Getting the girl just right: An interview with RADIO GIRL cover artist Michael Koelsch!

RADIO GIRL by Carol BrendlerWhen you’re reading a historical novel, what’s your first clue that the story is set in a different time period? The cover is usually a pretty good indicator—and in the case of Carol Brendler’s debut novel RADIO GIRL, boy is it ever!

Today I’m so pleased to welcome artist Michael Koelsch to Emu’s Debuts to talk about his work on RADIO GIRL’s beautiful, vintage-inspired cover.

Tara Dairman: Hello, Michael! Your cover for RADIO GIRL is so evocative of the time period when the story is set (1938, the heyday of radio). I see from your portfolio that a lot of your other art also embraces a fabulously “retro” style. What got you interested in creating this style of art?

Michael Koelsch: Thanks. I have been interested in classic illustration since I was little. My grandmother introduced me to a lot of illustration early on: artists like Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, and even pulpier illustrators like Norman Saunders and Walter Baumhofer. I got into a lot of the old movie posters as well.

N.C. Wyeth brought Treasure Island to life, Rockwell idealized life in America, Saunders made book covers explosive, and illustrators like Coby Whitmore made women beyond gorgeous in advertisements in the 1960’s. These are the guys who I looked up to in school and who I try to bring back when I do illustrations today, whether it’s for advertising or for book covers.

TD: Cecilia (the main character in RADIO GIRL) is the focal point of your cover. Did you have any of the stars of that era—like Judy Garland, or Deanna Durbin—in mind when you drew her?


Cece: Ready for her close-up

MG: Most definitely. When doing vintage-looking illustrations, it’s really important to reference the things of the past, whether it’s people, or cars, or buildings. I like to discuss things with the art director and sometimes the author to see what their inspirations were in doing the book. I then put my two cents in visually.

On RADIO GIRL, Judy Garland was a big inspiration—but other actresses from that era also helped me get the feel and look of our girl character for the cover. Once we had the look of the character, then we went through some phases of capturing the emotion and expression our character was going to show. I got some references from the author, but I will tend to do a lot more in-depth studying of that era, from clothing to hair styles, from architecture to color moods of that time period.

A pattern that helped inspire the look of Cece's shirt.

A pattern that helped inspire the look of Cece’s shirt

I will pull things from old books and, of course, the Internet—everything from old sewing patterns to soda pop ads to actual photos of girls from that time period. When doing realistic paintings, everything and anything I can find goes into helping me draw and paint.

TD: A little more about Cecilia: Her face is so expressive of the different emotions she feels in the story (earnestness, bravery, fear). We authors often have to write many drafts of a story to get the emotions just right. Did you need to go through a similar process when drawing Cecilia?

An early sketch of Cece

An early sketch of Cece

MG: My process is quite similar—but usually I don’t have to explore the gamut because I have the benefit of working with an art director who has discussed things with the author or has come up with a rough concept before I start. While this is just the starting point, I already have narrowed things down quite a bit. BUT, while that’s the norm, there are always those times where I do a sketch or two, and then those spark another idea which could be completely different but might make a stronger cover or image. I’ve been blessed with working with confident art directors who are not fearful of trying something different and usually like to explore those options too.

A model for Cece's new expression

A model posing for Cece’s new expression

On this cover specifically, we did actually make an “expression” change with Cecilia.  Initially I went for a classic, almost heroic/confident look for Cecilia, which probably looked too much like a vintage ad.  After some discussion, we decided to pull some “real” emotion into the piece and give her that “first time in a recording studio” look.

TD: What is your process generally like when designing book covers? Did you receive much direction from Holiday House before you started to work on the cover for RADIO GIRL?

MG: I’d probably bore everyone to death if I discussed my whole process, but generally I get a synopsis or a copy of the book. For covers, sometimes I don’t get a chance to read the whole book due to time constraints, so a synopsis from the art director or editor usually works best.

From there, I do a couple of thumbnail sketches based on references I have, or I find references based on those thumbnails. Those are usually for my eyes only, but occasionally I have to send those to the AD too.

The final masterpiece!

The final masterpiece!

After that, I put together a pretty tight sketch from the reference I have or have shot. These tend to have some color thrown on top. This is a good stage to work out any changes to the composition or figures and saves me from redoing them in the final painting. I still paint traditionally, so that’s huge—I can’t always go into Photoshop and just hit “undo.”

Once my sketch is approved, I go to paint on the final. Then I scan the painting and do some minor tweaks and cleaning up in Photoshop and, if need be, add text.

Thanks for the opportunity to share my part of this whole process; I hope you guys find this interesting and possibly inspirational. When authors and illustrators team up together, they get the chance to create a little magic no matter what format, digital or traditional!  It’s a great experience to put ideas to paper.

It sure is, Michael! Thank you so much for sharing your process and your art with us!


Readers: What’s your favorite aspect of RADIO GIRL’s cover? Remember, one lucky commenter this week will win a signed copy of the book!

Tara DairmanTara Dairman is a novelist, playwright, and recovering world traveler. All Four Stars, her debut middle-grade novel about an 11-year-old who secretly becomes a New York restaurant critic, will be published in 2014 by Putnam/Penguin.

Find her online at


Filed under Book Promotion, Celebrations, Illustrators, Interviews

6 responses to “Getting the girl just right: An interview with RADIO GIRL cover artist Michael Koelsch!

  1. Great interview! Thanks, Michael and Tara. How cool to get a glimpse of different stages in the process. The early sketch is so engaging and very evocative of the period, so I can see why it would have been a good fit. But the final product says so much more about the real emotions of the scene — changes like the microphone towering over her and her left hand in “protective” rather than “inviting” mode in the final painting are so powerful.


  2. Joshua McCune

    Love this interview. And such an outstanding cover!


  3. Sheila A. Donovan

    The expression on the girl’s face is so realistic. It makes me imagine how I would feel if put in the same situation.


  4. Very interesting to hear about the process for the cover of RADIO GIRL. I can see the Judy Garland influence. The details that reference the era are wonderful and her expression, perfect!


  5. I’m so glad you interviewed Michael!! I love that cover. (Um, please note that I’m just commenting. I already own a copy of Radio Girl. No need to put me in the drawing.)


  6. Pingback: Two awesome books you should read | tara dairman

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