By Celina Tran
Colin Drown is an illustrator, graphic designer, and a digital and traditional artist based in Missouri, US, known for his rendition of classic book covers.
I call Colin Drown from Dublin in the evening. The familiar ding of someone joining the meeting room sounds, and I'm met by a wide smile. Rays spill in from a window somewhere nearby, painting Drown's full, red locks almost golden - it's only midday in Missouri.
"Hi! I'm Colin," says Drown. "I'm a high school physics teacher by day, and an art-maker… also by day.”
He lets out a small laugh.
"I've been sharing a lot of my work on TikTok, and I ended up gaining an audience, which is fun and exciting. We'll see how that's sustained through the school year, though!"
Beaming, Drown explains that drawing has always been a passion of his. Often gifted art supplies by family members, his upbringing was filled with pencils, sketchbooks, and notebook margins full of drawings made during lessons. However, it wasn't until Drown reached adulthood that he decided to get serious about art.
"The first big COVID shutdown meant that I suddenly had a lot more time on my hands, so I thought it would be a got time to improve my existing skills," says the artist. "I began to look up YouTube videos, get art books, and just gave it a go. It's been nice to kind of rekindle my love for it as an adult."
Though COVID lockdowns and pandemic hobbies are a thing of the past in most countries, Drown continues to create art. He is most comfortable making representational, realist pieces, though he does take inspiration from some surrealist artists.
"This has worked well for cover designs for literature because I can play around with the surreal symbolism while using realist techniques."
Drown’s reimagined book covers for classics such as The Great Gatsby, MacBeth, and Their Eyes Were Watching God have gained popularity among online bibliophiles and art lovers alike.
Modern cover art for classic books
A physics teacher by day, Colin Drown's artistic escapades only start once the school bell rings. With summer holidays in full swing, Drown has finally been able to throw all his efforts into art, and this summer, particularly, has been filled with book cover designs.
"It actually started when my sibling was reading Lolita, which is a notoriously challenging book. They sent me a video essay by a YouTuber called Lola Sebastian, in which she talks about Lolita and specifically about how many of its covers are very... icky, you could say. I thought it might be a good art challenge and my sibling encouraged me to do the design, which I did!" explains Drown, who ended up posting four different covers for the Vladimir Nabokov book. When making the book covers, Drown often plays around with the symbolism, a more surreal aspect of the book if taken literally. It is a task that requires in-depth analysis and a deep dive into each piece of literature, as well as intense planning.
"I've always liked literary analysis, even before I did it for an audience," he says."If I read or re-read a book, I'll take some time to think about the important symbols in the book. Then I'll go off and have a brainstorming session with my mom, who's an English teacher, and I'll bounce ideas off her. We'll go back and forth for a while, and then I'll start my second research phase of looking at old covers."
By researching existing covers, Drown can also find inspiration in different artists' elements and takes on the books. He tries to avoid making a cover with an existing concept but explains that due to classic books being 80 years old or – more often than not – older, a lot of covers can become repetitive.
"I like to research existing covers to avoid making something that already exists, but sometimes I have an idea that just sticks in my head, like the one I did for Jekyll and Hyde. The idea was to put the potion in front of Jekyll and Hyde's face and have his face go through it, but then I found a cover almost exactly like that. Still, I loved the concept so much and my idea was slightly different, so I decided to go ahead with it."
Any content creator knows that sharing their work on social media can be both a virtue and a vice, especially when your work relates to beloved works that have been the topic of heated discussion, scrutiny and analysis for decades – if not centuries. Drown says that, for the most part, responses have been surprisingly positive.
"Some people like my takes on the covers, some people don't, and that's okay. It's all just a way for me to relax and have fun while practising a skill," he says, a small smile tugging at his mouth.
Analysis in art, advice on realism, and avoiding mental blocks
Most of Drown's work has been created in the pursuit of improvement, so his art process involves a lot of analysis. A personal favourite of the artist is to draw facial portraits because each part of the face has to be treated intricately.
"I think faces can be very interesting as subjects because of all the details. It's good practice to be able to draw something from a photo or a model, but what I probably enjoy the most is trying to translate the feeling of the subject," he says.
Drown's best advice for other artists – new and established – who want to improve their realistic work, is to reproduce reference images.
"When I started drawing again as an adult, I would look up photos on Pinterest and play around. I watched tutorials online and tried out different methods, I recommend new artists do that too – some might work for you, some might not. You might even try to combine methods! Just do whatever feels right."
Even now, years down the line, Drown still uses reference images from Pinterest or the internet to practice his work, but he also likes to draw inspiration from real life. One thing he has been practising lately is recreating animal studies, especially birds.
Portrait drawing before and after
"They're just so cute and fun to draw! When I see some cute robins or sparrows in the yard, I like to take a picture and illustrate it. It allows me to zone out for a bit, I like it a lot," says the illustrator. "But yeah, using references, then doing still-lifes of like a cup really helped me get better at shading and light."
As always, the artist is asked how they know they're finished with a piece, and Drown's answer is to take some time away from the piece.
"Once it feels done, I'll set it aside for a day or two. If I like it when I return, I know it's done, but if it needs more work, I take some more time to finish those details."
Working with several pieces at once usually helps Drown put some space between himself and the artworks, explaining that he would "go crazy" if he hyper-focused on one piece at a time.
"It also really helps with any creative or mental blocks," he says. "Sometimes, if I just hate the idea, I'll throw it away and start over again. If I’m drawing digitally, I'll just hide the layer I dislike and start over again. Sometimes I'll go back to the original drawing to see if that idea is better, sometimes it is and other times it's not. If I'm really unhappy, I just put it all away – step aside, close my sketchbook, turn my iPad or whatever it is off. It normally helps."
Drown says that being an artist can be both tiring, time-consuming, and if he has a commission, intimidating. Just like teaching, however, he insists that it's a very fulfilling activity that he can't see himself putting away anytime soon.
"I love doing commissions, and though they can be scary to do, I normally end up being really proud. I’d like to do more of them," he says. “I would also love to create poster designs, and it would be very cool to get commissioned by someone for a new book they're publishing, or perhaps a new cover for a rerun of a book.”
Like many other artists, Drown longs for a bigger city. He hopes that once he's there, he'll be able to see his work in a gallery.
"But I'd probably be a bit embarrassed because I always title my work something silly," he laughs. "Still, it would be cool to just show it off in such a space, maybe sell a few pieces.”
For commissions, contact Colin Drown via his website or on social media.
Prints are available on the website.
Website and Social Media