An Interview With… Mike Adams
British artist Mike Adams (full name - Robert Michael Adams) was commissioned by Harper Collins in the early 1990s to paint six covers for the Nancy Drew Armada series of paperbacks. He produced illustrations for the following six titles: The Sinister Omen, The Elusive Heiress, The Mystery At Lilac Inn, The Clue In The Diary, The Sign of the Twisted Candles and The Secret of the Old Clock.
Mike very kindly agreed to answer some questions about these very atmospheric and colourful pieces of artwork.
Ian: "Under what circumstances did you come to work on the Nancy Drew series, and what was the nature of your working relationship with Armada?"
Mike: "The system worked like this:
"Busy Art Directors get to rely on agents. They have an easier time if they just farm out jobs and make deals with agencies. The agents then decide which artists on their books get the work. Art Directors rarely can be bothered to take on soul artists. In the agency the artist is not really involved in the transaction, no matter how talented. He is in constant competition with fellow artists for the best paid jobs even though he waits three months before he gets paid. He keeps his head down and does what he is told if he wants the work. The whole system is exploitative. The artist is purposefully kept in the dark regarding copyright, royalties and contracts - which go to the agent. Artists are regarded like buses - there's always another one coming along in a few minutes. Many famous names in illustration haven't got two pennies to rub together. Some eventually get disillusioned and others crack up. Some who don't tow the line are labelled trouble makers and disappear from the scene. Others actually become agents themselves and exploit their fellows. Over the years I've had about 10 agents - they all exploit - it's just a matter of degree. There are few I would socialise with. In my experience Harper Collins, Armada and Artist Partners worked along those lines. I was at Artist Partners for a year in 1979."
"However even under conditions like these, artists still manage to be incredibly creative; even though sometimes they are given an incorrect brief by overworked representatives pushed to produce their quota. For an Illustrator, talent is never enough - ability has to be improved over years of hard work, persistence and self belief. Artists with these qualities and a self denial about the system they work in can become "names" if they are head hunted by more enlightened agents, but it still doesn't guarantee financial security."
"Regarding Nancy Drew - I was headhunted by an agent called Patrick Mortemore around 1991, at a creditors meeting concerned with the bankruptcy of the Aircraft Agency (Oxford St.) where I was owed £4000. I had known Patrick in 1979, (then Art Director at Collins) when I was working on the Hawk Western Series. I had left the series by 1982 after finding it difficult circumnavigating Patrick's ego. By 1991, I was given the Nancy Drew series, thinking it was to last forever - not so. It stopped after 6 covers. I was then continually employed by Collins for the next 2 years, doing other series - perhaps seen by Patrick as more lucrative. I was always kept in the dark-but often detected a hidden agenda element."
Ian: "Were you given previous Armada paperbacks on which to base the new artwork, and did you read the stories before proceeding with the illustrative process?"
Mike: "The briefs for Nancy Drew were very brief; I was given a short incident to illustrate - never given the book to read- I had little choice. I think I was given a short description of Nancy and perhaps some old covers - it was just left to me. Regarding the series I never had any comeback whatsoever; I wasn't even informed when it ended - and was never sent proof copies of some of the books. And definitely nothing on contracts or second rights - not the best working environment to turn out anything satisfactory.
"Working to a deadline while trying to find the right model and reference material, then taking pictures in unsuitable surroundings is always a challenge. With enough time and the best circumstances the image can always be improved - it's never ever good enough. Figures and faces can always be improved."
Ian: "Of the six Nancy Drew covers that you painted for Armada, do you have a particular favourite and least favourite? If so, could you give reasons why?"
Mike: "The three best are the ones in the most dramatic lighting and dramatic angles (perhaps looking down). With compositions at night or in dark places (masks only showing eyes, etc.) you have more possibilities. Others not so successful are in daylight with a more straight on view-these are often predetermined by the reference material available, i.e. dog or bull. Faces can always be improved."
Ian: "If you had the opportunity, would you change anything about the covers that you painted for the series?"
Mike: "Yes, I would probably change everything, given the time to read the book."
Ian: "What type of paints, materials and techniques did you utilize to paint the covers?"
Mike: "I used acrylics, which are fast drying, on illustration board. Now I would use canvas on board. My technique is fairly tight, but still painterly for a realistic effect. I use photographic reference and prefer to take my own pictures in my own lighting. I know that good knowledge of lighting techniques is desirable. However it's only a means to an end."
Ian: "Was the person who modelled for Nancy selected by you or the publishers? And where did she come from - a local college or acting agency?"
Mike: "I used a local girl from Shrewsbury as the model -found in the local drama group. She was suggested to me for having a fairly "celtic" robust extraverted character. I think her real name was Nancy (I will have to recover the name) I chose the character rather than a classical prettiness. A prissier girl perhaps wouldn't have fitted the bill? She was a good model and tried hard. I photographed her in her parents' living room, which wasn't exactly the best location. It was there she climbed ladders, ran from wall to wall and dressed up in her diving suit. We were both disappointed when our 6 were over."
Ian: "Why did you only work on just six covers? Did the books go out of print before you could work on any more stories?"
Mike: "I never had any comeback whatsoever about the books and wasn't informed when it stopped."
Ian: "Were you familiar with the series prior to working on the covers and did you read the books as a child?"
Mike: "I was familiar with the series and the fame of Nancy Drew. I had not read any previously, but did read the Hardy Boys as a youngster in the 50's (got from the village library)."
Ian: "In general, how are artists paid for their work on something such as this series? Is there a flat fee or a royalty-based system?"
Mike: "A flat fee only."
Ian: "How did your association with Armada come to an end?"
Mike: "My association ended with Armada after Nancy Drew, but I continued getting more lucrative work from Collins for 2 years after."
Ian: "Do you have any advice for me in my attempts to identify the other artists who may have worked for Armada?"
Mike: "Artist Partners and Arena (formerly Young artists) are still around and might have some past record. Patrick Mortemore is probably selling time shares in Spain (just joking)"
Ian: "How did you become an artist, and what other books or series have you illustrated?"
Mike: "I first attended Art School, eventually becoming an art teacher in London. I became friends with Jim Burns (the science fiction illustrator). Our wives were both art teachers at the same school. I was introduced to the Young Artists Agency. Here I worked alongside people like Jim Burns, Chris Foss, Gordon Crabbe, etc. Eventually I worked At Artist Partners in 1979 - from here I met Patrick Mortemore at Collins who eventually gave me Nancy Drew.
"Regarding series: in the past I worked on a couple of Western series, some war series (Heineman's Windmills and Ngaio Marsh). The most successful and long running series was for the Gaia Young Adults Novels, published by Mondadori (Milan /Verona). The Italians (unlike the English) gave me the novels to read and completely gave me a free hand throughout the 90's, without an agent where I had my own contract. I had exhibitions in Italy and apparently a fan base of young ladies. I later worked for AC Black on their flashback and Graffix Series."
Ian: "Given the problems and general hassle that you
suffered over the years working as a illustrator, what advice would you
give to young 'up-and-coming' artists looking to get established in the
Ian: "How exactly did you manage to realistically reproduce the behaviour of Nancy's hair in the underwater scene portrayed in the Lilac Inn cover illustration?"
Mike: "Regarding Nancy's hair: the photographs below should answer this. You have to be inventive as well as having a continual source of reference."
Ian: "Were you paid a fee for the reuse of your Old Clock artwork on the cover of the 2-in-1 edition released by Mulberry in 1992?"
Mike: "Regarding the fee for The Old Clock-sold to Mulberry by Collins in 1992. I was never informed of the transaction and therefore never received a fee. This reinforces my previous remarks about Publishers and agents.-It's a sad reflection on their lack of integrity and honesty. All publishers I have worked with have done one or more of the following:
Ian: "Some artists use a projector-like device called an Epidiascope to enable them to draw out the paintings as exactly as possible. The 'scope' projects the chosen reference photographs onto the painting board rather like a slide projector. Did you employ a similar device?"
Mike: "I have tried Epidiascopes, but found them restricting. They have to be perfectly positioned to copy accurately; usually you have to copy from small to large. No photograph is ever good enough but needs to be altered. The ideal solution is to get the reference material the same size as the artwork image."
Ian: "Can you recall the total length of time between receiving the brief for the paintings and sending the finished pieces to Collins? "
Mike: "Working through Patrick Mortemore, the total time was usually in weeks rather than days. The actual painting time was in days-usually less than 1 week-however it usually had to be fitted in with other jobs. The deadline for any job can vary -especially through agents. Panicking agents or publishers failed by other artists would often ask you to complete a job in 3days, or usually in holiday times."
Ian: "Were all six cover paintings produced in the same period?"
Mike: "As far as I can remember all 6 were completed in around a year in early 90's."
Ian: "Finally, do you have any interesting memories or anecdotes related to the preparation or execution of these illustrations?"
Mike: "All photographic reference for figures really has to be done in a studio environment. Photographing people dressed up and running around outside often gets hijacked by complete strangers who want to get involved - and others who just regard you as bonkers. One particular incident (not Nancy Drew) caused some consternation for some elderly ladies when they came across a model wearing a complete German uniform creeping about with a rifle in somebody's allotment, not noticing me photographing him."
• The Last Word interview with Mike, detailing his excellent work
on Angus Wells' Hawk and Breed series:
• Bob Finnan interviews David Browne about his Hardy Boys
The author would like to offer his gratitude to Mike, not only for very kindly providing a wealth of background information on his Nancy Drew paintings (including numerous reference photographs), but also for a frank and very illuminating account of the darker side of book illustration. Many thanks Mike.
Also, I am very grateful to Lea Shangraw Fox for allowing me to use two of her Armada cover scans on this page.