Windows Into Worlds: An Interview with Jenny Zemanek

by Justine Bergman

Whispers & Wonder is honored to welcome Jenny Zemanek, illustrator and book cover extraordinaire, to this month’s Windows Into Worlds Artist Spotlight! With a hefty portfolio spanning everything from adult fantasy to middle grade, her highly illustrative approach to painting stories and signature style has made her a staple in the publishing industry, and also a champion of the indie community. If you haven’t already, please go check out her work, because it’s all just so damn pretty!

The Artist

There were three occupations I always listed when I was little and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up:

  • A professional equestrian rider
  • A veterinarian
  • An artist

(I’m pretty sure an astronaut was in there at some point too, but that’s neither here nor there.)

While I did compete on the equestrian hunter/jumper circuit growing up and through college, it was my love of photography, illustration and design that rocketed artist to the top of my career-goal list (I’m a compulsive list-maker, I can’t help it). Stints at a large publishing company and independent ad agency gave me the practical and technical know-how as well as the confidence to open my own design studio, and I’ve been freelancing for the past 11 years.

Seedlings began as a stationery studio, focusing primarily on weddings and corporate branding pieces, but after several years of running a book review blog and watching the rise of indie and self-publishing, I finally saw a way of combining my love of graphic design with my robust enthusiasm for all things book-related.

Seedlings now focuses exclusively on book cover and promotional design for authors; my passion for typography, design and the creation of beautiful things the driving force behind each and every project. I would be honored to be a part of bringing your book to life by designing an exterior as striking as the story it houses, so please visit the contact page to get started!

– Jenny

(My squeamishness with regard to blood pretty much eliminated any possibility of becoming a vet, but animals are still a huge part of my life. Gracie and Mya are my partners in design crime (and by partners I mean they sit and watch me work), so any “about” page simply wouldn’t be complete without them.)


Welcome to Whispers & Wonder, Jenny! Care to tell us who you are in 10 words or less?

Creative, book enthusiast, hockey lover and animal rescue advocate!

Have you always wanted to be an artist?

In one form or another, absolutely. I actually went to school for film and photography, but my spent my studio classes my senior year of college working on advertising and graphic design projects. When I graduated, I got a job I loved working for a publishing company (magazines, not books), and then ended up going freelance a couple years later. Having the freedom to work on a variety of projects and with numerous clients is my favorite part of working freelance, and as cliche as it sounds, it’s an honor for me to be a part of an author’s journey in bringing their book to life.

What kind of work do you enjoy doing the most and why?

I thoroughly enjoy working in a variety of styles for my book covers, from photographic to typographic to illustrated, but my absolute favorite type is illustrated. I ADORE illustrated covers! For me, there’s a lot more creative freedom with an illustrated cover, and so many more ways for me to bring characters or settings to life than there is when working with a photograph. That’s not an insult to photographic covers in the least, there are some stunning photographic covers out there, but for me, illustrated covers always bring a smile to my face when I’m working on them!

Have you had any interesting jobs other than being an artist?

I don’t know if it qualifies as interesting or not, but I grew up riding horses competitively, and spent almost all my free time working in the barn doing super exciting things like mucking out stalls 🙂 Honestly, aside from having to wake up when it was still dark outside (unacceptable!), I loved everything about it. It was really hard work, but being around horses was always the best way I could think of to spend my day.

What made you dive into the world of book cover art and design?

I had been freelancing for about 5 years, working mostly on wedding and corporate stationery, when I started a book review blog. I’ve always been an avid reader, but thought that to work on covers I’d have to get a job in New York with a publishing company (for reasons unknown, it never occurred to me that they might hire freelancers. face palm). Over the course of the six years I ran my blog, indie and self-publishing really started to take off, and suddenly I saw a way to make a dream become a reality. I started by redesigning my favorite book covers and posting my fan art to the blog just for fun. One day author Intisar Khanani got in touch after seeing one of those covers and asked if I might be interested in working on her books. I jumped on that chance, and that was the beginning of this journey I’m loving so much!

Walk us through your process – How does your consultation process go? Do you generally read the book prior to beginning the art? Do you prefer to initially sketch/brainstorm on paper or screen? Any fun quirks?

I start every project by having my client fill out an artwork form. It asks them basic questions like character and setting descriptions, but also more in-depth questions like prominent themes or symbolism that we might be able to work into the design. I also ask them to share three to five covers in their genre that they love and why. This is the most important question on the artwork form for me, as it gives me a concrete visual and I can see what style of cover they’re drawn to. It just gives me a really solid jumping off point and helps me to get a feel for what they really want.

From there, I put together idea boards. These boards typically consist of existing covers for inspiration, stock images and font suggestions grouped together into various design concepts for their review. The idea boards are are really important for me as they help me organize my ideas and allow my clients to see what I’m thinking before we’ve gotten too deep into the process. I love for my covers to be a collaboration between me and my client, so the idea boards give us the opportunity to go back and forth and discuss what we like and don’t like before moving into the design stage.

Once we’ve agreed on a design concept, the process takes can take a few different directions. For photographic covers, I move right into comps. With illustrated covers where I’m working from stock images as a base, I typically create a black and white version of the illustration first just to make sure the client is happy with all the elements before moving on to texture and color. For custom-illustrated covers, I start with a pencil sketch, then move on to a black and white illustration, and once that’s approved, wrap it up with color and texture.

Do you get to read much? If so, do you have any favorite authors?

Yes! I read all the time. I tend to gravitate toward the fantastical over contemporary, so anything fantasy or supernatural I’m always up for. I know it’s a cop out, but I couldn’t even begin to list all my favorite authors. Even my auto-buy list would be too long to list here 🙂

Whats the one thing you’d be lost without?

I feel like the correct answer to this question is my husband and family, so if they’re reading this, you are definitely the thing I’d be lost without. Obviously. Also, stop reading now.

The real answer? My dogs 😉

I know we’re never supposed to ask a parent to choose their favorite child, but do you have a piece you’re particularly proud of?

I recently had the opportunity to custom illustrate my first cover, Benedict Patrick’s The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon. With my previous illustrated covers, I’ve always started from stock illustrations as a base, and then manipulated them, combined them with other elements, or drawn small pieces of a design from scratch to create something new.

I’ve been working with Benedict for years, and he knew I’ve been itching for the right project to fully illustrate myself, so when this first book in his new series came along, he got in touch and gave me my chance! I’m so grateful to him for trusting me with his work, and I couldn’t be happier with how the cover turned out.

Be sure to check out Jenny’s website to peruse her many GORGEOUS works.

Stay tuned for more artist highlights.
Happy Reading!

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1 comment

Lisa Bergren October 26, 2019 - 9:39 pm

Love that you’ve branched into cover design and illustration! And FLIGHT is dreamy!!!

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