Compose a cover with a narrative
Wylie Beckert builds a captivating fantasy cover.
i’ve always been a reluctant digital painter – it’s tough for me to build a satisfying image through digital means alone, and hours in front of a screen never slip away as easily as those spent hunched over a drawing table. Still, it’s hard to resist the allure of digital art-making: applying smooth washes of colour with just a click of the mouse and bringing my entire workshop with me in a laptop case beats waiting around for paint to dry any day. Combining passion with practicality, my work exists in the limbo between traditional and digital – my pencils, erasers and pads of paper are as dear to me as my tablet and copy of Photoshop, and both sets of media are crucial to the look and feel of my illustrations.
In this workshop, I’ll be detailing some of the quirks of my hybrid process as I build this month’s cover illustration from the ground up. I’ll take you through the stages of turning an art brief into a detailed pencil drawing, and explain how I bridge the divide between traditional drawing and digital painting with my colouring process.
I’ll also be delving into some of the prep work I do to help me develop a strong illustration before the pencil hits the paper: brainstorming a coherent narrative, using reference images effectively and approaching revisions with a plan – all of which can be used to give your work added impact in any medium.
1 What angle to take?
I want my image to be more than just a figure – I want it to tell a story. Often the project I’m illustrating will dictate that story for me, but in this case the brief is open-ended, calling for a girl surrounded by a swirl of sea creatures. I come up with a few angles: our protagonist could be summoning the creatures, offering something to them, or she could be fighting them off.
2 Quick thumbnails
I develop these concepts into onesentence stories – for example: “girl offers the soul of her dead fighting fish to its warrior gods” – and then begin translating them into thumbnails. I focus on composition and value structure, making sure there’s a strong focal point in each image – my thumbnails should read instantly, even at a small size.
3 Reference material
Since my style isn’t photo-realistic, I’ll be using photo reference loosely. I don’t need my reference material to be pretty – the aim is to get a better handle on pose, lighting and camera angle. I also nail details like hands and drapery, which can be tough to portray convincingly from imagination. Referencing details of architecture, clothing and other objects ensures my illustrated world will be full of specific, believable details.
4 Tight sketch
I sketch digitally with my Angled Pencil Brush tool over a scaled-up copy of the thumbnail. I stay close to my original composition, but make adjustments to the character with an eye on my reference materials. I avoid tracing unless absolutely necessary – translating a pose with gesture and stylisation in mind usually results in a more interesting figure. Revisiting my story helps guide the details and generate new ideas.
5 Get out the lightbox
Once I’m happy with my sketch, I print it out at full size – about 25 per cent larger than my finished painting. Creating it on a larger scale will help camouflage imperfections and give the final a more polished look. I use a lightbox to transfer it to Bristol paper, starting with a light hand and tracing loosely to preserve the energy of the sketch. Exact details are copied only in crucial areas.
6 Start the render
For the final pencil drawing, I use a combination of pencils and powdered graphite (applied sparingly with a brush and blended well with a paper towel). To blend tones further and soften the lines, I rub the page with a paper towel. This helps establish a slightly grey base value, which I can then pick out with a kneaded eraser and sharpened eraser pencils to establish lighting and create dramatic highlights. Then I scan the art in at 600PPI.
7 Get organised
I tweak the image using Levels, Curves and Hue/Saturation to achieve a clean, high-contrast image. In addition to my Pencils layers, I’ll be working with Base Colours (grouped with or placed below the pencils) and Accent Colours (placed above the pencils).
8 Masking it off
I then create a mask layer for each major shape to give myself a simple means of selecting a complex shape quickly and easily. I give the layers descriptive names, group them, and turn the visibility off.
9 Values first
A strong value structure will give my illustration impact, so I apply a monochromatic underpainting to nail the values early. I set my Adjusted Pencils layer to Multiply, drop a layer of mid-grey underneath, and start roughing in the lights and darks. I use the Magic Wand to select shapes from my hidden mask layers, then apply tones with the Gradient tool for large areas, and paint smaller details with the Angled Pencil brush.
10 Base colours
I add colour in transparent layers above the Values and Pencils layers. Although I establish most of my rough colours on a Soft Light layer, I also apply tints in Darken, Overlay and Screen layers. My values are becoming obscured, so I start painting them back in (this time keeping my developing colour scheme in mind) in a new Normal layer at the very top of the Base Colour group.