The Opposite of Abstract
From Dune to Winterfell, Isaac Asimov to Margaret Weis -- British-born artist Stephen Youll likes to make it real, except when he makes it like the movies. A frequent cover artist for Star Wars (r) books, Youll claims he doesn't have an abstract artistic style, because he sees the world realistically, even when visualizing the propulsion systems of futuristic hovercraft.
Part of Youll's ability to extrapolate the details of robots and rocket ships arises from his background in technical illustration. But his commitment to making his images fit the writer's words stems from a lifelong love of science fiction movies and speculative fiction. After 13 years as a professional science fiction and fantasy cover artist, Youll remains a fan of both genres and a dedicated reader of the books he paints. At the World Fantasy Con in Providence, R.I., November 7, Crescent Blues talked to Youll about how he brings writers' worlds to life and helps prospective readers judge a book (positively) by its cover.
Crescent Blues: Of all the locations in the new Dune novel, House Atreides, why did you choose to illustrate that particular moment on Arrakis as the cover of the book?
Stephen Youll: It actually wasn't my decision. When you get a big book like House Atreides, there are so many other people involved in the making of the cover. And there are times, depending on which house it is -- in this case it was Bantam -- they have so many guys making that decision for the artist. In this case the art director, my wife Jamie, had to put together a "comp," which is a finished-looking book jacket.
Basically, [Jamie] did the cover herself, and she needed somebody who could paint it in three, four days, and she needed somebody who could design sealed suits that were very movie-istic and very much the way they were written in the book.
Since the author of Dune [Frank Herbert] had been on the movie set, and he approved the design of the sealed suits, Bantam felt [our illustration] should have a somewhat similar feel. I also called up the office and talked to [Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson, authors of House Atreides] about the costumes…. But it was [Jamie's] decision. Bantam wanted it to be in the desert and to have this very hot feeling.
But they needed to get some figures in there, and I felt the key figure in the book was the planetologist, Pardot Kynes. So I insisted on putting him in. The other input I had was the moons. Arrakis has two moons, and I said it would look more futuristic, more science fiction if we've got the two moons in there. [Bantam] had eliminated [the moons]. They just wanted a desert scene, and I said, "This doesn't say Dune to me." So I put them in, and they loved it. But the idea wasn't really mine for that scene.
Crescent Blues: Were the subsequent covers developed like that?
Stephen Youll. For the second one, which is House Harkonnen, I'm hoping that I'm going to get to dictate the scene, which is a painting depicting the baron in the Harkonnen planet, Giedi Prime. It would be much more flash, because it is the sprawling city, the urban looking feel with the smoke stacks and very gothic looking statues and very movie-istic sense of wonderment like you'd see on a Star Wars movie, that type of thing. But [the publishers] may actually want to do another Dune painting with sand dunes, just to keep the instant recognition of Dune, which I don't believe they need, because they have the word Dune in huge sprawling type up there, and how can you miss that?
I've talked to Kevin Anderson about that, and he wants me to paint Giedi Prime. I want to paint Giedi Prime too, maybe something like the baron in a hover barge going off to some kind of posh affair.
Crescent Blues: You like the baron, don't you?
Stephen Youll: Yeah, the baron is a really great character. And the book is absolutely wonderful.
Stephen Youll: You mean, before I did the painting? Yes. Yes. Though I didn't really need to, because the painting had been pretty much told to me. All I needed was the descriptions of the characters and what their sealed suits looked like. But I wanted to read it, because I'm an absolute, total fan of those books. The Dune books are one of my favorite series. So I just read it out of curiosity, though I pretty much didn't have any time to read it before I finished the painting, because I had to do it in three days. That was a real cruncher.
Crescent Blues: You work fast, don't you?
Stephen Youll: I can. I can work very fast.
Crescent Blues: But you also get detail. How do you manage to combine the speed and the detail? You worked for George Lucas, and he's known to be a detail fanatic.
Stephen Youll: Just the time you put into it. I'm a real work freak. I will sit there for hours on end, just painting and painting. And it's not that I work fast, I just try to get it right the first time. I try not to make too many mistakes that I have to go back over -- though that happens. You just can't help yourself.
But when you're on a roll, it's a wonderful feeling. It's almost like watching somebody else paint it for you. And I've had that experience on a few occasions.
Crescent Blues: Do the pictures you see in your head actually show up on the canvas?
Stephen Youll: Sometimes they do. Sometimes it's just the labor you put in. And sometimes, you know, you can get the color completely wrong. Then you redo it, and by the time you've got the painting three-quarters finished, you know what's right, you know what's wrong. But sometimes it just goes right the first time, and that's the best feeling. It really is. That's like somebody else is doing it. That's like magic. That's terrific, but then you have to go back to work all over again.
I do actually see certain colors, when I'm looking at my sketches on the board. I do actually see it in a particular color, though I ask myself questions on what mood I'm trying to give this painting, what feeling. Do I want this to excite people? Is it a space opera piece?
I just did C. J. Cherryh's latest book, Precursor (which is part of the Foreigner series Michael Whelan started), and it had to be in outer space. So I always think of dramatic, movie-istic lighting. I want to excite people with the lighting.
Crescent Blues: Do you prefer science fiction to fantasy?
Stephen Youll: You know, I do. I sort of like science fiction better, though I'm equally adept at doing fantasy. But given a choice between the two, I do love science fiction, because that's my first love -- designing things. I love designing things and painting figures. And I love capturing that movie-istic quality that you see on the screen.
Crescent Blues: That's what makes it so special for you, that movie quality?
Stephen Youll: I like to see the world real. I see everything realistically anyway when I'm walking around. I don't have an abstract style of any sort. And I was brought up on science fiction movies. It's probably the reason I wanted to be a science fiction artist, because I loved the films so much when I was a kid.
My biggest influence is science fiction movies. You watch them some many times and you see the lighting. It's artificial. You can be outside, and a yellow glow light can be on you, and you're wondering, where is that light coming from? The sun is over on the left, but the light is over on the right. I sort of picked up on that over the years of watching and being influenced by it. I guess that's where a lot of my style derives from.
Crescent Blues: Would you say that movies inspired you as much or more than other artists?
Stephen Youll: Much more, much more than other artists. I don't have any classical background. I was trained as a technical illustrator and set for a career of doing exploded views of houses and drills and cars.
I actually didn't intend to have that career, but I deliberately picked that, because I knew I would learn certain drawing skills and design skills -- and how to look at certain objects and redefine them for a futuristic setting. And it also gives me a good grounding in looking at shapes in the abstract, how light bounces off things.
Crescent Blues: How things work.
Stephen Youll: And how things work also, which is important to me when I'm drawing something. It should look like it functions in whatever crazy way you dream up. If it's a hover car, I'll be dreaming that the back engines are some kind of gyroscopic propulsion system or something. Not that anybody knows it, but it's just a fun thing that I get out of it. And it helps me design it.
Crescent Blues: Were you able to get into science fiction art directly after getting your degree?