Monday, November 02, 2020

Comfort & Joy - 'a journey'

It's definitely not too early to post this Christmassy book by Kristin Hannah - after the weekend we've had and the weeks we're about to have, I thought we needed an unashamedly seasonal bit of work!

I started this book cover in February this year, before the 'first' lockdown when Christmas seemed a lovely recent memory rather than an imminent but uncertain event. Such is the nature of Christmas-related projects - I can be working on those eighteen months ahead sometimes - but when I was making this cover I had NO idea, of course, that we'd all be anxiously waiting to see what shape Christmas would be this year.

This one's also a good example of a cover that went through a great many versions before the final was approved. In fact, the project was finally finished in May, while we were deep but freakishly sunny mid-lockdown, the talk was still of banana bread and clapping, and I was still running to the local graveyard to do my workout!

Art director Derek was keen for a brand new look for Kristin's books, which are mega-bestsellers. The author had seen a cover of mine that she'd liked ('Nightbird' by Alice Hoffman) so we started there - a rich surround of wintery foliage revealing a cosy-looking house in the centre. 

The work was done as pencil sketches on A2 paper - my plan was to really ink these in in quite some detail:

To this I added some colour, with a hand-made ink sky (captured on camera):

Now, this was pretty much exactly what the author wanted. It's actually quite unusual for an author to have so much say in a book - but I think because of her status as a high-seller, with a strong reader profile, this writer was allowed to have more input. However this sketch was quickly set aside for a more toned-down foliage-based approach - no flowers (which had all been chosen for their geographical and seasonal relevance), just foliage. So we tried that approach instead.

And the house? Less grand, please! So we tested out how that might look, in a quick all-green rough:

This wasn't the right look either - so Derek and I discussed some branch-only approaches. Just green, and just the branches of a pine tree - a few branches:

A few more branches - painstakingly drawn one needle at a time in Procreate - and in the blazing sunshine!

And then Full Branch Action. Note how the house has changed from the first one, too:

After drawing gazillions of individual pine branches, I learned that the author still wasn't keen. I don't think she was being ornery deliberately; she just knew what she liked - but only when she saw it! And...she hadn't seen it yet.

So we tried a more graphic approach, reducing the branches to mere silhouettes, more like a framing device. Pine cones are Works In Progress here!

This one I loved - although only loosely indicated here, it was easy too picture a holographic foil on the tips of these frozen branch tips, and a spot varnish for the moon:

But. These still weren't right. And I can't remember exactly HOW we got to the final version, but all went quite for a couple of weeks, before 'Overwhelmingly Patient Art Director Derek' sent me another piece of my previous work, and told me the author rather liked this one now, instead (my work for Bareminerals' Christmas make-up range):

And off we went again! Again using Procreate to sketch and do final, with the art then brought into Illustrator for careful vectorising, we got to an outcome Kristin liked. My little house survived for one rough more, but my lettering didn't:

And by the time we got to 'Final-Final-Final', the house had gone too. And my blue-ink sky was made red, with the simple magic of Photoshop, of course!

I can't wait to see this in the flesh as I understand there's gold foil action, and that's going to look extremely Christmassy. It's one of those jobs where the roughs took me hours and hours, with all the pine needles (all those 'bastard pine needles' as they were being called at the time) with the final art taking me a morning to complete - but that's how it works sometimes. My record for rejected roughs remains at 47 - forty-seven different, individual cover ideas for a single book, NONE of them used in the end (they used a stock photo) - and this was nowhere near that, so that record is safe...for now.

And it was all worth it (it almost always is) because Kristin says on her Instagram account that ‘for the first time, she really loves the cover’ on this novella. My work here is done!

I’ve saved every sketch, original bit of art and rough because you ever know — they might not have been Kristin’s cup of egg nog, but they could be someone else’s. Recycling, you know!

'Comfort & Joy' is published by Ballantyne, part of Penguin Randomhouse, and you can buy a copy here.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

'Bedtime Stories' for Papyrus UK

I was extremely happy to see this campaign by Papyrus UK finally make its way into the world after Covid-related delays. September was National Suicide Prevention Month, so the release was timed to coincide.

Released across the UK press, online and in social media, the campaign used the idea of bedtime stories to highlight the dangers of children using social media alone. Agency TBWA\Mcr asked me to create illustrations in the style of a fairytale, and titles for each of four narrators, whose story was told in the form of a rhyming tale; a clever but unflinching way to call attention to the very real risks from online trolling and bullying.

I've had to deal with online trolls only once in my life - a story for another time! - but they were swiftly dealt with by Report / Block / Delete and, in our case, threats of notifying the police (since a couple of them really did need to pipe down). It was a grim enough thing to deal with as a calm, rational adult with support and all the in-app tools at our disposal, so I can't imagine being twelve years old and sitting alone in my room, voices on my laptop screaming at me.

The illustrations were created with pen and ink, and a little digital colour, and the series title was created from the individual letters drawn from the four story titles:

The stories were also read for the screen by four narrators - you can watch all of them below - which explained the hold-up in the campaign's release - the films couldn't be completed as schedule due to pandemic restrictions, and had to wait until all members of the film crew, including the narrators, could return to the studio.

Oh and you can't see it too well, but the TBWA team made a giant book as a filming prop - which is amazing!

Thanks to the TBWA team for involving me in this important, well-executed project.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Ink & Sigil

Published this week is ‘Ink & Sigil’ by New York Times best-selling author Kevin Hearne, which has its US release on 25th August and its UK release on 27th. 

In a 'career first', I’ve illustrated both the North American and UK editions of this murky Glasgow-set novel involving enchanted ink (obviously), mysterious symbols known as ‘sigils’ (look them up!), craft cocktails and the cursed Al MacBharrais, whose apprentices keep...dying. 

In ever-bizarre and unexpected ways.

It’s published by Orbit Books US and is the most recent of Kevin’s myriad fantasy and adventure novels. I have been most pleased to make his acquaintance while working on his books! This is the first in a planned series which is a departure from his usual style of novel, so the cover had to reflect that. Influences for the US cover, which came first, included tattooing, Victorian medicine bottles and apothecaric ephemera, whisky bottles, etchings and classic maps. 

Here's my 'sigils reference board' - fascinating, mysterious symbols with immense power - for go0d, in the right hands, and in the wrong hands, well...

These had to be pulled into a cover that made sense in a very readable but detailed way - the initial suggestions I made were a little contemporary and stylish, using a free-wheeling lettering based on real sigils without too much of the meaty detail, and some really bold colours - several ideas were sent based around these two proposals:

Since I happened to be in New York while I was working on this cover, I went for a meeting at art director David Stevenson's office at Penguin Random House, to discuss where next to take the cover. (Ah! remember the good old days - meetings at people's offices!) We ran through the suggested inspirations and talked over the vibe of the manuscript, which I'd read a couple of months before, and re-framed the direction with a lot more murk and intrigue. Here was my next set of suggestions:

It was THIS one that hit the spot - this is the more evolved, final-pencil version:


Once this was inked in, it was scanned and put together with its hand-made ink backgrounds - three of them, all layered up to create that dank, wet Glasgow-street feel - again presented in an assortment of options. I remain convinced to this day that that ampersand isn't quite right - but the art 
director liked it, so it stayed in!

With the addition of colour the final art looked like this; I made a full wraparound:
and with some slight adjustment to those colours by David, the cover was done!

A few months later came the request for the UK version of the cover, from British art director Duncan Spilling at Little, Brown. The request here was for the same cover, but rendered in a more detailed style of line work - less 'tattoo', more 'etching'. The research for this was most engaging, ploughing through image after image of the full spectrum of etching work, and pinpointing whereabouts on the spectrum of 'etching' this illustration should fall, exactly.

I did a practice run to establish just how tidy or neat the line needed to be:

The beauty of this version was that I didn't have to think about the composition and layout - just focus on the rendering, which was really quite different from the US version; smaller, finer lines, more of them; cross-hatching, pointillism and sketching - and the opportunity to rectify that ampersand I'd never been happy with!

Here's the final art, all black drawing ink on paper:
And here's how that looks with its antique paper background and ink spills:
Again we added some colour and by mid-April - we had non-identical twin covers!
Two completely separate pieces of art.

You can buy a copy of Ink & Sigil in the US from here

and if you're in the UK, get it from here.


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