Cover Artist Interview: Talking to Yuko Shimizu

In a recent Cover Wars, we featured the cover of Sarah Benwell’s upcoming debut novel The Last Leaves Feeling and were simply agog by its beauty. So I hunted down the cover artist for the cover, Yuko Shimizu, and she very kindly agreed to answer some questions about illustrating covers and her own art.

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YUKO SHIMIZU (清水裕子) is a Japanese illustrator based in New York City and instructor at School of Visual Arts. Newsweek Japan has chosen Yuko as one of “100 Japanese People The World Respects(世界が尊敬する日本人100)” in 2009. Her first self-titled monograph was released world-wide from German publisher Gestalten in 2011. The first childrens book Barbed Wire Baseball (written by Marissa Moss) came out from Abrams in April, 2013.

You may have seen her work on The Gap T-shirts, Pepsi cans, VISA billboards, Microsoft and Target ads, as well as on the book covers of Penguin, Scholastic, DC Comics, and on the pages of NY Times, Time, Rolling Stone, New Yorker and in many other publications over last ten years. (source) Visit Yuko’s store, follow her on Tumblr and Twitter.

1. Your cover for Sarah Benwell’s upcoming YA debut The Last Leaves Falling is incredibly evocative and seems to be a reflection of the story (seems because sadly, the book isn’t out yet). Similarly, your cover for Monstrous Affections is just as evocative (the monster has white wings which calls into question the whole monstrous aspect). How do you approach creating art for book covers? Do you get to read the manuscripts before you start or do you work off synopses?

That is very nice of you. Thank you.
My commute is very short now (between home and studio), and I do not read as many books as I used to or I would love to (when I lived in Japan, I usually had 1hr+ on trains to go to school or to work), but I have been a serious bookworm pretty much all my life. One time recently, I was having lunch with an AD I often work with. He said “You don’t have to read the whole manuscript. If you read like half, you get the idea”. Which is kind of true, and when the schedule is tight, that may have to be a compromise, but I always try to read the whole manuscript when I can. It is about understanding for the story, theme, mood, and looking for the visual clues that may work for the cover solution. And, to know the ending is very important, though, the rule is you never show the ending on the cover.
Once the idea is starting to get cooked, the rest is a good communication between AD and myself. Actually, The Last Leaves Falling started off not great. I didn’t quite nail the good solutions. the AD at Simon and Schuster Krista Vossen really helped me and pushed me to the right direction.
Sometimes covers come easy, which was in Monstrous Affection’s case (I think I only showed two sketches, and I felt I nailed it from the start), and sometimes it’s a hard labor. But at the end of the day, when a good communication with the client ends up in the image that all of us are happy, there is a great feeling of accomplishment.

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2. Do you talk to the authors and get their thoughts on what they want on the cover or are you given a free rein to do what you will?

Actually, cover artists usually never talk directly with the authors. We only talk to the art directors. They communicate with editors and editors communicate with the authors, I believe.
It sounds complicated, but it works out well that way. Each person in making a book have our specific roles. Writers write great books, and editors help polish them. Art directors and illustrators work on the visual side. We work each on our own strength. It usually works the best that way.

3. What do you think is the importance of covers? Do you subscribe to the old adage, “don’t judge a book by its cover?”

You cannot judge a book by its cover is correct. At the same time, good covers can let the great book shine. We have all experienced buying a book because we were attracted to cover. That does not make book better or worse, but good book cover can help the book to reach the right audience, and do what the book does the best: get read by audience.

4. I am not at all well versed in art styles but I do know that I like yours a lot. Could you tell us something about the process and how you go about creating the beautiful pieces we get to gush over?

I do tons of tons of sketches. I talk to the AD, and I go back to tons and tons of sketches. At the end, a sketch would come that everyone is happy. Then I go back to drawing table spending days finishing them, first with ink and brush, then coloring on my computer.

5. Are there any particular cover trends in literature that you’d like to see more of? Are there any cover trends you’d like to see fade away and never make a comeback?

I am sure there are, but I try not to get too caught up in trend of book covers. My job is, at the end of the day, do something different, that stand out in the book store. I am not sure if I am doing the right job or not, but at least I try my best. Thus, getting too analytical on what other book covers are doing may end up hurting creativity. Does that make sense??

(Nafiza’s note: Yes, it most certainly does!)

6. Finally, what is hands-down your favourite cover on any piece of literature?

Ahhhh, there are so many covers! I cannot pick one! So, I will just pick one I recently saw and drooled. I am working with FSG right now with AD Rodrigo Corral. His latest cover for Area X is purely stunning. Have you seen it?

(Nafiza’s note: This one is pretty cool looking!)