Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Illustrator Jim Thiesen: The bare•bones interview

by John Scoleri

I first became aware of artist Jim Thiesen in 1995 when he painted the cover to TOR Books' first publication of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. I immediately fell in love with the cover art, which I felt managed to capture the epic scope of Matheson's novel. I purchased the original art, and over time discovered that I was already familiar with a great deal of Thiesen's other art by sight, if not by name. I thought it as about time someone sat down to find out a little bit more about this artist who has provided artwork for such high profile writers as Stephen King, Brian Lumley, and Thomas Harris.

bare•bones: How long have you been illustrating book covers? Did you go to school for illustration?

Jim Thiesen: I didn't go to school specifically for illustration. I studied drawing, and some painting at The Art Students League in New York. But I learned most of my painting skills on the job. The first bit of illustration I did was a three-page comic that I wrote and sold to Heavy Metal Magazine ("Exit" - October 1982). I started illustrating for Toy companies (HG Toys and CBS Toys—both out of business) doing package illustrations and helping design new toy lines. That started in 1983. In 1987 I got an agent (Sal Barracca), and began doing book covers. I got pigeon-holed as the "Horror Guy," which I didn't mind at first because I liked monsters and ghost stories since I was a kid. But I like fantasy as well, and did get to do some. I got out of the illustration business in 1997 when the market shrank severely due to publishing companies finding cheep ways to get covers made (computer enhanced photos and stock images).  

bb: Can you describe your process? Do you work an art director's specifications, or do you normally read the books you're illustrating first?

JT: I only did one or two where I read the manuscript first and then came up with ideas for the cover.  Usually the art directors just gave me a general idea of what they wanted. With the horror stuff it was usually very simple, a scary hand or face. A simple, powerful, in-your-face image.        

bb: What goes into a finished piece? Do you start with thumbnail sketches, color comps etc.?

Rejected Beastnights concept
JT: I usually only did a black and white drawing. In the early days I had a manuscript to read (Beastnights by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro) and came up with an idea for the cover. I read the thing, got an idea, sculpted the idea (a woman on a horse with a flash light and a werewolf  jumping out of some bushes at her. I took some photos of the sculpture and did a drawing based on one of those. The publisher said it was too fantasy-like. They said, "we just want a face—the face of the monster, and that's it." So I did the face (see Gallery below). After that I didn't waste my time doing a lot of preliminary work.

bb: Have you run into many instances of having your work art directed?

JT: Yes the art directors have to earn their keep. Sometimes everything is perfect, and they love it, and sometimes they want something changed. On occasion, at the beginning of a piece, they ask for things that they really have not thought through. But I tried to please them as best as I could. Sometimes people in the company just feel the need to justify their position, or want to be part of something successful. So he or she will insist on changing some minor detail. Just to say that he had a hand in this project. Once when I was working with the Toy companies, I did a package illustration of a caveman being confronted by a T-Rex. The art director liked it, but after he took it before the board of directors for their approval, he brought it back to me saying that they wanted the caveman's head to be tilted up a little bit more. This was obviously not necessary.  So I said OK, and took the painting home, presumably (on his part) to make the change. However I made no changes at all. The next day I brought the painting back and showed it to the art director. "Oh yes," he said, "much better!" And the board of directors agreed! "Much better!" Ha! I don't miss their stupid games.

bb: When Tor began publishing Brian Lumley, they used Bob Eggleton illustrations. How did you come to illustrate the step-backs and ultimately covers of several of Brian Lumley's books? 

JT: I did a lot of covers for TOR, and quite a few for Brian Lumley, I think I did about 5 of them. How they came to me, you would have to ask my old agent about that. I just know that they came.

bb: In at least one case, you created a sculpture for a cover illustration (The Gilgul by by Henry W. Hocherman). Can you discuss how that came about?

JT: I actually did 4 sculptures for Zebra Books. Their philosophy was that the cover sells the book. So they would spend a lot of money on it. Creating those sculptures was a lot of fun.

Original sculpture for The Gilgul
bb: Are there any particularly interesting stories behind any of your pieces?

JT: Well, I have a fine art piece (right) that I worked on from time to time for about 12 or 13 years.  It is about fear (from not knowing who he truly is) and a lack of trust in the Universe. Not understanding that the Universe is on his side. He sees the helpful spirits (who are trying to guide him toward his desires ) as monsters trying to destroy his life. I made many changes over the years, and finally in 2008 I felt satisfied with what I had.

bb: You've obviously done a lot of horror illustrations—is this a genre you enjoy, or did you somehow fall into it?

JT: I did enjoy doing the horror covers. And I did get pigeon-holed as the Horror Guy!  But I also had the opportunity to do some fantasy pieces. 

bb: You provided the cover illustration for Doulas Preston and Lincoln Child's Relic, which went on to become a bestseller. Did you know when you got that assignment that the book was getting a bigger push from the publisher?

JT: I knew the book was doing well when they had me do the cover for a sequel. But nothing beyond that.

bb: Do you have a favorite of your works?

JT: Naturally I like some of my pieces better than others. I have my favorite fine art pieces, but of the old commercial pieces, I like Lori (Robert Bloch); one I think was called Blood Beast (Don D'Ammassa), there were several with decorative borders done for collections of short stories: Predators, Between Time and Terror, and Gallery of Horrors. I also like the sculpture of the bride (above). Actually I have quite a few, some I have made improvements to over the years.

bb: Are you working on any new projects currently?

JT: Yes I am always working on something. I just finished a piece which was one I did years ago and did not like, so I cut it into pieces. Then I worked on the pieces separately. I then assembled them in a new arrangement.  I had to make one small piece to add to make the whole thing work together. Now I have to mount and frame it. It's not my favorite, but it's better than it was. I am rarely completely happy with anything I do. At the same time I just finished another old piece I did not like. It's better now but still not the beat. I believe that my perfectionist attitude keeps my work constantly improving.

Stephen King Doubleday reissues

bb: When The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition was released, Doubleday also reissued Stephen King's first four books (Carrie, Salem's Lot, The Shining and Night Shift) with new covers that you painted. Each has a similar design, with part of the image extending beyond the traditional rectangle. Was this your idea, or were you asked to do this? 

JT: The format for the Stephan King covers was set up by the art director. 

bb: How did you come up with each concept for each book?

JT: As for the concepts for the covers, I was familiar with the stories. For The Shining, the art director wanted me to do an axe coming through a door. I thought that would not be very effective visually, so I did an axe chopping in a door the word REDRUM, which Stephen liked, but he said that there was no axe in the book, that was only in the movie. Which is why I then had to quickly do a second illustration for The Shining.   

1990 Doubleday Catalog
The Shining - Original
The Shining - Final

I Am Legend

bb: Were you aware of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend before you got the cover assignment?

JT: No, I was not familiar with the book.  The art director told me it was about vampires—lots of vampires!

bb: What was your vision for the cover art? Were you pleased with the results? I'm of the opinion that it in many ways it's the best thematic representation of the novel of all the cover art that has been used.

Orb TPB with digitally manipulated art
JT: I wanted to create lots of vampires, but I wanted them to flow like one continuous entity. I wanted to give them a kind of H.R.Giger-like feeling. I appreciate your appreciation of the piece. But as with most of my work, I would like to keep working on it. 

bb: Were you aware when Tor digitally manipulated the art for their Orb trade paperback? What are your thoughts on that versus your original painting?

JT: I was not aware of any of the things that TOR was doing with my work—and not compensating me for, which by law they are supposed to do.  As you know, last year I found out about quite a few of the things that TOR has been doing illegally with my art. Obviously I'm not happy about it. I'm not happy about not getting paid, nor with the way they have manipulated my work. Unfortunately prosecuting them would not be financially worthwhile.

bb: That revised artwork (cropped - perhaps to remove a vampire baby, blurred, and one foreground head relocated - see below) has gone on to be used in several countries around the world, second only to the Will Smith movie tie-in art. How does it feel to have your art (albeit in an altered form) seen by millions of readers around the globe?

JT: The art has changed so much it hardly feels like mine anymore.

Jim Thiesen Art Gallery

Rejected preliminary sketch for Blood Beast
Original painting for Bloodwings
Revised final cover for Bloodwings
Original concept art for Beastnights
Preliminary sketch for Beastnights

Thomas Harris' Red Dragon for Simon & Schuster Audio


Will Errickson said...

Astonishing stuff! THE GILGUL is just mind-blowing.

Unknown said...

A Thiersen original cover art on

dunkie said...

Brilliant interview. Insightful into the process and great accompanying illustrations included in the article.