Don Maitz was born in Bristol, Connecticut, in 1953. He has illustrated book covers for sci-fi greats such as Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury and has twice been awarded the Hugo award for best professional artist, but he is most famous for his paintings of pirates and in particular the title character for Captain Morgan’s rum.
Any fan of sci-fi novels is more than likely to have seen Don Maitz’s artwork. In a distinguished career he has illustrated covers for sci-fi greats such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Allan Dean Foster, and Michael Moorcock, and was twice awarded the coveted Hugo award for best professional artist.
Don attended Paier School of Art in Hamden, Connecticut, where he studied a broad range of disciplines, and went on to graduate at the top of his class.
“We drew all day, every day, and if we weren’t drawing, we were painting,” he explains. “There were hours and hours of figure drawing and painting. I loved it.”
With such a broad curriculum on offer, Don’s career could have gone in any number of directions. An adept comic artist, Don was encouraged to drop out of art school to draw comics full time, but his passion lay elsewhere. “I found my heart was more into painting than drawing or inking,” he says. “I discovered the art of Howard Pyle, Edwin Austin Abbey, Maxfield Parrish, NC Wyeth and of course, Frank Frazetta.”
Don openly acknowledges the debt that he owes to the so-called ‘father of fantasy art’, both in terms of style and of the opportunities that he created for fantasy artists. “At the time I was introduced to the market Frank Frazetta’s covers were selling books and publishers were receptive to artists who could hook a reader’s imagination like Frazetta,” he says.
The influence of Frazetta is clear in his mind, but the process of editorial illustration is about answering a brief, according to Don. “Even I am asked to paint something specific,” he says. “I like to draw directly from the source – the author’s written words. I feel better knowing the cover relates directly to the story within.”A pirate’s life for me
Despite an illustrious career in book cover illustration, Don’s most recognisable works are not his fantasy themed subjects, but his paintings of buccaneers and rogues. In short, he owes his success to painting pirates.
Don was commissioned by distiller Joseph Seagram & Sons, back in 1982, to develop the titular character for Captain Morgan’s rum (See Captain Morgan, page 52), and has had numerous requests since to paint the subject. But his paintings made a leap from fantasy to historical interpretation after the discovery of the wreck of the Whydah, a slave merchant ship that was captured by pirates off the coast of Cape Cod. Don was commissioned by National Geographic magazine to paint a speculative piece portraying the ship being seized by pirate Black Sam Bellamy and his crew. His work was also shown on Dateline NBC for a feature on the wreck.
As esoteric a subject as it may seem, there is in fact a long tradition of painting pirates. The buccaneer was first popularised in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and it was NC Wyeth’s illustrations for that book that first attracted Don to the subject.
“When I lived in Connecticut, I would regularly visit a small art museum just to see the NC Wyeth painting ‘One more step, Mr Hands’, his classic Treasure Island illustration,” he recalls.
“There are stereotypes and human emotions that can be expressed through pirates’ iconic symbolism, and they’re fun to paint. There is so little actually known about them that they are open to interpretation. Besides,” he adds gleefully, “voyaging into the uncharted unknown, charting one’s course, rebelling against social norms, and making up rules as one goes along… it’s very similar to creating freelance artwork!”Soul Maitz
Another major influence in Don’s life is his wife Janny Wurts, with whom he shares a house and a studio. He’s full of admiration for her work: “She has written over 14 published fantasy novels. She provides her own cover paintings, interior illustrations, and maps to her books. She’s like a modern-day Howard Pyle!”
Don developed his own style through a process of “observation, experimentation, and trial and error” and his work exhibits a carefully considered blend of photorealism and painterly expressiveness. He’s achieved this effect by working from a range of source material from thumbnail sketches to photographs. For the figures, he often photographs models in various poses and mixes and matches the best elements.
“Suspending belief with just the right amount of the right information is what it’s all about,” he explains. “Not enough reference can result in an image that has shallowness, stiffness and predictable surfaces. Too much and you can get lost in the surface and miss the drama or the point.”
Don’s broad-based art school training means that while he predominantly paints in oils he can use other media where appropriate. “Sometimes the commissions themselves will dictate the methods used,” he says. “If I were doing a particular kind of science fiction painting, I might paint in acrylics instead of my usual oils to add a burst of airbrush to convey a mechanical aspect, although I am no fan of airbrushing. Likewise, watercolour may be the ticket to accomplish the task properly, or digital manipulation.”
Don suggests that one of the best ways to learn new techniques is by getting out to galleries and, where possible, seeking out original work. “Unless you do, you can’t interpret the paint applications; what is opaque, what is transparent, how the paint layers overlap…” he says. “The blending of colours is there to see as well as the application of materials. Reproductions do not tell the whole story.” Digital world
Don’s work has recently attracted the attention of Hollywood and he has found himself working as a concept artist on two recent CG features. Don was contacted by DNA productions to work on character sketches for the feature-length version of their animation, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. Following that film’s success, DNA Productions brought Don in from the outset to work on concept art for their next film, The Ant Bully. Though principally a traditional media artist, it was on this project that Don began to see the benefit of the digital approach.
“While I confessed not to be up to speed in digital rendering, I knew Mac OS X and had a basic grasp of Photoshop,” he says. “I was introduced to a roomful of experts with whom I worked on a daily basis. Though I did not know the key commands and sophisticated manipulation of images within the program, I took copious notes and with sustained practice, produced acceptable results within a relatively short time.”
From issue 12.