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Artist and Author Michael J. Sullivan

Michael J. Sullivan


04-28-2011: interviews artist and author Michael J. Sullivan of Ridan Publishing.

MilSciFi: "Welcome. Please tell us a little about yourself."

Sullivan: "I'm actually not an artist anymore.

At the age of eighteen I set my sights on a career as a book cover artist and rode a scholarship to Detroit's prestigious Center for Creative Studies. I dropped out of college when I landed a job as an illustrator for a design studio that did jobs mostly for the car companies. I worked there for a year before quitting to raise my kids as my wife was making a lot more money as an engineer.

About ten years later, after moving to Raleigh, I returned to the workforce as a designer for a software company and instantly became their entire marketing department. A year later I started my own advertising agency where I was the creative director and my wife filled in the business side as the company's president. We were very successful, and after twelve years I retired to write novels.

When my first publisher showed me the proposed cover sketch that they were planning on using, I quickly painted my own and sent it over. They loved it and I ended up doing all my book covers. When my first publisher was unable to continue publishing my books, my wife and I established the publishing company, Ridan. We picked up a number of other authors and to save time and money I did their covers. I've also done a few other book covers for some authors not associated with Ridan, one of the most recent being Leona Wiosker's Secret of the Sands.

Now that my books have been picked up by Orbit Books of New York, I am not longer doing the covers, although my wife may still twist my arm into doing a few more for Ridan. But these days I am writing full time and the art is just a hobby."

MilSciFi: "What training did you have to become an artist?"

Sullivan: "I attended CCS in Detroit for a year and a half, where the only thing I learned was that colleges are not terribly good places to learn anything. I picked up art much the way I learned writing, or anything really—by trial-and-error and emulation.

I started back when lettering was still done by hand in some cases, back when computers were just appearing in the art world. When I was in college there was this big fear that computers would steal our jobs. The first "art" computer I used was at the studio back in 1984. It was huge, about the size of an elbow couch and was brought in and hooked up by an installation team, who then trained some of us on it. I fell in love with the idea of doing art on computers and worked all night, long after everyone else left, just playing on the thing. So when the first programs hit the Windows platform (yeah I always used a PC) back in the late 80s, I began playing with them.

By the time I moved to Raleigh I had taught myself how to use all the primary programs, the thing was, I was way ahead of the technology curve. No one else knew anything, and only a few printers knew what to do with a computer file. I had never done a professional printing from a file either. I remember calling all these printers and asking them questions about how to set up a file for them, and they all responded as if I was insane. When I did find a printer savvy enough, I went down and had a meeting with their production staff to have them tell me what they needed me to do to make their life easier. I remember the manager looking at me and shaking his head. "Man, I wish more people did this," he said.

The thing is, there were no courses, or classes, no how-to books; everything was figured out by trying and failing and asking questions from friends and such. Everything was being made up. I remember some of us Photoshop artists being mad when they came out with the bevel command, or the drop-shadow option. We had worked out the multi-step techniques for these effects through sweat and toil and here they went and dropped in a feature set that allowed anyone to press a button and do it.

So to answer your question, I'm mostly self-taught."

MilSciFi: "Which programs do you use (or prefer), and how are they employed?"

Sullivan: "Nowadays I use just what you would expect: Photoshop for most of the artwork, InDesign for layout, Illustrator for drawing. I also use Bryce for roughing out images and getting the lighting right, and sometimes TrueSpace for building more precise models that I then import into Bryce.

So in order, I do sketches often from photos, then (I often, but not always) build a model in TrueSpace, create a scene in Bryce, bring that into Photoshop and using it as a guide paint over it to create the finished image. Then I bring that image into InDesign and add text and any line drawing/logo needed to complete the finished work.

That's how I do covers, mostly because they need to be printed. I also paint oils on canvas, but that is just for my own personal fun. Those I hang around the house."

MilSciFi: "What would you consider to be the "key" aspect of any cover project?"

Sullivan: "Coming up with an idea that conveys the look and feel of the story that is going to turn heads, make people pick up the book, and which I can actually do a good job at painting."

MilSciFi: "Do you have a favorite artist or artistic style?"

Sullivan: "I'm really not that great of an artist. I'm a damn good designer, but I lack the talent and skill of a good artist. So I don't have a lot of flexibility in style. I do what works for the most part. That said, I try to match the style to the story, or what the author wants. For my books I was looking for an Alan Lee mystical watercolor style. I failed miserably, but by shooting so high, I think I managed to hit something.

Growing up I was always a fan of The Hildabrandt Brothers, and Brian Froud, and a lot of my early stuff mimicked them."

MilSciFi: "What advise would you give someone who was thinking about becoming an artist?"

Sullivan: "Do it. Right now is the best time there has ever been to become a book cover artist. With a minor talent and self-taught skills in the base programs, there is a sea of jobs begging for cover artists. With the rise in popularity of eBooks, self-publishing is huge right now. All these authors are desperate to get decent art and layouts done for their books. You do a handful for a couple hundred bucks each, and if you do a good job, you'll get a name in this pool of tight-knit potential customers and soon you'll be able to charge a thousand a pop for what should be about three or four day's work and you'll have to make a waiting list for customers."

MilSciFi: "Do you have a preferred genre, example Science Fiction, Horror, Fantasy, etc?"

Sullivan: "Nope. I don't think it works that way for artists. It would be more a matter of  figure art, landscape, open design. The subject/genre of the book is irrelevant to the subject and style of the art."

MilSciFi: "What inspires your art, and do you ever us real-world images as your basis?"

Sullivan: "Almost always. That was one of the things I did learn in CCS—artists almost always use reference. That's why you see Disney flying their art team to Central America or Africa, or at least the zoo to study and sketch what will be the landscape and characters in their animated movies. Being able to make stuff up is great, but that usually comes after years of experience drawing from reference."

MilSciFi: "How do you plan out a project? For example do you read the story and then talk to the author?"

Sullivan: "Usually the author has no idea what they want in a cover. And in the few cases where they have an idea, it is usually unworkable, or would result in a boring image.

In almost every case I read the book. There have been a few I haven't had time. In those instances I listen to those who have, including the author. In the case where I have read it, I don't usually talk to anyone. I just do the rough sketches and send them to the author. In ninety percent of the cases the author loves it and I tighten it a bit and I'm done. If not, they ask for a few changes."

MilSciFi: "Have you won any awards for your work?"

Sullivan: "Not for the cover art. I won some awards back when I was working at our ad agency, One for an ad another for a corporate identity. On the other hand, I've never submitted to any contests. Keep in mind, I'm not an artist—I'm an author. I only do book covers if my wife twists my arm or if I'm moved to help someone."

MilSciFi: "Do you have a website?"

Sullivan: "Yes, and it is in an awful state of neglect."

MilSciFi: "Do you do the art for your website?"

Sullivan: "Yes, but I really do need to revamp the whole thing and my blog. It is all very dated."

MilSciFi: "Do you have any upcoming events?"

Sullivan: "I'll be at the SFWA Nebula Awards in DC May 19th, and at Balticon Memorial Weekend.

MilSciFi: "Thank you, for your time."

Michael Sullivan's website is:

Ridan Publishing's website is:


FTC 16 CFR Part 255 Discloser:
Solicited by with no compensation.


Copyright ©2011 Mike McPhail, All Rights Reserved


The views contained in this interview are those of the author, and
do not necessarily represent the views of