Monday, March 09, 2020

Harley In The Sky

This golden, shining cover is wrapped around Akemi Dawn Bowman's latest work of fiction, following on from the bestselling 'Starfish' and 'Summer Bird Blue', both multi-accolade-winning novels in the Young Adult Fiction world.

I already knew about Akemi's books as their covers are the sort that seem to have existed forever in my line of sight; popping up on 'best book' and 'great read' lists and on the myriad publishing news emails I sign up to. So when I realised THAT'S whose book I was about to illustrate, I knew it had to be...

...well, different from those. This was a different story, not linked; new characters and settings. 
And by a different illustrator!

I started where I usually start, by reading the manuscript. Always feeling like a giant skive - reading books during the work day? Someone's going to grass me up any minute - this is the single most important thing I can do before starting a cover. 

And I was gripped.

~ † ~

It's a risky strategy, reading the book rather than opting for a neat summary with key points provided by the editor. You might not actually like the book, in which case you can approach the book more objectively and pick out the key elements that could inform your cover in a rather workmanlike way. You might like the story but not the main characters (let's be honest, just like in real life, you can't like EVERYONE you meet), in which scenario your job is to focus on the environment, the landscape it's set in, and pivotal objects or moments. (If the art director's asked you to focus ON the character, well. Then you just suck it up and crack on.)

The third risk is one I encountered umpteeen years ago, close to the start of my YA illustration career. You don't just like the book. You LOVE the book. LOVE it. So much that you cart the manuscript around with you to the MOT station, to bed, to the waiting room, the bathroom; you laugh (or cry or tremble) out loud in public places and feel The Sad when it's over, even though it's not a proper book yet because you haven't even drawed the front of it so it can't be a book yet.

You might think these books are the easiest to draw for, because you gel with them. And maybe it is for some - but it isn't the case with me.

When I'm this situation I want to get the cover so right it can be paralysing. I want the cover to tell the entire story in one image (which a cover cannot, and should not, ever do). I want the character to look precisely the way I visualise them. I want it to be perfect - and oftentimes, objectivity flies off out the window along with sound judgement and the necessary sense of detachment that's needed to make a cover.

After all, a cover needs to not only hint at the story and mood, and be nice and legible, it needs to be attractive and distinctive on shelves. It needs to leave enough ambiguity for the next reader - after you, you who got to read it first - to pull it down from Waterstones' shelf and go, 'OOH'. Essentially, it needs to SELL, and that little spot just there where a cover artist's personal desires Venn-Diagram their way into the Marketing Team's Monday meeting can be a hotbed of angst, difference of opinion and disappointment.

Which is why objectivity and detachment can be king when tackling a cover.

'Harley In The Sky' fell into this last category. To be really honest, a great many of the manuscripts I read DO fall into this category. I'm a reader, and I love books and escaping, and regularly fail to believe my good fortune that I'm asked to draw covers for such immersive, narratively energetic books. There's only ever been one manuscript I didn't like, and it was because it was written in a certain why that I found hard to read. As it happens, this had a surprising effect: I had to try much harder with the cover, and the end result was one of my all time faves (and I shall never tell which one it was!)

Tackling Harley therefore yielded, as often happens in this situation, a great many initial ideas. Because how on earth was one going to do the job on its own?

I started by visualising a very pretty, very ornate cover, inspired by Japanese paintings, Klimt and botanical art. Set against a pitch-black background, I wanted Harley Milano and her hoop swinging into the middle of it all; strings of jewels and ivy, trails of exotic flowers and ropes as her backdrop. The circus would be communicated through some hand-drawn lettering drawn straight from turn of the century circus posters (suggested by the cheesy placeholder font here).

In an alternative version, she's the focus of attention, her face staring purposefully out from a writhing assembly of rococo flourishes, cherry blossoms, ribbons and fellow aerial performers, her piled-high hair crowned with a mini-Big Top:

And in the third initial suggestion, she's divided by the cover; rebellious Harley who runs away to join the rival circus on the front, the Maison de Mystére, and the 'good' Harley who should stay with her family's own circus, the Teatro della Notte (even though her parents are against it):

The second batch of ideas suggested the world of Harley's imagination as a full side profile, looking skyward into her trapeze-based aspirations - of these, only the circus at the bottom was to stay, but I LOVED everything about these two. I consider these all-ink options 'The Ones That Truly Got Away':

Harley's 'stars' being added

After this, another round of ink-based approaches using dramatic shapes and silhouettes. If Harley was to be featured, she could be seen the way she might be seen from far away on the ground in the Big Top - a sharp silhouette, rolling down her aerial silks.

The background this time IS the Big Top, swirling upward into blackness, acrobatic lettering in the foreground.
(Crikey I loved that Y and REALLY wanted it to stay!)
And here's where the idea of show lighting came in - these sulphurous spots surrounding the performance:

The final cover we settled on looked like this; a combination of the more organic looking lettering, Harley as silhouette, and that big top with the lighting, the circus illustration taking centre stage not the back:
And this is how it was made!

I wanted lots of texture in this cover, so the Big Top was created with a sheet of A3 cartridge paper inked over with mono printing ink and a roller. This gave the points their aged, gnarly texture.

Cut from the centre into radial points with a scalpel, but keeping the piece of paper attached in the centre, I arranged the sheet on a scanner.

A deepening orange background was painted with layers of ink, to sit behind the 'Big Top' and create that sense of peering into the darkness. And the circus was drawn entirely with fineliners!

And the finished cover was appropriately treated to a gold under print, making it absolutely sparkle at the edges. It's a satisfyingly fat hardback, so is lovely to hold in the hands. Check the gold below in the video - and delightful surprise of the gold foil on the back spine beneath!

I insisted Akemi sign her copy for me! The 13-year-old in me is fainting.

Thank you to Heather Palisi for the careful and enthusiastic art direction, and tor asking me to do it.

"Harley In The Sky' is published by Simon & Schuster on 10th March, 2020, 
and you can buy a copy here in the US, or here in the UK.

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