Shelf Candy (plus Giveaway!) – Interview with Cliff Nielsen, cover artist for Royal Street

July 1, 2012 General, Giveaways, Interviews, Shelf Candy 54


Shelf Candy is a weekly meme hosted by the lovely Five Alarm Books.  This meme gives us an opportunity to highlight a cover we love and the artist who created it.  Please click the button above to find out how to participate and to see what other covers are being discussed this week.



This week’s Shelf Candy is Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson

Cover Art by

Cliff Nielsen





The layers.  I love the layers.  You have to look close to really take it all in – the light, the street scene, the model, the water damage…and I love that touch.  A subtle reminder of the tragedy that struck New Orleans when Katrina hit and which plays a large role in the story itself.  I also appreciate the choice of model.  Her look is intense and when reading the book, I easily pictured her as DJ.  

Without further ado, the artist Cliff Nielsen!


About the Artist:

Cliff Nielsen is a graduate of the Art Center College of Design in California.  He has created covers for such writers as Cassandra Clare, Faith Hunter, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Isabel Allende just to name a few.  Nielsen’s work has been recognized by the Society of Illustrators, Computer Arts Magazine, Print, and Spectrum.  He lives in Los Angeles, California.





SWR:  Describe the moment you realized you wanted to make art your life and profession. And what were some of the major influences that put you on this path?

I think I always loved drawing. My first mural was a picture of pioneer wagons. It was an uncommisioned work on my sister Nina’s wall, created using her own mascara… a very personal touch don’t you think? It was a controversial exhibition certainly not fully appreciated by the public for which it was intended. 
I think I really caught the bug for books and the cover illustration when I was in 7th grade Spanish class. My friend and I were reading Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars series instead of doing our homework. Those visionary covers were created by the astonishingly talented Frank Frazetta. He blew my mind then, and still does today. I’ve been hooked ever since.
I owe much of the practical aspects of my career to my early teacher and mentor, Leon Parson. He’s an incredible wildlife artist, and was a great example of someone who was making a living while pursuing one’s artistic endeavors. He set my feet on the path. 

               Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
SWR:  How did you get involved with creating cover art?
After finishing my Bachelor’s degree at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena California, I created a unique portfolio to showcase my work, bought a ticket to NYC and literally sprained both ankles schlepping my work around to any publishing house that would look at it. Luckily there were some brave art directors who gave me a chance to prove myself. Shortly thereafter my career was cultivated by the best agent in publishing, Tammy Shannon. She has represented me ever since, and has been one of my staunchest supporters, and I owe much of my success to her guidance and friendship. 
                                            Skinwalker by Faith Hunter 
SWR:  How would you describe your style?
My work is created digitally but I hope that doesn’t describe the totality of what people see or feel when they look at my work. Hopefully it’s very personal and unique to me as an individual. It’s a conglomeration of everything that pleases my sense of aesthetics. Those elements get mixed inside my mind and reiterated back out through my hands. Does that make it “Cliff Nielsen-ish?” Either way that’s not a very catchy sounding style.
SWR:  What is your preferred medium and why?
Nothing is more satisfying than the process of image making, and I enjoy exploring the possibilities that a variety of different mediums have to offer. I’ve studied all the traditional mediums under some great illustrators, artists, and teachers and have taught myself many other disciplines of art through personal practice and professional osmosis. I attempt to recombine the best of what I’ve learned and experimented with into something new.
My preferred medium is digital. 
Obviously it’s what I work in and enjoy most because of the ease in which I can combine any of the traditional mediums; Acrylics, Oils, Goache, Watercolors, photography not to mention digital painting, computer generated 3D images, found objects and typography to hopefully create new combinations of visual surprises. Some of my most useful digital tools are Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, Corel Painter, Zbrush, Vue, Maya, Poser, Brushes, and Auryn Ink on the IPad… and anything else that looks like fun to play with.
SWR:  What are other covers you’ve worked on that readers might be familiar with?
I’ve worked on a lot of stand alone book covers I’m proud of, but readers are probably more familiar with the series work I’ve done. Things like the Mortal Instruments and Infernal Devices series, the Wrinkle in Time series, The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Files, etc.
SWR:  How did you get involved with the cover art for Royal Street?
I’ve been very lucky to work with some of the greatest art directors in the business, and Irene Gallo, at the helm of Tor Books Art Department, is without argument the most influential AD in the industry. When she calls and asks if I’m available to work on a project, I always say yes. I trust her because she has such a great vision for alloying writer’s prose and artist’s craft. I end up doing some of my best work for her for that very reason.
SWR:  Had you read the manuscript prior to creating the art, and, if not, what kind of direction did you get from the art department on the first cover?
Being a good reader is one of the secret weapons of the aspiring book illustrator. Unfortunately deadlines don’t always permit me to read an entire manuscript before the preliminary sketches are due for editorial review, but I do my best to make it happen. Occasionally, the AD will send an outline or a brief of the story with character descriptions and bookmarks to specific scenes in the story that might suggest a nice visual moment for the cover image. Sometimes it’s as little as a single sentence or just a “big idea”. I love reading the manuscripts from cover to cover most of all. Of course I’m not having any fun doing it… it’s research!
SWR:  What I love about the cover are the layers and the light.  How did you create those details and, I could be wrong, but is there a layer of water damage faintly showing through?
The concept of “supernatural magic” can be both powerful and enlightening, and I tried to capture those qualities with bold ray shapes and swirling eddies of potently colored light. 
Something that I’ve been known for as an illustrator is creating discoverable “easter eggs” in my art for the viewer who has time to spend delving into the image. For those fans the layer of water damage is more than just a pretty texture that adds visual interest. I’m always looking for a way to hammer home the concepts of the story.
SWR:  What was the one thing about the character of Drusilla Jaco, or the magical world of New Orleans and Royal Street, that you thought was key to conveying through the cover art?
I photographed a talented young actress here in Los Angeles by the name of Emily Arnett for the character of Drusilla Jaco. She brought the good stuff, and I made sure I was in the right frame of mind to capture her pluckiness.
Also, New Orleans is one of my favorite places in the world. I was there just before Katrina, and nearly wore out my camera taking photos of that beautiful city. I don’t think my love for Louisiana translates as well on Royal Street as it does on River Road, but I try.
SWR:  Where do you find your inspiration?
Absolutely everywhere. I’m always on the prowl to find something that excites my eyes, and the camera is just as important as a sketchbook at capturing those moments, whether it’s a beautiful building, the texture of a tree trunk or a crack in the sidewalk.
Film and music are also a big part of where I find inspiration, and although I rarely if ever go to live music events, I’m always trading music favorites with my students and acquaintances. It helps to keep my butt at my desk when the production schedule gets difficult. When I’m not at my desk, I’m probably watching a movie somewhere.
SWR:  What, if any, are covers you consider iconic or influential?
There are so many great illustrators, past and present, but for my money, almost anything that Frank Frazetta ever did was GOLD!
SWR:  If you were given the opportunity to create the cover for any published book, what would that book be and why?
I would love to have a crack at narrative versions for the covers of the Game of Thrones books. So much material there!
SWR:  Finally, what side projects, passion projects, or upcoming cover art would you like to share with us?
I’m working on quite a few covers right now. I can’t single one out to share. The other publishers wouldn’t like that AT ALL. I did recently start a TUMBLR account that features some of my unpublished works, mostly figure drawings and digital painting demonstrations. It’s been fun to show some behind the scenes stuff there. 
Cliff was nice enough to share this incredible image he made for his wife for Valentine’s Day this year.  This does not appear anywhere else yet so a special thanks to Cliff (and his wife) for sharing it with She-Wolf Reads!  
And for fun…the Pivot quiz!
What is your favorite word?
What is your least favorite word?
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Learning something new.
What turns you off?
What is your favorite curse word?
#&@%#^$ !!!
What sound or noise do you love?
A 383 stroker, uncorked.
What sound or noise do you hate?
Police sirens from behind me.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Film Maker
What profession would you not like to do?
 If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
#&@%#^$ !!!
Visit Cliff at his favorite spots:
And you can learn more about Royal Street and its author, Suzanne Johnson, at her favorite spots:
Now, I was such a fan of this book (read my review here) and this cover that I am going to give away a print copy of Royal Street so that you can admire both its fantastic art and its wonderful story.  
Take a chance and enter the giveaway below! 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

54 Responses to “Shelf Candy (plus Giveaway!) – Interview with Cliff Nielsen, cover artist for Royal Street”

  1. Felicia

    He does excellent work! I am always interested in learning about the person behind the graphics of the covers. I think they visually give me the first glimpse of the story and when done well can get me to buy the book based on that alone.

    • shewolfreads

      Felicia, I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been known to buy a book based on the cover. I love the art of it.

  2. Annie

    I loved Royal Street – both the cover and the book! My fav – that is hard. I think part of what draws me to Cliff’s art is the women are not perfect. They are beautiful, but not that “doll” or supermodel look. They are unique and fabulous and look so real! I do love the skinwalker covers…Jane is just so bad ass and it is captured perfectly!!!

    • shewolfreads

      Annie, you are right! I think that’s a great way to describe the model on Royal Street and Skinwalker – beautiful but not model like. They are real.

  3. nurmawati djuhawan

    i love SkIN WALKER..the gold colour is rich and beautiful…the woman in cover also beautiful..
    thx u so much ^^

  4. Roger Simmons

    Cliff, Liked the cover of Royal Street best. Liked the book River Road best. Will you be doing the cover of Elysian Fields? I have a cover flat of Royal Street signed by Suzanne [brown eyes].

    • Cliff Nielsen

      Hi Roger. Yes, I’m working on the sketch for Elysian Fields as we speak. It looks like Suzanne has another fantastic story to share.

  5. Rebe

    I’m torn between the Royal Street cover and the Skinwalker cover – they’re both outstanding!

  6. Filia Oktarina

    I love cover Royal Street. And all pics was very beautifull. But Royal Street was captive my eyes.

    • shewolfreads

      Thanks, Filia! I agree…the Royal Street cover is beautiful!

  7. Opal

    I think my favorite cover of his is The Clockwork Angel. What a great artist!

  8. bn100

    They all look great. I like the Clockwork Angel one.

    • shewolfreads

      Yes, the Clockwork Angel cover is one of my favorites, too!

  9. Sullivan McPig

    I don’t know from what cover the steampunk guy with the burning ribcage is, but I love that cover and must find out what book it is from.

  10. Teresa Warner

    The cover for Royal Street is awesome, love it!

    • shewolfreads

      And Jane Yellowrock is my favorite kickass heroine of all time. Skinwalker is a great book! Have your read it?

  11. Na

    I love these covers! There is so much detail and the images comes alive for me. It’s hard to choose a fav but I like Royal Street. I like that it has both a model and a vivid background.

    • shewolfreads

      Yes, the layers in the Royal Street cover are phenomenal!

  12. Maria Behar

    Hi, Lee!

    Hey, what a FANTASTIC post!!!! I love the cover of “Royal Street”!!! As for my favorite Nielsen cover, I would have to say that I LOVE all the Mortal Instruments covers he’s done. They’re all MIND–BLOWING!!

    I’ve entered this giveaway, and sure am hoping I win this book! Thanks for the great interview, as always!! Your Shelf Candy posts are the only ones to have interviews, and I think it’s great you decided to do them that way!! KUDOS TO YOU!!! 😀

    • shewolfreads

      Thanks, Maria! I always appreciate your comments! And you will love the book. It is a solid urban fantasy with a great heroine!

  13. sienny

    i like them all!! i really can’t choose one, cause they all equally gorgeous

    • shewolfreads

      It is hard to choose just one. Cliff’s work is awesome!

  14. FABR Steph

    I would have to say that my favorite cover is Royal Street, just because I wish that I could be a bad ass chick who could look so good while doing it.
    He is an amazing artist. His designs capture an amazing amount of light and looks so real.
    Thank you for sharing all of this great information. I did not realize that the same artist was responsible for all of this.

    • shewolfreads

      Steph, agreed! I keep finding new covers that I did not realize were Cliff’s! And they are incredible.

  15. Adriana Jovel

    Awesome covers. I love his work especially the Clockwork Prince.

    • shewolfreads

      I need to read the Cassandra Clare books. The covers Cliff did are spectacular!

      • Adriana Jovel

        Me too. They are all in my TBR pile for this summer!

  16. C. Lani

    I really love a book covers, sometimes i bought a book from the cover and the excerpts of course! and he did a great work. the royal street is cool

    • shewolfreads

      Covers are what always draw my attention! And Royal Street has a great cover and a great story!

  17. Teawench

    I loved this interview! It was nice to hear from someone other than the author. My favorite? I love the last pic with the tentacles and I love the cover for Skinwalker.

    • shewolfreads

      Isn’t that Valentine’s Day gift for this wife too cool?

    • shewolfreads

      I know! I am kicking myself for not including it in this post which seems obvious now. But it is a beautiful cover!

  18. Angy

    Favourite cover by Cliff…well I don’t know any of them by him except for Royal Street, so I guess its gotta to be Royal Street !

  19. amel armeliana

    Wow!! He did amazing jobs. Loved all the covers. But my favorite are clockwork angel and clockwork prince covers (well, since those books are my favorite series too *grin*). But it does amazing.
    Thank u for this awesome giveaway.

    • shewolfreads

      Gotta read those books now! I have not read anything in the Cassandra Clare series yet!

  20. fishgirl182

    another fantastic interview. i love cliff’s work. did you see the the tor twitter feed tweeted the link to this interview? i tried to rt it to you but it was too long. 🙁 great job!

    • shewolfreads

      Thanks, Thuy! I did not know Tor retweeted the link! Have you read Royal Street? Would love to know what you think of it!

  21. reading mind

    The cover of Royal Street is amazing but I have to say that skinwalker is really stunning”