Thursday 9 February 2012

Oliver Twisted Blog Tour - Interview with Cover Illustrator Craig Phillips

Book cover illustrators and designers are sometimes the unsung heroes of YA and children's books. Even though you should never judge a book by its cover, and stunning cover design can make the difference between a kid picking it from a library or book shop shelf or not. The striking cover of Oliver Twisted by J.D. Sharpe was created by Australian illustrator Craig Phillips. Craig's work to date has included covers for a number of bokos, as well as rock poster art for the likes of Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and DJ Shadow. Craig very kindly agreed to answer a few questions for The Book Zone as part of the Oliver Twisted blog tour.

Hi Craig, please could you tell us a little about yourself?

I am a lover of art, books and comics. I love to draw and paint and also dabble in writing my own stuff. I have been drawing all my life and drawing as a job for the last twelve years or so. I am a dad with two young children and have a lovely wife who is also a professional creative. We live in Australia between the beach and some mountains.

What do you do in your spare time when you’re not illustrating?

I swim laps every single morning or surf if the surf is working, between 6 and 8, to stay sane. When I am not illustrating I am mostly parenting and when the kids are all asleep, planning illustrations and creating comics!

How does representing a live show for a band differ from creating a visual motif for a novel? Is it more difficult to draw out a thematic image or aesthetic from music than it is out of a story?

It is not too different really. The process is all much the same. I try hard to pick the strongest possible approach to the job and execute it. With both I am trying to capture some quality of the artists work in a single picture.

Please could you describe the novel in 3 words?

Macabre. Tense. Gripping.

What do you like about the novel? Who was your favorite character?

The novel is a great adventure. The characters are oh so colourful and some of them truly horrible. I think my favourite character is Fagin. And of course Oliver himself.

You’ve spoken about researching the original artwork for ‘Oliver Twist’. How do you think the man himself would react to your interpretation of one of his best-loved protagonists?

Well, visually I kept Oliver quite similar to original descriptions of the character. I didn't want to go too crazy with character design and costume so I think Dickens would be quite happy with how he looks. It is the world Oliver is wrapped in and the things that happen to him that are a bit of a shock!

If Oliver Twisted was turned into a musical, which musician or band would compose the score?

Oh my, it would have to be Mussorgsky, the man behind Night On Bald Mountain. Gives me the sweats. I love it.

The image is a great representation of the macabre and gore found within the novel – did the image come easily for you?

I did do a few redraws. I think we went through about three different concepts. Then I drew Oliver over and over again until I felt I had hit it. It was actually quite difficult to get this one to a point where I was completely happy with it. I tried loads of different angles and the hard thing with this was not putting too much emphasis on the bowl. It was a little tricky finding a balance in the composition even though it is fairly simple. Once we got it though we were all very happy with it. Sometimes I get a cover in one or two sketches. Sometimes it takes half a dozen sketches!

The skulls took a lot of trawling through macabre piles of skulls on Google. Those searches took me from Vlad the Impaler to Cambodia and to the catacombs. That was a bit depressing! I definitely have to keep this jacket high on my bookshelf away from my kids.

A lot of the work on your website is a lot more mellow and serene, was it a nice change to get to grips with the bloody world of Oliver Twisted?

I tend to try to make my work charming and light, even if I am drawing villains and scary story points. Oliver Twisted is definitely the darkest story I have worked on. So it was a change!

I think there is always a place for the macabre and I do like to work with it, so long as it serves a purpose in the story and it balanced with some light.

Did you have much communication with Oliver Twisted writer J D Sharpe whist you were devising the image?

Actually, none. I did not communicate with the author until after the job was done. I never talk to authors while doing a job. That is the job of the editors and art directors. If there is going to be any feedback from the author it needs to always go through the editor. It keeps the process neat.

Do you take advice or inspiration from your children in the development of your work?

I often wondered why I am not inspired by my kids. It seemed as if all the other artists and writers out there were inspired by their kids to some extent. I never have been. Until now. Now I am starting to find inspiration from them. It must be be an age thing. Now that they are a bit older and reading and becoming excited about stories I am finding inspiration from them. I have this urge now to make stories just for them.

What’s the best bit of advice you have for a budding illustrator, particularly those wanting to break into book illustration?

Draw as often as you can! Draw EVERYTHING around you. Buy a cheap sketchbook and fill every page corner to corner with quick sketches from life. Don't spend too much time on each one, keep it moving. Fill that book and buy another one and fill that. Study people and clothing folds especially. Go to life drawing class if you are old enough. Look at art history. Look at different ways artists have represented what is around them. Find what art you like and ask yourself why you are drawn to it.

Young students often think that they need to make everything up out of their own heads. I can tell you now, and any professional illustrator will tell you, this is utter NONSENSE. It is not a memory test. Refer to the real world to make your art real and tangible.

If you feel like your work is ready to present to the world, get online and into art forums. Learn to accept honest critique. Putting your art out there can be scary but it helps you grow.

When you feel like you are ready to approach publishers and agents, limit your folio to ten solid (finished) pieces. Don't make excuses for anything. If you have to make an excuse for anything in your folio it should not be in there. You can try approaching agents. Agents are always on the lookout for more talent. Look at the type of artists already represented by them and see how you compare and where you might fit. Agents will be very realistic and honest in their appraisals of your work too. If they can sell you they will. If they can't they will also tell you and hopefully with a bit of polite prompting they will tell you why they think you are not ready yet. I got rejected by about five agents and spent a year chipping away at Shannon Associates before they thought I was ready and gave me a job.

Approaching publishers is a little trickier. I am lucky that I now have my agent, who is very well connected, to do talk to publishers on my behalf.

If you do not have an agent, go to the publishers website and look at the submission guidelines and stick to them or your work might end up in the trash unopened. They are very busy people so have little time to go through mountains of unsolicited submissions.

If you really love art and are honest with yourself and work very hard (and smart) I believe you will find work.

What was your favorite book as a child?

I read a lot of books when I was a kid. I loved The Lord of the Rings and adventure books in general. And I loved Asterix and Tintin!

Who is your favorite children’s book illustrator?

My favourite illustrators of books for children are mostly from the turn of the century. I love Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielson and Arthur Rakham. I also love Lizbeth Zwerger and Sheilah Beckett. I really love comics. And some of my favourite creators that are also great for children are Hergé (Tintin) and Jeff Smith (Bone).


Huge thanks to Craig for taking the time to answer these questions. If you want to see more of Craig's stunning illustrations then you really should head on over to 


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