Welcome again to another brilliant Cover Art interview! This week I had the chance to put questions to the wonderful Lisa Congdon. Lisa’s work immediately caught my eye with an outstanding vibrancy and joy that I don’t see very often with the books I read. Lisa is a successful artist and designer who takes her work to another level every single day. Lisa’s website is something to behold (see here), the style is fascinatingly unique and all the emotion that flows through her work is superb. I am grateful that she was able to spend some time answering questions about her work. Thank you for stopping by and I hope you enjoy!
About Lisa Congdon
Fine artist and illustrator Lisa Congdon is best known for her colorful paintings, intricate line drawings, pattern design & hand lettering. She works for clients around the world including MoMA, Harvard University, Martha Stewart Living, Chronicle Books, and Random House Publishing, among many others. She is the author of seven books, including the starving-artist-myth-smashing Art Inc: The Essential Guide to Building Your Career as an Artist, and illustrated books The Joy of Swimming, Fortune Favors the Brave, Whatever You Are, Be a Good One, Twenty Ways to Draw a Tulip and A Collection a Day. A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives will be released by Chronicle Books in October 2017. She was named one of 40 Women Over 40 to Watch in 2015. She lives and works in Portland, Oregon.
Q&A with Lisa Congdon
Could you tell us a bit about your career as a designer/artist?
I didn’t start drawing or painting until I was about 31 years old. I’m just about to turn 50 in early 2018, so I’ve been making art for almost 20 years now, but I got a late start. I’m also self-taught. I started drawing and painting as a hobby because I was bored at my job and felt like something was missing from my life. I had no desire to become a professional artist. I just wanted to have fun. I had no idea what I was doing at first, but I loved the creative process, so I just kept making stuff. I took a few classes too. In about 2005 I joined Flickr, which was a place online that, at the time, was like Instagram is today. All the creatives congregated there. I started sharing pictures of what I was making there, and slowly I began getting inquiries about my work. In 2006, I had my first art show, and in 2007 I left my job to try to make a go at freelance illustration. The first few years were so challenging (I was broke and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing) but I kept at it. In 2011, I published my first book, and things took off for me after that. I’ve continued to write and illustrate books, do editorial illustration, book covers,surface design, maintain an online shop, teach, and do some speaking.
Do you work with specific genres of book or are you open to any sort of project?
I am super open. I am lucky that i get to illustrate the insides of many books in addition to doing covers. I’m currently working on a kids science book that will come out in 2020. I am also writing a book for artists about finding your voice. I’ve illustrated and/or illustrated covers for a handful of kids/young adult books over the years, two cookbooks, and a bunch of books that are mostly illustrated. I’ve written and illustrated books about women from history and other non fiction topics. I’ve done covers for a variety of books too. I really love switching things up, trying different things. But I obviously love kids books and nonfiction the most, and even within the kids’ genre, I gravitate to nonfiction.
What sort of challenges do you face as an artist in this industry?
Right now, my main challenge is figuring out how to balance maintaining a creative flow and also my own personal work with a full plate in terms of paid publishing & illustration work. I am very lucky to be at the place where I have endless projects. I am working on illustrating and writing my eighth and ninth books at the moment. But the struggle with being in that place is that you often also don’t have time to just mess around, learn new tools, gather inspiration, or go down a creative rabbit hole. I might have good ideas for new books, for example, but if I don’t have time to develop them, then they’ll never happen. So I am always challenged by time. Also, time to sleep and eat and have a normal life.
Have you got any projects going on at the moment that you could give some insights on?
Mostly right now I’m working on writing and illustrating my next two books. One is a book for artists on finding your voice. And I’m also writing and illustrating a kids book on The Periodic Table of Elements. I’m a nerd for science so this is a dream come true for me. Both books will be published by Chronicle. Since I am now mostly a book writer & illustrator, and because books are so time-consuming with such long timelines, I can’t take on a lot of other projects, but I do love working in other projects when I can, including book covers! I haven’t done a cover recently, but I just finished some packaging design for a kids bath company. I am doing a line of buttons, patches and enamel pins for Badge Bomb that come out in 2018. I just did a tee shirt design for REI. I have a residency and show next year in the Los Angeles area, so I have a studio where I just go paint two days a week to get ready for that. I think I’d get very bored if I only did one thing.
Where do you draw inspiration from when you set out to design a piece?
I have a vast library of books in my studio, so I often start there! I love books so much. Some are history books, some are old, some new, some about graphic design, some about art, some illustration, some just reference books. Once I have a concept, I pour over books, and mark pages. I also keep private visual inspiration boards online around topics and ideas that interest me or for larger projects I’m working on, and I go back and refer to those often.
Do you have a particular piece of artwork that you are especially proud of?
I have a book that comes out in a few weeks called A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives. I wanted to create a cover that would jump off the shelves, and I wanted to use the symbolism of butterflies. The butterflies weave in and out of the title text. It’s a good cover, I think.
Is there any artists/illustrators that have influenced your work?
I love the work of Mary Blair from the 1950’s. She has always been a strong influence. I love the work of Corita Kent. Alexander Girard has always been a favorite. Too many to name. Obviously, I am heavily influenced by the mid-century!
Could you give us a brief overview of how you plan/approach a cover design?
Covers are a special thing because they are often what sells (or doesn’t sell) the book. That is a huge responsibility! Sometimes I do covers that are just hand lettered, so then it’s really diving into the client’s brain and figuring out what they are going for in terms of mood. Regardless of whether something is just hand lettering a title or a full blown illustration, I am that annoying illustrator who insists on getting on the phone and asking a lot of questions. I want to go into a project knowing as much as I can about what the client envisions or is looking for. That saves me time in the long run. Also, I think when I am doing a cover for a book I haven’t written, its my responsibility to read and understand the book so that I can capture that in the cover. Then, once I understand the topic and author’s/art director’s/editor’s goal, I look to see what’s already out there on that topic or theme so I don’t duplicate anything! Some people avoid looking at what might already have been done, like what symbols or representations of a topic have already been used in covers. I like to see what’s already been done. Then I do a lot of sketching and ideation. And then I finally turn something in for the client. It’s never fully formed, but that phase is important. And then we begin the back and forth until we get to the final artwork.
What is the best part about being an artist in your opinion?
I have so much fun every single day.
Have you recently read a book or article that you would recommend to me and the readers of this post?
I just finished Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before. It’s a really great, practical book about building healthy, sustainable habits in your life, including work habits.
Thank you as always for stopping by to check out all the fantastic modern art talent that is contributing so much to out enjoyment of books. Thanks to Lisa for her time and effort in her work, it is truly superb. This series is a brilliant opportunity to celebrate artists and the artwork that stops us in our tracks while traversing over stimulating environments, otherwise known as bookshops :D. Please stop by for more instalments of the Cover Art series soon.