Reality Skimming

Interview with Jeff Doten

Jeff Doten

Jeff has been drawing, painting and sculpting things since he arrived on the planet. So far he has been unable to stop. He studied animation and illustration at the Alberta College of Art and Design as well as zoology at Mount Royal University. A few projects include: design work for Angelic Pictures ‘Pirates of Venus’ movie, life sized horses carved from foam for Spruce Meadows, murals for a ‘Lord of the Rings’ themed pub and lots of dinosaurs for the Royal Tyrrell Museum. He is the creator of the illustrated ‘sword and planet’ collection ‘Strange Worlds’ and owner of Quick Covers book art. He also continues to buy new copies of books that he loves if they have a new cover that he likes.

Interview by Sarah Trick

Can you tell us about how you came to do the illustrations for Shepherds of Sparrows?

Last summer I was photographing some old artwork when I came across the work I had done for ‘Throne Price’, which I think was the first book written in the series. The book was shelved at the time (I’m guessing for a rewrite) but I had tons of artwork. I hadn’t been working on just a single image; I had multiple cover concepts, environments, characters and costume ideas. The sketches filled my studio floor. I had met Lynda a few times at conventions, so I showed her the artwork on Facebook. She was pretty enthusiastic about it and showed some of the work on the Facebook site. So I have a sort of history with the series already.

How about the concept behind each individual illustration? Did you choose which scenes to illustrate and if so, which ones spoke to you?

Often I will read a book and come up with ideas of my own if the client doesn’t have something in mind. Hal sent me a list of scenes that they wanted illustrated, which was really helpful as I was just reading the book at the time. In terms of the scenes speaking to me, I think his choices were pretty bang on. I produced quite a few takes on my first image, the Spaceport, as I was getting a handle on the overall look that I was going for and was acceptable to Hal and Lynda. The next one was just about how to illustrate the scene with a large number of characters. Too far away and it’s a mob and farmhouse, too tight in and I’m painting fifty brawling people in the kitchen. The drama was there but I had to find a way to visually present it and hopefully in an interesting way.

When you are illustrating a long project like this, how do you connect with the author's characters and the story?

The process of putting pencil to paper and starting to design what things and people look like adds more layers to the world than I usually get on my first read. Once drawing, I have to pay attention to things like ‘what does a chair look like?’ or how a character is dressed even if they are just in the kitchen baking. It always has to reflect their culture, time and place. I look for specifics from the text as well as basing it on what seems reasonable and logical. Once I’m drawing them, the characters open up for me through their costume and body language. It can be quite an enriching experience of the text for me, and I view it as a collaborative effort between myself and the writer even if they don’t know it. Doing several pieces makes it more like film production art than when I just do the cover.

You have a business called Quick Covers, where you design covers for indie authors. How did that come about? What are the challenges of designing covers so quickly?

Quick Covers came about while I was working on my own project, an illustrated collection of Sword and Planet stories called “Strange Worlds Anthology”. I was working with a large group of writers and became aware of how many people were printing their own books. Usually their covers were some photo snagged off the web and photoshopped. This can work for mundane subjects, but for science-fiction or fantasy titles it usually isn’t enough. I hung around on some forums for a while and gained an idea of what a realistic budget for self-publishers might be.

What I like about the short turnaround is that it allows me to focus and ‘just do it’. It makes me much more decisive and sometimes I feel like these are my best work.

Quite honestly I’ve had very few challenges with these commissions. I get very little fussing or changes. I did have one where I was asking specifics about the appearance of a creature because the writer didn’t really know to the degree that I needed to illustrate it. So I influenced him on that in the long run.

What are some future projects you have coming up?

I don’t usually know future Quick Cover projects, but I am locked into a couple long term series which I’m not complaining about. Other than that there is more Reality Skimming, perhaps a second Strange Worlds Anthology collection and I’m presently rewriting a heavily illustrated novel of my own.

And finally: at your job for the Royal Tyrrell Museum, you dress up as a dinosaur once a week. Is this awesome, or totally awesome?

I was working as an illustrator for the museum, but I was hired by the education department which included weekly theatrical performances. I also played paleontologist Charles Sternberg for a few brief lines. After Charles, I would race into the back and put on a furry dinosaur costume. That role involved a lot of dancing and hopping around, so I just wore shorts under that costume. The museum is in the Badlands and it was hot even with air-conditioning. This led to a birthday striptease in the cafeteria for one of the cashiers one time, but maybe I shouldn’t bring that up...

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