Book 1: Creating The Cover

I wanted the cover art for this series to have a much more "realistic" look than my usual work, and I knew I'd need photo reference. Step #1 would be to find someone who could be my Brislan Frost model. Sure, I can draw cartoony stuff off the top of my head, but attempting photorealism is a completely different story.

I met Shea Standefer at the 2009 Dragon*Con - friend of a friend - and got to hang out with her a bit. She has a great look and a cool personality, and I thought she fit pretty well with how I'd imagined the character of Brislan. After the convention, I got in touch with Shea, gave her the rundown on the story and over all concept, and asked if she'd be my cover model. She said yes! :) So I sent her a few details and suggestions, and I ended up getting some great shots of her in various poses. Choosing which picture to use for reference was both fun and tough as hell.

After picking a photo, it was time to start drawing. I figured it would be easier to draw Brislan as a separate piece and then create the background afterwards. Assembling them in Photoshop would give me more freedom to move things around, shrink her, mess around with colors, etc. For this blog post, I'm gonna zoom in on her head so that you can see the details better.

Doing the pencil sketch is probably the most time-consuming and frustrating part for me. (I used blue illustration pencil - I just made it grayscale here so you can see the lines easier.) This is where the cartoonist in me wants to exaggerate things. I had to continually go back and forth, from photo reference to paper. Lots of holding it up to windows to make sure the proportions matched. Lots of erasing and redrawing. Fortunately, in the age of Photoshop, things can later be adjusted and bent to match up better. But still, there's a lot of pressure in getting the pencils as right as possible before anything's ever scanned in.

I inked over my pencils with a brush pen. I like using the Faber-Castell Pitt brush pens (available at dickblick.com). Again, there is that comfort in knowing that any screw-ups could be fixed digitally in Photoshop, but inking is still time-consuming and can really make or break a drawing. I think, on their own, my inks are pretty horrible. But hopefully once the colors are in there, it'll all come together and look okay.

Once my inks are done, I scan the whole thing into Photoshop, adjust contrast and levels, and now the fun, scary part begins: COLORING! (I should probably mention, too, that I'm one of those dinosaurs that still uses a mouse to color. So if you ask me what kind of tablet I use, I'll say, "What's a tablet?" :P)

I'm not going to explain every single step of my coloring process, because it would take forever, and frankly, it would bore you to tears. Essentially I start by dropping in flat colors (on a "Multiply" layer). I don't use the paint bucket -- I pretty much just select areas with the lasso tool and fill. Once my base colors are down, I start adding "coverup" layers to soften parts of her skin, for example. I'll color over certain areas on a new layer, and then drop that layer's opacity to maybe 30 or 40 percent. I use a lot of layers, soft brushes, I mess around with opacities quite a bit, and I experiment with editing/adjustment tools as often as possible. I'm a big believer in happy accidents. (My only suggestion with that is: Make sure you SAVE your file before you start experimenting, because Photoshop loves to crash.)

Keep in mind, with this particular piece, I was relying heavily on my photo reference of Shea. I paid very close attention to skin colors, shading, folds in clothes, stuff like that. I would add several layers of soft shadows, then play around with opacities, blurs, etc. I kept adding layer after layer, trying to adjust little things, add little details and colors. Ultimately, I wanted to get it as close to the original photo as I could, but still keep a certain level of artistic style. I wanted it to be 80% photorealistic. 100% photorealistic would be pointless, because then I might as well just use the actual photo.

Anyway, so after many hours of color adjusting, shadow-adding, layer-adding, and sllooooww file saving, here's a look at how the artwork compares to the original reference pic.

Next up, I had to tackle the background. I wanted to create something that would hopefully make it feel like Brislan was deep in the forest, surrounded by the unknown.

A few months earlier, I had gone up to the Minnesota North Shore with my brother and took a bunch of photos of various things for reference -- rocks, trees, bushes, roots sticking out of the ground, whatever.

I drew the forest elements pretty loosely, especially towards the back/middle of the picture. Two reasons for this: (1) I knew I'd be adding a lot of blurs and light effects during the coloring stage, and (2) I think a common mistake people make when illustrating nature is they make things look a little too neat and perfect. When you walk into a forest, or anywhere for that matter, there's a lot of randomness, and a lot of crazy little lines and shapes that would never occur to you.

Coloring the background was a bit easier because of this "purposeful messiness." I looked at a lot of my reference photos, of course, but I also added splotches here and there, blended stuff together, and did a lot of color adjusting so that it all had a good, woodsy, creepy, magical, supernaturally feel to it.

Once both elements (Brislan and the background) were done, I put them together in one Photoshop document and made some final changes/additions. I did a quick "photo filter" to give the color scheme/mood one last tweak. I did an "overlay" layer and blurred it a bit, then dropped its opacity to 20 or 30%, giving it a richer look. I also did a last-minute change with her eyes -- sometimes I decide it would look more dynamic if the character is looking in a different direction. And basically that was it. I could've kept playing around with it forever, but at some point you have to force yourself to stop and say, "Good enough."

Thank you for reading my behind-the-scenes look at the cover art, and thanks again to my amazing cover model Shea Standefer.

I look forward to hearing what you all think of Book One in January, and hopefully Book Two will be on its way very shortly after that! :)

~ Grant