Sunday, February 25, 2018

'The Original Solid Egg': Since 2012 (and why we do it)

In 2012, a chance comment by a friend (Thanks Emma) triggered an idea: Easter eggs were always hollow, and as a child - as an adult, even - you still hankered after the fantasy that one day you'd pick one up and bite into it to find not more air, but more chocolate. A solid, filled, no-bubbles, not-in-chunks, not-full-of-truffles Solid Chocolate Egg.

So, as with many projects before and since, and knowing very little about Easter egg production, we went ahead and made it a reality. We had a history of creating chocolate products as giveaways, promotion and uprated business cards, so we commissioned 50 eggs from a local chocolatier, designed some robust, no-nonsense packaging and an appropriately working-class blocky logo for them, and sold the lot. To our delight, mates, colleagues and strangers alike thrust money at us in exchange for the childhood fantasy of this non-hollow egg.

We initially gave no thought to doing it again, but six years on, Solid Egg is not so much a product as an annual event. We're quite good at events - Leigh and I were putting on events within the first few weeks of meeting each other - so treating it as such feels more native than 'selling a product'. The planning starts before Christmas and the packaging is designed, the ads are plotted and the eggs made as close as feasibly possible to Easter sales time, in order to keep them as fresh as possible. Then with eggs inside packaging and the web shop stocked, we're off, on around six weeks of mentally and physically challenging work on top of whatever else we're working on in the run up to Easter. The Internet can make selling look easy, but it's bloody hard work bringing a hand-made, personalised product to market and even harder actually persuading people to part with their hard-earned cash.

But, with a cult following worldwide, the eggs sell out every year, and we've sold them as far afield as Manhattan, LA, Canada, Korea, Japan, and all over Europe. Every year we're surprised at their geographical reach. The only thing that's stayed the same since 2012 is the logo; the eggs have increased significantly in weight and quantity, the packaging is re-designed every year, advertising routes and looks change; we've designed our own, bespoke moulds.

We've consistently had the eggs made in the UK, with ingredients chosen for their flavour, ethics and origin. People buy our eggs for far-flung relatives as Easter gifts; as thank yous, as presents for themselves; they hide them from their children, buy them for their children, treat their work colleagues with them and keep them on shelves for months, chipping away at a bit of Easter all year round (their average shelf life is around 16 months).

Of course, what happens when you do something that's popular and appealing? It gets copied. There's a big blog coming up about that happening in a much wider context - copying and imitation has been a growing issue in the last 18 months - but, in the time since we've been doing this, another bloke's come along and set up a company selling what he describes as 'solid chocolate eggs', complete with a logo described, when we sought advice on it, as 'uncomfortably close' (you'll see what I mean if your Googling is terrier-like enough to find it!) His egg is, in reality, an egg shape made up of lots of little bits held together by its plastic packaging - so purely in terms of physics alone, not at all solid.
There's room for all styles of chocolate egg in the world of course, and we even laughed and looked the other way when we realised he'd nicked chunks of our copy too (our assistant wasn't so chill about it, she had to be talked down with a nice cup of hot chocolate) and even kept our heads when we noticed he'd dissed our actual egg on his website. But. As long as we keep reinventing and making our egg better and different every year, we're happy to let him have his corner of the chocolate egg world. We know our market, and we know where the motivation for making it comes from - and it's not from the desire to make a few extra quid on Amazon. (There's also no plastic in our egg. Thanks Blue Planet II!)

The other thing we've always done is made vegan eggs. Way ahead of the massive surge in vegan eating, we knew there was a market for a big greed-based hunk of chocolate for people who happen to avoid dairy, and 'inclusive chocolate' was a thing we both sought out and pursued with our own products. As vegans since the late 90s, it would have been insanity not to. Since then we've made a gluten and nut free one too.

So it's all good, and we're quite proud of keeping this project running for all this time. But people still ask us why we do it, since it's hard work and a risky thing to do - after all, what if you don't sell through? There are only so many chocolate eggs you can eat*. The supermarkets are awash with less costly, pretty, or fancy, or character-led, decorated eggs; vegan eggs are even in Aldi now, and for the amount you spend on one of our eggs, you could go mental in Lidl's Easter aisle and still have change for a treat from the 'Seasonal Clothing Bargains' section.

We've come to think it's because people trust us, and the product, and our reasons for doing it. We're not quietly building up an egg-shaped retirement stash - a nest egg, if you will - but we do make a modest profit which is fed into other projects. We don't claim to make the biggest egg, or the fanciest, or the cheapest - it's what it says on the tin (and yes this year, the eggs are coming to you in tins!) - just a solid block of beautiful-tasting no-nonsense chocolate made with love and care. And heavy enough to break a window, or replace your favourite kettlebell.

You can keep track of this year's Solid Egg on Eggstagram, Twitter (chicks, baby hens innit) and Facebook.

*Theory yet to be tested.

And, you can buy them at

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Life & Death of The Ace of Shades

Where possible, once a book cover is finished, I like to unite the original art with the author whose words inspired it. I've been collecting these stories at 'Where it Went' on my main website, but I'm adding them here too.

Now, I can't always share 'Where It Went' posts right away as I have to wait some months between finishing a cover and that cover's 'Reveal'. Sometimes this can be as long as a year. cover for Amanda Foody's new novel 'Ace of Shades' is an exception, as after several months' work on it, the completed cover was signed off then, at the last minute, swapped for a photomontage and font.

Now, this happens. It once happened after 9 months' work producing 47 - yes, 47 - different cover designs for a particular book of adult female fiction. 'Chick Lit' as it was (and probably still is) called - one of the hardest genres to get a cover approved for, due to its mass-market nature. The art director was happy, the author was happy, I was happy, sales were happy...the supermarkets weren't. You can't really get upset when this happens, because ultimately, your job as cover designer/illustrator is to help make a book sell, and if the Sales team at the publishers, or the buyers at the supermarkets - sellers of huge quantities of books - don't like a cover, no matter how beautiful or hard-grafted or loved by everyone else it is, it's not going to get through.

So, here was my completed cover for 'Ace of Shades', and below it, the one that the book went out with.

Along the way to the original version, there were many pencil sketches, revisions and two full size 'final' pencil renderings, before ink even touched paper. 

I always start a book cover with thumbnails, like these, to get my ideas down quickly and record them all, to weed out the weak ones from the possibles. And I do include the ones I suspect might be rubbish - because you never know where an idea will lead. I do this in my floppy Moleskine Journal - thin paper, lots of pages, I can carry it about, make a mess and abuse it a bit along the way, glue things into it and rip pages out - it's what a sketchbook's for! Here are a couple of thumbnail pages:

These'll often go to the client 'as-is'. Early on in my career I started to get a reputation for working up ideas too well - ie: making them rather too finished - and sending too many of those at once. Although it often impressed and delighted a client, this approach actually made their job harder, as it was more difficult for them to feed in to an idea, and to isolate one that wasn't working from one that was, because near-finished artwork can be very seductive, and can disguise the weaknesses in an idea or a layout. Plus, they'd have trouble choosing from the sometimes as many as 20 ideas I'd send in.

I still do that from time to time, but nowadays try to keep the number down to about 6 or 7 ideas, and resist the temptation to take the artwork too far before getting an opinion on it. Tough to do when you're really into a job and enjoying the process! (Having 47 options scrapped for a stock photo + font was definitely a turning point! That art director and I still work together, btw...and our record remains unbroken.)

So the ideas the client liked are then developed into large, A3  sketches - on paper, for this one, since this is the look and process I'd planned from the start. Not ALL my covers are paper-and-ink based - I've done all-digital ones - but most are:

From here, a final direction's agreed on, and a final pencil rendering is made. Tweaks might happen along the way - but with a good, fine pencil-stick Papermate Tuff Stuff eraser, this is no issue at all!

From here, the ink is added - my favourite black drawing ink on my favourite Japanese nib, helped by a handful of different sizes of gel pen - Mujis, and Mitsubishi Unipin Fine Liners:

...till myself and the art director agree it's finished and ready to have its colour added!

which is a process of very careful scanning with a very high-end professional scanner (worth the eye-watering investment) and adding layers of colour and texture created with ink on paper, sometimes combined with digital colour. This usually takes a few versions to get right - my initial 'vision' might not work when it's actually in front of me, or doesn't work when put through the 'Amazon Test' - which is where you reduce the cover to the size of an Amazon store icon, and check it for legibility, impact and muddiness!

Here are a couple of those colour tests (there were quite a few!):

and the final result you've seen posted at the top!

I wrote to Amanda to tell her about how much I'd enjoyed working on the cover, and that I had the original art - would she like it? She'd liked the first version of her cover, and wasn't sure of the reasons for going in a different direction but, like me, knows that these decisions are sometimes out of our hands. I posted her the original art, but kept these images as a record of the life and death of this particular favourite, so that it can live forever in blogland, as the one that was not to be.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

When Light Left Us

This beautiful book is out today, and I had an excellent time developing the cover for it - mainly because I was specifically asked to get inking, and the entire cover was do be created from the ink work I love doing so much.

The book is an unusual work of Young Adult fiction - yes, it has an alien in it, but it's not sci-fi, nor is it fantasy.

The Good Reads review - always dependable - outlines the story thus:

When the Vasquez siblings’ father left, it seemed nothing could remedy the absence in their lives . . . until a shimmering figure named Luz appeared in the canyon behind their house.

Luz filled the void. He shot hoops with seventeen-year-old Hank’s hands. He showed fourteen-year-old Ana cinematic beauty behind her eyelids. He spoke kindly to eight-year-old Milo. But then Luz left, too, and he took something from each of them. As a new school year begins, Ana, Hank, and Milo must carry on as if an alien presence never altered them. But how can they ever feel close to other people again when Luz changed everything about how they see the world and themselves? 

In an imaginative and heartfelt exploration of human—and non-human—nature, Leah Thomas champions the unyielding bonds between family and true friends.

Here are the many stages of evolution that this cover went through - I had so many ideas, but as ever, you can use only one!

There were several ideas. Rather than traditional rejections, with this cover it was really organic process, and I sent along a lot of initial ideas as I had quite a few after reading the synopsis and parts of the manuscript. Making the type to be the main attraction was important, as was creating an air of expectancy and mystery - this story does, after all, involve an alien life form.

The figure, though devoid of an obvious gender or age, was deemed too literal a representation of this kind, friendly life form, whose name is Luiz, and who is described as a ‘shimmering figure’. I did love the figure though, and he’s stayed pinned up in my studio ever since! The scrubby, desert landscape was important to capture, so that took centre stage. Donna at Bloomsbury was the art director on this; we’ve worked together many times, so it was an easy process - she is very clear about what she likes, and is great at seeing things I can’t.

I really wanted a glowing moon, and this was created with my age-old technique of drawing through the coloured ink with bleach. This is one of my oldest ink-tricks - I discovered it as a young teen having borrowed my Dad’s Quink and nib pens - and I still use it today; you can see it in a lot of my work. It's incredibly satisfying to have to wait a few seconds for what you've drawn to emerge on the paper. All of the art was created with ink on A3 cartridge paper, then scanned and the final cover pieces together digitally. There was no tweaking of the ink work - just the type, which is created of several layers of ghostly, fading-in-and-out typeset layers.

Thank you to Donna at Bloomsbury for asking me to create this one - I loved every second of it!

Buy the book here.


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