Charles Keegan Interview

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Our Interview with Wheel of Time Illustrator Charles Keegan!

First of all, thank you Mr. Keegan for taking the time to answer the questions put forth by members of TarValon.Net. I had the great fortune to meet you at Dragon*Con this past summer, and I know that everyone is very excited to have to opportunity to ask you a few things as well! So without further ado...

First of all, how did your interest in art get started?

I have always drawn. Since before I could talk, I was drawing on the walls with a red crayon (according to my mom, it was ALWAYS a red crayon) and despite spankings, I kept doing it until mom handed me some paper. I first saw it as a way to make money in the first grade when I began to sell drawings for a nickel. I continued drawing because it was something that I seemed to do better than others around me and it got me attention, later it was something I couldn't not do, even when punished at school. And that happened alot. And did you come into your current career? I was pursuing a career as a "fine artist" doing all sorts of things, anything but monsters and barbarians like I did when I was a kid, when Heather suggested I paint a more fantasy related picture. I was always doodling little pictures of warriors and such. She saw how quickly I did them and thought I should give it a go. We liked what we saw and decided to see what would happen if I took a few paintings to DragonCon in 1994. Tom Doherty was there and saw them and told me to come see him in New York. A few months later I finished my first book cover, Conan and the Mists of Doom by Roland Green.

What sort of education or training did you persue to become an artist?

My instincts as a kid told me to go to New York to get my training but everybody else's told me to get a college degree, I suppose as a hedge when I failed as an artist. Well, I went to college and wasted lots of energy and frustration on years that can't come back as teachers without ability fought me in my simple pursuit to learn to draw and paint. After getting the useless degree, having gained little if any useful information about DOING art, I trudged on in the darkness of ignorance driven only by my will to seek excellence. Finally fed up, I went to New York looking for some sort of school in which to learn art. I haunted art galleries, asking those there for hints as to where to go. At last, someone suggested The National Academy of Design. I went, and lo and behold, they had teachers' work hanging up so you could choose an instructor based on their ability and style. I learned more in the first three hours of class there than in my entire college career. I returned there until a teacher suggested an instructor at the Art Student's League of New York and I studied with him for a while. I learned so much from him yet all he taught was the core basics of art. If I lived in New York I would still study with him. The basics are ignored in colleges. I have never met a working artist who learned anything of value at a university or college as pertains to art technique.

Do you really read the books that you illustrate, or are you simply given a scene?

If the book is written I always read it. I need to understand more than the scene or description of the characters to paint a cover, I need to know the feel of the book, so I can attempt to convey that as much or more that the scene itself. Though generally I avoid painting specific scenes unless absolutely required to do so by those who commissioned the work.

In general, do authors give you a set of criteria to follow, or do they allow you to decide what you want to paint?

Generally, authors have little to do with the production of covers. Though in the case of painting the covers for the WOT books, Mr. Jordan had a lot of input in the process.

When you begin work on a commission, do you go through several rough drafts and/or versions before you find an idea that you like? or do you have a good idea of what it will look like when it is finished from the start?

Actually, it varies greatly from one commission to another. Sometimes, I know exactly what I want very early in the process, other times it takes alot of sketching and work to find the design. Often, I'll draw the main figure and other elements several times to work out the problems so that when I get to the painting I can jump in with both feet with a furious tempo. I usually do a color study to work out the main color scheme, whereas other times I'll do a simple sketch without other drafts or color studies and plunge in and discover the painting as I'm doing it. Though the latter method is rarely used for commissioned pieces.

I have an idea what the painting will look like, though I'm usually surprised by the final picture. I almost always do something unplanned or at some point the painting requires something I didn't expect.

What has been the oddest book cover you've ever been commissioned to do?

Alternate Generals by Baen books. I was asked by Jim Baen to paint a Roman general in a German tank. It's odd but certainly not wild or out there. I don't really do odd, as a rule.

Do you create your clothing and weapon designs whole cloth from your imagination, or do you use references?

I'll tell you this, if I had the space and the resources, I'd have a whole walk-in closet full of costumes of every age and walk of life. As it is, you'd be surprised what I do to create costumes and general reference to bounce off of. Often I do create weapons and costumes from my head, but if I can I come up with them with the help of reference, I do.

I always start with a sketch or design without anything at all.

The beginning stage has to come from your head. Then I generally use a model, but never change the design because of reality. The model is not the art, the model is something to respond to, not copy. If so what is your source for references? Everything! My memory, my fantasies, TV, photos I take, magazines (but only for incidentals, not major design elements *), live models, my cats, everything.

To aspiring artists: Avoid existing photography as the basis for doing your art. Shoot your own photos. If you don't know how, learn how. Also, if you have talent, DO NOT USE POSER! If you use Poser, and other existing digital imagery pieced together, it's not your art. We did that in the third grade, cutting out pictures from magazines and gluing them together. It ain't art. One more thing, if you use a projector to create your art, you will be able to create a basic product, but you will never develop the confidence to become a creative versatile artist. You will always be dependent on the machine. Developing the skills to become an artist takes time and everything you learn will enhance your confidence. Art training seems to be looked down on today, but without it and the work required to become a good artist cannot be overlooked or overstated. Projectors and Poser and the like are the Dark Side to seduce you to a quick and easy way to make something for your friends to say, "Cool!" Learn to draw. Do not trace. Work hard. Never quit. Good luck!

Do you listen to music while painting, or sketching?

Yes, almost always. If so, which kind? It's easier to tell you what I don't listen to since I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. I usually listen to something slower at the beginning of a painting while arranging things, although as I say that I realize I often listen to driving rhythms when starting so it's hard to say. I generally don't listen to people screaming at me since I don't put up with it in my daily life, why would I pay for it? I like powerful music, but there is a big difference between singing and screaming. I listen to music that is musical and has a sense of excellence and ability. I will say it is a conscious decision concerning the choices I make to help put me in the state of mind needed for the kind of picture I'm doing. I don't listen to the radio, I don't want a slow piece playing when I want fast and pounding and vice versa, and I hate commercials. I love well performed music, whether classical Beethoven or U2 or Creed. I listen to certain instrumental soundtracks as well.

How long does it take to complete a cover like the one for "From the Two Rivers"?

Sometimes covers take me a month or more while others take about a week, but I had to complete the two Wheel of Time covers in three weeks. "From the Two Rivers" took about a week and a half. But that was with nothing else but painting, eating and sleeping. With the multiple figures and ruins it was tough to complete on time.

What is the most difficult part of illustrating a cover?

Each cover poses its own problems to solve, but I'd say the tough thing is to please so many different interests while at the same time attempting to create art. A cover's primary function is to serve as a billboard. I have about three seconds to grab the attention of a potential buyer and if I fail at that, it fails as a cover. Then there are the concerns of the readers who want the cover to illustrate the story in a satisfactory way. The marketing folks and the book buyers have to like it as well. And I have to like it, to be proud of the work as art. Sometimes it's pretty difficult to balance all that. Though if I dwelt on that too much I doubt I'd finish anything. Ultimately, I paint to please myself as well as my wife Heather. Nothing goes out without her approval.

When you're not doing covers, what is your favorite subject matter to draw?

I don't have much time to devote to my own art these days, but when I have time I like to draw and paint pictures of the early American frontier. The scouts who ranged along the border of civilization, and the penniless folks who risked all just for a chance for something to call their own and a taste of freedom, something they would never have along the seaboard colonies. That crucial time in our history is all but ignored today. Who is your favorite artist, fantasy/other. I can't really say who is my favorite artist since I love the art of many artists, living and dead. Some long dead. I learn much from many artists but I suppose the only artist whose art I've cried in front of because it was so amazing and beautiful was John S. Sergeant. I think his art is the highest art has ever been. It took the best of the old and the sensitivities of the new and is sublime. What or who was your biggest influence with art? That's easy, Frank Frazetta for a multitude of reasons. I remember as a kid seeing a Frazetta cover and saying outloud, "Now that's art!" Everyone had tried telling me what good art was and what it was not, but I knew it as soon as I saw it. The way his art influences me is simple, the essence of his art is to go for feeling. So many artists paint with great technique and paint detail that's astounding but is without emotion or feeling of any kind. Building from abstract shapes and composing for maximum effect, passion and movement drive the concept. That is his influence on me in a simplified nutshell.

Thank you again for your time and effort in answering our questions! We very much look forward to seeing more of your work gracing the covers of our favorite books. =D Thank you.

Mr. Keegan sells some of his prints online at [] for a very reasonable price! He also shows his work at Dragon*Con in Atlanta (Labor Day Weekend)