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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

How a Book Gets Its Cover: An Interview with Artist Ben Perini

Top: Ben Pirini; Bot: Busy Bodies by Joan Hess cover
Hi everyone—Rosie here, and today I’m delighted to have cover artist Ben Perini as our guest. Ben has designed a number of book covers, including my own Murder and Marinara. In this interview, he gives us a sneak peek into how book cover designers and illustrators work. Please join me in welcoming him.

1. Ben, thanks so much for joining us today. Would you tell us a bit about your background and your work? How did you get into book cover design?

I’ve been an artist all my life—drawing as most children do, except I received formal education quite young. My mother kept finding art lessons for me to attend; I went to the Saturday morning art classes at the Brooklyn Museum when I was eight years old. I like to say after graduating Saturday morning classes, I never looked back.

Many years later, returning to New York from California (at the encouragement of my future wife) with a portfolio in hand, I started networking and knocking on doors. One always has help in finding a way to a career, and I was no different. I went to see one of my favorite high school art teachers, Irwin Greenberg, who sent me to see Max Ginsburg, a teacher who was now working as an illustrator. He introduced me to art director/designer Tony Greco, who hired me for my first book cover and introduced me to the book publishing world. This was back in 1985. Through all those years I’ve worked with most of the major publishing houses and met many wonderful people. One of the aspects I enjoy about this business is collaborating with others to create the end product.

Back then, my work was created traditionally in acrylic paint on illustration boards, and airbrush was also useful. At some point in the 1990s I migrated to the computer to paint digitally. I do go back to traditional work at times, and I have some clients that only come to me for watercolor illustration—a much looser style than my digital paintings. In any case, an illustration always starts with a pencil sketch.

2. When I saw the sketch for my cover, I was astonished at how accurately you captured my own vision for the image as well as the spirit of the book—and you did this without reading it. Could you share the process that you typically follow when commissioned to design a book cover?

So, when I’m commissioned to illustrate a book cover the art director either knows exactly what she wants or she sends me a manuscript to read for a scene to illustrate. Or sometimes it falls somewhere in between those two extremes—maybe a synopsis is all we have to go on at the moment. We usually have a conversation about concept possibilities, and any required items to be included on the cover. I will do some exploratory sketches from those discussions to find a concept that fits the book.

With your book, the art director sent me the notes from the publisher’s cover conference, along with a few reference photos. She also sent the schedule of deadlines—when sketches are due and when the final art is due: art under fire! I recall we had an initial phone meeting to go over questions I had and to clarify direction. I then gathered my own photo references and spent time thinking about how to best present what was asked of me.

Sketches start simply at first, and this cover was all about getting the setting right, making it inviting. I sent a detailed sketch for the art director's input. She requested one change: the blackboard in my sketch was originally a picture in a frame. After that, I got approval to go to final art—a digital painting in this case. I like the contrast of the interior darker colors with the exterior blue sky with big clouds over the water in the final image.

The original sketch and final cover for Murder and Marinara
An artist's creative process is inspired by many things—you're always observing, and sometimes you're recalling memories. What really help me to capture the spirit of your book was growing up in Brooklyn and having the enjoyable experience of quite a few Italian Restaurants. And of course, we had our Coney Island.

3. Beyond the original sketch, what aspects of the cover did you execute and which fell to the art department at NAL? Did you decide on the color palette, for example?

For the most part I am commissioned to create the art for the book cover. So I painted the scene of the restaurant and the view out the window. I also created the type on the blackboard. I decide on the overall palette, but the designer darkened the walls so that the type would pop. The Art Director and graphic designer packaged the book with my art and the type. In some case the designer will add other desired graphics (e.g. banners under type) and commission a letterer to design type for a book.
Cover art for Cate Price's Going through the Notions

4. You seem to strike a balance between fine and commercial art, in the way that some writers are able to do with literary and commercial fiction. How do you achieve that balance between creating work of your own inspiration vs. the demands of the commercial market?

As an illustrator I’m always marketing myself, and I’m always creating new art for purpose. It’s a chance to experiment and be creative. Those ideas sometimes fit in with the fine art side of my studio, and vice versa. Both sides do need self-motivation; the fine arts have different incentives. In certain ways the commercial art is easier, because of the project at hand dictates what is needed and when it is needed. Also, having two children in college keeps me hard at work.

5. Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about? Where can we get a peek at your work on the web?

Right now what I’m inspired with is creating large-scale drawings: 52” x 48”. These works are in charcoal on Arches hot press watercolor paper, a very smooth, heavy-weight paper. I'm developing a series that I like to call imaginative portraits. There’s nothing like the experience of standing in front of a face that measures four foot from the chin to the apex of the skull. I now better understand why Chuck Close has worked in the scale he has for so many years.

There are some charcoal drawings on my website; the larger drawings will appear once the new site goes live.

BioBen Perini is an illustrator and a designer and a professional dreamer who has has worked for many national clients for over twenty-five years and has consistently created wonderful commercial art (traditional and digital), with great attention to detail. In the book publishing world, Ben has illustrated more book covers than he can mathematically work out.

A Jersey girl born and bred, Rosie Genova left her heart at the shore, which serves as the setting for much of her work. Her new series, the Italian Kitchen Mysteries, is informed by her deep appreciation for good food, her pride in her heritage, and her love of classic mysteries, from Nancy Drew to Miss Marple. Her debut novel, Murder and Marinara, will be released October 1. An English teacher by day and novelist by night, Rosie also writes women’s fiction as Rosemary DiBattista. She lives fifty miles from the nearest ocean  in central New Jersey, with her husband, two of her three sons, and an ill-behaved fox terrier.


Rosie said...

Ben, thanks so much for joining us today. Your work is amazing!

Unknown said...


Thank you,thank you, thank you for my beautiful cover! I've received so many compliments on it already. I love the colors, and think it's so eye-catching, even in thumbnail size. I absolutely adore Rosie's cover, too.

I have to admit that I'm not familiar with how digital painting works. What kind of software do you use? Do you scan in your original pencil sketch or start from scratch?


Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

What a fun post--love both your covers. Ben does a great job! I'm thrilled with my covers from NAL too--a different artist, but they really capture the tone of the series.

Rosie said...

So true, Roberta. NAL has a talented art department that utilizes the gifts of some terrific artists.