Sean O’Connell is a graphic artist and illustrator currently based out of Louisiana who is best known for his cover illustrations of the Frank Herbert Dune series.
IZ Digital spoke to Sean about his work on the Dune covers, his workflow and inspiration, and the science fiction he loves.
The UK edition of Sands of Dune (Gollancz, 2022) with cover art by Sean is available from 30 June wherever books are sold.
IZ Digital: How did you start out as an illustrator?
Sean O’Connell: I’ve been drawn to art, illustration, and design all my life. If you asked me what I wanted to be when I was a kid I would say ‘an artist like Michelangelo’. There were a few children’s books that I would sit and look at the illustrations for hours. When I went to college for design I loved the illustration classes most. I felt like I learned the most them. Much more than from any traditional art or drawing class I had taken before. It helps that the teacher for my program was excellent and really loved what I did. After graduating in 2010 I did the first Dune cover as a personal exercise to keep my skills sharp. It got kinda popular on DeviantArt and then Hodder asked if they could license the use of it and then my illustration opportunities grew from there. I make my full time living as a salaried graphic artist. Illustration is just one of the tools in my bag.
IZD: Who would you cite as major influences and inspirations?
SO: The illustrators of children’s books I read, whose names I’d have to research. Also the Renaissance masters and on from there. Caravaggio for his use of chiaroscuro and posing. I love the romantic painters of the later 1800s. And then onto the illustrators and designers of the first half of the 20th century. I tend to absorb it all and look at many things for inspiration. I follow many Tumbr blogs that curate sci-fi and pulp covers.
IZD: Thinking about book covers specifically, which styles appeal to you?
SO: I like covers that catch the eye. Covers that draw you in and want to find out what in the words on those pages lead to the image on the cover.
IZD: How do you approach a new project? What are your first steps?
SO: I start with lots of research. Some might say too much. I’ll spend hours referencing the material and looking poses that are dynamic. For landscape settings that invoke the mood. I then start with pencil sketches to explore composition.
IZD: Which tools do you use at each stage of your process?
SO: I always start with pencil and paper. I’ve never been able to get the hang of drawing on a tablet right off the bat. After that I scan the drawings and start playing around with color and refined shapes in illustrator and photoshop
IZD: There is beautiful economy of form and colour in your Dune covers. Your Dune Messiah cover is particularly striking. How did you approach that project?
SO: I started with Dune Messiah by reading it again. The client did have a rough idea in the design brief of what they wanted to see in the cover. I looked at a lot of comic book covers and panels for that one looking for inspiration of a power figure. I then came up with that god shot pose of Paul glancing back over to the viewer, but not breaking his stride because he has much more important things to do that even even consider what he’s seeing. I felt it made you want to follow him past the cover and into the pages.
IZD: Which of the Dune covers did you find most challenging to create?
SO: I think God Emperor of Dune was the most challenging for me. Trying to come up with a concept for Leto II that would work in silhouette but still not be something that I’d seen before.
IZD: What science fiction, fantasy, or horror have you enjoyed recently? Are there any novels or films that you would like to recommend to IZ Digital readers?
SO: The sad thing about being so busy is that I rarely have time to sit down and consume much.
I did, of course, enjoy the new Dune movie. There is this one movie, I know it came out a few years ago, called Upgrade that I re-watched the other day that is excellent. I think the past fantasy thing I consumed was watching the second season of The Witcher. It’s a good watch and the games are definitely worth playing. For horror I consume most of that in podcast form. It’s probably how I absorb most things these days because I can listen while I work. The NoSleep podcast is one of my favorite things to listen to. I re-listen all the time and listen to new episodes as soon as they drop. Oh, if you listen to podcasts and you’re a Trekkie like I am, listen to The Improvised Star Trek. They wrapped up the show a couple years ago but there are plenty of episodes to consume and it’s funny as hell.
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