artist abbreviated: colleen af venable

Warning: the content you are about to read may reveal just how fangirly I am when it comes to interviewing designers and illustrators. I know this particular feature is called Artist Abbreviated, but in NO WAY will this interview be abbreviated. Abbreviating the awesome Colleen AF Venable would be doing you a disservice, trust me.

My brief introduction to Colleen’s work involved playing around on the internet doing hours of studious research one night, clicking on cover art and Googling the mess out of authors’ and publishers’ websites.

Then I happened upon this cover:

Whaaaaaat. It was like YA zombie Cover Love at First Sight.

I had stumbled upon the cover for Brain Camp on Goodreads, then immediately went to find out who designed the cover, and finally made it to Colleen’s website. I think I pored over her Flickr account and design work for an hour (like any diligent stalker potential interviewer would).

And then! And then she agreed to an interview! Her responses to my answers made me laugh, her stories were entertaining, and after reading through her interview I hope you not only appreciate her artwork as much as I do, but you’ll understand where I’m coming from when I say in a very legit non-creepy way, “Can we be please friends in real life?”

And without further adieu, may I present the talented Colleen AF Venable, writer-designer extraordinaire!

I mean who wouldn't want to be friends with THIS face. (Photo by Joey Miller at interrobangphoto.com)

TCG: Can you give a history of your career as a designer? What were some of your early influences? What eventually made you want to go into art/design?

CAFV: My design start is an odd one. I guess you could say it was having a big mouth and being in the right place at the most panic-y time. I used to work in marketing for Roaring Brook Press, about ten feet from where I work now. First Second’s designer had left and after four months of interviews the editorial director Mark Siegel still hadn’t seen anyone that he thought clicked with :01’s sensibilities. Around that time their book LAIKA won an Eisner and they needed a small low-res ad that afternoon. Since there was no one else,  and I was quite decent at photoshopping my friends’ heads on the occasional picture of Mr. T or a Golden Girl, I was asked to help out. (Okay, okay I did put together an ad or a postcard in my marketing role occasionally, so it wasn’t exactly as far-fetched as I’m making it sound, but it still is pretty crazy how little I knew about what I was doing.) In a few hours, I threw together this ad:

Mark was convinced there was more thought in that 2-hour created animated gif than there was in a lot of the full portfolios he had seen. He also remembered that in marketing meetings I had this annoying inability to keep my mouth shut when it came to covers, and more times than not, I was rambling the same thoughts he was thinking. Mark offered me the job and Macmillan paid for me to go back to school since I barely knew photoshop and had never used indesign in my life (90% of my job was laying books out using that program). That learning curve in that first month of work nearly killed me, but somehow I made it through four months of not knowing how to even open files and night school.

I’ve always been a cover dork and an absolute book nerd, collecting books constantly to the point the one used book store near where I grew up got in the habit of just giving me a cardboard box when I came in. They let me fill it with whatever I’d like and only pay $5 for the entire thing. I’d buy anything, especially if I loved the cover and my favorite type of cover will always be “A Bad One.” If it was campy or overly dramatic, the photo-realistic boxed in oil painting covers of the 80’s, the kitchy pulp covers of the 50’s, the ones with photographs that seemed to have nothing to do with the story, I loved it. I think you can learn so much about design by looking at what doesn’t work. Horribly overdone art with boring fonts just plopped down on top. Covers with so much text they may as well be an inside out novel. If you saw my bookshelves at home you’d probably think I had the worst taste in the world!

TCG: I’m sure they’d be pretty entertaining to browse through! =)

Two of your YA covers, Brain Camp and Anya’s Ghost, definitely caught my eye on your site. Were you able to read the novels before working on the covers? Did the publishing companies give you an idea and you ran with it? What kind of parameters did you have to work in?

CAFV: I’m a firm believer that there’s no way you can do a cover justice if you haven’t read the book. I actually have a two read rule, since it’s nearly impossible for me to read something the first time and think about it from a critical design standpoint, especially if the story is good, which was the case with both of those. The great thing about working on graphic novels is that I have an awesome cover artist right from the spot. After I feel comfortable with the story I have a nice chat with the artist about the audience for the book, and the major themes.


For instance with Vera Brosgol’s ANYA’S GHOST we wanted to have something contemporary, iconic, a little creepy, but not lose what makes Anya so great: her snarky teen exterior. I then have the artist do a handful of 30-second thumbnail sketches, encouraging them to do a batch, walk away for a bit, and then sit down again and draw at least two more.

If you count of the number of thumbnails we did for those two books it is over 40. Thumbnails are the most important stage. Without an awesome thumbnail, one that works even if seen at a single inch tall, your cover will never really shine. We then go to pencils and I obsess in that stage a bit more, eyes need to be exactly right (the thing that draws viewers in the quickest), proportions need to be perfect, space for logo should feel deliberate, not an afterthought. It can take months before we go from perfect thumbnail, to perfect pencil.

Come to think of it, it’s really quite amazing any of my artists haven’t murdered me yet! Probably because by the time we get to the end they are crazy proud of where their hard work has gotten them.

BRAIN CAMP thumbnails

The great thing about being a one-person design department and one with 8 years of being in the marketing department is that a) I get to try pretty much whatever I want and b) my brain still works like a marketing person so it’s incredibly rare that any of my covers get completely shot down during my bi-weekly cover meetings…though there WAS the time I tried to convince them to let me do a wordless cover for DAWN LAND by Will Davis and Joseph Bruchac. Could you imagine how striking that could have been with just that watercolor?! I’m still really happy with how it turned out but one of these days: Wordless Cover! Mark my pixelated words!

TCG: If you ever get a Wordless Cover designed you must let me know ASAP! I will pimp that cover art on the blog and I don’t even care what genre it is because = WORDLESS COVER. WHAT.

I love the spot gloss on Brain Camp. (See it in action here) Did you set out to design the cover art with spot gloss in mind? For those who don’t know, what’s the process like when it comes to texture in print production?

CAFV: I often wind up trying for a “special effect” of some kind when we do the book budgets, be it spot gloss, or matte finish, or foil, or textured watercolor paper, or *wrings hands manically* EMBOSSING/DEBOSSING AT THE SAME TIME! (Am still so excited I got to do that for ANYA’S GHOST. Thank you Neil Gaiman quote, which was the final persuading factor I needed to get the extra budget money). I’m not a big fan of pure gloss covers, and I love adding a bit of visual and textural contrast to a cover. BRAIN CAMP was designed without spot gloss in mind, but the artist, Faith Erin Hicks, and I worked hard to make those eyes as creepy as possible. Even the eyes of the owls on the kids’ shirts are all pointed towards our terrified main characters.

Look! The owl eyes! They move!

I had gotten a book from production that showed different grades of spot gloss, all were on the same cute dog looking with huge eyes exaggerated with a fisheye lens. Most examples had the dog entirely spot glossed but there was one page where they only put the gloss on the dogs’ eyes…and suddenly this super cute puppy looked like all it wanted to do was murder me in my sleep! I got the idea from that. It also gave me a great chance to work in an earlier sketch I had loved of Faith’s, her bird claw, but to make it more subtle, mysterious, and symbolic, by just being seen when you turn the book in a certain light.

To create textures in print I have an amazing production department that works with me. Our production-guru Alexa Villanueva saves my butt on a nearly daily basis when I measure templates for covers…um…creatively. (Shhh don’t tell my math teacher Mom!) For spot gloss, I just make a separate layer in indesign, often crazy hot pink so it’s not mistaken for a cover element that shows were I want the gloss to be.

Alexa works with the printers to see if effects are possible and gets me test proofs to see if my imagination and reality match up. That said there are also many days I’m a lot lazier since all I REALLY have to do is just circle things on a printout that I want in foil or spot gloss or embossed and say things like “Make it Shiny!” and the printer will do the layer for me. Those days I feel like a princess and wear a tiara. Or you know…just have more time to work on other things. In a tiara.

TCG: How would you describe your particular type of artistry?

CAFV: I like iconic covers, ones that stop your heart a little even if you see it as a tiny thumbnail on a website, or way across a bookstore, or even if you just see the spine. I want to make spines that knock socks off! I tend to create less jumbled covers, bold lines, and strong colors with limited palettes. I adore handmade logos, and it takes a lot to convince me to use a font.

TCG: List three of your favorite pieces you’ve done so far, whether they’re photography, design, or illustration. (They don’t have to be YA.)

CAFV: I’m really proud of the cover for the upcoming AMERICUS by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill. This cover wins for highest number of thumbnails and pencil tweaks of any I’ve ever done. Jonathan Hill did one hell of a job with the illustration, which we meshed with photographs of crumpled paper, subtle coloring, and text written by MK Reed from the fictional book-within-a-book that’s being banned in the story. It’s a Fall 2011 book, so I have a while to wait to see it on a shelf, but I think it’s going to look pretty amazing.

The cover for FEYNMAN by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick came to me as a simple line art sketch of Richard Feynman that had so much personality even in its barest form. I won’t say how many color combinations I worked up, though I did spend weeks on variations, finally settling on an unrealistic bold palette, making Feynman look like a force of nature, an explosion of thought. I’m really proud of this one, and I might note that cover quote is the best quote I’ve ever gotten to layout (the inside flap revealed the speaker: Feynman’s Mom!).

Maybe I’m just a sentimental dork since it was the first cover I ever designed, but I can’t help but look at the cover for CAT BURGLAR BLACK by Richard Sala without a big dumb smile on my face. His watercolor ink style and geometric lighting gave me so much to work with and Lemony Snicket’s ridiculously long cover quote gave me so much headache…a design challenge and a half, though I do love the way it turned out. As a present the rest of the :01 staff bought me the original art for this cover, which I have proudly hanging on my wall.

TCG: Who are your artistic influences?

CAFV: Ellen Raskin is my absolute idol. A brilliant storyteller as well as a brilliant designer. She was even the genius behind the original (and BEST) cover of A WRINKLE IN TIME:

Not to mention the “sticker shaped” fireworks she casually designed into what she believed was the best thing she had ever written, THE WESTING GAME, a book I’ve read at least a dozen times. One of my life goals is to own a signed first edition of that book, though things like rent and food keep getting in the way.

Paul Rand, he was the master of iconic images. Simple, yet so thoughtful. His covers are like poems—there’s not a single line or spot of color wasted. Everything has its purpose, even the negative space.

While I’m sure I won’t hear the end of it, I have to say the best designer currently working in kid’s publishing: Chad Beckerman. He’s a good friend and the art director at Abrams. He’s most known for The Wimpy Kid cover (holy moly does the spot gloss on those little bits of tape make me so happy!), but pretty much everything I’ve seen of his has left me inspired. Chad also gets points since those few months where I was cursing loudly at my mac trying to learn how to make the images in my mind show up on my screen, he was the person I went to for technical help.

TCG: What type of qualities in a book cover (young adult or any other kind) would make you want to pick it up?

CAFV: Well, other than “a really, really horrible bad cover from last century that I can buy for under $1,” the covers I’m most drawn to are often ones that use a lot of negative space to push and pull your emotions, drawing you into one central image. As I mentioned before, I’m such a sucker for books with hand-lettered titles, ones that you can imagine the artist and the designer’s hands. If I can look at a cover and list all of the photoshop filters used in less than 10 seconds, you can be sure I’m not going to buy that book.

TCG: Are there any recent stop-and-stare YA covers that you’ve noticed lately?

CAFV: Nova Ren Suma’s IMAGINARY GIRLS cover


ZOMBIES VS. UNICORNS, edited by Holly black and Justine Larbalestier: A fake die cut with the most incredible case art! Internet pictures do it no justice at all.


HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT by Natalie Standiford


SISTERS RED by Jackson Pearce

Thanks so much for the interview, Colleen! If you want to see more behind-the-scenes on the design work for Brain Camp’s cover, she also wrote a post for MacKids here. And as “that one person who runs the entire art department” at First Second Books, for all that talent I believe she deserves one million dollars and lots of chocolate and cupcakes. (I’d say a tiara too, but apparently she’s already got one of those)

So, whaddya think? That’s a lot of interview artwork eye candy, no? Such wonderful talent, Colleen!

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11 thoughts on “artist abbreviated: colleen af venable

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  3. It’s the creepy eyes from the kids in the background of Brain Camp that pulled me in! Seriously. How much emotion are JUST in those eyes?! Craaaaazy! & Colleen – I must know where this neighborhood bookstore is! $5 for a box of books??!! I need to make friends with bookshop owners like that!

    Great interview, C 🙂

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