As we’re getting closer and closer to The Heart of Stone release in March, I thought that this week I’d focus on its incredible cover. Instead of me crowing about how good it is, and how the concept was created, I thought I’d get the real life cover designer on the Fiction Factory to talk about it, and tell us more about himself in the process. That’s right, today we’re talking to the award-winning Shawn King.
Funnily, Shawn and I have never met, and only know each other through Facebook groups and email. I saw the covers that he’d created for Michael McClung’s books after the SPFBO, and also the work he’d done for Ragnarok and Tim Marquitz. I knew he was perfect for The Heart of Stone, and the gritty nature I wanted in my book cover. Shawn was great to work with, and within two emails and two weeks’ work, he nailed the cover. Anyway, enough from me, let’s hear from him. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, species of alien origin, allow me to introduce Mr Shawn T. King.
1) Hi Shawn, thanks for joining us. Why don’t you tell us more about yourself and what you do?
Hey Ben! Thanks for having me. I have to warn you this is only my second interview so I may be a bit long-winded at times as I’m not sure how much or how little information to provide, plus I can sometimes be a ramblin’ man (ah, love that song).
More about myself, hmm… Well, my story goes back to July of 1986, when I escaped a nine-month stint in a rather cramped solitary confinement to enter the world of the living. That was the first, and last, time someone would lay an open palm upon my flesh…
After taking care of that White Coat I would go on to live a semi-normal life in the form of a shy kid with flowing blonde locks whose mother enjoyed dressing up in what I would later discover as rather ridiculous clothing.
Sorry, I seem to have gotten carried away there. The short of it is this: My name is Shawn, I live in the southern region of the United States, and when I’m not behind the dust-covered computer screen (that I refuse to clean) at my day job I’m behind my cluttered desk (that I don’t clean because hell, I been at work all day already…) at home working as a freelance graphic designer, primarily in the book industry.
I’m the in-house designer for Ragnarok Publications, Vault Books, and Mechanical Muse, as well as for several authors and have recently begun doing some design work for Talos Press.
2) Have you always been an artist/designer?
For the most part, yes. Growing up my mom was always doing artsy things (drawing, stitching, outshining me in coloring books, painting Ninja Turtles and Master Splinter on my bedroom walls, etc.), and I just naturally took an interest in what she was doing, in art in general, and gradually began to develop my own drawing skills…with the boosted help of the gene-seed she passed down.
As I got older I became enamored with comics, but not for the literary content. I was mainly interested in the art. I’d copy drawings from Todd McFarlane (side story: I did a report on him and Spawn in my Senior year of high school), Greg Capullo, Marc Silvestri, even the crazily proportioned characters of Rob Liefeld.
In grade school I was known as that kid who could draw—there’s one in every class, right? I did well on artsy projects so that meant I had the constant privilege of other students trying to get me to do theirs in exchange for snacks. Drawing in class was common for me, so of course I got in trouble a couple times—seems so crazy when I look back, I got in trouble for being creative haha.
After I started working as a designer my drawing slowed down. I still draw, but not nearly as much as I should. Design is what pays me so I focus on that first—the drawings are just a way to keep the creativity flowing…and because I really enjoy it heh.
As for design, I was clueless until college. At the time of early enrollment I was interested in video game design (I didn’t know anything about it, but I was really into gaming); however, the closest major offered was graphic design, so I just went for it.
The class was slow and the teaching came straight from a book, so at one point I took matters into my own hands and began teaching myself, working on mock projects that I would actually enjoy rather than the boring textbook assignments. Taking the initiative paid off, it would seem.
Before I graduated in 2007 I started my first job as a graphic designer, building ads for the local newspaper here.
In 2011 I began working as the sole designer for an arts and entertainment magazine—I had to teach myself InDesign to get that gig (yay school!).
I knew I wanted to work in the book industry ever since I got hooked on fantasy. R.A. Salvatore, William King, and Terry Brooks transformed me into a bibliophile—books have been an integral part of my life since being introduced to them as a teenager. I used to joke that I didn’t care if I was the mail-boy, as long as I worked in the book biz I’d be happy.
In 2014 Joe Martin and Ragnarok Publications gave me what I wanted…and it was even better than being a mail-boy!
3) You’ve done a fantastic job with The Heart of Stone. What was the process of creating it, without giving away too many trade secrets?
Ah, thanks man! I’m so stoked at how it’s being received. You had me stressing out at the onset—I really wanted the job but, I had no idea how to make a golem heh.
Starting out I focused on the excerpt you provided, which almost instantly formed the image I wanted. I began to lay down some rough pen and paper sketches so as not to lose any of the good ideas floating around in my head. The overall image I had imagined didn’t make it to the screen (it rarely does), but it kick-started the process.
I knew what type of pose I wanted so first order of business was to find the proper imagery to use. From there the ‘fun’ began with extractions in Photoshop (the most boring task, in my opinion, but it’s essential). A lot of layering and adjustments and texturing and quiet crying formed the first proof. I sent that off to you and nervously awaited your response—I always get nervous upon sending proofs. You came back with positive news; however, the face was a bit too human. Hmm…at the time of making the art I didn’t even think about that. That was probably the most difficult part for me, forming the rocky bits of the face to make the character look less human and more golem—again, most of this was new territory for me—but in the end it came together and made for a pretty damn cool image that I’m proud of.
4) What’s been the best project you’ve worked on to date, or the one you’re most proud of?
I can’t really say there’s been a best project, as most all of them are pretty damn great and I’m glad to have had the experience(s) each one provided.
I learn at least one new thing with every project I work on, so each holds significance in some way.
With that being said, I can say that my favorite art so far is definitely the piece for The Heart of Stone. I’m extremely happy with how that one turned out. 🙂
5) What kind of genres do you normally work in, and what’s your favourite?
Most of my work is through Ragnarok Publications, so I’m doing design (and some art) for fantasy, YA, urban fantasy, sci-fi, humor fantasy (James Walley’s The Forty First Wink—loved making that cover) titles. I’m all over the place! haha
Although my favorite genre is fantasy, I don’t have a favorite genre to work in. It really just depends on the book and what ideas it sprouts in the ol’ noggin—beauty can come from the most unlikely of places, so I’ll never dismiss anything just because of its genre.
6) Where do you get your inspiration from? Which artists or designers do you look up to?
As many creative people can attest to, inspiration comes in many forms and can hit you at any given moment. One thing I do a lot is take photos of things that spark even the slightest bit of inspiration—mostly those are book covers and movie posters. I like to look at book covers from other areas or from genres I don’t normally work in—there’s a lot to be learned there, of things to do, and more importantly, not to do.
As far as artists go, the ones I most enjoy are those whose styles stand apart from the crowd and draw you in, making you want more. Ones that instantly pop into my head are: Daniel Kamarudin, he has a broad range and a truly unique style; Tommy Arnold’s work always amazes me—it often times sparks inspiration immediately, and I take joy in seeing those signature geometric elements he puts into every piece; Marcela Bolivar’s work is purely gorgeous, every time, all day, every day—out of this world compositions that make you sit back and think…just, wow; Adrian Smith’s dark and twisted art is always a pleasure to see; Raymond Swanland is my all-time favorite—I’ve loved and followed his work since his Oddworld days, watching him progress to this instantly recognizable style he has today.
As for design, I really enjoy the covers produced from Angry Robot and Rebellion/Solaris. They clearly don’t follow the trends, just doing whatever they think looks cool and, well it usually always does.
I also enjoy a lot of covers Orbit puts out. There’s always a clean finish to it, but never anything just lazily slapped on.
7) In your opinion, what’s the key to a great book cover?
There has to be harmony between the art and design, whether we’re talking illustrated covers or fully designed covers. Harmony is key. Harmony is everything. Without it, a cover will fall apart… Now, not everyone will see that—a lot of readers don’t care or just don’t have a good eye, so you can still grab them with a disjointed cover. There are so many covers out there (traditional and indie) with amazing art, but it’s all ruined with bad or just lazy design. There should be equal amounts of attention paid to each—one element will falter without the other.
8) What draws your own eye to a good cover?
I’m a huge ‘judge a book by its cover’ type person, so I overlook a lot of books that just don’t do it for me visually—I’m probably missing out on some good stuff but, I just can’t…
First and foremost I’m a fantasy fan, so most of what I look for as a reader is fantasy. I like fantasy covers as they’re almost always going to have a cool illustration. Cool design coupled with that is a sure way for it to end up in my shopping cart, whether I want it or not. On the other hand, if there’s shitty design on a cool illustration, hmmmm, let’s wait and see if it ends up in the bargain section soon (I just got one of those the other day…).
As much as I love a good illustrated fantasy cover, I have to say my eye is mostly drawn to fully designed covers (no illustration). Whether it’s abstract, lightly photo-based (like you see on a lot of mystery/thriller covers), simplistic, or typography-focused I really love a good cover design.
9) In regards to you as a reader, what are you currently reading or planning to read?
First I have to say I’ve been doing pretty good on the reading list so far this year (way ahead on my Goodreads challenge!). That makes me happy, because I’m a slooow reader. I’ve read a few indie titles this year, most notably of which was Benjamin Descovich’s Dead Letter. It was different than what I’ve read in the past, but I enjoyed every second of it and look forward to what follows from him (I’ve already got Dragon Choir in the [long] queue). Currently, I’m at the beginning of Carcharadons: Red Tithe, by Robbie MacNiven. It’s a Warhammer 40,000 title that focuses on the badass Night Lords and the Space Sharks (whom I know nothing about). After that I will continue the Night Lords series (books 2 and 3 are awaiting) from Aaron Dembski-Bowden—I freakin’ love that series.
And sometime this year I’m really hoping to get to John Gwynne‘s The Faithful and the Fallen series—I’ve heard nothing but good things about it and, I splurged on signed editions so I need to bump those up the TBR list.
And of course any titles that come across the Ragnarok Publications table that piques my interest (which is, oh, all of them).
10) Where can we find out more about you?
People may peruse my portfolio site at stkkreations.com. There’s an easy-to-use inquiry form there for anyone interested in working with me.
In a more social and interacting sense I’m on Facebook, usually posting info about projects I’m working on, ‘behind-the-scenes’ shots of layouts or covers, random artwork, and the occasional random/weird post. I’m fairly easy to get along with, so anyone who feels inclined can look me up—I just ask that any work inquiries be initiated through email.
Twitter, I’m there too, though I usually only peek my head in, say "Yeeeaahhh I still don’t understand this place," and dip back out. Everything there is posted from my FB page—just there so no one will steal my name haha.
I’m also on Goodreads for anyone who cares about what I’m reading. I don’t frequent the groups right now, but I’m there…
I’ll be back soon with another video all about the story behind The Heart of Stone. Stay tuned.