Don Maitz has been producing imaginative and iconic paintings for over thirty years. He has illustrated book covers for science fiction greats such as Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, and has twice been awarded the Hugo for best professional artist, but is most famous for his paintings of pirates, particularly the character he created for Captain Morgan Spiced Rum. You can find out much more about him at paravia.com/DonMaitz.
Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions, Don. I’m an admirer. Your art has graced the covers of so many of the books I’ve read and loved over the years. However, your cover for Hellburner is not one I’ve seen before. In fact, I wouldn’t have guessed you painted it, given that I am mostly familiar with your fantasy work, and, of course, the pirates! What background can you give me about this cover?
Thank you for following my artwork! Hellburner is a novel written by C.J. Cherryh for Warner Books and is the sequel to her book, Heavy Time, which I also illustrated. I am what might be called an adaptive artist, because my images are inspired by and are responsive to the source material. When I read a book, or create any painting, I project myself into the work and extract what is meaningful. This immersion makes for diverse results, unlike artists who approach subjects with the same flavor again and again.
In the case of Hellburner, a very experimental, fast, and deadly space gunship has been released from production, but pilots capable of flying these vessels are difficult to find. One such exceptional pilot hallucinates at the wrong moments. By showing him in a pilot’s chair, but with his hands lifted in surprise from the controls, I am suggesting that there is something wrong, a mental lapse is impeding his performance at a crucial moment. What intrigued me about these two novels is the conflict [the author] introduces between corporate greed and human compassion. These books were written well before the Enron scandal. It was like the author saw present-day situations and such conditions becoming part of our lives. She has imagined and projected a future society where profits are more important than ethics. This is a road I hope we abandon soon.
Did/do you enjoy painting science fiction subjects?
Did and do enjoy science fiction subjects. I can say these are not my first choice, at least in the traditional sense. I am exploring human potential and expansion instead of the current imaging of technology gone bad and ruling our universe, usually for ill. The premise for a lot of science fiction in recent years is dystopian subjects, world disaster scenarios, most with rubble-eating cyborg zombies and other such dehumanizing constructs. This trend has not enamored me to the current flavor of science fiction. Visualizing possibilities of our future in a more human-fulfilling environment attracts me. Accepting a cover assignment, for me, involves a connection with the underlying meaning of a book. The world going to hell in a handbasket, with no hope or promise of anything better, is too pessimistic for my visual entertainment.
An example of a positive future image is a recent personal painting, titled Golden Moment, where a woman symbolizing Mother Nature is at one with the earth and its wildlife. Her magic wand is a live oak twig, which has acorns leaping from the branch and germinating to sprout new forests, much like the legend of Johnny Appleseed.
I do enjoy a well-written science fiction story that offers interesting possibilities for me to produce futuristic imagery. Most recently, I am working on covers for Baen Books involving time travel by Steve White, which are appealing to me, the first being Pirates of the Timestream, which has spaceships in the days of Henry Morgan in the Caribbean.
What is your favorite subject to paint? (Current evidence would suggest maritime themes?)
I have a tendency to shift my interests. If I do too many related subjects, I feel restricted. I explore, then return to favorite subjects for personal works. Illustrations and commissions that I accept allow me to expand my focus towards other related areas. I enjoy painting colorful figures with character and personality. If I paint too many scurvy, parasite-infected louts, I yearn for a pretty girl; then I may get the urge for a dragon. Mostly, I go with my gut when I am on my own hook. A personal, sea-roving scoundrel I have painted, titled Quicksilver, was inspired by the 17th-century oil painter Frans Hals, who painted cavaliers at drinking establishments and portraits of dashing figures. The background was painted on location at Higgs Beach in Key West. I painted the figure from a photograph that contained glancing, “rakish” lighting. I first exhibited the painting at DragonCon a few years ago and when I arrived, discovered the frame had chipped in travel. I was not happy. However, [my wife] Janny gave me an excellent solution to the damage by suggesting I drill a hole and glue in a musket ball. It was brilliant!
You originally painted Captain Morgan back in 1982. What is the ongoing appeal of pirate-related subject matter for you?
When I moved to Florida from Connecticut, I had in mind that I was entering a part of the globe where explorers and sea rovers ventured. I felt a bit like Fredric Remington traveling out west to experience the cowboy and Indian culture and bring it back to NYC publishing and fine art venues. For me, the era of our pre-colonial period is interesting because at that time, sailing to the New World was almost like visiting another planet. The unknown was around every corner. I would like to offer such jolly companions as may have been found on ships without countries up for visual inspection. If I observe a palm or sea grape tree near the shore, I start imagining what sort of person may have seen a similar sight arriving from the Old World. The lighting, fauna, and other aspects of this environment are so different from Europe, and for me, New England.
In your pirate work especially, I love how you combine elements of both fine art and fantasy: from your character portraits, to the details of ships and costumes, the gorgeous sunset skyscapes and in particular, your seeming penchant for combining Plein Air landscapes with your swashbuckling characters. What else would you like to do or explore in this arena?
You hit things pretty accurately. My surroundings are pretty influential, and I am trying to get out of the studio and record what I see with brushes more. I feel the outdoor experience has been lacking in my work and adding the imaginative bits brings a level of authenticity to the whole. Placing an imaginary narrative image into a directly observed environment is a challenging kind of presentation, but a rewarding one, because the Plein Air elements tend to bolster the veracity of the unreal bits.
I also admire the work (both written and painted) of your wife, Janny Wurts. How does being married to another artist impact how you work?
It is a joy and a challenge. We both cringe a bit when the other is looking at a work in progress, as if there is an art critic loaded for bear standing behind you. But in fact, it is a blessing to have an experienced set of eyes that can offer a helpful comment to expand an idea, or see a shortcoming before an artwork is presented for public consumption.
What would you say is your primary focus at this stage in your career?
My primary focus is to keep on working, as I enjoy having an art tool in my hand. I have some paintings I want to do, but personal works do not necessarily get extensive exposure. Published works, particularly in mass market situations, allow for a wider audience to see and respond, though the subject matter and direction can stray afield of the personal art. Opportunities are exciting challenges, and they come from many directions. For example, nearly thirty years ago, I took on two semesters of teaching as a guest instructor at the Ringling College of Art and Design, and I sometimes lecture there still. Several years back, I responded to create concept art for a pair of animated films, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and The Ant Bully. Last year I had eighty-seven original paintings in four museums at the same time. One of the museums, the Allentown Art Museum in Pennsylvania, hosted an exhibit, At the Edge: Art of the Fantastic, featuring over 160 imaginative original artworks spanning the last 200 years. More than 200,000 visitors came to the exhibition. IlluxCon, a gathering of the most prominent of today’s imaginative artists, is being held at this museum in mid-September (illuxcon.com) and a forthcoming documentary film, Art of the Fantastic, is in production that contains interviews with selected artists and their works, many filmed on site during the At the Edge: Art of the Fantastic exhibition opening. It is exciting for me to participate in this documentary, the IlluxCon event, and to have been represented in the At the Edge: Art of the Fantastic exhibition, because imaginative art is important and it has been largely ignored by the art world and the general public, even though this art form has influenced generations of people that have become scientists, engineers, authors, computer developers, filmmakers, and other respected professionals.
Today, if a commission, exhibition, or other interesting proposal comes my way that excites me, another door opens. If there is a pause in the workflow, I get to do the projects I have been wanting to produce. I feel, at this stage, my horizons keep expanding.
Is there anything you’d like to take on that you haven’t had a chance to do yet?
I would like to do a public mural at some point.
And also, work somewhat larger. Storage for original art can be an issue, and the subsequent packing materials and so forth involved with larger works create demanding logistics. With two of us creating original art inventories, producing prints, and licensing works, time and space are issues we confront as best we can. As you can probably tell, I am into using actual pigments and not rendering digitally. I have spent my life with hands-on access to what I create, and much prefer the “hairy sticks” approach.
I really enjoyed your “Future of the Cover” interview in Watch the Skies. Such spot-on observations on the current state of the industry (I love the idea of ebook “special features” that would give more information on the creative teams that produce these things). Given how much the industry is changing, especially in the last decade, what advice would you give aspiring illustrators entering the field?
Wow, I cannot conceive what is in store for aspiring illustrators entering the field today. My advice is to be prepared for change, but do not become like the flag on a pole moving with every breeze. When I started my art career, acrylics and alkyds had taken over and gave my instructors pause from their normal long-standing traditional media. Today, with all the software programs mimicking all aspects of creativity and with 3D printing coming into easy access, creating visual material is in for another big change. My best advice is to get to know yourself—what you are attracted to—as honestly as you can, and be aware of what you love. Be passionate about your interests. That will see you through, because a tough day doing what you like is much more satisfying than an easy day doing something you hate.
Really study your raw materials—these are not pigments, pixels, or apps. The raw materials I mean are visual aesthetics. Values (degrees of tone from white to black), shapes, quality of line, color relationships, design dynamics, texture awareness, and edges. These are universal elements that manipulate what and how people see. From abstract art, sculpture, computer graphics, logos, comics, photography, fine art, illustration, and yes, fantastic art, these are the ingredients of visual imaging. Your passion in controlling them is what provides an exciting visual experience.
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