Welcome to the first in a new series of blog posts about the things that go on behind the scenes to get Arachne Press books out to bookshops and into your hands.
Artist and designer, Kevin Threlfall talks to Cherry Potts, and the two most recent recipients of his work, Lily Peters and Jackie Taylor.
We first came across Kevin when he won the competition to design the cover for Weird Lies, way back in 2013, with his tender hand-holding skeltons, and he reprised the skeletal look for Liam Hogan‘s Happy Ending NOT Guaranteed. We’ve been working with him ever since.
Cherry: Welcome Kevin! To start with, can you tell us a bit about your background as an artist?
Kevin: My journey as an artist started at a young age, I was the child that was always told off by my teachers for drawing too much! I was designing posters and drawing murals at school, and I was always known as the go-to-guy for anything creative. I studied art and design at University, and went on to join a small design company, which gave me experience working with lots of different clients on every kind of design project you can imagine.
I continued paintings and exhibiting alongside the design work but after a few years felt I needed to concentrate full time on my art. I still take on occasional design work for arts and community organisations if the projects interest me – I enjoy seeing my artwork reaching different audiences and it can take me out of my comfort zone to try new things, which I feed back into my paintings.
I received Arts Council funding last year to collaborate with a ceramicist on a collection that combined our techniques and processes, which I want to do more of.
I’ve been lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to work professionally with lots of different people and disciplines, from film-makers to printmakers, pottery to poetry, and everything in between! In July I’ll be working with a mural artist for the first time, which I’m very excited about.
In 2016 I set up an artist-run gallery, which I’m still involved with, so I spend a lot of time curating exhibitions and working with artists and designers. Now that restrictions are easing up, there are more exhibitions and shows on the horizon, which I’ve missed being involved with – so it looks like it’s going to be a busy few months.
Cherry: What inspires your work (book covers and otherwise)?
Kevin: I’m like a magpie, I’m inspired and influenced by various artists and designers. I have a soft spot for mid-century graphic design, with its bold, playful shapes and flat colours, which you can see in the work of Saul Bass. Drifting in-between figuration and abstraction, Francis Bacon paintings had a big influence on me when I was studying art. It’s interesting that a lot of the painters I admire such as Keith Vaughan, John Piper and Ben Shahn worked in advertising or design at various times in their career.
Cherry: Interesting, those artists are quite bleak in their approach, which isn’t a word I would use to describe your work!
Cherry: A lot of your work is in quite a large scale, and in oils, how does book cover design fit in?
Kevin: I usually work on a large scale for my oil paintings, but it can vary, depending on the subject matter and if I’m working on a commission. I also do sketches and smaller studies before I start a painting, which can have their own energy and spontaneity to them. Someone once said that the difference between art and design is that art asks questions, while design answers them. For me a cover has to communicate the essence of the book to the viewer, otherwise it has failed, regardless of how nice it looks.
Cherry: You have quite a few styles up your sleeve, when you get a commission from us, if we haven’t specified, how do you go about deciding which to go for?
Kevin: There are styles that are stereotypical to a particular genre, which provide an immediate visual shorthand, but feels lazy using. So avoiding the obvious is usually my starting point!
Cherry: I love that, that’s completely where we are coming from!
Kevin: I like the challenge of coming up with something that subverts traditional conventions, and playing with different styles can help do this. I like the fact I can try something different when working with you, even if it doesn’t always work straight away! Experimenting can take the designs in unexpected directions and can lead to further ideas, which I would never have thought of at the start.
Cherry: I love collaboration. What was the process for your two most recent covers for us, Accidental Flowers and Strange Waters?
Kevin: Strange Waters is such a visually strong title it gave me a lot to work with – the water theme, mythical elements and the ebb and flow of past and present lives. I wanted the design to have a lyrical quality, with an almost dream-like feel. The idea was adapted from a previous cover concept that didn’t see the light of day, so I like that the design has a history to it below the surface.
Cherry: Yes, I remember at the last minute you asked about balancing the text, and I said, no, I like the way the words are almost sinking. It works so well!
Kevin: Accidental Flowers did stump me at first… I felt it needed to convey a science fiction theme while also avoiding the usual clichés. The title was also ambiguous which I felt put more pressure on the cover imagery. However, an idea came out of the blue – I was sketching and playing with making marks on paper and something appeared that could have been towers or grass/shrubs. That gave me the idea to explore the concept further – I tried to redraw something more refined, but it lost the spontaneity of the sketch, so in the end I kept those initial marks in the final design.
Cherry: I think it was the spontaneity that excited me, and the ambiguity – is that a flower or a light, is that a plant or a tower? Really effective, and I’ve had a lot of spontaneous positive feedback on the covers too!
Kevin: I was pleased with both of the final designs and the printed books look great. There’s a lot of detail and subtle colours in designs which are captured beautifully in the physical copies.
Cherry: Yes, our printers are careful to get as much of the subtlety and depth of the design as possible, that’s really important to me.
Cherry: Which has been your favourite cover so far? And why?
Kevin: Very difficult to pick a favourite… I think In Retail was particularly effective.
Cherry: Mmm, it was what I was secretly hoping for bit didn’t quite dare ask. It looks nothing like a poetry book, but works so well for the content. And all those different colourways you gave us to choose from!
Kevin: Erratics had an interesting concept, and With Paper For Feet is probably the closest to being like one of my own paintings.
Cherry: I loved how you adapted Erratics to use Cathy’s own handwriting and thumbprint. And again for With Paper for Feet, I remember the first version was rather pink in hue, and Jennifer and I said, oh, it’s not a pink book, and you came straight back with three alternatives.
Kevin: I’ll plump for Accidental Flowers though, as it’s the last one I worked on and feels quite different to anything else.
Cherry: One of my favourite things about working with you is how responsive to our ideas you are, and also how we almost always pick the first design you thought of! What’s it like being on the end of our ‘yes, and can we have…’
Kevin: I like the feedback and it feels like a collaborative process, which it is. You have a better idea of what the book is about, so I put my trust in you seeing things I won’t be able to. It’s always interesting to hear from the author as well, as they will have something in their mind already. We all approach it from different directions, so the skill is juggling ideas and expectations, while coming up with something that surprises and delights everyone…. not always easy!
Jackie Taylor (Strange Waters) asks: I’m interested in how you go about encapsulating a whole book in a single image – does it start with an idea from the text, or a ‘feel’, or a colour?
Kevin: Many times the covers are created before I see the text and I have to go off what the information the publisher has provided me, which can just be a couple of lines. Even if I had read the whole book, it’s impossible to encompass every aspect of it in one image but I try to capture the essence and feel of it. The cover has to give the viewer sufficient visual clues so that they have an idea of what to expect, whilst also leaving them waiting to know more. It’s about creating intrigue and excitement about what they are about to (hopefully) read.
Jackie: Also writers are always discussing whether they use pen and paper for ideas, or write straight to screen, or mix and match for different stages of drafting. How do you work?
Kevin: Some ideas come to me as soon as I’ve heard the title, and then that idea is refined as I learn more about the book. Other times I can be more methodical, especially if the cover has to do more of the heavy lifting, for example if the book title doesn’t immediately ‘say’ what the book is about, in terms of the subject matter. There can be a lot of back and forth between myself, the publisher and author, so concepts can blend together, and new ideas get thrown into the mix. This can produce ideas I would never have thought of myself. Other times I can have light bulb moments and the design just flows, and only a few tweaks are needed before it goes off to print.
Lily Peters (Accidental Flowers) asks: I was also wondering if you read the books cover to cover or skim read for themes?
Kevin: I rarely read the whole book before I start coming up with ideas (as in many cases the book is still being edited). I put my trust in the publisher that they know the book inside and out and they can provide me with a brief summary. I always read the book after I receive a copy and inevitably, I’ll come up with new ideas, which are obviously a bit late by then!
Lily: When I saw your ideas, two were very cheerful and the one we went for was more… gloomy – do you look for different angles to the story?
Kevin: Usually I have a few ideas on the go, and as they get refined it becomes more obvious which are the stronger ones. I try to provide at least two alternative designs so the author/publisher has options, however, this can create problems if they like elements from both! I like to include a design that is more unconventional, that I personally like but is probably too off-the-wall to be used – it’s always nice when they get picked.
Cherry: Yes! Guilty of the amalgamated cover design! For Departures, there was a lot of to and fro, and as you say, amalgamating designs, so I remember all the options you sent us, whereas I can’t remember any of the other covers ideas for Accidental Flowers, the one we chose was so obviously right for the book.
Thanks so much for letting us into your world, Kevin. Here’s to many more collaborations, spontaneous ideas, and continued avoiding of the obvious.