"Illustration is the artwork of the people," says The Folio Society's newest artist

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Zoë van Dijk The Folio Society interview; a collectors edition sci-fi book

(Image credit: The Folio Society / Zoë van Dijk)

Publisher The Folio Society
Author Becky Chambers
Artist Zoë van Dijk
Release Out now
Price £295 (limited to 750 hand-numbered, signed copies)
Buy from The Folio Society

The Folio Society's illustrated edition of the groundbreaking sci-fi novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is a real joy. Award-winning artist Zoë van Dijk has created the intricate depictions of each of the book's famous characters, as well as the cover and sleeve.

Just like Neil Packer's illustrated 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s first folio, this new release from The Folio Society is a beautiful, elegant and lovingly crafted book limited to 750 hand-numbered, signed copies. When first approached to create art for The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet artist Zoë was taken aback, and questioned if she was a good fit.

The Californian artist has worked for everyone from Penguin Random House to Netflix to 2K games, and has a background in magazine and newspaper illustration. It's why Zoë laughs when she remembers being approached to work on The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. 

"When they approached me to draw it I was actually a little surprised," she says. "I mean, first of all, I was hugely flattered. Who doesn't want to draw like a folio society book? Everybody does. So I was thrilled to do it. And then they told me the book and I was a little bit like, 'I'm not a monster guy'. Look at my portfolio, like you don't really see any monsters or aliens." 

Zoe van Dijk The Folio Society interview; the crew of a spaceship look out a window

Zoë van Dijk wasn't sure she was the right illustrator for the latest book from The Folio Society, but I think she's perfect. (Image credit: The Folio Society / Zoe van Dijk)

But the editorial team at The Folio Society saw something in Zoë's work, her elegant use of colour, love of dark values and textural layers. It's that moment when you match an artist to a project that just works. It helps that author Becky Chambers was a fan, too.

The artist tells me she was actually a fan of the book ahead of the project, which added to the desire to create something fresh and push her own style. "I really just spent a lot of time rereading the passages that described all the aliens and really trying to understand what Becky was going for," says Zoë.

She spent time trying to understand the world of the book and what the author was saying, creating lots of "little character doodles and sketches" as she imagined what these people and creatures "would look like if they were actually in front of me".

Zoe van Dijk The Folio Society interview; a person looks out of a window of a spacship

The artist loves to use texture and dark, muted colours, which turned out to be the ideal approach for this illustrated edition. (Image credit: The Folio Society / Zoe van Dijk)

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is not your usual sci-fi book, it's a slow-burn that focuses on characters, on interior moods and relationships of a crew travelling on a huge starship towards a possible calamity. It's a book about an assembled cast of characters, strange and familiar.

Zoë compares the book to one of her favourite sci-fi shows, Star Trek: The Next Generation. As we talk I spy a TNG collectible figure propped against a bookshelf of novels. I begin to see why Zoë was the perfect illustrator for this project.

"It's about the friendships and the things you learned along the way," explains the artist, offering a glimpse into how she translated the book into a series of illustrations. "I wanted to make it so that every illustration would feature one of the main characters and so every character would kind of have their hero moment throughout the book."

Zoe van Dijk The Folio Society interview; a character in space lying next to a light

Each character in the book gets a hero illustration inspired by their story and internal personality. (Image credit: The Folio Society / Zoe van Dijk)

I ask Zoë which illustration was a joy to create, and she smiles and picks up the book, feverishly thumbing through its pages, "Let me show you the one that took me forever to draw, and this is entirely my own fault," she laughs.

The pages land on a complex, layered and textured full-page illustration of an alien lizard-like species called Andrisk mingling across the page. It's a striking and complex illustration, and one Zoë was dead-set on creating. "I was like, 'this is what I want to draw… I want to draw this, and it's this lizard scene," Zoë is now laughing hard as she remembers the quizzical reaction from the publisher at the time and her obsession. "There's so many scales, and it took so long to draw, around 20-30 hours." She's now taking a breath and remembering, "Wow," she says, "it was a lot of love".

Zoe van Dijk Folio Society interview; lizards writing in a space scene

This was the most complex illustration in the book, and took Zoë van Dijk around 30 hours to create. (Image credit: The Folio Society / Zoë van Dijk)

The edition is a beautiful thing. Zoë picks up the final book and case and shows it off proudly. The case in itself is a work of art and features a deep, dark depiction of space and at its centre is the tease of a shadowed red planet. Scattered around are neon yellow stars piecing out of Zoë's love of dark, muted tones. The case opens diagonally and magnetically clips together, and the artist gleefully says, "I don't even know how the printer got that to work". 

She runs her hands around the book's case and explains how this starry scene was created. "It's space but it's very textural," she tells me. "I build up the textures fairly fast and I like these big amorphous scenes. There's a lot of lights, layers and explosion and that's the exact type of delicious stuff I love to draw."

There's a lot of lights, layers and explosion and that's the exact type of delicious stuff I love to draw

To capture the themes and characters from the book Zoë relied on her tried and tested methods of working. Every illustration begins in traditional media, working on thumbnails in a little sketchbook (and then moves into Photoshop). 

"It's the most tortured part of the entire timeline of working on a piece of art," she confesses. "I sit or lay on the floor and stare at the ceiling and say, 'why are all my ideas bad?' I actually had to leave the computer for that because if I'm sitting at a computer, I'll just start to I'm on Twitter in two seconds or like reading an article about slugs or something like I just completely go off train."

It's a process many artists could emphasise with as the search for inspiration takes hold. Zoë tells me she gets a lot of inspiration from film, particularly Roger Deakin and cinematographers. "Especially black and white film is so interesting and beautiful value is really important in my artwork, kind of like the play of light and shadow and I find that more than anywhere else and just like really well-shot film."

Zoe van Dijk The Folio Society interview; a lizard alien

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was a self-published novel by Becky Chambers, and won a Hugo Award. (Image credit: The Folio Society / Zoe van Dijk)

The more I speak with Zoë the more I understand why she was the perfect choice to illustrate The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. She may not be a "monster guy" but she is a science fiction fan and a commercial illustrator who embraces 'political' messages and diversity, and the same can be said of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet so original.

The artist likes to bring politics into her work in an unspoken way. Zoë explains: "The thing about working on books and working with newspapers is, to me, it's one of the most accessible art forms […] What I love about illustration is it's the artwork of the people; it's for everybody, you open a newspaper, you can see artwork, and part of that is making sure that my work connects with a wider audience at all times."

Zoë continues, and as she does so, draws a line between her work and the themes of Becky Chambers' novel. "I'm always trying to make my work more inclusive and make sure that I'm including everybody, and that everybody feels seen by my artwork," she says. "I think that resonates a lot with this book, because this book is very much about how different cultures and different creatures understand each other and finding community in places where that community might not exist. So absolutely. I feel like in that sense, I can see why they chose me."

Zoë van Dijk The Folio Society interview; a collectors edition sci-fi book

The Folio Society's new limited edition for A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet features art by Zoë van Dijk. (Image credit: The Folio Society / Zoë van Dijk)

The Folio Society creates art-led limited edition releases of popular novels and series, and its version of Becky Chambers’ A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is on sale now. Discover more of art by Zoe Van Dijk at her website. If you're keen on learning getting into book illustration read my guide to the best digital art software and the best drawing tablets.

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Ian Dean
Editor, Digital Arts & 3D

Ian Dean is Editor, Digital Arts & 3D at Creativebloq, and the former editor of many leading magazines. These titles included ImagineFX, 3D World and leading video game title Official PlayStation Magazine. In his early career he wrote for music and film magazines including Uncut and SFX. Ian launched Xbox magazine X360 and edited PlayStation World. For Creative Bloq, Ian combines his experiences to bring the latest news on AI, digital art and video game art and tech, and more to Creative Bloq, and in his spare time he doodles in Procreate, ArtRage, and Rebelle while finding time to play Xbox and PS5. He's also a keen Cricut user and laser cutter fan, and is currently crafting on Glowforge and xTools M1.