Cover Artist Gallery: Seth

An interview with the creator of The Walrus’s July/August 2010 covers
July/August 2010

SubjectSummer Reading (“Canadian Studies”)
Artist ’s biographyComic creator: Seth” at

As we began planning our annual fiction issue, Scott Nelson in our sales department had an inspired idea: give The Walrus’s readers two options for the cover, then let them pick their favourite for publication. For the project to succeed, I knew that the artist who would produce multiple covers needed to be really amazing. Enter Seth.

I have always wanted to have the opportunity to work with the author of Palookaville, and with this concept, the ideal opportunity presented itelf. Seth produced dozens of great sketches on the subject of summer reading, from which we picked two candidates. He then worked those up and sent over art.

Even eight years ago, it was not unusual to receive physical art from an illustrator by courier; in fact, when I was very briefly at Saturday Night in 2001, we received boxes of slides from the Mary Evans Picture Library, an photograph and illustration archive in the UK. Now, though, virtually everything arrives via email or file transfer. The Walrus’s lightbox sits idle, and even photographers who still shoot on film routinely scan their images themselves and then tweak the results in Photoshop before passing anything along to us.

So it was a delight to receive actual art from Seth — a large cardboard envelope containing a set of layered drawings on tracing paper, with frames and outlines drawn in blue repro pencil. Way back when, this is the type of material that one would have shot in a copy camera: the blue pencil would not have been recorded by the litho film that such cameras used.

Seth’s originals were about one-and-a-half times larger than the printed cover, so scanning and making sharp positives was easy, although it did take some time. And Seth sent along pretty precise instructions for the assembling and colouring of the resulting image; I think the final art shows all of this work. Both covers, but particularly the winning choice, demonstrate his commitment to his craft.

For this issue we also commissioned Seth to create a set of illustrations for the fiction section, a series of short stories that took on (sometimes dissing, sometimes embracing) the notion of Canada. What he produced for us was a love letter to rural and smalltown Canada. Beautiful pines, open roads, and regional courthouses, all bathed in the melancholy light of early evening.

Brian Morgan: After we spoke about the commission, what were your initial thoughts about the story?

Bear Rough
Bear No. 2
Bear FinalThe evolution of man and bear

Seth: I assume by this you mean, “What were your initial thoughts about the cover.” Honestly, I imagine my only thoughts were, “I’m going to do a cover for The Walrus — how excellent.” I like The Walrus. I respect The Walrus. I’m happy it’s a Canadian publication.

It’s nice to do work for a magazine of quality. Not to shoot down other publications I’ve been involved with — but I have certainly hacked out many a soulless drawing in my time! I always feel real gratification working on any project that has some integrity to it. To tell the truth, much of my career has been divided quite clearly between my commercial work and my real work (art done primarily for myself). It’s nice when occasionally these two worlds meet and I can do work (that has a fee attached) that isn’t produced entirely for the paycheque!

Brian Morgan: How did you first approach this? And what is your typical process for generating ideas?

Seth: That depends so much on the project. Whether I’m doing a commercial illustration, drawing a picture in my sketchbook, working on a comics story — that’s all very different in approach.

Sometimes it’s a very slow process. A comic might come together in my mind over a span of years — just ideas randomly colliding/combining until some magic synthesis happens and a story develops.

Sometimes it’s very quick — a drawing is required and the idea instantly pops into your mind (this happened the other day when I was working on a book cover — the idea came together in one second). Other times it might be more methodical — looking through books for inspiration — doing a lot of little doodles and seeing an idea slowly coalesce.

So, it really varies. If I am totally stuck on something I will go up the embankment next to my house and walk around on the railroad tracks until an idea comes together. That always works. Something about walking frees the mind to think deeply. I am genuinely amazed how the brain and the feet will do the work for you — it’s like magic. The problem gets solved.

In the case of these covers I approached the idea quite mechanically. Since it was a straightforward theme, “summer reading,” it did not take a genius to recognize that the two images I should focus on were “summer” and “reading.” From there I jotted down any image of summer that might pop into my head (ice cream trucks, swimming pools, etc.). I flipped through old magazines and books to spark any other summer images (old general interest photo magazines are excellent for this process). Then, when I had a sufficient list of rather typical summer locations/activities, I simply started doodling up any “clever” combination of summer and books. People reading in little wading pools, ice cream men reading on their break, urban dwellers reading on the hot roof of a building — you know the kind of thing. This produced a large number of images: maybe fifty ideas or so. From there, I winnowed out the lamest of the bunch (probably about forty of them!) and then rethought the few that survived. I think I submitted about twenty cover ideas to the magazine, which you folks trimmed down to six. I’m not too sure of how the decision process worked at the magazine, but eventually two ideas were selected for the contest.

Just to be clear here. I don’t usually submit twenty ideas for an assignment. This one was a bit unusual — it generated a lot of possibilities because the theme was rather wide ranging (and fun). Often I submit only a couple of sketches — sometimes just a single idea. And sometimes that is the only one I think that will work. It really depends what the project is.

Brian Morgan: In general terms, how do you create your work?

Goth Rough
Goth No. 2
Goth FinalGothy girl, from rough to final

Seth: Making a drawing of this sort (in my usual style) is down to a science at this point. Forgive the boringness of this description — it is so familiar to me that I can barely work up the enthusiasm to type it out!

I start by roughing out a loose arrangements of elements on the page — horizon line, bear, man, trees, etc. Then I rather ploddingly tighten up every element of the pencil drawing, getting every line and shape exactly how it will be in the inked version. I work on a light table, so that means there is a tremendous amount of tracing and re-tracing until there is a very tight, “perfect” pencil version.

Next, I tape this pencil drawing onto the back of some nicer paper (Strathmore 2 ply, plate finish or Arches hot press, 90 pound) and, using the light table again (to see through the good quality paper), I ink the final art using india ink and a no. 4 brush.

If the drawing is going to be coloured mechanically (i.e., with process colours put in during the printing phase), there is usually a whiteout stage as well. I painstakingly fix up every line to make them more perfect. This can take longer than the inking. It’s a pain in the ass and a sign of foolish perfectionism, since most people can’t see the difference in the art before or after I “fix” it.

If the artwork is going to be coloured directly on the paper in watercolour, I can’t do this “fixing” stage because the artwork obviously cannot have whiteout all over it (whiteout fucks up the watercolours). That means (unlike the previously described process-colour method) when I ink for watercolouring, I simply don’t make any mistakes that need whiting out. It’s a trick of the mind. If I can do this for the watercolour drawings, why can’t I do it for the mechanical method? Who knows. All I know is that if I am allowed to make mistakes I will make them — if I can’t, I won’t.

With these covers I did the colour mechanically using a series of hand-drawn overlays to indicate where certain pantone colours go on the finished artwork. This method is entirely pre-digital and a nightmare for anyone in production that works with me. I have stubbornly refused to enter the modern world and know almost nothing about using a computer for art. This means others must suffer to convert my prehistoric art skills to a modern digital format. You remember the nightmare of colour revisions we went through on that man and bear cover! Possibly the most ill-conceived, endless set of colour changes I ever inflicted on anyone!

Brian Morgan: What was your inspiration for this final image?

Seth: As described above — the inspiration involved in these two covers was necessity. Summer and reading.

I suppose that’s being overly simplistic. There is another quality I generally look for, something hard to describe — a tone of “charm” — that I usually like to get into a drawing. Something slightly funny. Not actually funny though. I never try to do anything that would actually make someone laugh (I doubt I could), but I do like that old-time New Yorkerish quality of a wry cover image. Something amusing, or sweet, or a cute juxtaposition of some sort. The gothy girl who is trying to avoid the sun, or the bookish man with his shoes off unaware that the bear is behind him — these are hardly knee-slappers. They are simply meant to have some sort of off-kilter charm to them. A pleasing sweetness that stays on this side of the saccharine.

I suppose the The New Yorker has a lot to do with this desire for such an image. Those old covers from the ’20s to the ’50s were a very formative influence on my thinking at a young age. The old New Yorker had a rather loose unwritten formula on how they put an image together — a gentle tweaking of some recognizable element of modern life (say, a department store Santa smoking in the back alley) or a quiet moment with some real sweetness to it (perhaps a doorman sweeping a leaf out of a lobby). I assimilated this formula early on and I find it has an enduring appeal to my mind. The old Dell Little Lulu covers had a lot of this in them as well, and are also deeply loved favourites of mine.

Later on (around the late ’30s I think), The New Yorker started to do quieter images — scenes without a twist to them (perhaps a Hopper-ish night scene of a parking lot or a single red cardinal in an all-white snow scene). These had a lasting impression on my thinking as well. These two approaches probably form the binary of my thinking on how to compose a cover. One approach or the other will almost always do.

In fact, in this issue of The Walrus you see both of these approaches. The covers represent the first approach and the interior illustrations (especially the full-page opening shot of the post office) illustrate the second method.

Brian Morgan: Whose work has influenced you the most? Who or what has shaped your style, and what is your relationship to comic history?

Seth: That is a huge question. Far too complicated to answer in detail (I could easily write a hundred pages on the subject). Especially because I have been influenced by so many artists and writers. I am a real sponge and soak up influence from all over the place.

However, I’ll try to scribe a simple flow chart of cartoonists who have shaped my thinking and drawing.

Charles Schulz would be the first — beginning in early childhood. Later in my teens it would be Jack Kirby. In my early twenties I discovered Robert Crumb and the Hernandez brothers — huge influences that utterly changed my thinking about comics. Then comes Herge (Tintin) and the artists of the old New Yorker (Arno, Addams, Hokinson, Steig, etc.). Lynda Barry fits in here somewhere, and later on my best friend Chester Brown had a tremendous effect on my work and my thinking. In the last ten years I have been deeply effected by the work of Ben Katchor and Chris Ware. Both of them greatly inspirational in making me think about how to tell a comic story.

Of course, a list like this leaves out the rich veins of influence and interest that come from every field of the arts — Alice Munro, Glenn Gould, Thoreau MacDonald , Norman McLaren, Henry Darger, Edward Hopper, Stanley Spencer, Ozu, Tanizaki, Kawabata, Mike Leigh, Nabakov... I’m just rattling these names off the top of my head but I could go on and on. Everyone of those names has had a profound effect on my thinking. In some ways I suspect that we are drawn to specific artists not so much for the originality of their vision (though that is certainly a big part of it), but because they are confirming our own unrealized thoughts or visions. They touch something in us we wish we could have articulated ourselves. We envy their works because they are works we feel connected to — thoughts that resonate. I certainly think this is the case for me. I am drawn to the artists, writers, filmmakers, etc. who have produced the work I most wish I had done.

Brian Morgan: What was your experience with the cover contest: did you have a personal favourite? And how did it feel ceding control of the decision to readers?

Seth: My favourite lost! I preferred the gothy girl.

Truthfully, my favourite probably lost much earlier in the process — I think I had an image or two I liked better in that early group of twenty submissions. I can’t even remember which ones they were, but there was certainly one or two of them I liked best that vanished early on in the winnowing process.

It’s no big deal though. I recognize right at the beginning of an project of this sort that the final decisions are not generally mine. The art director or the editor will have final say. Adding the readers into the mix was an interesting idea but not one that caused me any more worry than usual.

With a collaborative project like this I don’t have any problem ceding to another’s point of view. It’s only when working on my comic books that I become a total dictator — insisting that every element be my way. I think as a working artist you have to recognize when other people have valid input and also when that input is not welcome. In this case I was curious about the reader reaction. I expected the gothy girl to win simply because it was a simpler image — a more striking graphic design. Quickly on, based on reader comments I saw that I was wrong. I think people found the other image more pleasing — more summery.

I can live with that.

Brian Morgan is the art director of The Walrus.

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