David Mattingly

Interview by Alyce Wilson

David Burroughs Mattingly is an American illustrator and painter, best known for his numerous book covers of science fiction and fantasy literature.

David began drawing and painting as a small child, influenced by comic books and a wide array of artists from Jim Steranko, to N.C. Wyeth, to Jackson Pollack. After high school, he attended the Colorado Institute of Art at Colorado State University and later transferred to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. After school, he worked at Walt Disney Studios, ultimately becoming head of the matte department. He worked on The Black Hole, Tron, Dick Tracy, Stephen King's The Stand and most recently I, Robot for Weta Digital in New Zealand.

David has produced over five hundred covers for most major publishers of science fiction and fantasy, including Baen Books, Bantam Books, DAW Books, Del Rey Books, Dell, Marvel Comics, Omni, Playboy, Signet, and Tor Books. For Scholastic Press, David painted 54 covers for K.A. Applegate's Animorphs series, along with the last five covers for the Everworld series. He illustrated the popular Honor Harrington series for author David Weber. Other clients include Michael Jackson, Lucasfilm, Universal Studios, Totco Oil, Galoob Toys, R/Greenberg Associates, Click 3X, and Spontaneous Combustion.

He was the keynote guest artist at Philcon 2005, an annual science fiction convention held in Philadelphia. That's where this interview took place.

You mentioned during your presentation yesterday that you often work images of a beloved cat, Orson, into your work. Why the tribute to Orson? Why is that important to you?

This cat was really important to me. I felt horrible after she died. And it was sort of a way to continue her life by keeping her image alive in my work. And I've just kept going on, and actually, kids have gotten interested in it. And kids sometimes e-mail me, especially during the Animorphs series, where it's a little more visible. Kids after every cover would come out and would say, "I spotted Orson."

And Scholastic asked me not to do it anymore. They have a stricture against hidden imagery in the covers, so I had to go much, much more underground in search of Orson.

How far does this go back, in terms of your work? How long have you been doing this?

Orson died about 14 years ago, so it's a long time.

But my household always has cats. It's a funny fact of my life, that I don't think there's ever been more than about a month period of my life that I haven't had a cat.

Compared to your work with matte painting, where you get strict orders from the studio, how does the process work for cover art?

Cover art, you have a lot more freedom. Science fiction has had a long tradition of not really art directing the artists a lot. Other categories of art, book covers, do. For instance, most romance artists don't read the books. They aregenerally given a cover stack. It says "An 18th century peasant man, and he's hugging a woman in a long dress" or such and such. So the details are not worked out through the manuscript.

Science fiction, partially because they were not such an important part of the company's line, they would generally just give the artist a manuscript, and then you'll do some sketches and then they'll improve on the sketches.

A lot of it has to do with how much they paid for the book. For instance, if they bought the new Michael Crichton book or something, they'll put all of the people in the company, all of their heads together to cover conference it. And so the illustrator will really have very little control over what the image will be. But I mean, there are instances where they've paid a lot of money for a book, where I think they then just hire a more expensive illustrator. Like you see Michael Whelan on a book cover, you know that the company has a lot of excitement about that book, because Michael's budgets are higher than most of the other artists working today.

And if you see a book with a cover by a first-time artist, a lot of time, that's an indication that it's a cover for a first-time author. And they didn't want to spend a lot of money on the book.

How does a first-time artist break into the business? How did it happen for you?

I was working at Walt Disney studios, and I just kept sending out slides. And I got a bite from Don Wollheim at DAW Books. And Don for many, many years had the reputation for giving people their first covers. He actually gave the first covers to Michael Whelan. He's one of the best thought-of illustrators working today. His work is really amazing. But Michael got his start with him. I did.

And then I was always sending slides whenever I would do 12 new paintings. I'd send out a cover letter and send them to the art directors, and slowly art directors would sort of come to recognize my packages when they came in and take a look at what I'd done.

For many years, I'd wanted to work for Del Rey Books, which I considered to be sort of the top of science fiction. And at that time, they really were the prestige house. So I kept sending samples to this famous editor, Judy-Lynn Del Rey. And I then decided I was going to take a trip to New York, and I wrote her a letter, and I said, "Judy, I'm coming to New York specifically to see you."

And so she called me, and she said, "David, if you're coming to New York specifically to see me, you're wasting your time. We're not going to give you any work."

And I said, "Judy, you've just got to give me five minutes."

So she did give me five minutes, and then she pulled out a manuscript right while I was sitting there, and said, "You've been so persistent, we've decided to give you your shot." So that was one of the most satisfying moments of my professional career.