Interview with Ken Laager, Artist and Illustrator

By Thomas Sweterlitsch

When the idea came up to interview a book cover artist for The Thrill Begins, we knew right away we wanted to talk with one of the brilliant artists doing work for Hard Case Crime.  Bursting onto the scene in 2004, Hard Case Crime’s distinctive covers are a throwback to the lurid, pulse-pounding pulp paperbacks of the ‘40s and ‘50s—and all feature original paintings commissioned by some of today’s top working artists. Mr. Ken Laager, whose first cover for Hard Case Crime was the alluring and dangerous The Murderer Vine by Shepard Rifkin, is one of their best. His covers also include Allan Collins’ The First Quarry, Donald E. Westlake’s The Cutie and Lawrence Block’s Catch and Release.

Laager studied with renowned artists Will Eisner, Jack Endewelt and Harvey Dinnerstein in his native New York before settling in rural Pennsylvania to study the work of Howard Pyle and the Brandywine illustrators of the Golden Age.  Laager has had a long and truly impressive career as a fine artist and commercial illustrator, working with corporate clients such as GUINNESS Ltd and HASBRO, magazines such as OUTDOOR LIFE and READER’S DIGEST, and cover illustrations for pulp crime, science fiction and fantasy titles. 

For The Thrill Begins, we asked Mr. Laager about his book cover work, his artistic process and influences.

I’m curious how you get a book cover commission…do you have an agent?

I had a terrific agent back in the 80s and 90s, but no longer.  With the nature of the business nowadays, it’s not practical.  Commission offers from both publishers and private patrons routinely arrive via email… prompted mainly by my reputation and Internet presence.  

How did you start working with Hard Case in particular?

The Hard Case Crime paperbacks made a terrific impression on me when I discovered the first handful of them on our library’s shelf.  As a traditional illustrator, I naturally wanted to get in on the fun!  

At the time the series was part of Dorchester Publishing, a company I’d furnished with a great deal of western cover art.  So, I phoned the art director — with whom I’d long enjoyed working — and he was pleased to recommend me to the series’ founder and editor Charles Ardai.  My first cover assignment The Murderer Vine followed a couple of weeks later.       

And, as a follow up, once you receive the commission, are you guided by editors, marketing or art departments, or do you have carte blanche?

Customarily, the illustrator works solely with an editor or art director.

Do you have the chance to read the manuscript, in part or full, or are you given a concept?

Reading the manuscript is indispensable!  It’s more than reading actually, a manuscript must be studied.   I read, reread and annotate mine, prospecting the text for dramatic possibilities and details – the fuel for an illustrator’s imagination.  Occasionally, a concept might be suggested, but never strictly insisted upon. 

I try to conceive a scene that dramatically suggests the whole story: main character(s), plot or conflict, setting, mood, etc.  In one instance, an author was so pleased with the concept I created that he revised his manuscript, writing my scene into the story. 

Do you ever work with authors directly?

Very rarely.  Though, Joe R. Lansdale, Max Allen Collins, Lawrence Block and Lewis Shiner have been gracious with their appreciation. 

So, after you’ve figured out a good cover scene or two what’s the next step in your process?

I’ll draw some quick thumbnail sketches — about 3″ by 2″ in size — to work-out the most effective way to compose the scene.  When I’m satisfied with a composition, I’ll prepare a more comprehensive pencil sketch.  This is submitted to the art director or editor for consideration.

Upon approval of my concept and composition, I’ll begin planning what models, costumes, props, setting, lighting etc. will be required to bring the scene to life.

Do you work with live models, or from photographs to capture the great degree of realism we see in your art?

As has long been standard practice for illustrators, I create reference photos to work from.  Great effort goes into transforming models into dramatic characters.  Offering direction and coaching my models helps them deliver convincing poses and expressions. 

How do you find your models?

For the most part, I rely on a handful of experienced friends — most of whom are artists, themselves.  Some moonlight as professional models.  Artists make the best models because they understand what’s needed to create good photo reference.  

Occasionally, I’ll approach a perfect stranger — who happens to have the character look I’m after — and ask if they’d be willing to model.  You can imagine what a dicey proposition that can be…

Do you dress them in your studio, have your own prop shop, or do these details come from your imagination?

I have a small costume and prop collection — essentials mostly, that I use again and again.  Local rental collections of costumes, props and arms can usually provide whatever items I may lack.  Illustrators get used to improvising what’s unobtainable… fabricating a prop or costume piece from odds & ends.

And, while imagination supplies dramatic vision, to paint something realistically you must have visual reference.  Background settings and other elements need to be photographed as well — vehicles or animals perhaps. Not long ago I hired an artist pal to sculpt me a damn fine looking dragon maquette in clay!

And, after that?

Once I have the reference I’ll need, a linen canvas or hardboard panel is prepared for painting — usually at a scale two to three times larger than the printed book cover.  Upon this I’ll make a precise drawing of my picture in graphite and charcoal, then stabilize the drawing so it can be painted over.

Careful consideration must be given the color palette I’ll use to maximize the picture’s drama and beauty.  When that’s accomplished, I’ll begin painting…

Execution time varies somewhat, but a book cover illustration usually takes me 3 to 4 weeks to complete.   

What artists have influenced your work? I would guess that N.C. Wyeth was one of them.

Yes, indeed.  My chief influences have been N.C. Wyeth and his mentor Howard Pyle, along with the rest of the Pyle school illustrators.  Many others including Tom Lovell, Hal Foster and Frank Frazetta also inspired me.

And, finally, what projects are you working on now?

At this time, I’m starting work on a large private commission project.  New paintings will be featured on my Facebook page to keep friends apprised of my progress. 

Thanks, Ken!

Here are some of Mr. Laager’s book covers for Hard Case Crime. And be sure to visit his website, to see more examples of his artwork, check out his blog, and find contact information.

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THOMAS SWETERLITSCH lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and daughter. He has a Master’s Degree in Literary and Cultural Theory from Carnegie Mellon University. He worked for twelve years at the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Tomorrow and Tomorrow was his first novel, and he is currently at work on his second.

To learn more about Tomorrow and Tomorrow, click on the cover below.