Talking Fantasy Illustration with Jeffrey Alan Love
‘Totentanz: The Dance of Death’ by Jeffrey Alan Love for The New Yorker – AD: Deanna Donegan
Illustrator Jeffrey Alan Love’s work is primal, carving out the unspeakable truth of his subjects. Each illustration sits as a relic, the cave paintings of a long dead people. In his work in the realm of fantasy and science fiction, Love makes the strange fiction of those narratives human.
In 2016, Flesk Publications released Love’s first graphic novel, Notes From the Shadowed City. The book plays as the sketchbook of the book’s hero, an amnesiac warrior wandering through an unknown city, chronicling the beasts and strangers he meets along the way. Each page reads as the impulsive scrawl of someone post-dream, the illustrations capturing the core of what was seen, while the details have already faded.
Love’s career has gone from newspapers and magazines to his current place as a major voice in science fiction and fantasy illustration. Along the way, he has evolved from student to guest instructor at the Illustration Academy, gone from a digital workflow into a strictly hands-on exploration of inks and paper.
‘Rathraq’ by Jeffrey Alan Love
CJ: Something I find incredibly interesting is the fact that you’ve been an instructor at the Illustration Academy as well as a student. Having spent some time in art school myself, the biggest hurdle is finding, or just staying, with a style long enough to have it develop into something meaningful. As an instructor and career artist, what sort of guidance are you hoping to give the students?
JAL: I hope that students can look at me and think, “if this guy did it, surely I can do it too!” It’s a long journey to go from a dream to a reality of making a living as an artist, and often it isn’t that they fail but that they call it quits too soon. I was not one of the standout students when I attended the Illustration Academy, but I just made the mental commitment to never give up even when it seemed like I would never make it.
One thing that I responded to when I was a student at the Illustration Academy, and I try to teach now when I’m there, is that it isn’t a certain style or surface look that is going to give you traction and longevity within the field, but a personal voice. It is your brain, how you think, the way you solve problems, the stuff you love and that resonates with you and that comes out when you make art. A trap I see a lot of students fall into is thinking they have to find a “style” that defines them, or that they have to stick with the style that they have used in their initial portfolio. They are trying to discover a style, a surface effect, instead of speak with their own voice.
For me, you learn to speak with your own voice by playing with mediums, methods, subject matter. Sketchbooks are the perfect playground for this if you can get over the temptation to show it off to other people and let it be a private, safe place where you can screw up, make bad art, and discover fun new ways of working within those supposed mistakes.
To address something you said about finding and staying with a style for long enough, maybe that’s not the way—allow yourself to play, to go wild, to try anything that comes to mind that you think would be interesting—it may take you some time to realize, looking back, that you discovered something worth pursuing. Don’t narrow your options too soon by trying to stick with a style. Go crazy—you only live once.
‘Snarling City’ by Jeffrey Alan Love
Before going freelance, you worked at a newspaper doing in-house illustration. Were you still working in the style you are now? (Since in your Reddit AMA you mentioned hamburgers being shot out of canon, I’m guessing not!)
I’ve actually always been freelance, but when I started my work was almost completely editorial – for newspapers and magazines. My work looked nothing like it does now—it was all linework with digital color. When it came time to make my first portfolio I had no idea what my work should be, or what my personal voice was. I realized the only thing I could point to and say that it was honest and mine was the way I drew from observation in my sketchbook with a parallel pen. So for the first year or so of work, I would draw from life (when I could—I couldn’t find a hamburger cannon), and then digitally color it. Eventually, I started chafing at this “style” and started trying something new with each assignment.
I was trying to find some examples of your previous work but had no luck. Is that on purpose?
That actually makes me pretty happy that it’s hard to find the old stuff online—it’s always a bummer when someone hires you and asks if you can do a piece like something you did a long time ago that you don’t like anymore.
Jeffrey Alan Love’s cover for Return of Souls by Andy Remic – Tor.com Novella Imprint – AD: Christine Foltzer
If a client finds you, somehow, through your old portfolio of illustrations, do you turn the job down or give them what they want?
If a client approaches me asking if I can do something like an old piece of mine, I will let them know that I don’t work that way any longer and show them examples of how I work now. Keeping my website updated is important in this aspect—I don’t want anything on there that I wouldn’t want to do again. When I started out it was harder to say no, because I needed the money to pay bills, but now I’m comfortable turning down jobs that aren’t a good fit for me, or for making my case why the client should feel comfortable in giving me the trust and freedom to find an appropriate solution for their job with the way I work now.
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis by Jeffrey Alan Love
You posted a piece you did in 2011 of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. You wrote, “Wasn’t smart enough to realize I should keep pursuing this direction, went down a few dead ends before returning to this.” It is in your familiar style, and probably as detailed as I’ve seen you get. Where was your style prior to this? How often were you shifting and changing? Do you see yourself pursuing new directions?
When I first started out I don’t know that I had a style—almost every month I was doing something new. I was very restless with my image-making, dissatisfied with what I was making. So I would try all sorts of new things, always searching, experimenting. Often I would do something in my sketchbook and that would make its way into the finals, or I would totally screw up a final and despair for a few weeks, and then look at the screw up and decide that what had happened actually was really cool if I was able to let go of what I was EXPECTING to happen, and then I would pursue a new angle by trying to intentionally make those mistakes.
A lot of style is just making mistakes you’ve made and like over and over. I really enjoy the way that I’ve been working for the past two years, mostly black and white, but I can see myself always trying something new. I don’t want to stagnate, but I also continue to find new and interesting things to do within this way of working. I feel like I’ve found my bedrock that I can build upon.
‘The Sentinel’ by Jeffrey Alan Love
Your work stays very much in the realm of science fiction and fantasy, well, more so fantasy. Did your own tastes dictate that, or was it a matter of that was the type of work you were getting and it snowballed from that?
Definitely my own tastes. I had a health scare that was the catalyst for changing my work, dropping most of the stereotypical editorial stuff I was doing and pursuing personal work. I made a list of all the things I would like to make art about and thought about what was important to me as a child, and all the work I’ve made since then has had those things in them. Some of my fondest memories as a child are running through the forests in Germany and playing make-believe in castles, so those seem to figure prominently. Trees. Castles. Birds. Knights. Swords. Being a foreigner in a strange land (and loving it for its strangeness.) Once I started making work that felt personal and meaningful to me, people started to respond to it and hire me for it, so from there it has snowballed, but the first snowball was thrown by six-year-old me.
‘Hammers on Bone’ by Jeffrey Alan Love
Science fiction publisher Tor seems to be a very steady client for you, and also one that shows support for you and your work. Were they the first to contact you about doing fantasy work?
I had been promoting my work to Irene Gallo at Tor since I started out, but my work had not been a good fit as my portfolio didn’t have any sci-fi / fantasy stuff in it. For some reason I’d thought that my desire to do that type of work plus my potential would get me jobs in the field, not realizing that I wasn’t showing that I could actually do good work that fit the industry’s requirements. It took a completely new portfolio that had SFF (science fiction / fantasy) elements to it that got me work in the field. Once I showed I could do work that was SFF, Irene was the first to hire me for it, something I will always be very grateful for. And she has continued to show a lot of faith in my work as it has evolved over the last few years.
Notes From the Shadowed City by Jeffrey Alan Love
Notes from The Shadowed City started as sketches and once you had about 30 illustrations, you were developing the story and creating pieces specific for the book. It’s an interesting method and makes the book feel more organic. Do you see doing a book this way again, or will you write the story first for the follow-up book?
I’m in the process of writing my next few books, and I think that this process is how it generally runs, even if the story is more planned out and plotted beforehand than Notes was because one is a graphic novel and another is a traditional novel and they need to be more concrete rather than suggestive. Some image or moment presents itself, then another, they can just be weird cool moments that don’t seem connected, but that becomes the fun part—figuring out how to connect them and have them make sense and resonate. But with the graphic novel I can’t make the final art (as I did with Notes) for a third of the book and then build the rest—I need to know the whole story to make the pages/panels work so the pacing is appropriate.
‘City at Night’ by Jeffrey Alan Love
Notes from The Shadowed City plays out as the notebook of the unnamed hero, images are drawn throughout his adventure, which is very similar to how you seem to work. Sketching and writing throughout the day. Do you see the book as a personal story? A fantasy take on your own adventures?
It is definitely a personal story, although I didn’t realize how much so until it was printed and I read the actual book. I thought it was mostly the last six years or so, but I saw a lot of my childhood as well in there—growing up overseas, not understanding the language or people, not having close friends, losing myself in my drawing and reading.
Your fantasy illustrations are incredibly visceral—what they make lack in traditional details they make up for in emotional impact. They have the aesthetic and power of a cave painting. Your work feels like long dead stories that are still alive. For short stories and novels, you are providing the only visual clue the reader has into the story. Again, like a cave painting, this is an entire world summed up in a single image. What’s your priority when starting on a book cover?
Hopefully, I’ve been given the manuscript and the time to read it and think about it. That’s probably the most important thing—having time, to read and think. You don’t always get time, and it often shows I think. Or maybe I’m just a slow thinker—I look at in-house book cover designers and am amazed at their range and intelligence.
As I read I’ll make notes of any scenes or moments that evoke strong emotion in me—then I’ll go back after I’ve finished the manuscript and see if I can find a way to evoke that emotion in the viewer of the cover. My priority with a book cover is to make the viewer feel something strongly (even if it’s that they absolutely hate the cover…).
‘Death & The Green Table’ by Jeffrey Alan Love for The New Yorker – AD: Deanna Donegan
‘Fierce Competition’ by Jeffrey Alan Love
It has been very important to me. So much time is spent working alone that it is nice to have someone to reach out to and feel a sense of community with. Les, Edward and Andrew R. Wright and I generally text each other every day, showing new work or sketches or asking for opinions on different things. It’s good to have people who will call you on your own bs and not just tell you “it’s great” because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. Honest friends who are great artists themselves are a wonderful blessing.
‘Orange Skies’ by Jeffrey Alan Love – limited edition print released by Out of Step Arts
You’ve released a series of art prints through Out of Step Arts. Each has been released as a limited edition giclee. With your work having such bold tactile quality, have you considered more hands-on printing methods like screen printing or even etching?
I would love to explore more printing methods, but I don’t have the time. The reason I started working with Out of Step Arts is that I hated dealing with inventory, packing, and mailing things so I never offered prints myself. I would rather use that time to write and paint. I want my career to be making books, not standing in line at the post office or emailing people.
Your mark making is rooted in practical tools—paint and whatever instruments you can find for mucking it up. At this point, would digital tools like Photoshop just get in the way?
I don’t know if Photoshop would get in the way, but it isn’t an enjoyable way for me to work on final pieces. I found that staring at a screen for 8 hours a day made me want to kill myself, whereas working traditionally on paper with physical, tangible materials filled me with energy and life and I could work for hours on end. But that’s personal to me, and I don’t have any prejudices against digital art. Photoshop is wonderful, and I use it for making sketches for clients, which it is perfect for. Very easy to copy/paste and move things around, try different elements at various sizes, all very quickly without having to redraw the sketch over and over. There is no right way of working, only what works. The hard part is figuring out what works for you individually.