Sunday, December 21, 2014

Enter the Dragonfly

This is a self-congratulatory post about making art. Art is a bit like sausage and laws, so read on only if you have the stomach for it!

A while back I mentioned that I was working on a painting inspired by the book covers of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, which ran in the seventies and made a lot of hard-to-find pre-mass-market fantasies available in the form of cheap trade paperbacks. Many of the editions featured wrap-around images executed in inks or watercolors, often crude, garish, or badly drawn, but rather pretty for all that. The best part was the spine, and a shelf full of them (as I have on my bookcase) presents a pleasing potpourri of color and form.

Anyway, I've been meditating on self-publishing my novel, Dragonfly, for the simple reason that I'm particular about presentation, and feel that I'd do a better job of presenting it than some graphic designer who hasn't read it and doesn't know where I'm coming from. (Okay, that's not the only reason.) So I figured, why not make a Ballantine-style cover while you're meditating?

Well, it took me a few months, but here it is:

Dragonfly, 12" x 9", watercolor on hot-pressed paper.
I'm excessively pleased with it, as I am with all my work. It's most similar in color and composition to the cover of New Worlds for Old, a short-story collection edited by the inimitable Lin Carter (with art by David Johnston), but has some things inspired by Xiccarph, The Night Land, and others. The plants in the foreground are drawn from plates in Ernst Haeckel's Kunstformen der Natur, which influenced and was influenced by Art Nouveau motifs. The lady owes to the posters of Alphonse Mucha, the great Art Nouveau designer. All in all, it's meant to have an Art Nouveau vibe.

One thing I learned in designing the thing is that wrap-around book cover paintings are not very easy to design. The trick is to make something that will look good as a front cover, a back cover, and a spine, but also as a whole unit. This means that you have to have a main focal point in the front cover area, together with a secondary focal point in the back cover area that can serve as a main focal point when the cover is closed. Another issue is that you have to lay out the composition with the print material in mind, meaning that it will look off-balance as you paint it. Paintings make for bad illustrations, while illustrations can sometimes serve as passable paintings, though the incompleteness leaves a certain void.

So here is a very rough draft of the front cover:

A professional would never post a rough draft, I suppose, but I'm not a professional, so what the hell. As you can see, I plan to use fonts inspired by Art Nouveau.

Here's a close-up of the lady's head and torso, which I'm rather pleased with:

Her name, incidentally, is Seila, but to find out who she is, you'll have to read the book. The treatment of the red hair was inspired partly by Trina Schart Hyman's illustrations to Saint George and the Dragon, a Caldecott-winner that I've read to my son and daughter many times.

Here's a draft of the back cover:

Some of the mosses in the lower right-hand corner will, alas, be covered with a bar code if this actually goes to print. Curses upon the exigencies of modern life! The mosses were designed with this in mind, but I lavished more care upon them than I'd intended, and now I regret their disappearance. Oh well.

Our eponymous hero, who appears to be missing one wing, recalls Paul Klee's Winged Hero. He (or his twin in a very close parallel universe) is the subject of my upcoming story "Day of the Dragonfly" in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I really like dragonflies ("winged bullets," as Edwin Way Teale calls them in Grassroot Jungles), and live in an area known for its unique oding opportunities, hence my odonatopterous warrior.

And hey: did you know that oding is a thing? It is! "Oding" is dragonfly-watching (order Odonata: dragonflies & damselflies). Illustrated dragonfly checklists are sold at my local supermarket, right next to the bird checklists, but all oding and bird-watching transpire at the sewage treatment plant, which doubles as a nature preserve. We take what we can get around here. Actually, I've seen some rare and beautiful birds, such as green jays, there. Beauty flowering in man's refuse: that's what I like to write about, and where the dragonfly comes in.

Anyway, last but not least, here is the spine, which, if I do say so myself, is quite a work of art, and would grace the bookshelf of the most discerning collector:

The lettering will be more prominent in the final version. A phony logo, etc., are in the works, so these layouts are barer than they will be. Because nothing screams "amateur" like not having small-print crap all over your cover.

Here's the draft cover, opened flat:

Finally, Amazon gives you a square-shaped container for the thumbnail that comes up in searches, so you maximize your space by having a square-shaped image rather than a book-shaped image. Here's my proposed square-shaped image (also planned for in the composition):

I still have to experiment a bit with the placing of the text. It strikes me that this would also make a cool old-school heavy metal album cover.

How did I produce this amazing work of art? Well, I'll tell you. (♪ He's going to tell! He's going to tell! ♪ He's going to tell! He's going to tell! ♪) First I mapped out the basic format on a big sheet of sketch paper (purchased at Wal-Mart, mind you, because, where I live, if Wal-Mart doesn't have it, then you don't need it), beginning with the lady and her hair. Then I worked up the various sections around her in separate sketches and transferred them to the larger sheet, using a lightbox. Some designers have a fancy manufactured lightbox, but my lightbox is my bedroom window, which gets a lot of fierce Texas sun now that the %&$#! neighbors have cut down all the trees that border our properties. I taped the sheets to the window, one behind another, and traced. I could see the construction workers watching me as I did this, wondering what I was up to. The owners themselves continue to be as elusive as Mr. Snuffleupagus, and I'm beginning to doubt their existence.

But I digress. Once the sketch was complete, I traced it using a big sheet of tracing paper, then flipped it over and traced it the other way, because, you know, it would be backwards otherwise. (This is where I always detect imbalances in the composition, so I had to do some fixing at this point.) Then I taped the tracing paper to my watercolor paper (I use a pad of Arches hot-pressed) and rubbed it down with my fingernail. After lightly strengthening the lines with a mechanical pencil I proceeded to ink them, something I don't generally do in my art-for-art's-sake pictures.

My painting technique is top secret but involves some use of Chinese white in areas calling for delicate work. The other colors I used include cadmium red, Naples yellow, gold ochre, raw sienna, burnt umber, chrome green (a mellow and buttery, difficult but truly excellent pigment), sap green, cobalt blue, and Payne's gray. These are all pure pigments except for the last. Normally I try to avoid mixtures, because each pigment has its own special properties, but Payne's gray was just too useful for what I was doing. I take pride in knowing my pigments: whether they come from the earth, from organic matter, or from synthetic materials; what their covering power is; whether they tend to stain; and so on. I like how Daniel Thompson describes the medieval artists:
In medieval painting methods…the separate pigments tend to be exhibited with emphasis, almost like jewels in a complicated setting. Fine colors were so hard to come by in the Middle Ages that the painter would not willingly degrade them by indiscriminate mixing. The palette was treated almost like a collection of precious stones, to be grouped in the painting with as much regard for their intrinsic beauty as possible… The medieval painter was as aware of the special qualities of his particular colors as a musician of the special qualities of instruments and voices. [Daniel Thompson, The Practice of Tempera Painting]
I never use black, which dulls colors, though Payne's gray admittedly has some black in it. It tends to "dirty" mixtures if you're not careful.

My figures are drawn from a collection of rights-free nude photos for artists. Obviously I don't use live models. (Where would I find them? What would I pay them? Where would I draw them?) I did practice on nude models quite a lot in college, and I have to say that nothing drains even the most attractive human body of sexual interest like drawing it. We had one female model, who was quite shapely, and two male models, known to us students as "the cave man" and "the fat man," if that tells you anything. The latter suffered from noisy flatulence. But the pleasure in drawing each was the same. Once you get into it, you might as well be drawing an old shoe or a flower.

As I painted, I listened to The Sword of the Lictor, two volumes of Clark Ashton Smith's short stories, The Last Unicorn, and whole lot of rock from the late sixties through the early nineties. I guess I paint pretty slowly. I mostly use a tiny (size 000) Winsor & Newton sable brush for detail work, and a bigger (size 0) synthetic spotter for covering larger areas with color, so finishing something that's around 9" by 12" (100+ square inches) takes awhile. I also only paint for a few minutes each day, generally late at night.

So there. Next I plan to make a couple maps, some pen-and-ink illustrations, and various other interior embellishments. Stay tuned for further developments.


  1. This is an amazing piece of cover art. I've found myself drawn to the pulp era of cover art these last few years and enjoying the lost gems of adventure scifi and fantasy along the way. This is the kind of cover that you stare at for a while, trying to get a sense of all it's trying to tell you about the story--the kind of cover you wonder about before the story and then find yourself returning to it during and after the reading. Can't say that about most cover art nowadays, churned as they are out of the machine of modern publishing.

    Here's hoping I'll be able to get my hands on a hard copy when it's released!

    1. Yes, a lot of covers I see these days appear to have been assembled from clip art and photos. I guess I'm superficial, but a good old pulp cover attracts me like no recent edition could. Thanks for the kind words about my art; I'll continue to post updates on how the project is coming along.

  2. Beautiful and the sort of cover I want to see. The photo whopped ones are such weak stuff. Your palette reminds me of the Ballantine Children of Llyr.

    1. I believe that one was painted by the same artist as New Worlds for Old. I also really like his cover for The Song of Rhiannon.