An Interview with Thomas Canty (November 18, 2007)

Thomas Canty has been the cover artist for all twenty of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror and is one of the best artists in the field of fantasy, period. His "New Romantic" style is distinctive (his book covers are easy to pick out) and his design skills are just as sharp. He doesn't attend conventions, his e-mail and postal addresses are closely guarded, his phone number is known to only a few, he has zero Internet presence, and yet he still has almost all the work he wants. So the recluse is not well known, and this should not be. While he was convalescing from numerous injuries I was able to sneak a few questions his way.

This interview was done with Gary Turner, editor and publisher of Golden Gryphon Press.

A long time ago, when you were a relatively young pup, you produced the first cover for YBFH; how did that happen?

A long, long time ago in a land far, far away . . . is that what you want to hear?

My involvement began one afternoon while I was house-sitting at my sister's. Terri (Windling) phoned, we chatted, and during the conversation she asked if I had an image that would be right for an anthology combining fantasy with horror and something other than those two as well. It was a planned combination of the two genres from the start, along with the "other" that makes this collection so extraordinary. At that time I was playing around with an image that seemed just right and described it to her. We worked up an idea, including design and such, for the comp and that was the beginning of it all. I think that we both had always thought that eventually we might combine talents on a very dark and romantic fantasy anthology/collection and bounced this sort of stuff around all the time. The first image grew out of that dream, somewhat. Perhaps toned down or made more mainstream, but part of a larger whole that, sadly, never came about.

The covers, as with all your books, are amazing in detail and quality. Fine details, which are usually ignored, are obviously extremely important to you. What exactly is the process you use to create something of this refinement, and how long does it take?

After the first two covers, once the series was a reality and seemed like a continuing one, Jim (Frenkel), the originator and Godfather of the anthology, stepped into the mix and became the art director in a large way. During this period, (I believe that) he would often ask his daughter what she thought would make for a good cover, filter that idea through his own expertise, and come up with the cover idea and elements. I'd then try to combine what they said with what I could do and send off a sketch to Doris at St. Martin's Press and follow up with a comp for the catalog.

Sometimes Jim and I would travel into New York together and present the piece to Doris, sometimes it was done through the mail, regardless . . . it was always an absolute treat!! ! ! That's how it began.

As for the paintings themselves, they begin with the sketch, through a final drawing, and on to oil paint. The basic procedure takes as long as it takes. I learned to paint by watching Rick Berry and Phil Hale during the time that The Newbury Studio stood. Eventually they stepped in and honestly "taught" me how to do it, told me which brushes to use, and which palette worked best and which paints to buy, but I never learned the correct way or the wonderful way in which they each painted, and mostly rely on tentative washes and glazes over prominent line work to reach a finish. I can't control heavy applications or blending or free-style power painting. Honestly, I use pigment so sparingly that I still have some of the paint that Phil gave me before he left for England so long ago.

I once heard, or mis-heard the phrase "the Devil lives in the details." I enjoy telling an alternate story from the one that the painting tells by revealing it through the small details and symbols worked throughout. It's a means of communicating . . . if anyone knows what to look for.

The stories in TYBFH are all superb; how do you, and others involved in deciding the focus of the cover, work this out? Is it a group decision or do you pick your favorite story and propose a cover based on that?

At the very beginning it was Terri's influence, then Terri and Ellen (Datlow), then those two along with Jim and his daughter, then it fell to me and the art director at St. Martin's Press, then me and the designer assigned to the book along with the art director, then Jim stepped back in (Thankfully!) and he and I work on them together. Of course the in-house editor, art director, and sales force all have a strong hand in it as well, I suspect.

Twenty years! That is a long time for any book series to last. Looking back, how have things changed?

Twenty years goes by in an instant! Blink once and it's gone. Blink twice and you're dead. It seems like three years, four at the very most, but you're correct. It's been twenty years of superb writing collected yearly by Terri and Ellen, now Ellen, Kelly Link, and Gavin J. Grant along with contributions from Edward Bryant, Charles Vess, Joan D. Vinge, Charles de Lint, and overseen/shepherded/blooded, sweated, and teared over by Jim Frenkel.

Sounds like the opening paragraph of a World Fantasy Award acceptance speech . . . Twenty Years aft of the Mast. Because in this case my quarters are hardly in the forecastle. Being involved with this collection is first class cabin all the way. The best editors and the finest writers, most prestigious collection, top-flight publishing house, and Jim! This is a dream assignment which I sincerely hope never ends. Of course that means that I'll need to keep my chops very sharp.

As for change, within the collection, the biggest was Terri leaving as co-editor and Kelly and Gavin stepping up. The inclusion of various reviews also changed and enhanced the collection. The look of the covers changed over the years as well, the design format bounced around a bit, the tone of each cover and such. The biggest visual change overall was the move to smaller, more iconic, imagery and larger type. This was done, I believe, to re-position the collection in the market and came about because of Jim re-asserting his role as art director for the book. The control of the covers was lost during the previous three.

This new look is evolving and really ought to come into its own with this coming collection. Although Jim is pressuring for simpler, less involved backgrounds to "hang" the type on, I've already begun working on an internal theme to make each cover more involved and compelling. It may not be entirely clear as yet, but each image so far is a mask, worn by the same person, each with a different meaning and symbolism. Perhaps not strictly in the way in which Victor Turner proposed it, but artistically cross-cultural, and reinforced through those other elements, and like all of my work, containing a story within. You just have to know the language and look for the "words."

If you had one piece of advice to offer an artist trying to break into the book cover field, what would it be?

Don't!

I suspect Bill has been reading this interview carefully to get to this part. What current project have you been working on?

Ahhhhh . . . is this the thinly guised cross-promotion part of the interview? You trick me into throwing Bill a bone and he tosses you a collector edition at the next convention? (He's kidding, Bill.)

I was offered a dream project by George R. R. Martin and Misha Merlin to illustrate a spectacular fully illustrated, boxed, signed, numbered, and partially re-marked edition of A Feast for Crows, from his A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy epic. This original collaboration disintegrated and Subterranean picked up the project and produced several really beautiful books in this series.

The book, now under Subterranean's imprint, is a two-book, deluxe boxed set, again signed and numbered, a remarked edition, fully illustrated with color paintings and graphite drawings. A small, special, signed chap book of preliminaries accompanies certain sets, as do ten original pieces from the book.

So far I've finished forty-six chapter heads, forty-six chapter tail pieces, sixteen full page interior pencil illustrations, six pages of full color front matter (Title, 1/2 Title, ISBN pages for each volume), twenty-five spot illustrations, forty-five sketches, one color painting, and the first third of one of the wraparound color covers (for Volume One). Each of the chapter heads took three days to complete, the tail pieces took two days each, plus an additional day to scan, adjust, and burn to a CD. At forty-six chapters plus re-drawing several and completely changing another two, that's almost a full year of my life gone, no breaks, no holidays, no nothing other than drawing. Gone. I have a "writer's wart" on my middle finger as big as a grape from gripping the lead holder.

And that's just the chapter pieces . . . .

Now factor in the full pages, front matter, and paintings done and ten yet to be completed. Couple it all with George's superb writing, the production value and attention to detail of Subterranean, and that's a pretty cool set of books.

But of course, this is more about Bill, isn't it? (Note: Bill runs Subterranean.)

Truly, the project is so demanding and so involved and the expectations are so high that Bill and I have honestly gone a few rounds with each other. I've quit twice and he's threatened me with bringing in a pinch hitter a time or two, but I believe that this was all done in the name of producing the absolute finest books possible. We both want so very much from this project and have put so much into it that the demands are exceptional and unexpected for us both. Even Gail (Cross), the project designer, has gotten more involved than usual and her work on the title type and page heads is perfection. The chapter heads are each followed with an enlarged type solution that is just perfection, the interior layout perfectly reinforces the tone set by the front matter. Her work is really subdued, and elegant. The time frame has been expanded, but the results will be extraordinary and well worth it. I know that it's my very best work to date.

I think that I need to be pushed around in order to bring out the best in me. Nothing that'll leave a mark, but rather a memory.

(Maybe if I'm nice enough to him here, Bill might throw me some cover work after this project is completed. Something a bit less involved . . . )

This is me being nice.

What can we expect from you in the future?

The shameless self-aggrandizement segment of tonight's program . . . hard to say. I can witness a change in my style and approach right now. Possibly beginning with the cover painting for M. Rickert's World Fantasy Award-winning Map of Dreams. A richer palette, less iconographic and more depictorial, to mis-use a word. I may have lost my way, somewhat, in what I was trying to achieve in pictures, and this painting has helped me to re-establish a vision that I'll pursue and, hopefully elaborate on. I also see a serious shift in my design sensibilities, I'll need to refine this before bringing them into play. I've done a LOT of covers using the computer and graphic techniques alone, but never combined either with paintings. I'm in the midst of several assignments using my computer skills as a "painting" tool. I surprised at how I'm able to keep my "style" intact even when utilizing mouse and tablet. I like this a lot, it's comforting somehow. Means that what I do and how it looks is an internal process rather than a combination of mechanical skills or hand-eye coordination.

I have a book of M. Rickert's writing (Holiday) which will have interiors and a color wrap cover in the works. Another book of Nancy Kress's new work (Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories), also containing at least some interior and a wrap color cover, both of these from Golden Gryphon. (Don't you just hate that name! Didn't they record Radar Love back in the Dark Ages?!?!?!) Hopefully another book in Terri's Fairy Tale Series at some point (that would be beyond wonderful . . . and this year's The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror cover(s).

Of course, if anyone has a book cover, interiors, or a project in the works or coming up that they think that I may be just right for, or even not at all right for but you want to take a little risk against the outcome, please get in touch. I'm always looking for something fun to play with. At this point in what passes for a career, it's all about what's cool and exciting, it's just fun to make pictures. (I'll be happy to forward e-mail messages to Thomas, if you have trouble contacting him directly.)

[Gary Turner]