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From Commission to Cover

January 29, 2010

The following article was originally posted over at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist on 30 Nov 09.  Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist is one of the most popular SFF book-reviewing blogs on the web so if you’ve not come across it before, do check it out.  Patrick was kind enough to showcase my artwork on his blog and even invited me back to be a guest blogger.  For my guest post I discussed the process involved in creating artwork for a book cover from getting the commission to arriving at the final artwork.  I’ve posted it in it’s entirety below so those who missed it, read on…

As a book cover illustrator, one of the things I get asked about is the process of creating a cover, from being commissioned to producing the finished artwork, so that’s what I’d like to talk about here and take you through this journey from start to finish. This of course is based on my own experiences and other artists may work differently and have another approach.

The first step after being commissioned is to come up with a concept for the cover. Sometimes the client already has a specific idea of the image they’re after or the scene they want illustrating, and will send details of this to me in a brief. Using this information I’ll come up with rough sketches visualizing the idea. If the client does not have any specific ideas they will send me the manuscript or some passages to read so I can propose some concepts myself. Although more time-consuming, I do quite like being able to read the manuscripts as it gives me a better feel for the story and what approach would be best when illustrating it and the type of atmosphere I should convey. Sometimes I may even be able to talk to the author to see if they have any suggestions, or if they can provide me with any extra details that may be useful. When reading through the manuscript I’ll highlight and make notes on anything that might inspire a suitable image for the cover. I’ll then brainstorm, do any research I need and come up with different approaches for the cover that I’ll sketch out. The roughs are then sent to the client for feedback.

Depending on the feedback, I may have to come up with other revised sketches until everyone’s happy with the composition. At this stage I usually like to keep my sketches loose, done in B&W, in pen or pencil. It’s mainly for working out the composition and getting the concept across. I don’t tend to do colour roughs but will start to build an idea in my mind of the colour palette that would work for the image and make notes of this.

In my experience, the bigger publishers usually have a more specific idea of what they want before they approach me whereas independent publishers give me more creative freedom to bring my own ideas to the table. Also, when working with a major publisher, there can be more people involved in the process; the designer, art director, editor, publisher, author and may be even the marketing department can all have a say. So during the rough stages there can be more back-and-forth and revisions to be made. By the time roughs are approved and I can proceed onto the final artwork I’ll have a clear idea of the image I’m aiming for, and just use the sketch as reference.

Although my finished artwork is put together digitally in Photoshop I use a lot of mixed-media and different techniques. So before I start putting together the final piece of art I’ll gather together all the materials I need, which depending on what the image requires, may include creating painted textures, drawings, photo-shoots with models and scanning in objects and materials. Once I’ve imported all these various elements into the computer I’ll start manipulating and combining them to create the artwork. The techniques and processes that go into this would take up an entire different article on its own.

When I’ve finished the artwork to a point that I’m happy with, I’ll send it to the client for approval. If everyone involved approves the artwork, it can be signed-off and the project is complete. Other times, the client may request some small tweaks such as colour changes or adding/taking away an element etc.

Below I’ll use my cover artwork for Nekropolis by Tim Waggoner, which was commissioned by Angry Robot, to illustrate this process.

The publisher wanted the cover to show the main character of the zombie private eye standing in front of a backdrop of the nightmarish city that he lives in. I was given descriptions of the character and setting and also suggestions of various poses he might be in (tipping his hat, smoking a cigarette, leaning on a lamppost made of bone) along with the colour scheme and what atmosphere it should invoke – the style they were looking for was something along the lines of the Sin City posters.

First of all I researched and gathered together any reference material that might be useful or could be used as inspiration and then I did a few different quick sketches to try out various poses.
The feedback from these initial roughs was that they liked certain elements from each sketch. They wanted him tipping his hat and leaning against a bone lamppost but also wanted to have quite a close up shot on him. So taking all these suggestions I produced a revised rough which they were happy with. I was then able to proceed onto the final art.
Below is the initial version of the final artwork that I created.
They were happy with the way it looked but thought that the character was looking a bit younger than he’s meant to be in the story so they asked me to make him look more gaunt. So this was the only revision I had to make on the final artwork.

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