with at the ball in Lost-hope House (at the end of Chapter 16) – one of whom wore ‘a wig of shining beetles that swarmed and seethed upon her head’ and one whose gown ‘was covered with tiny mouths which opened and sang a little tune in a series of high, eerie notes’ – I think those are fantastic ideas – as are the ideas of the stone statues moving in the way she describes, the ships made of rain and the horses formed out of sand – these are just a few of the many, many ideas in the book that definitely inspired me. Even if I didn’t represent those particular details at the time (though I might just have a go at them, now! – considering them again is inspiring, again) – I really got a sense of a complete and believable fantasy world which gives a solid context to the other scenes I had a go at.

Do you have any particular favourites amongst the 28 illustrations?

There are three that seem more successful to me than the others – the horse rearing whilst gripped by the mud-hand, Jonathan Strange stepping out of the mirror, and Childermass at his desk.


Looking back on all of them now (9 years after I drew them), I think that some anxiousness about the project shows – for example, with more confidence, I might have focussed in on details in those scenes, rather than trying to depict the whole context. I like to draw faces in particular and think those got a bit lost in the scenes. Also, I would have liked to capture a more lively and linear feeling. I think I was going for something else at the time – tone, atmosphere, light, solid dark shapes, more finished images as opposed to lively sketchiness – which may have deadened what my other less anxious work can achieve. Having said that, I do like the glow of light in many of the images.

Did you get much feedback on how they were received? 

At the time (just after publication) I received lots of positive email messages via both the book’s and my own websites – it was amazing to get so many comments from people from all over the world – and I do still get occasional messages nowadays, too. 

I will mention also the negative feedback (which I am interested to think about now, as it is useful to be able to look at my own work critically) – a comment online saying the illustrations were ‘astonishingly inappropriate’, ‘wooden’ and ‘sentimental’, and that illustrations more in the style of George Cruikshank would have fitted better. I think that I did overwork the drawings – and it is interesting to me that I could have approached the text in a different way which may have been closer to the livelier way I draw normally.

Since 2008 Portia Rosenberg has been working towards being a full-time illustrator and her work can be seen at The full and wonderful gallery of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell drawings can be seen here –

Fantastic fantasy artwork: Night Watch (Discworld) by Paul Kidby

Chosen by Joshua S Hill

Last month we kicked off our series of special features, entitled Fantastic Fantasy Artwork, with Martin Springett’s The Fionavar Tapestry. This month it is Joshua S Hill’s turn to choose his favourite fantasy artwork and he unhesitatingly opted for Paul Kidby’s work on book 29 of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Night Watch.

Paul Kidby's illustration that adorns the front cover of Terry Pratchett's Night Watch.

Paul very graciously agreed to talk about the creative process behind the Night Watch illustrations and so I began by asking him if Night Watch was the very first Discworld work that he had undertaken and what was it like to take over the reins from an artist as respected as Josh Kirby, to which he replied:

“The late great Josh Kirby was a kind and generous man who I had the good fortune to meet at various Discworld Conventions before his untimely death in 2001. He encouraged me in my work and we both felt that because our interpretations of the Discworld were so different that there was room enough for us both to explore and visually ‘mine’ its rich seams with our sketchbooks. I had already been working exclusively with Terry since 1995 and had established my own ‘look’ for Discworld and its characters, many of whom had made public appearances in ‘The Pratchett Portfolio’, ‘Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook’ the fully illustrated ‘The Last Hero’, various diaries, maps and the 2000 Discworld calendar.

“To then be asked to produce the cover artwork in 2002 for ‘Night Watch’ was indeed an honour and a challenge for me because I knew I was stepping into some very big shoes.  The fans knew and loved Josh’s distinctive style, which had become synonymous with Discworld book jackets all over the world.”

I was also interested in whether Paul had been asked to keep closely to Josh Kirby’s previous work.

“I think Terry and the publishers knew that it would be best to accept a new approach with a new artist rather than to attempt to re-create the work of Josh for the cover art.  Every artist develops their own unique style which is as individual as a fingerprint and the differences between my work and Josh’s are marked; I work most often in a muted earth colour palette and try to capture a historical feel whilst Josh used a bright palette and filled his page with a myriad of fantastical figures in his own unique and distinctive fantasy genre. My Discworld illustrations were already known by the readership and although my interpretation was very different to Josh’s, it remained true to the spirit of Discworld.”

I then asked whose decision it had been to use Rembrandt’s Night Watch on the front cover and if permission had needed to be obtained before work could begin.

“The idea to paint a Discworld parody of Rembrandt’s own group portrait of the civic guard, ‘The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq’  c. 1642, otherwise known as ‘The Night Watch’ had been in the back of my mind since reading ‘Guards Guards!’ and it was something I had been hoping for an opportunity to create.  The ‘Night Watch’ book jacket seemed to me to be the ideal occasion and Terry was happy for me to proceed with it.  My depiction is not a direct copy and the characters and costumes are all of my own design therefore permission was not needed to produce the painting, however the original version is also printed on the back cover with full credit given to the main man, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, himself and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam where it hangs.”

An image of ‘The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq’ c. 1642, otherwise known as ‘The Night Watch’

Fans of the Discworld series will be aware that Paul drew Josh Kirby into the Night Watch cover as a tribute to the late illustrator, in exactly the same place as Rembrandt had drawn himself in the original.

Here Paul describes exactly where the two men appear: “The position of both Josh and Rembrandt is at the very back of the crowd just left of centre.  In my version he appears just visible behind the shoulders of Reg Shoe and Waddy; in Rembrandt’s original he is peering from behind the nattily dressed flag bearer and the soldier in armour.”

And so we come to the creative process itself and the moments that Paul remembers best.

“I rendered my parody in oils and the original is not large at approx. 51×51 cm (not as big as Rembrandt’s which is a huge 363×437 cm and was originally even larger before sections were cut from the sides to fit it onto the wall of the Town Hall on Dam Square where it ended up for a while).

“There had been a charity auction at a Discworld event whilst the book was being written and three fans had paid to be written into the ‘Night Watch’ story.  I was aware that the key characters in Rembrandt’s painting were local well to do society members who had all paid to be included in his painting.  It therefore seemed creatively fitting that the Discworld auction winners should also have their portraits painted into the cover. The original artwork is now owned by one of those featured on the cover.

“I also enjoyed including a young Nobby (in an over-large coat and battered top hat) who stands behind the young and old Vimes.

“I remember I was criticised at the time for producing a cover that was ‘too brown’ and not bright or eye catching enough – it is interesting therefore to note that it has become one of the most popular Discworld covers that I have produced.

“This painting was produced at a time when I was working in close partnership with Terry.  I initially put forward the idea, and we enjoyed discussing it and deciding which characters to include.  I produced a rough for him to see which showed a member of the city watch in the foreground. Terry suggested that figure should be changed to Lu-Tze, which was perfect.

“When I had finished the painting I took it back to him to approve and I was pleased that he liked it.

“I worked on this piece for four weeks.  Following the rough sketch I made a detailed tonal drawing which I then under-painted with Raw Umber to give form and strengthen the tonal contrasts, finally I added highlights and colour which I built up in thin layers of oil paint. As a commercial artist looming deadlines are an unavoidable part of the job and I do my best not to blot my copybook with the publishers by missing them, it would have been easy for me to spend another four weeks on this painting but that would have fallen into the realms of self-indulgence rather than professionalism!”

So when Paul looks back at his work on Night Watch does he see anything that he might want to change?

“I don’t generally enjoy returning to work on my paintings, my aim is to do the very best I can with the time available to me because otherwise I will be haunted by it from the bookshop shelves in years to come.  However in this case, with the luxury of time, I would finish this painting off by giving the soldier behind the dragon (who is in the position of Rembrandt’s dog) a body as at the moment he appears to be just a floating head!”

And then it was time for the final question – did Paul need to read the Discworld books he was asked to illustrate from cover to cover, or was it unnecessary?

“In an ideal world I do like to read the books because an in-depth knowledge helps me to gain valuable insight into the characters and enables me to avoid errors and include details, which I would otherwise miss.  More often than not however, the publishers need the cover art to start promoting the book before the transcript itself is complete.  In those cases I receive a detailed brief from Terry via the publishers, and perhaps a section of the text.  When I worked on the ‘Night Watch’ I was in the fortunate position of being able to read almost the whole novel, minus the final section, which is another reason why the job was such a pleasure for me to work on.”

I hope you have enjoyed reading about the creative process behind this fantastic fantasy artwork and I cannot thank Paul Kidby enough for his time and effort in producing such insightful answers.


Fantastic fantasy artwork: The Fionavar Tapestry by Martin Springett

Over the coming weeks and months, all the reviewers here on Fantasy Book Review will be selecting their favourite fantasy artwork, choosing books that they are proud to have on their bookshelves, books that are worth buying for the covers alone.

I am very pleased to kick off this series of special features with the work of author, illustrator and musician Martin Springett. In 2006, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry was reissued in the UK, gloriously adorned by Martin’s illustrations and I clearly remember picking up the first book and being enchanted by its beautiful cover. I could almost feel myself falling into it and I would spend longer and longer just gazing at it, connecting the illustrations to the story that was unfolding. I have many fine-looking books sitting on my bookshelf but the covers of The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road are without question my favourites of them all.

So, without further ado here is Martin, in his own words, talking about the process behind their creation:

“Creating images for book covers is one of the most enjoyable and challenging jobs I have as an Illustrator. No one does anything entirely on their own. There are many unseen connections in the creation of any work, but perhaps especially in the area of book illustration, where one is part of a team including publisher, editor, art director, illustrator, and, of course, author (I should add here that I haven’t had as much input from an author on subsequent cover projects as I had from Guy on these books). Generally the author does not choose the artist who will be creating the covers of his or her books, but will be consulted in the later stages, when the overall visual concept has been agreed on between artist and publisher. Some publishers will do this as a courtesy to the author, others will not. When reading the manuscript of a book I am to illustrate, I make notes on those visual aspects that appeal to me and that I feel give an overall sense of the story. Reading a manuscript in galley form is in fact a very different experience from that of reading a finished, bound book. I recall my first reading of The Summer Tree was from an unbound galley.

The Summer Tree book cover image: UK Reissue of The Fionavar Tapestry, 2006

“I was so caught up in the tale that my living room floor became covered in a blizzard of paper as I let the individual pages fall to the floor. Collecting them up again and putting them in order was a bit of a problem! The Summer Tree has a large cast of characters, and my first instinct was to try and depict this fascinating “parade”, but it seemed to me and to the art director that that would be too literal and ungainly. The publishers, McClelland and Stewart, were I think aware that this was a special book, and wished to have a cover that would reflect this. It was agreed that I should depict an image in the style and manner of a tapestry, decorative rather than literal, with none of the usual western perspective. This was deliciously freeing. I discovered an entirely new way of “seeing”. Instead of trying to convince viewers that they are looking at a three dimensional scene, I was concerned with form and movement on the surface of the picture, rather than attempting to create the illusion of depth. I became much more aware of design. It also gave me insight into images that were created in the medieval period. Ultimately I decided not to feature any of the main characters in the images I was creating for the covers. I think this was partly a reaction to trying to portray them in earlier versions, as I found that the more “realistic” detail I put in, the unhappier I became, as though I was doing a bad re-write and watching all the mystery of the story drain away. This was exactly in line with the way that Guy saw things as well. Somehow the cover illustration should intrigue, should retain the mystery; avoiding being too literal and yet still draw the reader in. In other words the book cover should say “Hello darling, I’m all yours, buy me” – or words to that effect. I met Guy for the first time when I was half way through the drawing of The Summer Tree cover. The circumstances weren’t that favorable at the time. I had made a lot of changes to the design already, and here was this pesky author wanting more. Luckily as it turned out, we were in harmony on the depiction of Fionavar. Guy was generous in his praise of where the cover was at the time, and I was happy to make what turned out to be a simple change: the colour of the unicorn. I’m sure most readers will have noticed by now that I didn’t give the unicorn wings, an oversight I have always wanted to correct. When I came to work on The Wandering Fire I knew exactly where I was. I felt at home being in Fionavar, and by this point I began to feel that I was depicting designs that the people of that world would create for themselves: large tapestries that would hang on the walls to commemorate great deeds or moments in their history. Actually, I have to believe in any world I am asked to create, if it is to have any resonance in my work. There is a technical difference between the first and second covers of the Fionavar books: The Summer Tree is basically a line drawing with colour rendered in inks and airbrush, whereas The Wandering Fire is an acrylic painting, with sky and snow created with inks and airbrush. The sea monster in The Wandering Fire was originally drawn up in black and white ink, but having gazed at so many brightly coloured medieval manuscripts, I knew I wanted to emulate their look, and was frustrated by the harshness of the line work. I did a little experimenting with acrylic, painted out the monster with white acrylic, and began to lay in washes of green and blue paint.

The Wandering Fire book cover image: UK Reissue of The Fionavar Tapestry, 2006

“The Wandering Fire was my second painting. I had always used inks before this, and so not only did I learn a new visual vocabulary doing these pieces, I found a new technique as well.

The Darkest Road book cover image: UK Reissue of The Fionavar Tapestry, 2006

“When I came to The Darkest Road I wanted to take the image to another level, and it has become my favourite of the three. I had become a great admirer of Guy’s work and we became friends during the creation of the trilogy. All that and more is in this image. I felt inspired during the work, and I painted the swan boat last, as I knew I was leaving the world of Fionavar, just as Leyse was. I have painted many book covers since then, but the situation with the trilogy was unique. After the success of The Summer Tree, the Canadian and British publishers basically said “go ahead and do whatever you want on the covers” which of course I was happy to do, so I had complete freedom within the confines of the visual concept now worked out. Also, as more and more publishers around the world bought the images for their editions, I had a financial cushion so I could — and these are the words every artist and writer loves– take my time and get it right. Generally of course, a cover artist is a hired gun. You’re not there to take your time and explore and ruminate to your heart’s content; there’s always a deadline. This is reasonable if not ideal: publishing is a business. Along with Guy’s input, the fact that the books were published in at least ten countries around the world with my covers, and can still be found on bookshelves here in Canada in their original covers sixteen years later, certainly makes the designing of these images unique in my career.”
Martin Springett

The words above have been reproduced with the kind permission of both Martin Springett and Deborah Meghnagi.

What is Martin Springett working on now?

October 18, 2011 will see the publication Caitlin Sweet’s The Pattern Scars (ChiZine Publications), a dark fantasy book which features Martin Springett’s work (not on the cover though). Click on the images below to view it in a larger size.

The Pattern Scars book cover imageAn illustration by Martin Springett featured in The Pattern Scars.Another illustration by Martin Springett featured in The Pattern Scars.

About The Pattern Scars
Nola is born into poverty in Sarsenay City. When her mother realizes that Nola has the gift of Othersight and can foretell the future, she sells her to a brothel seer, who teaches the girl to harness her gift. As she grows up, she embraces her new life, and even finds a small circle of friends. All too soon, her world is again turned upside down when one of them is murdered. When a handsome, young Otherseer from the castle promises to teach her, she eagerly embraces the prospects of luxury beyond what she can imagine and safety from a killer who stalks girls by night. Little does she know that he will soon draw her into a web of murder, treachery, and obsessive desire that will threaten the people and land she holds dear, and that she will soon learn the harshest of lessons: that being able to predict the future has nothing to do with being able to prevent it.

We hope you have enjoyed reading our special feature on Martin Springett and his work, the best place to visit to learn more about him and his work is

We also hope that you will let us know about your favourite book covers/illustrations. Please let us know all about your favourites by using the comments box below, including a link to the images themselves if possible.