Alenka Sottler: On Faces on Covers, Book Illustrations and Slovenia

Alenka Sottler, an award-winning Slovenian painter and illustrator, talks about her love for painting and literature, the art of illustration and the immense power that depicting human faces on book covers can have on readers.

There is a certain allure to book covers. We are all guilty of judging a book by its cover ignoring the oft-quoted phrase, “Do not judge a book by its cover”. And there are probably a million ways of designing a cover in order to get the readers to pay attention and win their favour. But there is this one way of designing which is probably far more interesting than most – the depiction of human faces on book covers.

I still remember the first time I picked up “Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden” at the bookstore and how those piercing blue eyes and the red lips of the model on the cover hooked me.

The book that started the thought process. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden.

It was love (or at least some literary version of it) at first sight. The memory popped into my head a few days ago and it got me thinking. What is it about faces on book covers that make it so appealing? Why are we instinctively drawn to them? To what extent does it lend depth to the overall story contained within the pages the book cover encases?

To answer these questions and gain some insight into the world of book illustrations, I sought out Alenka Sottler, an award-winning Slovenian painter and illustrator. Alenka has illustrated over 50 books for both children and adults and has been the recipient of several honours and awards since 1981, including nominations for the Hans Christian Andersen Award twice, in 2012 and 2014.

Alenka Sottler, the 60-year old award-winning Slovenian painter and illustrator, talks to Of Books & Bookworms about “Faces on Book Covers”

The very first thing I want to discover is, who Alenka really is and what her part of the world is like.

“They call me an intellectual among illustrators. I am a painter, who is in love with literature. I primarily design illustrations for poetry, contemporary literature, critical reflections and fairytales. I am from Slovenia, which is also known as the umbilicus of Europe, because the three largest European language groups, Germanic, Slavic and Romanesque, meet on its territory. I live in the capital city of Ljubljana, which is the cultural, educational and administrative center of Slovenia. My new studio opens up onto a balcony with flowers and has a view of villas and gardens, that are typical for this quarter of Ljubljana, an area called Kodeljevo.

Alenka in her studio in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Alenka’s work is innovative and done with an uninhibited confidence and creativity. She has been working with some of the leading publishers and magazines globally, including Mladinska knjiga the largest Sloevnian publishing house.

“I work in collaboration with the publisher and the designer in creating the illustration for a book cover. Occasionally I illustrate covers for book collections, where the typical design of the collection has already been defined and I only contribute my illustration. I am often called in for more demanding and important award-winning books, in cases where the publisher wishes to especially meet the author’s requests for a certain kind of illustration and to appeal to a sophisticated or a more critical audience. I have recently successfully collaborated on the design of book covers with the top-level book designer Jasna Andric.

These are two of my illustrations; the first that was produced in collaboration with the publishing house Mladinska knjiga together with their designer, for the book The Meursault Investigation by the Algerian writer, Kamel Daoud, and it won the Gouncourt du Premier award for literature, and the second cover is for the well known fairytale Cinderella by Grimm Brothers.”

Interestingly enough, both covers lead their readers into the story with a face on the cover. I ask Alenka what according to her, is the reason why faces on book covers make for a powerful image.

“I strongly believe, that a face on the cover of a book can be a very powerful magnet that captures the attention of the viewer and keeps them riveted. Let me illustrate the power of the human portrait on the human psyche:
In 1830 an American painter, adventurer and traveller, George Catlin travelled to the American Wild West where he met native American tribes, who lived there at that time. For most of these native Americans, Catlin was the first white man they’d ever met or even laid eyes on. The painter who carried his painting equipment with him painted the portraits of many native American chiefs. When they saw images of their own faces on the paintings, these native men were astonished to the extent that they believed, this was some extremely strong ‘medicine’. Some were in awe, some were frightened, when they saw their own portrait. I believe that the native American chiefs had reacted spontaneously to the power of the human image and that somewhere under the surface of all the progress and evolution we’ve made as a civilization, we still react to human faces in the same way.”

George Catlin, The White Cloud, Head Chief of Iowas, around 1830

So there we have it. Faces, especially the eyes, contain so much in them. We look into people’s eyes to feel connected to them. Love the idea or hate it, but we do form a certain impression of beauty (or the lack of it) based on looks. Think Tinder (okay, maybe the profile of the person counts too, but first, all you have to base your interest on, is the face). And faces have an added advantage. They convey emotions. Intensity. Rage. Passion. But what of the limitations? A writer will want to give his/her readers the freedom to imagine the characters, especially in the case of fictional works. Part of the reading process involves the reader fitting in their own impressions of people, celebrities and familiars, into the persona of those characters the writer has crafted. On the other hand, there is so much more depth that can be added by giving a character a pre-defined face. Or half a face. Or maybe even just a hint of a face.

So does depicting a face on the book cover limit a reader’s imagination of the character being depicted? Or does it give them a visual cue on what to imagine?

“There are so many different ways in which human images can be interpreted, so using them is certainly not a limitation. A book cover must spark the interest of the potential readers and prompt them, persuade them, to pick up a book or buy it. The only important thing is, that the image being used on the cover must be high in quality, have an authentic, artistic expression, and that its typography should be consistent with the rest of the cover and of course, it needs to be legible.”

Has it been easy for Alenka to design covers with faces on them?

“This is actually my favorite theme. Maybe because my father was a sculptor and a good portraitist, so I am more aware of the power that is hidden in the artistic depiction of faces. I even designed an art book VISIONS, together with poet Niko Grafenauer, that was highly exclusive and had just 999 copies published by the publishing house Nova Revija in 2009. The book explores concepts such as love, pain, happiness and loneliness. While working on the book I realized that all these emotions and feelings are really only in our own heads. So I illustrated all the poems in the book with the image of a human head. However for the cover of this book I didn’t choose the whole head but just an eye, which happens to convey an equally potent feeling. The cover illustration represents an eye that is also a face at the same time. The illustration from this book (and the book itself) received an award by 3×3 Magazine for Contemporary Illustrations in New York and Grand Prix na HBI (Croatian Biennial of illustration) in Zagreb.”

The cover illustration for the book, VISIONS, represent an eye and a head in a single motif
Illustration for “Fear” from the book VISIONS is built completely using human images.

All artists have their muse and I can’t help wondering where Alenka gets her inspiration from. I’m sure the view from her studio lends a certain ambience and helps her get into the creative zone, but what else does she use for artistic inspiration?

“I always look for inspiration in the work of the author of a book. Even if I am supposed to make only one illustration, I read the whole book and try to understand its essence. I also read the accompanying text if it exists. If I feel that I do not have enough information to make a decision, I read the previous works of the author, their reviews and, in general, everything I can find, to help me understand their work until I get a clear picture on what the main message is and what the essence of the book is that the author wishes to communicate. Then, and only then, do I design a suitable solution.”

The Life of the Hero Mehdi Husynzade Mihajlo. Cover by Alenka Sottler and designer Vasja Cencic

And what of the role that authors play in the designing of the cover?

“In my experience authors usually don’t interfere with the design of the cover, especially when it is a bestseller, or intended to be published in several countries. However, authors may follow different interpretations and designs of the covers for the same book depending on where it is being published.”

So when it comes to faces on book covers, Alenka’s verdict is quite clear. She enjoys working on them and has something to add to other illustrators.

“I’d like to inspire illustrators and designers, and urge them to use portraits for book covers as often as they possibly can. But do not forget to maintain originality. Limiting one’s design to only one motif usually brings the most creative freedom instead of creating a whole lot of clutter with several motifs.”

Illustrations are not the only thing that Alenka is known for. Besides illustration of books and book covers, she also produces the traditional, classic graphics, create non commissioned artworks in the area of conceptual illustration and write essays about contemporary society.

And because we have spent the last few days corresponding on the theme, I have to know about some of Alenka’s favourite book covers with faces on them.

“These are two of my favorite book covers The first is a work of poetry by Bina Štampe Žmavc. It is a contemporary interpretation of a Greek myth about Orpheus and Eurydice. I did the cover illustration and the whole book were desidned by Ivian Mujezinović. For the illustration of Eurydice in this book I received a golden medal in the book illustration category at the Society of Illustrators 2016 in New York.
The second cover is for the book VISIONS. The illustration represents an eye that is a face at the same time that I talked about earlier. The book was produced in collaboration with the renowned Slovene poet Niko Grafenauer and was designed by the briliant Slovene designer Matjaž Vipotnik. This book has received many awards, one of them being the Award for the Most Beautiful Book on Ljubljana Book Fair 2009.”

This truthfully penned, poetic narrative of Alenka Sottler on her website will tell you everything you need to know about her work, experience and her personality. “Pristine, intense, delicate, alluring, clear, precise, classical. Firmly grounded, but also – through the magic which is given to great illustrators – vibrant,” is how the Italian critic Walter Fochesato describes Alenka’s illustrations from the book “Nicolo desidera un fratello”in the international edition of Andersen magazine, in April 2004.

Alenka lives and works in Ljubljana as a freelance illustrator and is a member of the NY Society of Illustrators.

By Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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