|Ron Walotsky: The Fine Art of Covers|
If you want to know about Ron Walotsky, take a look around the science fiction and fantasy section of any bookstore. Pick out a few of the classier dust jackets and check the credits. Odds are you'll soon run across his name.
Walotsky has painted covers for just about every major writer in the business, from Asimov to Zelazny -- not to mention more covers for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction than any other artist. Crescent Blues caught up with Walotsky shortly before the publication of Inner Visions: the Art of Ron Walotsky and got the inside scoop on how he became one of the most prolific and respected artists in the field.
Crescent Blues: How did you get started in art -- did you always want to be an artist?
Ron Walotsky: Yes, I did always want to be an artist. It was basically the only thing I seemed to really excel at when I was in school. I didn't do well at anything else, and I always seemed get "As" and do well in art. I was smart enough to know where my strength lay, so I pursued art. Never really did anything in school, for newspapers or anything like that. But won a few awards and painted and knew early on that's where I wanted to go.
Crescent Blues: And you went from high school to art school?
Ron Walotsky: I went to the School of Visual Arts after high school. I was there for four years, the last year on a fine art scholarship, which is what I was planning to do for a living -- and trying to figure out a way to make a living doing my own paintings.
The only way that most artists, at least at that time, [made a living from their art] was by becoming teachers and carpenters. Actors and actresses are waiters. Everybody has a certain area they seem to go into, and painters, it seemed to be that area (teaching).
I didn't want to go to that area, so I was trying to figure out how can I make a living. I was doing mystical paintings and abstract paintings. And I said, well, fantasy, science fiction painting was the closest thing to what I wanted to paint for myself, so let me see if I can make a living doing that.
Crescent Blues: How did you go about finding the first job?
Ron Walotsky: Well, that was interesting, because I put a portfolio together right after school, then went to the bookstores and drugstores and candy stores, wherever books and magazines were. I looked at the covers that related to what I wanted to do and found out who the publishers were. I was living in New York, and this was around 1966, 1967. Found the covers and then called the publishers to see if I could see them.
One of the places I went to was The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed Ferman's dad was publishing it then. And I walked in -- I think Ed was there also. Ed even wrote something for my book, which was kind of fun, about the first day we met, which he still remembered. Which kind of surprised me. And I got my first job for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1967, just by walking in there. They happened to need a cover fairly quickly, and they took a chance on me. And I've been working with The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for 33 years. I've done more covers than any other artist for the magazine.
Crescent Blues: And still today continuing.
Ron Walotsky: And still today continuing, yes.
Crescent Blues: When was the last time you did a cover for them?
Ron Walotsky: This year. I think I've missed one year out of the 33 years. When I was going through the bibliography for my book, I had to go over every magazine cover, and there was one year that I didn't do any covers for them. And I'm very disappointed; there was a break in that whole line of work. But some years I would do two covers, some years three.
Crescent Blues: So how did you get into doing book covers?
Ron Walotsky: Well, that started it, and then going to the publishers. At that time you'd go in and they would see you, and if they didn't like your work they'd tell you where else to go. They were very nice. You didn't have to send work in. They'd give you a try, and once they saw something published, that made a huge difference, because if you're going in cold as the first job, they're very hesitant, but once they saw that you had published something that worked…
I started doing work with Avon Books very early on, in the late Sixties, early Seventies, and started getting some authors that have stayed with me through the years. Like Roger Zelazny. I did Lord of Light, which was Roger Zelazny's first book.
Crescent Blues: And his last one, right?
Ron Walotsky: Right; I've worked through all the Amber Books, the first Amber books for Avon, and a number of other covers. Just last year I was working on Donnerjack for Roger Zelazny, the book that he was working on when he died. So I've worked with the man throughout his whole career and got to know him, and he was a wonderful, beautiful man.
Lord of Light had a certain ambiance to it at that time and place -- it hit a chord. Zelazny's the only author where I actually sent the original painting of Lord of Light to him -- as a thank you note for giving me the pleasure of reading that book. We corresponded on and off through the years after that. He had the painting hanging in his office in Santa Fe -- I think he said it was the only painting he had hanging in there -- and we had a nice rapport all through the years.
Crescent Blues: Do you usually get to meet the author, or is it a more anonymous relationship?
Ron Walotsky: It's much more of an anonymous relationship. Before I started going to the conventions, I didn't meet any of the authors. I dealt just with the editor or the art director, and the author is the last one to see the cover on the book. Authors really have no say on what the cover is, so they're usually very anxious to see what the editor or art director pick out, or who they pick out to do it.
Once in a while, as time has gone on, I have spoken to authors and gotten to know them. And I will talk to certain authors about a cover I'm working on if it's something I need more input on, or a character I want to flesh out a little bit more.
Crescent Blues: Do they usually give you the manuscript to work with?
Ron Walotsky: Yes, most of the time. I really prefer that. A lot of times editors or art directors will have certain ideas of what they think should be on the cover. What I prefer is for the editors and art directors to just give me the manuscript, and if they don't say anything to me, that would be lovely. But usually they do have something to say.
Crescent Blues: But it gets easier as your career goes on, right?
Ron Walotsky: Yes, but if they give me the freedom -- I consider that part of my job is to interpret the story and to pick out something that I think will make an exciting cover. And I like to use my own thoughts on that instead of trying to interpret somebody else's idea. Interpreting the book is enough for me. And that's what I do, so I think, just give me the cover, and I'll do it and be very satisfied that way.
Crescent Blues: How do the writers usually react?
Ron Walotsky: I usually get pretty good reactions.
Crescent Blues: Never had anyone say, "Oh, God, I hated that cover?"
Ron Walotsky: Well nobody's ever said they hated it to me!
Crescent Blues: Anyone every say, "Well, why did you choose that to illustrate about my book?" Do you ever get into discussions with the author about your differing visions of the work?
Ron Walotsky: Nowadays when I see an author I've done a cover for… I just finished a book called Return to Mars by Ben Bova, for Easton Press, which came out very quickly after the initial book. I was at a convention with Ben and talked to him about it. I wanted his reaction to the painting, and he liked it better than the mainstream cover, so that was terrific. And I've done that with Gene Wolfe and other authors. So I've gotten to know a lot of authors over the years, doing the books and going to the science fiction and fantasy conventions. A lot of them have become good friends over the years.
Crescent Blues: Since the way you work is by reading the book, you probably hope you only get asked to do books by people whose work you enjoy.