Illustrating Retroland: A Q+A with Nathan Burton

What does it take to illustrate a cover for a book about books?

We caught up with Nathan Burton, the illustrator of Retroland, to find out!

Retroland by Peter Kemp (chief fiction critic for The Sunday Times) is the perfect companion for lovers of the contemporary novel. Looking at a kaleidoscope of genres and styles, Kemp explores how modern writers are obsessed with the past…

The cover of Retroland is beautiful with streets and buildings made from books! It perfectly encapsulates a book about books. How did you come up with this design? 

Thanks for the compliments! The publisher came up with the idea of a cityscape made of books. Originally they wanted a retro-futurist look in book form. Kind of a cool idea but I really struggled to put it into practice. I sent over a couple of roughs, not quite hitting the futurist notes, but the first pencil sketch was liked so I spent some time developing this route.

The above images are drafts.

I sent over a couple more finished roughs but it was looking a bit stiff (I was probably overthinking it). 

The above image is a draft.

The publisher was keen to get back to the spontaneity of the original pencil sketch so I started slapping ink on paper in the hope of getting something looser. I was pretty surprised to see them go with this one as I was worried they would see it as too scrappy. 

The above images are drafts.

As a book illustrator and designer, books are inevitably a big part of your life. Are there any books that you love or that you could read time and time again?

I love reading but I don’t tend to read books for a second time in the same way I don’t often watch films multiple times. I find the pull of a new book stronger than going back to something I’ve already read.

There are so many mediums an illustrator can work in to create artwork. Do you have any preferred mediums (e.g. digital, linocut, pen and ink, etc.) that you work in to create your illustrations or does this vary from job to job? 

I guess it’s a case of finding the right tool (medium) for the job. I would say 95% of the illustrations I do are digital, mainly Illustrator (for vector) and Procreate (when you need a more hand-drawn feel) and occasionally Photoshop. It’s amazing how much the creative digital applications have developed since I started working, they definitely make life easier.

I’ve done a couple of linocut illustrations for covers and it’s a medium that I really enjoy working in but because I don’t do it that often I’m not particularly proficient. I see my amateur attempts as quite cack-handed but it’s a nice excuse to get away from the screen, listen to an audio book whilst I carve chunks out of my fingers.

Over the last couple of decades, the way we buy and consume books has significantly changed. In bookstores the customer can pick the book up and feel the textures on a jacket. Whereas when buying online, customers will be looking at a flat depiction of the jacket. Are there any challenges to designing a jacket that has to look appealing to both in-person and online consumers?

It’s amazing to think that physical books are still going strong, especially when you consider the changes the music and film industry have gone through. To be honest I never really consider how a cover is perceived online vs the bookshop. When I approach a new brief I’m usually thinking what will suit the book, how can I have a bit of fun, make it look nice and try not to f**k it up. I guess there has been a natural shift in book cover aesthetics over the last 10-15 years that suits seeing the covers small on screen, big type, bold colours.  

Professional illustration and design is a competitive industry. How did you get your start in the industry? And do you have any advice for aspiring book illustrators?

I spent a few months after graduating knocking on doors and schlepping my portfolio around various design firms and publishers. I got plenty of knockbacks, so you just have to keep going, as its quite often a case of being in the right place at the right time. I was very lucky to see the art director of Bloomsbury, Will Webb, at a time when he was looking for a new junior and I got my first job. I’ve always seen that period as a second education and Will as more of a mentor than a boss. It was an invaluable insight into the workings of publishing and the decisions behind getting a book cover approved. After that I worked under the late, great John Hamilton at Penguin books. He gave me the confidence to do my own thing, which quite often got rejected, but he always encouraged us designers to do something different and exciting, rather than the tried and tested routes. 

About Nathan Burton

Nathan is a London-based freelance designer and illustrator. You can find more of Nathan’s work at:

Instagram: @buronint

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