Compelling Covers: Character Design and Narrative

I recently completed my latest digital painting, “Burn the Past”, and am excited to share with you the thought process that went into this piece 🙂

One of the first things I wanted to do at the outset of this piece was design an illustration that would first and foremost be super effective as a book cover. I want to get more work in this genre, so the first step is to make illustration that already looks like the work I want to do. Designing a book cover illustration is a lot harder than you might think! There’s an old saying that goes, “The illustrator makes you pick up the book. The writer makes you put it down.” It’s not totally fair to writers, but it does have a lot to say about the job of a book cover illustrator. Book covers need to grab the eye of a potential customer, but they also need to hold back. After all, what’s the point of reading a book if the cover already tells you everything?

With “Burn the Past,” I wanted to go for an “origin-story” type of image. My central idea was that this character has literally “burned” her old pirate ship in an attempt to move on from a criminal past. It’s like the classic crime story in which a old gangster is trying to live the clean life, but his past keeps catching up with him.

One of the first things I did when coming up with ideas was to look at the book covers of classic illustrators to see what’s already been done.

I was thumbing through a book compiling the artist Michael Whelan’s book and came across his dynamite cover for Anne McCaffrey’s “Killashandra.” I love the entire way he’s composed this character. Everything about her overall design, the futuristic bike and the moonscape behind hints at a subtle narrative thread without being too heavy handed. I guess there’s a reason why Whelan is one of the top dogs of 1990’s fantasy book covers.

With that in mind, I even went so far as to make sure that my cover actually worked by throwing some dummy type on top of it to see how it would work. I think that if an illustration can look reasonably believable as a cover with type added, then it should do OK in the real world. Now, I would never show this to an art director personally – I am not specialized in graphic design – but leaving the space for an upper and lower title area just makes sense and designing a rough type layout ensures that the space is available.

I got really lucky when I asked a friend of mine to help with the photo reference. I told her I was looking for a “pirate” character and she just so happened to have a wardrobe full of awesome accessories! That being said, I think it helped that when I set up the shoot with her, I had a good plan to start with and knew what I wanted out of it. One thing I was thinking about was that I wanted to evoke the feeling of a pirate character without being over the top and even mixing in some modern fantasy with the swashbuckling elements. A great way to do this is by thinking about a character’s accessories.

In doing some research of modern pirate imagery, I of course came across the incredibly classic “Pirate of the Caribbean”. Something that caught my eye was Depp’s bandana and the fact that he isn’t wearing a tricorner hat for most of the promotional imagery. Things like hats can be very big “identifiers” for a particular genre, so I found it interesting that he doesn’t have one in a lot of the money shots used to promote the series.

Further intrigued by this, I did some more research and found a style trend of scarves tied around the head paired with silver jewelry. It’s funny, but I never used to do this kind of fashion pin boarding when I first started out as a freelancer – I thought it was a bit silly to go around looking at modern trends when I was illustrating character’s from a totally imaginary place. However, even fantasy takes a cue from whatever is happening in the real world. Tapping into what is currently in vogue will make a character more appealing to a modern audience (even if they don’t know why).

I pretty much extrapolated out my ideas for the character’s overall fashion for the rest of the outfit, mixing and matching modern fashion with current fantasy and a dash of pirate themes. Throwing all these elements into the creative blender is one of my favorite activities! You can see in my initial sketch above that certain elements still go through significant design changes. The straps on the corset went through a few revisions, and I ended up deciding she should have a dagger instead of a sword. After all, fighting on a ship would require close quarters combat so the dagger just felt more appropriate. This is all to say that a plan is great to have, but don’t be afraid to change course if you think the work will be stronger for it!

Thanks for reading 🙂 I hope you enjoyed this little dive into the world of my inspirations and thought process!