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Q & A with Science Fiction and Fantasy Illustrator David B. Mattingly

September 3, 2013

 “Are there space ships in the book?”

I said, “Yes, but they don’t play a part in the narrative.”

To which she said, “Who cares!  Go home, forget about the book, and paint a space ship.  We need to sell a few books.” (Q#3)


Most recently, Sci-Fi Undercover has discussed the book Desperate Measures by Joe Clifford Faust.  On a whim, I decided to e-mail the cover artist for the novel, David B. Mattingly, to see if he would answer some questions–and everything turned out better than expected.


(official website)

David B. Mattingly has illustrated over 500 science fiction and fantasy covers during his career and some, like the Honor Harrington series, were not strangers to the NY Times Best Sellers list.  He has worked as a matte artist for many years and you can check out his illustration guide, The Digital Matte Painting Handbook, on  I wish I had the skills for it!

Currently, Mattingly teaches craft at both The School of Visual Arts and Pratt Institute in New York City.

Below, the (5 question) Q & A session is reproduced in full.  My questions are in italics along with any editorial clarifications I make.  No changes have been made to Mattingly’s text beyond formatting.  I would like to excessively thank David B. Mattingly for his time–this has been an incredible experience.


Question 1) My decision to read Joe Clifford Faust’s Desperate Measures was based entirely off of the cover art, and you have produced over 500 covers in your career.  Have you ever thought about how much your work corresponds to books sales and notoriety for an author or novel?  Do you think science fiction and fantasy cover artists get appropriate credit?

Mattingly: “I know that when I do a good cover for a book, it will probably sell better than when I do a mediocre cover.  I certainly always try to do great work, but over the course of a year, I will generally go one or two top-notch covers, 12 or 14 reasonably good one, and one of two that are not up to my general quality.  It is hard to control what will come out great, since it is partly due to artistic inspiration. It is true that if I allow more time for an important book, I can skew the odds of doing something better, but sometimes a book just appeals to an illustrator, and a great picture jumps out for the cover.

The man passed out on table is author Joe Clifford Faust. as drawn by Mattingly

The man passed out on the table is author Joe Clifford Faust. as drawn by Mattingly

As for  Joe Faust’s book, I was assigned his first book, A Death of Honor to do, I loved it, and I actually wrote him a fan letter telling him how much I enjoyed it.  We wrote back and forth, and actually met up and had dinner once in New York city.  So we became friends in the course of working on the book.  The cover came to mind pretty quickly, without having to agonize over it.  By the way, the guy lying drunk on the bar (in the cover of Desperate Measures) is the author, Joe Faust.  I asked him to photograph himself so I could use him as the model.  It is an “in” joke, since Joe is actually a committed christian, and anything but a drunk.  He was a good sport and sent me the photos of himself to use as reference.

The book (A Death of Honor) did reasonably well for Del Rey Books, so I got the chance to do Desperate Measures.  I should mention that part of the inspiration for that cover was the work of one of my favorite comic artists, Joe Kubert. In Joe’s work, the storytelling is so strong that you always have to speculate about what happened a moment after that image happened, and I think I did that with Desperate Measures.  You can’t help but wonder what happened 5 seconds after this image.

As for do  science fiction and fantasy cover artists get appropriate credit, it is nice that the cover artist is listed today.  For many years the cover artists were anonymous, so at least people can find out who did most covers.”

2)  I would like to talk a little more about your work with Joe Clifford Faust, specifically.  Is there any insight you can give into the relationship between cover artist and author?  Can you recall how much conversation you had with Faust before you began your work, or how much detail a cover artist and author typically discuss?

Mattingly: “Generally the cover artist and author have no conversation at all.  In fact, as an illustrator, if you contact the author, and the book company doesn’t know about it, you can get in trouble for it.  The reason for that is actually pretty clear–the author has worked for months, or even years on the book, and often has a very specific vision of what the cover should be. However, for the publisher, the cover is a selling tool–you need to get people to buy the book, and their vision of what makes a good cover for the book, and what the author thinks may be different.  So if you contact the author, and suddenly they are dictating what the cover should be, you can be caught between a rock and a hard place with the publishing company.  I always ask the publisher before I contact an author, just to keep clear of the politics of the cover.  Some publishers, like Baen Books, are totally cool with you contacting authors for more information, as long as you understand that the final word on the cover comes form the publisher, not the author.  The publisher has to sell the book, and if the author has a different vision for the cover, it is still the publishers call.

So the long and short of doing the covers for Joe Faust is that he was totally cool about not trying to dictate the covers, but helped me out to make the covers as accurate as they could be.

Joe and I made a very funny pair–Joe a devoted christian, and me a left wing atheist.  But I loved his books, and we came together to do some books I am sure we are both proud of.”

3)  You have worked on some hugely successful franchises during your career, and I will name Animorphs and Honor Harrington as examples simply because they were favorites of my youth.  Was there a significant difference between your work on these projects compared to a smaller publication, like Desperate Measures for example?  What kind of publication did you typically enjoy the most?

Mattingly: “Actually, I wouldn’t call Desperate Measures a small project.  It was published by Del Rey Books, the premier publisher of the day.  But I know what you mean–David Weber’s book constantly hit the NY Times best seller list, so there is some real gravity when I start doing a cover for him.  But the truth is I basically put myself in the same mind space for every cover I do–I always want to do something wonderful that attracts the reader’s interest, and also reflects the authors intent, if possible.

An artist with friends. Image links to biographical page.

I’ll tell you a great story about one of the most amazing editors I ever worked for, Judy Lynn Del Rey.  Judy was a dwarf, and stood well under 4 feet high, and I am well over 6 feet high.  But Judy was one of the most towering personalities I have ever met.  She taught me a valuable lesson about book illustration that I would like to pass on.  I was under contract to Del Rey for several years, and they actually facilitated my moving from Los Angeles to New York.  After working for her for a while, I was “feeling my oats” as an illustrator, and perhaps started to get a little picky about what covers I was doing.  I was assigned by Judy a book that I thought was morally offensive, and very poorly written, and I made an appointment with her to tell her I had decided to turn the book down, since it wasn’t up to my standards. Judy listened to my explanation patiently, and then said the following:

“David, first, I don’t care about your opinion of the book.  You are an illustrator, not a literary critic. Not that you deserve to know, but this author is very old, and has been with Del Rey a very long time.  He is in failing health, and we are publishing this book partially so that he can pay his medical bills.”

I was stunned, and then said “But Judy, there is nothing to illustrate in the book, There are no science fiction elements that would make a good cover!”

She replied, “Are there space ships in the book?”

I said, “Yes, but they don’t play a part in the narrative.”

To which she said, “Who cares!  Go home, forget about the book, and paint a space ship.  We need to sell a few books.”

So from that point on, I have tried to withhold my literary judgement, and always deliver as good a cover as I can, regardless of what I think of the book.  I admit, when I love a book, like happens with Joe Faust, or David Weber, my inspiration may be higher, but that really isn’t my job to judge the books I illustrate.”

4)  In your website’s biography, you mention your transition to digital illustration.  Many artists have had trouble with this, and I wonder what do you think enabled you to be successful?  Is there anything from your older methods and mediums that you miss?

Mattingly: “I miss a lot of things about painting traditionally.  There was magic in putting paint on a canvas, and that is lost when I work digitally.  However, when working digitally, I have access to some of the most wonderful tools an artist could ask for, so it was worth if for me to make the chance.  I still love to paint traditionally when I am on vacation, but when I am doing professional projects, digital is the medium for me.

I actually wrote an essay for a book that explains my feelings about the digital transition in depth, and I will include it at the end of this.  If you want to use it as part of the interview, feel free.  The editor of the book edited it a bit, and I actually like the original version I am attaching better, so it would be nice to see it used somewhere.”

Mattingly’s essay, Everything I Know About Being a Digital Artist, is reproduced here with permission from the author.  The link is to a document viewer that requires no downloading or anything besides a click from your mouse.

5)  For authors and publishers, the digital age has meant tremendous upheaval with still an uncertain future to come.  The rise of e-books and self-publication has more permanency than a trend.  What do you think this means for cover artists—those who are getting out of school now, and want to do exactly what you have done for a career?  Do you have any idea what this profession might look like in the future?

Mattingly: “It’s a challenging time to be an illustrator.  When I got started, I thought I would spend my entire career working traditionally, like the great masters I admired like Wyeth, Pyle and Frazetta. The change to digital ruined a lot of markets for illustrators, since art directors could use stock photos instead of commissioning something new.  But a lot of new markets have opened up, like video game art, and concept art for movies, so thing have been lost, and things have been gained in the field. I feel very lucky to have been able to make my living as an artist for over 40 years now, and I think if you have that burning desire to be an artist, the chances of “making it” are the same as they ever were.”

End of Q & A


The latest artwork from Mattingly–“Cover art for a reference book about David Weber’s Honor Harrington universe to be published by Baen books.”

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