Designing your own cover (if you must)

Disclaimer: Designing your own cover, like being your own primary editor, is NOT something I’d recommend for the average person, and probably not something I’m going to make a habit of. This is just some advice for those who have more than basic talent and experience in art, and who feel a particular book will only be appropriately served with their own cover art.

I’m designing the cover for Little Ragdoll (release date 20 June) not only to save some money and avoid a time crunch with an outside artist, but also because it’s such a personal story for me. I got the idea back in May ’93, worked it on from July ’93 to about May ’94, and never stopped thinking about it during the 16.5 years it was on hiatus. I carried that story around in my head and heart for about half of my life before I finally went back from scratch and memory in November 2010.

I have nothing against graphic design, but I really feel like hand-drawn covers are more personal and old-fashioned. They also provide more imagination. Here are some things to keep in mind if you insist on doing your own cover:

1. Get used to the fact that your characters will, in all probability, NOT look exactly like you picture them in your mind. No matter who designs the cover, it’s well-near impossible to expect them to look exactly like your longtime mental images. Get that thought out of your head. You’re just going to be disappointed if the people who emerge, from your hand or someone else’s, don’t look exactly like you imagined.

2. Be realistic about your artistic talents and experience. I haven’t taken an art class since my sophomore year of high school (my mother didn’t want me to continue, since I’m not a super-master artist and she felt it were deluding myself). However, I’ve always loved art, and have kept drawing over the years. I’ve drawn pictures, my characters, and picture books for some final projects when I was taking early childhood and education classes. I also always draw pictures on greeting card envelopes, like birthday or wedding cakes, wrapped presents, animals (mostly for children), stars, and flowers. I also entered artwork in a contest the Daily Duranie blog had last year, a T-shirt design for October’s Durandemonium convention. If you haven’t been actively creating art for a long time, it might not be so realistic to do your own cover.

3. Give yourself enough lead time. Work on it a little every day if possible, and give yourself at least a month.

4. Now is not the time to learn a brand-new skill. That’s great that you’d love to learn how to work with oil paints or charcoal pencils! But when time is of the essence and your goal is to create a professional-looking cover, it’s probably not the right time to first try your hand at something new. Stick with what you do know.

5. It’s also best to cease and desist from drawing something you’re not experienced with, or that you can’t learn from a simple tutorial. It’s easy enough to learn how to draw, say, a doorknob, stairs, or a cat. But now is not the time to try your hand at something ambitious and advanced like a peacock, a very detailed human face complete with shading and contours, or one of the wrinkly dog breeds.

6. Have quality paper, and make sure it’s big enough. I’m using a 14 x 17 Co-Mo sketchbook with very nice paper. My smaller Art Street sketchpad would have never been big enough, and plus the paper is bound so shoddily that each sheet detaches every time you turn the page. If you’re a lefty, make sure any spiral-bound sketchbook is bound on top!

7. Use the tools and techniques you already know well. I’m using coloured pencils and pastels, all of which are water-soluble and can produce a paint-like look. While I do have some markers, I felt it would look more professional and mature to stick to quality art materials. My markers are also only Roseart, which is more for young students and beginners than professionals.

8. Not being pro is no excuse for cheap equipment. I’m creating my cover with Derwent Inktense coloured pencils, Caran d’Ache wax pastels, Portfolio Series oil pastels, and some Koh-I-Noor woodless coloured pencils. For preliminary outlining, I’m using an HB graphite pencil from Koh-I-Noor. Even if you’re not a professional artist, when you have beautiful, quality materials to create with, you feel better about yourself and your work. Always get the best you can afford, and get the largest-size sets you can afford. While even most serious artists probably don’t use a lot of the pencils or pastels in a 120-count set, 60 or 72 is a pretty realistic, decent size. For smaller ranges, 24 or 36 works better than 10 or 12. You can also buy open stock if your basic set doesn’t have everything you want.

9. Handheld sharpeners (not crank) are best. You want to turn the sharpener instead of the pencil, for a better point.

10. Have an idea of what you want your cover to look like, so you’ll be ready to start to work quickly. My cover is based off this picture, which I felt was simpler to work from than my original idea of Adicia washing Bob Gaudio’s windshield in the scene that inspired it all. Don’t try to cram in every single character, theme, or event. Also have a realistic colour palette, instead of using the entire rainbow or colours than don’t match, either thematically or coordination-wise.

11. If you make a mistake, try to erase over it with white pastel or ink.

12. If you don’t have a scanner, or a large-enough scanner, use a service at a store like Staples, Kinko’s, UPS, or OfficeMax. If all else fails, you can just take a picture of it if you know how to zoom in close and straight enough.

13. Once you’ve uploaded, use a professional font! Nothing says amateur or unimaginative like Comic Sans, Papyrus, Bleeding Cowboys, Kristen, Curlz, Monotype Corsiva, Lucida Handwriting, Brush Script, Bradley Hand, or Handwriting Dakota. Your name and title deserve a classy font appropriate to the story, like Black Chancery, Journal, Edwardian Script, Tangerine, or Chopin Script.

14. Know how to draw clothes over a bustline! You’re doing it wrong if your female characters all look either flat-chested or like they’ve got balloons stuffed under their shirts.


5 thoughts on “Designing your own cover (if you must)

  1. Cool tips. I used to draw a lot, but now not so much anymore. I’m probably rusty at it. Going cheap is definitely not the way to go. If I ever had to do my own book cover, I’ll probably go with stock photo since I don’t trust my artistic skills.


  2. I only do mock covers for my stories. I know my limits and doing a professional-looking cover is way beyond my abilities.


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