Thursday, July 20, 2017

Center It! (or, Why a Good Illustration Doesn't Automatically Make a Good Book Cover, pt.1)

By Lauren Panepinto
I look at a lot of portfolios, and in almost every review, the artist asks me whether their work is suitable for book covers. Sometimes a gorgeous portfolio just doesn't have the "book cover feel" I need to commission them. There's a lot of reasons why a good illustration may not be a good book cover. Remember most of all, a book cover is advertising first, art second. As painful as that simple fact may be to us on the artist side of the spectrum, that fact is undeniable: An "ugly" book cover that is a bestseller is more successful than a "beautiful" one that sells half as many copies. Now of course, those are subjective values, and I'm exaggerating. As an Art Director, one of the main responsibilities I have is to balance the Artist's priority (make a gorgeous portfolio piece) with the Author/Editor's priority (sell books), and that can lead to choices that make business sense but not aesthetic sense (ex: making the type bigger and as a result covering more of the art).

Remember, there are creatives on both sides of this equation. Artists on one, and Authors on the other. And I want to do my best job for both. After all, more books sold means more paying work for both the author and the artist. (And, bonus, it keeps your Art Director employed.)

In most bookstores, you're lucky if you get a cover-out spot, instead of just a spine-out.

Anyway back to the point. A cover sells the book in a way that concept art, interior illustrations, and gaming art really doesn't have to. A good book cover needs to be eye-catching more than it needs to be beautiful, because book covers exist in a highly competitive and overwhelming visual market. A viewer of a table or bookshelf at a bookstore only has half a second tops to scan past a cover, and it's even less on websites.

So what do I look for? (given that skill level is suitable)
—Simple compositions, usually with the Important Thing in the center
Visual Hierarchy, with a strong focal point
—Control of the viewer's eye path thru secondary focal points
—Strong silhouettes and graphic use of negative space (because that reads really well small)

Extra Credit: Depicting common genre checkpoints in a fresh way

Covers need to be visually interesting in thumbnail size too. You don't necessarily need to be able to see exactly what's going on, but your eye is drawn to strong colors, shapes, and silhouettes at this scale.

I think I can probably do a post on each one. I probably should. I already did one on Visual Hierarchy. So let's pick off an easy one, something that I see mishandled in a lot of student and young professional's portfolios: Simple, centered compositions.

Now I'm not talking about compositions that are off-center for a definite compositional reason. Again, if you've nailed the visual hierarchy and eye flow path, then you don't need to center the composition. I'm talking about the off-center for no reason compositions. The ones where, if I ask why the character wasn't centered, I get a shrug at best. At worst, I've heard fresh grads state their teachers told them never to center a character or composition because it was too simple. So I end up seeing a lot of illustrations that just look...mis-cropped. They're not off-center enough to look deliberate. They're just...slightly enough off-center to look like a mistake.

Look I don't want to shame anyone's wishy-washy compositions here, so instead I'm going to show you a whole bunch of covers below that are solidly centered. And I'm going to challenge you, next time you're in a book store, or browsing online, go find an illustrated book cover where the composition isn't centered. Not too easy, is it? And the ones that are off-center, I bet the type takes over the role of center focal point. That's most of the big epic fantasy landscape covers right there.

So the moral of the story is, if you don't have a deliberate reason to have an off-center composition, then just own it. Center that character! Center that planet! Center that giant space slug! (or whatever). Trust me, as I am the one hiring book cover artists all the time. It's not "too easy". It's not "cheating". It's not "playing it safe". When in doubt, just center it.

Jaime Jones

Greg Manchess

Dan Dos Santos

Sam Weber

Victor Mosquera

Richard Anderson

Sam Weber

Dominick Saponaro

Ben Zweifel

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

John Bauer

By Justin Gerard

I was sitting in my Doomsday bunker today, sipping cold coffee and admiring my bear-proof suit when I thought to myself, "It's high time we had a post on John Bauer around here."

Sure, Bauer's name has been mentioned on Muddycolors before, but his art has never had its day in the sun. So today I am dusting off a copy of Swedish Folk Tales and cracking open the fallout doors to share some really wonderful trolls with you.

Looking at Bauer's work, one might reasonably think that it was all pure escapist imagination. Yet much of it was based on the real world study of mankind and of nature grounding his highly imaginative work in reality.

At 22 he journeyed to Lappland, which in 1904 was an exotic wilderness to him. He was commissioned by industrial developers to paint watercolors of the Sami people and their culture to send back to people in Stockholm. While there Bauer took notes, photographs and made sketches, detailing the landscape and the curious people he encountered there. This real-world study would influence his work throughout his career and would impart solid earth beneath the magic in his illustrations.

Few artists have truly captured the magic and mystery of the forest like John Bauer. Who knows what lurks in the darkness beyond those trees? Or beneath that water or under that stone? His art has a wonderful quality that draws you out into the world, instead of encouraging you to retreat from it.

He makes the forest seem a precious and magical place. Which is interesting considering that he was originally commissioned to document these places by people who sought only to exploit it for natural resources.

While Bauer's work feels very classical and a product of the Golden Age of Illustration, it continues to be quite popular, inspiring artists to this day. His paintings have gone for as much as $87,000 at auctions in recent years and his books still being reprinted more than a hundred years later.

Fellow Muddycolors contributor Cory Godbey visited the John Bauer Museum in Jönköping, Sweden  a few years back. He gives a brief video tour of it here.

I hope you've enjoyed this little tour of John Bauer's work. I'm going back to my bunker now where its safe from all the things that come out after dark around here.

Link to higher resolution files on Wikimedia:
Link to the collection on Project Runeberg:
Link to Swedish Folk Tales on Amazon:

Monday, July 17, 2017

Painting on the Go

-By Jesper Ejsing

I am out at the tip of Britannia, in Cornwall to be precise. Together with my family I have rented a small 300 old fishing cottage in a town called Port Isaac. It is a very picturesque area.

Before leaving I packed up some paint to paint some landscapes ”on –the go”. I heard from Nathan Fowkes that he was using watercolours from tubes and then adding them to white gouache to make it thick and covering like acrylics. So I bought a starter set of watercolour tubes and a white gouache, a flat brush and threw it in a plastic bag.

Also I had seen him using a sketchbook with brown dusted paper and I just bought one like that. Not because I thought it had any value except for the artsy feeling it would impose on my sketches done in it. But that sketchbook I hadn’t touched since, because the trip in which I bought it was together with the great Karl Kopinski, and he had, as a friendly gesture made a very very nice drawing in the first page to “break it in”. In reality it had me scared like hell. Every time I opened it to start sketching Kopinskis super “Directly with black marker” drawing looking intimidating out at me. And on top of that: Brown arty paper. I threw that book into the suitcase also. “Haa, Karl, I am doing something completely different than you now. No figures, no cool mean looking characters, just landscapes”.

Here you can see some of the landscapes I did while traveling.

I was right away happy that the paper was not white. It works fantastically with a brown muted down surface when you paint opaque. So my childish insecure and completely private and secret urge to spite Karl Kopinski became a happy accident.

One thing I learned and that I have thought about will be the one thing I take home from this trip is this: The less preparation and packing in and out you have to do to start painting the easier it is. I started having everything I needed in one small plastic bag in my backpack, all the time. The water bottle for drinking was also the water I used for painting. The tissue papers the palette (A small plastic one) and the book. It was always in the backpack.

And this is also why I see the gouache and the small tubes of watercolour to be perfect medium for this. It takes up almost no space and is light and easy to carry around. It meant that I could pull it all out in less than 30 seconds and start painting when the light was right or if I sat down to rest in the middle of a hike.

It sounds like an indifferent thing and to some it might be no point at all, but I struggle with this a lot. I always have 2 voices in my head. One saying “ you should paint now, and draw something now, you lazy bastard. Why are you just sitting here? You could be drawing to become better? All the time! You are lazy you will never improve by not doing anything” this voice is not a happy voice. It is my bad conscience and a voice that will never really let me relax. I do not like that voice but I have learned to live with it.

The other voice says stuff like: you do not have to paint all the time. Just relax, enjoy nature, play some games? You should make a cup of coffee and watch a movie”, but 5 minutes into that and the other voice starts calling me a lazy bastard again and the hamster wheel keeps spinning.

What I am trying to say here is that I struggle with the ability to actually just enjoying the painting just for fun or just for nothing else but the joy of painting. It always has to be for a specific purpose. I sketch figures at a café to be better at drawing real people. I paint trees to be better at trees in a fantasy background; I try to capture clouds so I can use them for setting in a dragon painting. To be honest it is just yet another pressure, And yet another purpose. Something you do to improve something else and not just for its own sake.

It was with that in mind I sat out to do these small landscape paintings in my vacation. And I have to say I had fun without any kind of pressure to accomplice anything. And the most important part of that was the setup. I did not relied on an easel of palette setup in acrylic or oil. The gear allowed me to keep it fun and spontaneous. I think I will carry this setup with me from now on till the book is full. Even when I get back home. To do a small painting on my way to the studio when the light is right.

Lets face it. If it’s not fun it is something you set yourself up to. And I do not want to set myself up to something I love as much as painting.

When I was painting this one, I was down by the Harbour. I got the paints out and sat my backpack down by the sand and climbed the rocks to get a good position. When i was almost done and was working on the cliff to the left in the foreground I spotted something big and green in the corner of my eye floating on the waves in from of me: my backpack. The tide had taken it within just ten minutes. I jumped in and got my wallet and everything in it back to shore...