Monday, 25 May 2009

Interview: Ken Laager

Ken Laager’s artwork stood out to me the first time I saw it gracing the covers of westerns. Having an interest in art and photography I was immediately struck by his use, and understanding, of light and colour. So, for me, it was a great honour when Ken agreed to be interviewed for Western Fiction Review.

How old were you when you first decided you wanted to make painting your career?

My earliest childhood memory is of drawing pictures. There was never any doubt that I would follow the livelihood of artist. The impulse to make pictures is fundamental to my nature. This is not to say that fine picture making comes easily to me -- it does not. I struggle mightily to achieve certain standards of excellence on every picture. Tearing up failed crayon drawings in fury and frustration is something I remember from childhood, too.

Did you study art at school or is it all self taught?

I learned my craft by independent study of those artists I admired. After I completed a course of study at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, I moved to rural Pennsylvania to immerse myself in the picture making principles of Howard Pyle, the Father of American Illustration. Pyle's turn-of-the-century atelier on the banks of the Brandywine River produced many of the greatest illustrators of the Golden Age including N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Stanley Arthurs, Philip R. Goodwin and Harvey Dunn to name a few.

Have any other artists of western themed paintings been an influence on your work?

In addition to Pyle and his exponents, my chief contemporary influence has been Tom Lovell -- a brilliant and towering figure in the fields of illustration and western art. As wonderful as his western fine art painting was, the epic historical paintings he did for National Geographic magazine, and the swashbuckling adventure illustrations he painted for True and Argosy magazines in the 1960s remain unsurpassed. Don Spaulding, a masterful and under appreciated western historical painter (who actually trained under Norman Rockwell) has been a great personal friend and mentor to me. And, every western painter since Frederic Remington and Charlie Russell is indelibly marked by their influence.

Was painting book covers an area you wanted to break into?

Yes, I'd targeted the paperback book publishers and the outdoor/sporting magazines as the primary market for my illustrations. I painted westerns covers for Dell, Warner, New American Library, Bantam, Ballantine, Leisure, Penguin and Zebra. And, I enjoyed a long association with Outdoor Life magazine illustrating covers, interior stories and articles, and the monthly feature "This Happened To Me!" Later on, I furnished Guns of the Old West magazine with a lot of illustration.

Do you find a particular medium reproduces better than another when going through the printing process, for instance oils rather than acrylics?

I've always, and only been an oil painter. I believe that by the time I began illustrating, modern graphic techniques had made such concerns a non-issue.

How do you decide on the content of the covers, do you discuss this with the author, publisher, or are you given free reign?

I read the manuscript or a comprehensive synopsis provided by the publisher, prospecting the story for concepts that might make good covers. I discuss these with the art director -- who serves as liaison between the freelance illustrator and the publishing company's editorial staff. On rare occasions a cover concept may be suggested or assigned by the client. When general agreement is reached about concept, I'll prepare some rough sketches in pencil, charcoal or ink and submit them for consideration. The art director will then present these to the editor (at this point the author may be consulted, as well). When one of the sketches is selected, I'll receive approval to go ahead and begin work on the final painting.

Do you use real models to pose for your painting, either in the studio or via photographs, or is the painting created from your minds-eye once you sit down in front of a blank canvas?

I take great pains to create compelling characters -- this is doubtlessly the Howard Plye influence -- so reference photos are crucial. It is at this stage of the process that the character is born. A suitable model will be carefully dressed in costume and equipped with the right props -- he or she may require make-up, as well. The model will be posed in correct lighting for the scene, and I will direct his or her posture and expressions. If all goes according to plan the character that had existed only in my imagination, comes to life -- it's an exciting moment! This is when we begin taking pictures. The whole production is rather like a movie set.

Most people are astonished at the amount of planning and preliminary work that goes into creating paintings of this sort -- they don't happen by chance! Fully one half of my time is spent in the reading of the manuscript, making conceptual sketches and consultation, factual research, obtaining the necessary costumes and props, booking models, reference photography of characters, animals, landscape and other pictorial elements, preparation of the canvas or board, final design of the pictorial elements, precise preliminary drawing on the canvas or board, color scheme design and color mixing... The point of all of this is to insure, to the extent possible, that painting the final art will go smoothly and efficiently -- and be completed by the publishing deadline.

Are the background locations, be they landscapes or buildings, real or from your imagination?

As with the characters, all buildings, structures, vehicles and animals require photo reference. Landscapes require photo reference as well, though some areas of the background can be successfully faked -- vegetation, rocks, etc. Often backgrounds are a composite of elements from several reference photos. When necessary, an illustrator may build a scale model or clay sculpture to substitute for the real thing. When properly lit and photographed, the results can be magically convincing.

How big is the original artwork for a paperback novel?

The front cover format measures 7 X 4 1/2 inches. I scale those dimensions up three or four times (depending on the content of the picture) resulting in an original that is 12 3/4 X 21 inches or 17 X 28 inches, respectively.

Do you find the vertical compositions needed for a book cover restricting?

On the contrary, I've always found the restricted space stimulating to my creativity, allowing me to focus on the essentials of a picture idea. The best paperback covers are strong, simple, poster-like images.

I've noticed that some of your paintings have appeared on more than one book, presumably you sell the rights of reproduction for a set period of time to one publisher and are then free to sell the painting to another publisher?

Yes, that's exactly right. The publisher who commissions the cover illustration customarily purchases first right of reproduction. When the book upon which it appears goes out of print, his right to reproduce the art expires, freeing it up for resale.

Your work first caught my eye on western books but I've recently seen your work on three of the Hard Case Crime novels. Do prefer painting any particular genre to others?

While it has been necessary to specialize, I prefer handling a wide range of subjects. The Hard Case Crime series with its dark, brooding, sexy imagery, provides me with an exciting and refreshing opportunity to satisfy my desire for artistic diversity.

Did you have an interest in westerns before you started painting western covers or was it a case of, ‘Ill paint anything as I need the money’?

Westerns were my primary interest -- making up the lion's share of a genre that one might call outdoor adventure or masculine adventure, which includes hunting/sporting, historical and perhaps some, military or law enforcement subjects... The western had matured by the time my career began in the early 1970s. A greater existential depth was evident in it's fine art, film and literature. Former illustrators like Tom Lovell, John Clymer and Frank McCarthy were exploring themes that lay much deeper in the history of the frontier, and the mythology of the western. Their work exhilarated and inspired me. I therefore resolved to follow in their footsteps.

Do you wish more book publishers would include the name of the artist whose work appears on the cover?

I can see no practical reason to deny any artist credit for his or her work.

Finally, are there any books available of your artwork, or are there any in the pipeline?

Not yet, but perhaps one day ... who knows?

If you'd like to find out more about Ken, and view more of his work, then you might like to visit his website


madshadows said...

Another fascinating and informative interview, well done mate and thanks to Ken for doing it :)

Jo Walpole said...

Very interesting. I hadn't realised the amount of work that goes into covers. I thought it was all library images and photoshop!

AndyDecker said...

Great interview, Steve. I have some of those Hard Case books. They sure look nice :-)

Matthew P. Mayo said...

Thanks, Steve. I've long admired Laager's work. He's one of the tops in his field. I would love to see one of his paintings on a novel of my own one day.


Unknown said...

Great artist with a great approach, understanding, views and record. Therefore a great interview, Steve. How very different the system is for those of us who have to depend on "generic" art for our books' covers!

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Brilliant interview and some stunning images.

Craig Clarke said...

I thought I recognized Ken's name from the Hard Case Crime books, but I'd no idea how much of his work I'd seen on paperback Westerns. Thanks for another great (and educational) interview, Steve.

Ray said...

I have an admiration for book art but Ken Laager's paintings go beyond - they are works of art.
Magnificent all round.

I.J. Parnham said...

Those paintings are stunning. Thanks.

Peter Brandvold said...

Ken is my favorite contemporary western artist and I'm very proud to have his art gracing my website. Now, if I could only get it on my book covers! It was the wonderful, late Robert Smith who asked Ken if he'd be gracious enough to allow his art to illustrate my site--for free. Since Robert died tragically last spring, I haven't been able to update the site but I'm working on it, and I'd like to include even more art if possible.

Wonderful interview, Steve. I often stare at Ken's art to fire the creative flame of a sluggish morn, and come away hearing the gunfire and drum of galloping hooves.

Peter Brandvold

Steve M said...

Glad everyone has enjoyed this interview. I hope to track down another artist soon.

Kerby Jackson said...

Laager does great work.

Great interview too.

Nik Morton said...

Excellent interview, Steve, fantastic images, Ken. Among the many artbooks I own I've got Lovell, McCarthy, Terpning, Rockwell, Remington and Russell - so it's sad to read that to date no publisher has seen fit to produce an artbook of Ken's collection, which is superb.

Becky said...

Absolutely am in love with the old west paintings. I have had a fascination with pictures and stories of the old west since reading the best western
I have ever read... "The ShopKeepr: A Steve Dancy Tale" by James D. Best. I could imagine completely seeing the main character in some of Ken's paintings! I am going to Laager's website to see if I might be able to purchase a painting. Nice job!

Don Lafferty said...

Great piece. I met Ken last night at a Philly Liar's Club party being held at Aaron's Books in Ken's current hometown of Lititz, PA.

What a gentleman; a real throwback in the coolest sense of the word.