Art of The Unsealing

If you’re reading my books, you’ve noticed something very unusual about them, compared to almost all other novels published these days ...


They have illustrations!

For the most part, interior illustrations in fiction – other than the occasional map or diagram – have gone the way of the dinosaur.  Why?  It’s expensive, time-consuming, and (sadly) publishers tend to think that readers don’t care about great illustration.

Well, I beg to differ.  In fact, I differ to such an extent that I insisted – when working out my contract with my publisher – that my books feature original, commissioned art:  three illustrations inside each book, and potentially another (in color) for the cover.

(Now of course the people who hold the purse-strings always have the last laugh, because while eventually they agreed to my condition – they did so on the condition that the money to pay for the art comes out of my royalties.  Ha ha ha, Robert, joke’s on you!  But I don’t care, because I think my readers long for great illustration.)

While working on The Unsealing, I had the pleasure and privilege to work with one of the world’s great scratchboard artists, Douglas Smith (whose work, among many other outstanding places, you would have seen in Gregory Maguire's Wicked).

Unbelievable as it sounds, ‘scratchboard’ – with which I have something like an obsession – is a technique of rendering drawing on a small wax tablet (board) by removing, one tiny line at a time, the surface wax layer to reveal lighter or darker wax beneath.  And this ‘scratching’ is done … wait for it … with a razor blade.

Yup.  All of the art you see in my books (other than the cover of The Unsealing) is original scratchboard art, which I commissioned.  The process of getting it done is both fun and fascinating, and here’s how it goes:

  • Find a great scratchboard artist.  Not easy, but my publisher found two – Douglas Smith (The Unsealing) and Mark Summers (A Murder in Ashwood).
  • The artist either reads the novel in manuscript, or I prepare word-pictures or ‘briefs’ of the scenes I think make for great illustrations and/or the cover.  This is usually based on how important the scenes are (symbolically speaking) to my understanding of the book.
  • The artist hires human models – friends, spouses, neighbors, or professionals – to pose for photographs in the stances/positions/attitudes to be depicted in the art.  (With Douglas Smith, I traveled to his studio in deepest Maine to serve as model for Arthur Pendle – Arthur and I have a similar build.)
  • The artist then prepares initial sketches based on his photos.  To the left is Mr. Smith’s first take on Arthur in ‘The Woman in the Tunnel’.
  • I have a look at the sketches and make suggestions based on what the scene looks like in my mind’s eye.
  • The artist refines the sketch, if necessary, as many times as it takes.  Here are Douglas Smith’s refinements to his initial sketch of ‘Tunnel’.
  • Once I approve the final sketch, the artist now has to transfer the art to the scratchboard.  Line by painstaking line, he replicates his sketch by carving out minute slivers of wax …
  • And voilà!  The scratchboard is finished, as you can see.
  • Last but not least, the art is scanned into digital form for the printer.  My publisher used an offset printer for The Unsealing, so that means transforming every word, and each illustration, into metal plates used to print the final book.

So that’s how it’s done, folks.  For me, it’s one of the most fun parts of the production process (a lot of the rest of it – editing, layout, and then the printing – I find considerably more like ‘work’).  Visual artists are interesting cats, for one – kindred souls to writers, who paint with words -- and I enjoy working with them.  It’s as if I play piano, they play guitar, and together we make some nice music.

I’ll post more on this topic from time to time, and – don’t forget – on my website (if you're not there already) you can sign up for a giveaway of a limited-edition print of each of the illustrations from The Unsealing, numbered and signed by Douglas Smith himself!  I won’t offer more than ten or twenty of these, so believe me, it’s worth signing up.

And last but not least, I extend heartfelt thanks to my artists – for their time, talent, and for the tons of fun I have with them.  Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Summers are not only extremely gifted artists, they are two of the nicest people I have ever met.  I mean it.