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Cuckoo Song – Illustration Process

January 7, 2015

CuckooSongcuckoo song

Here is my cover art for the US edition of Francis Hardinge’s creepy YA novel, Cuckoo Song, which was originally published in the UK last year.

The original brief was to create a creepy-looking cover reflecting the tone of the book, featuring a battered old doll, maybe missing chunks of hair and perhaps limbs and with a big crack down her head, inspired by one that appears in part of the story.  Art director, Maria Middleton also suggested that it might be cool if the cover type appeared in the cracked plaster of the wall behind the doll.  You can see how I played around with these elements in my initial roughs.

cuckoo song roughcuckoo song rough 2cuckoo song rough 3

The feedback was that they liked the creepiness of the sketches but there was concern that showing the doll’s body would make the book seem too young.  So, to counter that, it was proposed that we should zoom in on the doll’s head and have that be the focus, like in the sketch I did with the disembodied head.  Maria also liked the idea of making it a little more graphic, similar to my Even the Dead Die image, and although she loved the idea of the type in the cracked wall, she thought perhaps there should be just black space around the doll for the type, making it less of a ‘scene’ and focusing more on this scary doll’s head.  She’d also seen some pictures of creepy porcelain dolls which had painted-on hair that she’d liked the look of, and although it wasn’t totally in line with the text, thought it might be cool visually.  Another small design idea the editor suggested was to have the doll look as though it had been buried so it would look dirty and have a few twigs and leaves near it.

I suggested using a muted colour palette for the doll but with the eyes a bright green, giving it a striking and unnerving quality.  They liked this idea, and wanted to keep it in mind for the final art.  Here’s the next set of roughs I did based on the feedback.

cuckoo song roughs

They loved the first sketch and the idea of having painted-on hair, and wanted to go in that direction.  Maria sent me a quick mock-up of how she envisioned the cover design might work with the doll’s head. Screen shot 2014-05-22 at 4.49.47 PM

The editor also wanted to stress that the doll should look like something that was once beautiful but has since become disfigured and dirty.  Before proceeding with the final art Maria wanted me to do a tighter sketch that she could take back to a cover meeting to make sure everyone was on board with the concept and also to make sure that sales/marketing were clear that this would not be a picture book about a doll but a scary novel cover that would be rendered with a high degree of realism.

cs head rough 4

I was given the OK to proceed with the final art based on the final sketch above, with a little more feedback to keep in mind.  Editorial wanted the feel of the image to be more eerie than horror.  Also they wanted the doll to be simplified a bit more, making sure that it looked like a beautiful, delicate, luminous porcelain doll with just one or two flaws (so there are minimal stains and the ‘spider-web’ cracks are more subtle) and only one main crack down the eye, so that it would still get across the creepiness without pushing it too far into horror.  They wanted the cover image and type to convey a delicate, beautiful, eerie vibe rather than being too creepy (which was slightly different to the original brief which was to make a more straight out creepy-looking image) as they didn’t want the cover to completely freak kids out!

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