Auralia’s Artist: A Conversation with Kristopher K. Orr

Recently, I wrote a whole article about my gratitude for the work of Kristopher Orr, the visionary who crafted the cover art for The Auralia Thread.

That gave me an idea: Why not do an interview with Kristopher about his work?

So here it is, a conversation with the man who made Auralia stand out beautifully on bookshelves everywhere…

Where did you first develop an interest in illustration?

Illustration became an interest specifically when I apprenticed under the famous artist Thomas Blackshear. But art has always been a means for processing life for me.

Are there book covers or illustrations that impressed you when you were a kid?

Honestly, no. I never cease to be amazed at how children are often awed by the most beautiful and commonplace things. Sunlight falling on the kitchen floor, a bird on the branch. Things adults are far too caught up in important things to notice but would receive such wonderful recalibration if we would.

I loved airplanes growing up and found myself drawing them often. I suppose we draw what we admire. It never occurred to me to emulate a style of art found in one of my books growing up.

I will say though that my imagination was certainly stirred by The Chronicles of Narnia we read as a family growing up.

Would you give me a quick sketch of the experiences that brought you from those beginnings to your work at WaterBrook Press?

At Belhaven College, I was exposed to art in a way I cannot really describe. The passion, and love for expressing a heart through medium was wonderfully infused into me by my professors who themselves were working artists.

Later, in the spring of 2000, I found myself in a dual apprenticeship receiving so much information it was like trying to drink from a fire hydrant. I traced by hand over and over for 12 weeks the words TO BE in Times Roman. In sweating over that, I learned about kerning, leading, and what good typography was. (Over hundreds of attempts, I only had one edge of one letter that Jerry Price called “good”.) I studied human faces until I wanted to tear my arm off for Thomas Blackshear. But through those experiences, I was shown what quality work costs the artist.

The next year I wed my soul mate and we moved to Colorado Springs where I took a job designing textbook interiors. It provided me with a great opportunity to become familiar with industry standard tools.

In the fall of 2004 a door was miraculously opened for me to share my portfolio with Mark Ford, the senior Art Director at WaterBrook. There I’ve grown ever more convinced that it is the idea that makes something good, not just the ability to execute well. Neither can be abandoned without disaster.

Tell us a bit about the process that goes into a book cover like Raven’s Ladder. How did that come about?

As this was book 3 in the series, we had a standard to maintain that is high, and it was a wonderful challenge.

I’ve been very blessed to have my photographer friend and colleague Mike Heath to work with, so I knew what I had to accomplish was get a concept approved so that I could bring something concrete to the him and say, “Make this, and do it in a way that is absolutely stunning.”

So, to get to the photoshoot, the process begins with a meeting with the publisher, marketing folks, and editor. Once we’ve gleaned critical data from them, the art team then meets off site to bounce ideas off one another and then it’s off to the sketchbook. There, idea after idea is drawn out and the few good ones pursued.

Searching for imagery takes a good deal of time especially for fantasy fiction where everything needs to be specific to the novel as well as heroic and dramatic. To further complicate things, we live in the day of stock image houses. Thus, a color rough will not do in a cover critique meeting, it has to look finished to gain approval for the next step.

In this case, that final version went under great pressure as it was refined. Finally, we landed a solid direction to bring to Mike, only to have that first shoot canned because we saw too much of the character. It was then reshot in various poses with the one sword, sword on back, two swords, from the side, from the back, etc.

Then finally after several weeks, it was signed off by the in-house decision makers, New York, and yourself.

You’ve given me an opportunity that’s rare for an author, from what I’ve heard–a chance to brainstorm with you about the scenes or characters that appear on the covers. I know I’ve given you some tough challenges. What parts of the process do you enjoy most, and what is the most difficult?

Most favorite: Initial brainstorming and finding the potential of the cover art is very exciting. You always have good ideas, which is a great help. It’s the idea that will send you off in the right direction. It’s like going on a trek across unknown exotic lands for these covers – the imagery to wade through is stunning. The typography is very fun to work with and refine over a cup of strong coffee.

Least favorite: Like climbing a mountain, it’s not all gravy. There’s some parts that are just boring that you have to put your head down and just keep on keepin’ on to get the view from the top. The production time on the comps is often like this, especially when we’re creating backgrounds, blending images, and such. Then there are the relentless cover critique meetings.

What artists working today do you find most compelling?

Chip Kidd, Helen Yentus, Thomas Blackshear, Eric Brandsby. “Bookcoverarchive.com” is a great place to be humbled.

And even though you asked specifically for those working today, I can’t help but mention John Singer Sargent, Picasso, Duchamp, Normal Rockwell, and the myriad of ancient Greek sculpters.

Do you have any cover-art pet peeves?

Bad typography, generally meaning no attention given to kerning point size or leading.

Decisions being made to kill concepts for bad or wrong reasons.

For instance, I recently had pitched a cover I thought was very good. The book was a kind of manifesto for why folks don’t need church in the traditional setting. Obviously a book for the B&N population, not the traditional church going folks. It had used a piece of stained glass art featuring Jesus on the top half, but I pulled all the color out of the image leaving just the really cool lines where the grout was. All that went black, creating a very dynamic image. Sadly, it was felt the illustration of the Lord conveyed a sense of sarcastic edge that wouldn’t do well in the CBA. A cross replaced the Illustration and rendered the cover absolutely devoid of impact.

I know that some people don’t take the kind of work you do–sewing together photographs and illustration methods–very seriously as art.

Some might even call it “cheating.” What do you say to that? Do you see this as an art form that is as valid as painting?

I wonder about this often. In today’s world, where technology and commercialism reign, it seems to me that art erupts in culture in two ways. The commercial vein, which is for the masses and generally postures art as a vehicle for some overarching agenda of garnering a purchase. And the gallery realm constrained to a much smaller and more wealthy population.

In the commercial environment that Book Cover designers find themselves in, it is critical that the fastest method to completion be found. The work of art is not an end in itself, but a means to an end – to get the consumer to do something, usually make a purchase. A painting is as much a performance as it is something to be enjoyed hanging on a wall. The agenda that drives is less temporal than a call to action.

Speaking for myself, it is a call to consider something more, to listen to a story. Pragmatically, the bare fact that there is no ‘undo’ has inherent value. Once the paint has stained the gesso, there is no turning back.

But then, I wonder where Michaelangelo would be working today… perhaps on a Mac in some dank Hollywood studio.

Do you have a favorite book cover that you’ve designed?

Of course. Auralia’s Colors!

And a rather offensive mistake on a cover that never made it to press, but I find endlessly funny.

Do you have art projects independent of book covers? What kind of art do you do when you can just play around and do whatever you want?

My soul gets very excited about painting a cubistic rendering of the human figure presently. I’m working on a series of paintings of a Native American friend of mine named Dave Red Owl. It’s an exploration of the union of Dave and a Red Owl as a vehicle to explore the spiritual aspects of myself as well as Dave. I’m jealous for my family’s attention which allows me very few hours per week to pursue traditional painting, but without that I will go mad. For my recent work, check out www.korrcreative.com

Is there a kind of art project you’ve dreamed of taking on that you haven’t had opportunity to pursue yet?

Film.

There is a scene in The Count of Monte Cristo where the young Albert has just entered into the Count’s home in Rome and the scenes overlay brilliantly. From the paper in Albert’s hands one moment onto the shot of the archway in the mansion, panning down into the next scene. It’s brilliant! There is something to be said for seeing a design come to life in motion and story!

Also, Eric Brandsby uses three dimensions on the surface of his murals often. I’m hoping to explore this in the near future in the DRO series.

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