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Artist Conversations, Vol. 1

Tom Kidd

We are so excited to be kicking off this new interview series with renowned fantasy and science fiction artist Tom Kidd, whose vivid imagination has brought countless fantastical worlds to life on the page. With a career spanning decades, Tom has captivated audiences with his unique blend of realism and fantastical elements, creating iconic illustrations that are featured in some of our favorite books. More recently he has put his mark on a host of particularly wonderful small press productions including The Last Unicorn from Suntup Editions, Books of Babel from Subterranean Press, Elric and Fafhrd books from Centipede, and is currently working on an unannounced title from Conversation Tree Press. We appreciate his graciousness and generosity to fit us into his busy schedule and think you will enjoy this conversation as we delve into Tom's path to becoming a fulltime illustrator, his creative process, and wonderful humor!

Q: One of your first jobs as an artist was coloring comics for hourly pay for Gold Key Comics. After a short time doing this, you then ventured into the realm of illustrating covers. Tell us about the progression of your early career and a few moments that were pivotal to your growth as an artist, how did it evolve over time?


I’d come to NYC to look for work. At first, it seemed to be going well with a lot of encouragement from art directors but little work. I’d done one book cover for Berkley Books, some work for Starlog Magazine, some Christian romance covers—and to balance that out—a few pen & inks for Screw Magazine. You want chaste young women depicted? You’d like scenes of Lilliputian sex? I can work at both ends of the moral spectrum.

At one point, I became desperate to pay my rent and eat, I asked for anything from my most hopeful contacts. Frank Taggart at Gold Key gave me a job coloring comics. It was a good deal, but I was a foolish youngster. Three weeks into the job, I was offered a book cover from DAW Books, so I quit. Frank, being the kind soul he was, didn’t take offense and assigned me comic covers from time to time. I’m eternally grateful to him.

This doesn’t say much about my process or evolution, but I’d learned I didn’t like being a starving artist. Yet, I was fully dedicated to being an illustrator. Freelancing is tough. I don’t recommend it if you have nothing to fall back on. Luck was my only cushion. And boy was I lucky!


Q: It was an industry standard, in the early days of illustrating, for studios to require retention of the original artwork for themselves, not allowing artists to maintain possession or sell their own work, something that is less common today. What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the industry over your four decades of work and in what ways do you think it has become more or less amendable to the success of the individual artist?


Actually, it was illustrator rights pioneers like Vincent DiFate who paved the way for artists to retain their originals. I got to keep my work, and I took it to sell at conventions. By the time I was doing book covers there were only a small number of companies that kept the art.


Things seemed wilder in the old days, more a time of experimentation. Crowdfunding fills that gap to some degree, but a great deal of creative people need the shepherding only a forbearing publisher can provide. I’d like to see them take more chances.


Cover Art for Stonefather from Subterranean Press

Q: Most people who are familiar with science fiction and fantasy illustrations will recognize your artwork immediately due to your distinctive style. How did you develop your personal style and how would you describe it to someone who has never seen your artwork?


I have a style?—I’m not even sure I have a personality. Okay, that’s a bit of a joke, but I don’t think in terms of style. My approach is to tell a story well, to invite the viewer in, and to have some fun with the paint that I hope others will appreciate. There’s a special beauty to what each medium can do. As I work, I’d be a fool not to let the paint show off its loveliest qualities. You could, if you liked hackneyed phrases, say, my style is to go with the flow.

 Q: You have been commissioned for projects ranging from large runs by major publishers like War of the Worlds and The Three Musketeers by HarperCollins, down to small/fine press releases like Books of Babel by Subterranean Press. Does your approach change at all depending on the size of the publisher or do you feel like your process is consistent across your work? What do you find enjoyable about your forays into the small/fine press world?


They are basically the same to me. My favorite thing about small presses is they are a little more open to different ideas. Subterranean, Centipede, Suntup, Conversation Tree, and Curious King are all quality publishers working to make beautiful books. I’ve just started a project with Dave Stevenson over at Random House, but because I know the people involved, it feels like a small press, like home.


Q: Many our readers will be familiar with your work on Books of Babel by Josiah Bancroft and personally it is one of my favorite sets of covers that Subterranean Press has ever released. How did the concept of those covers evolve and how did you come to decide to make them one continuous vertical design from book to book? Did you complete all these at once or separately?


This is exactly what’s great about small publishers. I can’t say that all my ideas are accepted, but Bill Schafer, the publisher at Subterranean, is kind enough to listen. It’s scary when people go with my crazy suggestions, though. Then I have to make them work. It was impossible to do all the Babel covers at once because all the books hadn’t been written. I bought four exactly sized 24X36” cradled panels for this project. As I painted, I stacked the second painting atop the first and painted about three or four inches up the second panel. I repeated this process through all four panels. In effect, I was “Tom Kidd Ascends” as I painted my way up. The paintings now reside together in a collector’s house in Texas.

Cover art for Books of Babel series from Subterranean Press

 I’d like to add that working with Bill and Josiah was great. They are both true gentlemen. And Josiah’s writing is exquisite. I still read passages from his books and marvel at his mastery.


Q: Those books are some of my favorites and the Subterranean Press version is something truly special with your artwork included. What is your favorite project you have ever worked on? What was particularly enjoyable about that project and do you look for these aspects in your future commissions?


Am I allowed to include failed projects? If I am, it’s my own novel: Gnemo: Airships, Adventure, Exploration. The main reason it’s my favorite is that my author side forced my artist side to stretch his imagination. I wrote scenes that I had no idea how to paint. Often, I painted ahead of writing and had to come up with reasoning to fit my art. Each side of my brain challenged the other to outdo itself.

Cover art from War of the Worlds

Sadly, Tundra, the publisher of Gnemo, went out of business. I admit to being spoiled by them. Their contract was very fair—it even had a big budget for advertising—and no one has offered me as nice a deal for the book since. I still continue to work on it, and it’s near completion. Had Suntup Editions not offered me The Last Unicorn to illustrate (what fantasy illustrator would turn that plumb job down?), and the book I’m working on for Conversation Tree, I’d have Gnemo fully done, even the design work. I’d now be perfecting the details, and doing the final editing and polishing of my prose.


Other than that, my favorites are a toss-up between The War of the Worlds, The Dying Earth, the Books of Babel, and The Last Unicorn.


Doing it all is most enjoyable for me, so I have to include my book Kiddography: The Art and Life of Tom Kidd because I designed and wrote it. The thing I enjoy most is hearing people laugh when they read it. What other monograph of an artist’s paintings makes a person chuckle?


Q: How do you go about approaching a new project you are commissioned for? What mediums are you using and what are you thinking about as you begin to try and extract the ideas from your mind and onto the page?


Extract? So, you know about the giant vice I use to squeeze out my creative juices? Almost all my finished work is oil paintings. I love watercolors and pen & ink but do them less. Lately, I’ve employed my iPad for preliminary sketches, and I use an app called Procreate.


The trick to coming up with interesting ideas is to scribble anything that comes to mind. There’s immense power to pencil and paper. The potential is literally limitless. You can make anything with those humble tools. What you draw when coming up with ideas doesn’t have to be important to the story, and often it’s best to start with something insignificant. Then you expand outward until you find your main thrust.


Cover art from The Last Unicorn from Suntup Editions

Most of what I do is book covers. Here’s something I wrote when I was in the thick of that:


Book covers, book covers, book covers, I’ve done hundreds of them. The most common question I get about doing book covers is, "Do you read the books first?"  I do. Although there are a few exceptions, such as when the book isn't written yet.


After reading a manuscript (which I've marked passages in and taken notes from) I like to run the images through my mind while asking myself a few questions: What is the mood of the book; what's the most important aspect of the book; what appealed to me most? I then take the answers to these questions and incorporate them into one still picture, that with one glance, is the book.  Expressing some 200 to 500 pages into one small picture should be approached like a form of poetry. Keep it simple but speak volumes. That doesn't mean you can't be subtle or include a few things that the reader wouldn't understand till the book is read.  I love hearing from people who notice the little things in my work.


Illustrating books is a little different. Covers represent the whole, illustrations are scenes either in the book or things that had to happen in the story. For short stories, it’s often fun to do a more metaphorical piece, something to augment the idea behind the tale. For example: if someone is being fleeced, I might represent him as sheep-like.

Cover art from Dark Crusade from Centipede Press

Q: You do not only illustrate for publications but are also a prolific designer. Your work has been seen in theme parks, games, galleries, and museums over the years. How did you start getting involved in this work and what have been some of your most interesting projects in this space?


I haven’t done much of that lately. All of that work came in when people first saw my Gnemo paintings. They liked the feel of them and wanted that in their projects. I’ll have to create something else no one has imagined before to get that level of attention again.


Working for Disney on Treasure Planet was fantastic because my job was to come up with innovative ideas. Everyone working on the movie was phenomenally creative. I was a very small cog in a planet-sized wheel, but they made me feel important. Some of my art for the movie is in the making-of book Treasure Planet: Voyage of Discovery. A lot of people tell me they loved the movie, but it wasn’t a box office success.


Q: Being a freelance illustrator is a unique job and I think it is hard for non-artists to imagine what that lifestyle would entail. Images of isolated cabins in the woods or high-rise studios overlooking the city come to mind as one imagines the idyllic creative space. What does your day-to-day rhythm look like? Do looming deadlines tend to give you more creative pressure or does it tend to stifle the space needed for your artistic expression?

It’s good to plan each day the day before and stick to it. But it’s often a case of keeping a dozen plates spinning, as one begins to wobble, you run to give it attention. Also, money comes in unevenly for a freelancer, but bills come in regularly. It’s good to stay on top of your finances.


Cover art from Masters of the Weird Tale: Fritz Lieber from Centipede Press

I’d likely have done only a dozen paintings in my life if I didn’t have deadlines. There’s always room for improvement in a painting so it makes it hard to stop working on them. I do a lot of writing. On my computer are three completed but not perfected novels, a few incomplete novels, and several dozen short stories, maybe more than a hundred. One story I have, Cruel Cash, relates here. It's an urban fantasy about a young illustrator trying to make his way against terrifying odds. He can stay afloat only by accepting an awful solution. The story speaks to the freelancer life and its horrors. Anyway, I’d planned to submit the story to a magazine weeks ago, but I keep putting it off, trying to make it better. Writing is hard work.


Q: Well, I truly do hope we get to see that published someday! You already mentioned Kiddography, a book of your life’s work up to that point, released in 2005. Also, in 2010, OtherWorlds informed artists of your methods and inspiration, as it let people look a little bit more into your creative process. Can you tell us a little more about these projects? Were these surreal moments for you and would you have ever imagined that you would be involved with publishing projects that memorialized your work like this when you first started out?


Here’s the thing about Kiddography: I want to do another one and do it the same way which is to be the author, artist, and designer. Only it would be better written and funnier than the previous book. It might even have new art people like.


OtherWorlds differs because it was a team effort. The editors had their own way of making their books, and it was hard to fit me into that mold. Still, overall, I’m pleased with it. The design is fantastic. I liked doing the step-by-steps, but that’s a difficult way to learn to paint. To me, they serve a purpose, but it’s better to understand larger concepts. I was told to leave that out of the book, but I snuck some in anyway. Another how-to book that has my words and pictures is Fantastic Dragons and How to Draw Them. It’s not my title, but I like it. 


Q: With more than four decades of experience under your belt, you have seen countless illustrators build their careers. What would be a few pieces of advice you would give to someone who was just starting out as an illustrator? What do you think gives an artist staying power over their entire career?


Know that true success as an illustrator is looking back on your art and feeling some pride in it, so always work on your craft. Get your work seen as much as you can where it’s free to exhibit, and show it in all the other places you can afford. Know that very hard work won’t necessarily be paid off with great financial success. Luck is a big component in any endeavor where you’re the only driving force behind it. That isn’t so much a discouragement but knowing that probability can’t be ignored will work to your favor. Here’s one of my favorite quotes on the subject from a famous mathematician: ". . . successful people in every field are almost universally members of a certain set — the set of people who don't give up.” — Leonard Mlodinow


An opposing view might be: If at first you don’t succeed—do not take up skydiving.


Q: If you could pick any piece of literature to illustrate that you think would fit well with your style, what would that be? Why?


Even though I can think of several, I’m afraid to ask for something specific. It seems unfair to ask anything of the universe right now—maybe just a few more years of viability please. Oh, something humorous to illustrate would be nice.


Red Dragon Escort Painting

Q: We know you are working on a few projects like the Wolfe Anthology for Subterranean Press and a yet to be announced title for Conversation Tree Press, but are there any other projects you can tell us about that are coming soon? Are there any personal or commissioned projects you can talk about in their earlier stages?


I’m working on several things. Mums the word. It’s contractual. Sorry.


Thanks for the questions and the opportunity to talk about my art. I look forward to showing people my new work when the gods of publishing allow it.

This interview was done in a series of communications back and forth and we want to thank Tom for his willingness to be a part of this series. If you want to see a selection of Tom's past art, you can check out his portfolio at For updates on current projects check him out on Facebook to stay up to date with what he is working on.

Interview by: Zach Harney of the Collectible Book Vault


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The winners of the giveaway are:

  1. Kevin Jordan

  2. @timetoreadwithrob

Thank you everyone who entered and read the interview, there are many more artists lined up for this series and we are really excited about how it is coming together. Stay tuned, as always, the next release is only a couple weeks away!


His artwork and style is amazing, i like it!


I always keep forgetting to enter these giveaways, but I remembered this time!


Stuart Ng
Stuart Ng
Mar 08

Great interview with Tom! So down to earth! "Go with the flow". Love it!


Certainly enjoyed reading the interview Tom and Zach.

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