Tag Archive for Rich Deas

An Interview with Chris Sheban: Illustrating Book Covers, from Rough Sketch to Final

Chris Sheban is a talented artist who has illustrated the covers to some books that you might know and love — all without fanfare. You probably didn’t realize it was him, if you even thought about it at all.

Here’s just a few you might recognize:

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I was very happy when my editor, Liz Szabla, told me that Chris would be doing the cover of my 2008 book, Six Innings. I was eager to see it, and nervous, too, since I couldn’t imagine what he and art director Rich Deas might come up with.

I waited and hoped until one day a jpeg of the cover art arrived in my email.

I was relieved, ecstatic, verklempt. Or go ahead, Dear Nation of Six Readers, insert your own baseball metaphor here. It was a home run. A stand-up triple. A squeeze play, um . . . oh, whatever. I loved it. That luminous blue-green.

Sad to say, I failed to thank Chris. Because I had never met the guy, and we had no interaction whatsoever, and I was raised by wolves. We were only connected by this one book, still clinging to semi-obscurity, and that was it. I should have reached out to Chris, sent a card or box of HoHos, but I didn’t.

for preller interviewRecently Chris appeared on Facebook, sharing a trove of rough sketches in addition to samples of light-infused finishes. I don’t know how Chris achieves it, but his work glows. He was also, I realized, a process guy. Organized too; he saves everything. I wrote to Chris and said, more or less, you may not know me, but I want to thank you for that terrific cover.

Actually — I just looked it up — and I wrote exactly this: “I’ve always been grateful to you for that beautiful cover of Six Innings; it only make sense that we don’t know each other on FB too.”

Chris wrote back and said something I didn’t expect. He said that he loved the story and loved working on it.

I was like, “You actually read it?”

Because up to that point, I didn’t realize that illustrators could read. Kidding! (A little.) But I honestly didn’t expect that he read the whole entire stinkin’ book. When I commented on that, Chris explained, “Absolutely read it. Yes, and read the others, too. Trying to get a feel for the story. Never easy to make one image sum up a whole book.”

So that’s when we got the idea to take this conversation to another level, complete with sketches and rough drafts.

Here you go, sit back and relax . . .

CHRIS SHEBAN: So after reading the manuscript, the first rough thoughts look something like this.


JAMES PRELLER: I like that, “rough thoughts,” not “rough sketches.” Would it be accurate to say that you see them more as ideas than as drawings?
CS:  Absolutely. At this “thumbnail” stage, I’m more concerned with the idea. What will make the most impactful cover. Composition is important. Should I focus on the pitcher, the batter, how big should I make him, etc. I’m not thinking about color yet. That comes later. You usually don’t know where the title type will go, but you want to consider that as well. Looking at some of these sketches, I’m not sure I was following my own advice. The pitcher in this sketch at the bottom right looks a bit more like a sasquatch than a human. I’ll worry about that later.
JP: Sasquatch would have made a great closer. Or designated hitter (he can mash, but he can’t field.) Anyway, yes, this is like a writer’s sloppy copy. You don’t want to get bogged down with confining notions of quality.
CS: I work by attrition…if I just do 112 sketches, one is bound to be decent, no?
JP: That’s exactly how I write haikus. I start with 112 syllables and whittle down from there. While the ultimate goal might be finding “the right word,” when I start out I’m pretty much looking for “any word.” And by “any” I mean: ANY. Just trying to defeat that blank, white page.
CS: When I was working on the cover art for Because of Winn-Dixie, I inadvertently left a great big hole in the middle of the art. The girl and dog were down below, with the mobile homes above. And in the center? Not much. There’s no hard and fast rules about title placement, but generally it’s towards the top or bottom. Generally. You don’t want to draw the eye dead center, where there’s nothing going on but dirt. But I did. The solution? Put the title there!
JP: How big are these sketches?
CS: Each thumbnail is roughly an inch and a half to two inches. Easier to see the whole picture quickly. I sketch on tracing paper.
JP: Tracing paper! I have such happy memories of tracing paper. My father had his own insurance business and I used to go to his office on rare weekends — he had a new-fangled “electric” typewriter and boxes of tracing paper. I drew and drew and drew, usually copying from the Sunday comics. What else have you got, Chris?
CS: Well, here’s a few more rough sketches:
JP: Too cool. As you delve deeper, you seem to be zeroing in on the drama between pitcher and batter, as opposed to other sketches that are more pulled back. A tighter focus.
CS: Yes, maybe a little more. Sometimes pulling in close can add a bit of drama. I’m not sure why I had the kid sweating in that one sketch. Was there sweating in your story?

JP: My characters never sweat; they perspire. This is literature, after all.
CS: I’m sorry. The sweat may have been a reaction to how I was feeling at the time, worrying about making a half-decent cover. Yes, now I remember. That was me.
JP: Wow, look at this sketch. It has a sculptural quality, as if baseball had been around in the 1500s and Michaelangelo was, say, a season-ticket holder at the Colosseum, chasing foul balls, shoeing away cats.
CS: The pitcher looks a little disjointed to me. And is that an oven mitt on his left hand? 
JP: Why yes, I believe that is an oven mitt. Obviously this was before the game had evolved, back when players such as Ty Cobb and Three-Finger Brown wore oven mitts. Ho-ho, I digress, a little levity there folks, free of charge. I love this glimpse into your process, Chris. Any number of these would have made terrific covers.

CS: After a little back and forth with the art director, a direction is chosen, then I’ll work up a rough color comp which I’ll use as reference for the finished piece.

JP: How much back, and how much forth, exactly? There must be times when you think, “ACK, they picked the wrong one!”

CS: That’s the danger of sending too many sketches. Inevitably, most will be mediocre, some awful, but maybe there’s one or two that are decent. You hope they go for the best one. If they pick an awful one, you have no one to blame but yourself, because you did it in the first place. Sometimes I’m an idiot.

JP: Actually, once upon a time I packaged books for Scholastic. My art director and I had to go through the “approval by committee” process many times. It’s a lovely experience if you enjoy water torture. There’s a skill in the choices you present, as well as the ones you hold back. Sometimes you try to direct the response; other times, you honestly don’t know.

CS: I tend to fall into the latter category, the “I honestly don’t know if it’s a good cover idea, or just plain bad” category. Sometimes having that second (art director) or third (editor) pair of eyes and opinions really helps if you feel like you don’t have a clue. When sending multiple sketch ideas, I gently suggest which one or two I feel are the best . . . then they pick a different one.


JP: At this point, you turn to color.



CS: These rough color sketches are just pencil sketches that I photocopy to a larger size, then paint with watercolor and some pastel.

JP: Isn’t that cheating?
CS: Yes, probably so. It would really be cheating if I photocopied the sketch up to size, painted on it, and sent it in as finished art. Actually, that’s something I’m hoping to pull off some day. Cut out all the in-between steps and finicky final art stuff that you worry and fuss over for too long, and end up with a lifeless piece of art.
JP: Well, that’s the constant danger, isn’t it? The over-worked, over-wrought piece of art, like a late-period Steely Dan album. When it gets too polished, you might lose the raw vitality. Refine it to death.
CS: Haha. Steely Dan, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder. It’s frightening and depressing to think that with age comes your artistic “Muzak” years. I’m currently working on using the actual rough sketch, with all its grainy, searching lines, as an underdrawing. By working over the top of that, you can keep some of the looseness of the line work showing through. I do this while listening to early Steely Dan.
JP: I’ve seen that strategy before, though my mind is drawing a blank on good examples. It sort of honors the layers of process while also, as you say, keeping the looseness. It’s not something you typically see in cover illustration. In musical terms, it’s the punk aesthetic, where they felt that something powerful had been lost during the refinements of the genre. Down with Pink Floyd! Up with the Sex Pistols! And yes, let’s value the mistakes! It’s that core belief in raw energy at the expense of, cough-cough, revision and improvement. The trick is finding that elusive balance.
CS: I doubt the author ever gets to see the sketch ideas. This is awkward . . . maybe there’s one here that you like better than what we ended up with. Sorry.
JP: No, no, I love the cover you ultimately came up with — except, of course, my name should have been bigger (but I always say that). Every time I look at that book, I feel grateful to you. Seriously. Also, I respect and understand the process. I’m the boss of the words, not the cover. There comes a point where the author needs to get out of the way in order to allow the visual artists to do their work without interference. Not me chiming in with, oh, “I imagined him with freckles!” or whatever other suffocating, literal-minded idea I might have.
CS:  Anyway, from this point the final drawing/painting is done on watercolor paper. The graininess happens with the addition of Prismacolor pencils on the rough surface of the paper.
JP: You know, when people describe Disney World as a “magical” place, I always groan inside and think, How about commercial? Or, I don’t know, admirable in its efficiency? But when I look at your work — and the journey it takes to reach the final cover — it really does feel like something almost magical has occurred. Not awesome, in the cliched, verbal tic sense of the word, but awe-some. Or awe-full, full of awe. Thanks for sharing this with me and my Nation of Six Readers. We’re like the Iroquois that way, btw (but not at all). I’d love to talk more about your books another time, where you live, your picture books, your favorite music, hobbies, whatever. Just basically get to know you better. Can you come back soon?
CS: I would love to. However, after I read what we’ve discussed, it may send me into a mild depression. I may be reluctant to expose my pedestrian nature again.
JP: I hear you, Chris. All of my favorite artists and writers are filled with self-doubt. Can there by any other way? Otherwise you are dealing with raging egotists, and I hate those people. I like your modesty and self-effacement. But know this: Your talent shines forth in everything you create. I admire and respect your work.
CS: As George Gobel famously told Johnny Carson, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?” Thanks for inviting me. I really enjoyed it (I think).

SCARY TALES #2: I Scream, You Scream

It’s exciting to see a series come together. It’s this long process that involves a lot of different folks all pulling on the same oar. But, like, we’re on different boats. Or something like that.

I just got my first peek at the rough cover for book #2, I Scream, You Scream. This is not final art; it’s basically a very tight sketch with all the design elements in place. First, let’s look at the covers for the first two books together — that’s a eureka moment right there, when finally you see that it’s a series.


The art and design are critically important for these books because we made a decision that each book would be completely different. New characters, new setting, and sometimes new genre. Over time, if we are lucky enough to find readers, this series could include not only “horror,” but also science fiction, thrillers, historic fiction, and more. We’re trying to paint on a very large canvas, rather than limit ourselves to a rigid formula. Each book its own unique story. And yet, they are held together by certain qualities: for starters, each book delivers a dependable kind of reading experience, a twist, an elevated heart rate. Some storytelling techniques will be consistent from book to book, the use of the intro and outro, the length, the illustrations. I believe the brilliant work of illustrator Iacopo Bruno truly holds the series together. And it’s awesome, too.

Here’s a larger shot of the rough cover, designed by Rich Deas, where you can really see the unfinished quality. Below you’ll find the one-page introduction. Can you hear that I’m channeling my inner Rod Serling?

Fun, isn’t it?

Enter the world of Samantha Carver. An ordinary kid who loves amusement parks, the smell of popcorn, and the joyful terror of a heart-pounding ride.

Sam’s got a ticket in her pocket for a very special ride. Soon this ticket, ripped in half, will signal the beginning of a most unusual adventure –- and leave Sam, along with a boy named Andy, screaming for their lives.

So, come along. Take a seat. Buckle up, nice and tight. It’s sure to be bumpy ride. And if you need anything –- anything at all — just scream.

The intro page will look something like this:


The writing life has its ups and downs, and more downs than I’d prefer. No, it’s not coal mining, and I’m not an ice road trucker . . .

. . . .but this job can be full of doubt and disappointment. Still, and here’s the thing: I’m grateful for this career, thankful for this writing life, because it literally is a dream come true. How many people can say that?

I published my first book in 1986. From then to now, more than half my life, I’ve done all sorts of work, from desperate, pay-the-rent stuff . . .

. . . to books that I’m proud of.

Today, 7/17/2012, my first Young Adult novel, Before You Go, will be available in bookstores near you. That’s the hope, anyway. I don’t expect it to sell well. Or for long. I don’t even know if many readers will like it. It’s not a book for everyone. But this is absolutely the book I wanted to write, the book I needed to write, and I am grateful to my editor, Liz Szabla, and my publisher Jean Feiwel, for giving me the artistic freedom to do the thing I wanted to do.

It’s a rare license these days. And a great feeling, like wind at your back.

And it’s not something I take lightly. It’s taken me a long time to arrive at that moment, to find that I’ve got good people who have my back. Hopefully Before You Go finds some appreciative readers along the way, whatever their number.

I don’t control what happens now.

Look, I want sales, I want to earn a living, I want my publisher to do well, I want great reviews, I want readers. But try as I might, not every book is going to be popular, acclaimed, beloved — these things are impossible to predict. My sense has always been that Before You Go is a quiet book, a slow story, not a whole lot of plot, and one that might be swimming against the tide of popularity. That’s okay. Sometimes as a writer you have to answer a different call. What’s amazing is to have such unbelievable support along the way.

So I look at this physical object in my hands and think, you know, hey, this is a well-published book. I’m glad for it. And grateful to have this piece of art in my hands that was published with such care, and heart, and commitment to excellence. Thank you, Liz, Jean, Rich Deas, Elizabeth Fithian, Holly West, Dave Barrett, Nicole Liebowitz Moulaison, Ksenia Winnicki, Anna Roberto, and everyone else at Feiwel & Friends whose efforts made this book possible. I’m grateful for it, and grateful to you. So thank you.

Just a lucky guy, I guess.

When That First Copy Arrives in the Mail: Shiver Me Timbers!

I don’t do happy dances. I’m not a fist-pumper, chest-thumper, or rump-bumper. It’s just an inward satisfaction, and pure pleasure; the culmination of something that’s been brewing for years. In the case of this book, A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade, illustrated by Greg Ruth, my pleasure is tripled by the gratefulness I feel to be so well published.

What does that mean, exactly? Well, for the most part, after you sell a manuscript your editor and publisher will make a hundred small decisions about the book. And each decision boils down to one thing: How much care are they going to put into it? Sometimes it’s money; mostly it’s attention to detail. For example, almost all picture books are 32 pages. But for this book, Feiwel & Friends gave illustrator Greg Ruth the freedom to stretch out the artwork across 48 pages. In doing so, they showed a commitment to story.

As an author, you can see it in the book, in the conversations you have about it, in all the myriad details of how it and you are treated. At times in my twisting, inglorious career I’ve been disappointed and disheartened. So clearly a B-lister.

That’s the most important thing, I think, with my editor Liz Szabla at Feiwel & Friends, the art director Rich Deas, publisher Jean Feiwel, and many others who work so hard there: Dave Barrett, Nicole “May I Buy a Vowel” Moulaison, and the entire “Fifth Ave” sales force (for talking like a pirate on all sales calls). What’s more, they all now bring parrots on all bookstore visits. That’s commitment, folks.

Collectively, they seem to care deeply about every book they publish. And for that I am enormously grateful and, yes, indebted.

The book hits the market for real on July 20, 2010 — just in time for the coming school year.

Cover Art by Greg Ruth for “A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade”

One of the ruling ideas behind this blog is to document the working life of a writer. I try to skip the boring parts, of which there are many. But one thing that is never dull is when I first glimpse finished art for a book. About four years after I completed the manuscript for A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade (Feiwel & Friends, Fall, 2010), along comes the final cover art by the astonishingly talented, Greg Ruth. Obviously, art director Rich Deas hasn’t done his part of it yet, settling on a typeface and other design elements. So let me get this out of the way right now: Rich, my name should be bigger! I’m thinking GIANT TYPE, maybe orange neon, maybe with those sparkly bits they used on The Rainbow Fish. Definitely embossed. And, um, can there be fireworks included? Like instead of the letter “L,” there’d be actual bottle rockets? Which kids can light off. I’m just brainstorming here, typing out loud.

That said, take a gander at this:

I wrote the story right around the time Pirates were “hot,” and Jean Feiwel wasn’t sure if it could make it in the cluttered marketplace. She held onto it, and waited. I finally wrote to her and asked, “So . . . ?”

Jean decided to take it — after all, she liked it — and bide her time, determined to pair it with an illustrator who could do something fresh and original with it. She found Greg Ruth. And I was like, “Who?”

I looked up some of Greg’s work, here and here and, amazingly, here, and was blown away. Lucky me, lucky book. Impressively, Jean and Liz decided to let Greg stretch out his illustrations across 48 pages, rather than the traditional 32. Here’s another piece of finished art that will appear in our book, when — “Arrrr!” — the pirate-obsessed boy wakes up for the first day of school. Note: Be sure to click on the art to see it in full glorious detail.


Shiver me timbers, what a slobberin’ moist mornin’!

Me great scurvy dog slurped me kisser

when I was tryin’ t’ get me winks!

To read an interview with Greg, click here. And don’t miss Greg’s new book, Our Enduring Spirit (HarperCollins, Fall, 2009), where he illustrates President Obama’s inaugural address.