Art of the Cover with Gwen Phifer

People judge books by the cover! I wish it tweren’t so, but it is. Hey, even I do it. Growing up, I bought many a book based solely on the dress or undress of the woman hanging off Conan’s sword arm. Don’t give me that sexist look. How many books have been bought based on the dress or undress of male models on Romance Novel covers? See, we aren’t that different now are we.

The point is authors aren’t the ones who get to make a good first impression. The cover does. True, the cover is a result of a brief description from an author or someone of the book, but the weight of a sale or no sale usually rests in the hand of an artist.

That said, I wanted to track down one of these starving individuals and get the straight scoop on what goes into making that first impression. Since my lawyers have told me that I can’t kidnap people anymore to gain interviews, I sunk to what we used to do in art school to get an artist’s attention, free food. Hey, we artists aren’t called starving for no particular reason. If it hadn’t been for popcorn and ramen noodles I might have never survived art school.

After advertising a bountiful buffet, I was able to entice the amazing Gwen Phifer to the Darkside. Amazing how cookies are better than actual money to get people in here. I did have to promise not to tickle her to get gratuitous giggles. Oh, well. You can’t win them all.

Gwen welcome to the Darkside. No, you get the cookies after the interview. Please put down the Oreos and tell us a little bit about yourself. You know, what drove you into the graphic medium, influences… the usual.

Seriously, put down the cookies.

ImageGwen: B-but you got those fatty thin mint lookalike Oreos… I haven’t had those in forever! Okay, okay. Since you’re holding those cookies hostage… I’d have to say I never really “got into” art but more was born into it. My mom is a college art professor and a painter. So there was always something to play around with at an early age- paints, etchings, watercolor, papier-mâché, Photoshop CS back in the day. She has been my biggest inspiration and motivator. So I went into Illustration at Savannah College of Art & Design, mostly because I thought art was my talent and hey, why not get into a profession making money doing the thing I love? I can hear the mental breaks screeching now… wait, what? Art isn’t my talent? Nah, I’m one of those analytical creative thinkers. Organization is my talent. Art keeps me sane.

So I realized after graduating in ’09 with the Great Recession that I had to reevaluate everything. The job that I thought was going to be there after college- wasn’t. My skills as an illustrator- not needed. So while I went through some depression and serious burn out, I got married to my looong time best friend and high school sweetheart and started teaching out at the barn where I learned to ride horses. (There’s a romance novel in that I’m sure of it.)

[Hollywood Dreams and Buttercream- Sandra Sookoo My first illustrated DBP cover. I’m kinda in love with it.]

Image Jmo: Cool. I totally get the burnout and no jobs after college. Been there, done that. It”s sort of why I’m a writer. That and the voices wouldn’t shut up. So, how did all that end up with you becoming a cover artist?

Gwen: Ha! Well, during college it was always a running joke with my roommates that I should illustrate romance novel covers. The majority of my library consists of fantasy/sci-fi/romance books sprinkled with some anatomy and color theory books. So when my aunt sent me the Desert Breeze Publishing job posting from one of her writing forums, I threw caution to the wind and jumped.

[Dreams- Katie Charles Pretty much hit close to home on that one.]Image

Jmo: Well, I’m glad you spit into the wind and jumped. At least, I think you spit. Why else throw caution into it. In the intro I said that the cover is the first impression of a book. How close to the truth do you think that is? If you agree, how much pressure does that put on you to make that impression unforgettable?

Gwen: Very true. As you go down the shelves, you’re looking at spines, feeling the weight and quality of the paper, glancing at the titles and the pretty pictures… or on the flip side, flicking through Amazon and taking in dozens of covers at a time. It’s split-second, subconscious decisions. The best part about being a cover artist is that I get to browse through books as “research”. Shh – don’t tell my husband! In all seriousness though, I look to see what catches my eye first, what doesn’t work, what are the trends in different genres, etc. It’s a BIG responsibility that I take very seriously, especially for the newer authors. Established authors have a following that will sometimes forgive a less than stellar cover. For new authors that is the first impression on a new reader, one that can make or break a sale.

[Perfect on Paper- Patty Froese was one of the first covers were I started getting into the swing of becoming a cover artist.]

Jmo: I’m a shelf shopper too. NothingImage better than looking at all the pretty covers. It also made me wonder before I became an author how much input an author has into creating a book’s cover. I’m sure my readers wonder that, too. Another point while we’re on the subject, how deep into a book do you go to discover the heart of a book, or do you depend on the author to give you the essence of the work?

Gwen: Who else knows their baby as well as the creator? I wish I had time to read every book that I get to do the cover for, but DBP has a great thing going with their Cover Art Info Sheets. It breaks a story down to its essence. Now, how much the author puts into telling me all those fine points is how far I can go. Oops, there’s my organization talent rearing its head! I do so love to fill out questionnaires… What do you mean; other people hate it?

Jmo: You’re weird! Insert laugh here, but seriously, I’d like to go a bit further into a continuance of that question. As an artist myself I know that it’s hard to separate yourself from any work of art. Like with writing, the art itself is an extension of the artist. So, with the focus of the cover the book itself, how much of yourself do you feel goes into a cover?

Gwen: It’s hard not to put a bit of yourself into a cover. Time, talent, critiques, revisions all refine a cover into something worth putting out there. Eventually I have to cut the cord, but there is always a sense of maternal pride and recognition when I see one of my covers floating out in the world. I don’t forget them.

Jmo: We artists feel the same way about our books. I know as authors, we all have an image set in our brain on what our cover should look like, but that seldom translates into a viable selling point to bring people past the cover to what’s inside. Before I smack your hand for cookie snitching, if you could tell an author one thing when it comes to cover expectations what would it be?

Gwen: Hey! But they are just sitting there, begging to be eaten! Okay, well, sometimes the first idea is the most horrible, overused, cliché idea possible. And that’s okay. We all have to work past that and we’ll probably come up with something better. I tell authors (and clients) that they are great with written words or verbal descriptions, but what is good on paper or in your head isn’t so good as a marketable image. It’s like comparing books to movies. Some things work while other things don’t. A lot of our choices as cover artists are backed up by experience and that research I told you about. Of course, I’m always happy to go back and explain my reasons when asked.


[Time After Time series- Tami Dee and Lynette Endicott There have been so many good revisions in this series because we are constantly hashing things out. Communication, it’s a good thing!]

Jmo: On the flip side of that, how hard is it for you to literally take someone else’s ‘baby’ and bring to life something that has been living inside their head for who knows how long?

Gwen: Oh my goodness, yes! It takes an insane amount of trust for authors to hand over their baby and let someone else give them a face. That person doesn’t know their baby like they do! I’m pretty sure one of the reasons Gail started DBP was because some “cover artist” mutilated her baby… with actual babies on the cover and naked off-description men! It was horrible. There are mental scars from what I saw.

Some authors have a ton of trust in me and will give me free rein with a couple of suggestions here and there.


[Paradise Pines series- Paisley Kirkpatrick just gave me the building blocks and let me run with it. Lasso Springs series- Kathleen Ball only insisted that there be a cowboy on each cover.]

Others will fight for a certain design element. One of my favorites that came out soooo much the better for it was Caina Fuller’s Good Shepherd series. I had my happy little design puttering along, but Caina had a vision of what she wanted (luckily she’s a cover artist too) and while there were a LOT of revisions that completely overhauled my initial plans, I love how that series turned out.


[Good Shepherd series- Caina Fuller]

Jmo: Since it’s apparent you’re not going to leave those Oreos alone, what advice would you give aspiring artists about being a cover artist? Then, yes you get an entire row of Oreos and all the milk you can drink.

Gwen: OMG, so good! Mmm! Oh yes, ah hem! Well, always be on the look out for covers and take notes to try and figure out what makes a cover eye-catching. While schooling isn’t as important, you need to develop your design sense somehow – through books, classes, what have you in order to know why placement of certain elements matter and why one design works over another. Knowledge is power and all that.


[Night of the Gryphon series- Tasarla Romaney was one of my first series with DBP and I learned sooo much on it!]

Jmo: Gwen, thanks for stopping by today. I hope we’ve entertained and informed the readers about what all goes into a cover. I’ll be the first to say it’s not an easy job but you make all your covers look simply amazing. So before you trot off with all my Oreos, and what looks to be a gallon of milk, please let the readers know where they can find more about you and your wonderful art.

Gwen: I wish I could show you all my art, however there is just too much. So you can check out my website at where you can find all my covers and their buying links! (I’m so proud of myself, website building is not my specialty. Blood, sweat and tears went into making it.) Plus, some sketchbook work, paintings, and headshots from my other job- a horse head illustrator for a simulated horse racing game- are all up there too. Jay and readers, I had a blast! Until we meet again!


6 thoughts on “Art of the Cover with Gwen Phifer

  1. Waving, Gwen. I am one of your very lucky authors who has book covers made with your talent. I absolutely love what you’ve done with my Paradise Pines Series and am alreadly looking forward to seeing what you come up with my next book to be released. It was great fun learning about how you became a cover artist and how you work.

    Thank you for what you’ve done for me. Believe me, you get many compliments from people who see my covers.

    Hey – enjoy those Oreos!

  2. Awesome interview!! Like so many authors, I benefit from hearing what it takes to do a cover. Thanks for the log, Jmo and Gwen.

    • Petie, thanks for stopping by. As an artist myself, I’ve always wanted to know what goes into creating those beautiful covers that drew my eyes to the wonderful worlds inside. Thanks to Gwen, for letting us all see what goes into the art of opening the doors to new worlds.

  3. Gwen says:

    You guys are awesome! I had so much fun and the interview is stellar!

  4. Great interview. I enjoyed it!

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