For my mentorship project I worked with Teresa Bubela from Orca Book Publishers.
For this project, Teresa had a book written by Scott Ely in mind titled The Elephant Mountains. The book had already been published in hardcover but she said it would be interesting to explore potential covers if the publisher was to hypothetically rerelease it in paperback. In the brief Teresa wrote for me she outlined that the target audience was Genre of the book was Young Adult Dystopian and the readership was people above the age of twelve, primarily boys although the publisher didn’t want to discourage girls from picking up the book.
My intent with the project was to produce not only an illustration for cover but also to tackle laying out the type for the front and back cover. Unfortunately due to time restraints I was only able to tackle the illustration for the cover. However I intend to look into adding type over the summer and fall semester.
Research for this project entailed reading the manuscript of The Elephant Mountains. Teresa also sent me some images of comparable titles to help give me an idea of what the book would be sitting next to on a shelf. Here is the summary of the novel:
“An unprecedented series of hurricanes has swollen the Mississippi River to unheard-of levels and is threatening to put New Orleans and most of the low-lying areas of the South underwater. Fifteen-year-old Stephen is spending the summer with his father near a small town north of Lake Pontchartrain when another powerful hurricane arrives and the levees on the Mississippi River completely fail. In the anarchy and chaos that results, Stephen’s father is killed, and the boy is left to fend for himself. Stephen soon encounters Angela, a college student whose parents have also been killed. Navigating the labyrinth of flooded fields and towns in an airboat, the two set out in search of Stephen’s mother and higher ground.
Armed with both guns and the skills his survivalist father has taught him, and repeatedly confronted by those who will kill for food, water and weapons, Stephen struggles to maintain hope and his humanity in the face of violence and desperation.”
On top of the reading Judy suggested I go to a bookstore to get a sense of books it would sit next to on a shelf and setting that the book would be at point of purchase. This naturally led to me spending about two hours reading as many summaries of books at Chapters as I could and spending more money on books than I should have because I have no sense of control once I enter a bookstore. However, it did give me a good understanding of current trends in book covers and what comparable titles looked like.
When it came time to enter the ideation stage, Teresa explained to me that it is typical to present three concepts to a publisher. She recommended the first option be very close to what the publisher had outlined on the brief, the second could stray a little from the outline, and the third could be an option more out of left field. She also made clear that one should never propose an idea that they don’t feel comfortable being able to render or that they are not really interested in illustrating because as Murphy’s Law states “anything that can go wrong will go wrong” and the publisher is likely to pick that one much to one’s dismay.
As I was reading the manuscript I sketched thumbnails as ideas came to me. By the time I was done reading I was able to pick three ideas that I felt fairly confident about sending to Teresa. For the first one I did as she said and stuck close to the brief. This concept with the boat going through the marshland with just rooftops and treetops as scenery was one of the first things that came to mind while reading the book. For the second concept I chose what I felt to be a more dramatic take where the reader sees the boat that Stephen is travelling in silhouetted from underneath. The third idea I had strayed from the photo realistic style that was typical of the genre but was ultimately more conceptual. It drew from the repeated symbolism of the radio Stephen continues to use throughout the novel and plays with the metaphor of radio waves as the waves of the flooded surroundings.
Teresa felt that the third idea was the strongest and in that case it would stand out in a good way from comparable titles on the shelf so I moved forward in the project with that idea.
3) Refine/Drawing at Size
Moving forward with the third concept, I went about creating a tighter sketch in what Teresa referred to as the Drawing at Size stage. She emphasized how important it is to really have the layout and structure well defined by the end of this phase as this is where typography typically enters the equation in the publishing process. I learned that it is very difficult to shift things around and make some of the changes that I typically stumble upon in the final art stage because it might conflict with what the designer is doing with the type layout and cause problems. As such it is really important to have a complete understanding of what the final image will look at by this stage in the process. There isn’t much room afterward to be tweaking things that don’t seem quite right or aren’t really working.
Teresa and I emailed back and forth numerous times and with each small tweak she suggested I really saw how the whole composition really tightened and made the piece stronger as a whole. There were a couple of suggestions like adding the mountains from the title and adding a cityscape on the bottom to compliment the trend of cityscapes in comparable titles that I was not sure were going to work at first but ultimately helped tie the piece together and move your eye around the parts of the piece where I did not previously have a lot of points of interest for the eye.
One mistake I made during this segment of the mentorship project was not being clear about my intentions in a number of things but particularly two areas. The first dealt with the treatment of how the waves from radio waves would transition to waves of water. The second was my choice of typeface on the cover. Because the typeface I had chosen for the cover during the drawing at size stage was so rough and handwritten looking, Teresa got the impression that this was just for placement and would be swapped out later. In my head I had rationalized the type choice by deciding the scrawl seemed like something a person in an apocalyptic circumstance would use. It was gritty and I felt that complimented the story that was being told, but I made the mistake of not going over this with Teresa during the drawing at size stage and this ultimately led to me not being able to complete the cover with type in the final stage.
4) Final Art
When it came to final cover art, I made sure to really nail down my colour palette and get the go ahead from Teresa to move forward with that before laying out my shapes in Illustrator in that swampy palette. She gave me good advice about using my bright colours sparingly and recommended a shade that I use for shading. My initial conception of the cover was that it would be almost entirely flat with some textured overlays because I’m not very confident in my ability to render illustrations realistically. I found however that once adding the seaweed and rust that Teresa suggested putting on the radio, I was able to be more successful than I initially expected with making the radio look realistic. This was one of the highlights of the project for me in terms of learning breakthroughs. I pushed further than I expected with the use of shading and gradients and was pleasantly surprised at the outcome.
A challenging aspect I struggled with in this process with the cover was the transition of the radio waves to actual waves. That was something I should have come into this stage with a stronger conviction of what I wanted them to look like. Teresa was fantastic at giving me revisions to make on the waves, from how open the circles should be, to whether the water waves needed to be subtler or wavier, to advising me on the colour and blending of the transitions, this area was a real topic that took a lot of advising on. I still think there’s a lot of pushing I could do in that area but given that it is such a crucial element of the cover, I’m glad we made so many revisions on that area to try and get it right.
Another area that required a lot of revising in the final art was the characters. The characters were hard to work on because they were so small on the cover but Teresa made it clear how important characters on a cover are. They are a point of connection that the reader often refers back to to see if the character on the cover, the character described in the writing, and the character in the reader’s head match up. Given her explanation on the importance of figures on a cover I strayed away from my initial instinct to keep the characters entirely silhouetted. Andrea, the female sidekick, came together relatively easily for me, but Stephen, the protagonist , took a lot more revisions. My first version of Stephen had a baseball cap which I thought would help define the silhouette and distinguish him from Andrea, however Teresa pointed out that this made the character seem younger than he was, and given some of the events of the book this was something we wanted to be wary of. On my next revision I over compensated and made Stephen look too old but with Teresa’s advice I was able to get rid of some of the shading that was making him look older and the thin out his arms to age down the character to be more in keeping with the character in the novel.
There were countless other revisions Teresa and I went back and forth over the course of the final art stage and with each tweak the cover felt more and more fully realized which was incredibly satisfying as I’ve struggled with some of the book cover projects we covered in class in first and second year. Teresa was incredibly patient, helpful, and encouraging and working with her was an incredible experience.
Given the miscommunication about the type, Teresa and I had decided to put aside type and focus primarily on the illustration for the cover and only come back to type if we had time. I want to clarify that the type I included on the cover for my presentation was only for placement purposes only. I had a narrow margin of time to play with type on the cover the night before and wasn’t able to get it to a point that I felt comfortable with but I also feel like a book cover just looks incomplete with no type on it so for the sake of presentation I decided to include one of the options I had been playing around with.
Teresa was kind enough to send me some links to some typefaces she would recommend for the cover and after viewing them, I see what she was expecting for the cover typeface and why she thought the one I initially had on there was for placement only. The typefaces she sent are quite reminiscent of comparable covers in the genre and that is likely a good thing to stick to when the illustration itself is diverging from the typical nature of the genre. I will definitely be tackling the task of adding type to this project to this project in the near future in an effort to make it portfolio ready for graduation next year. Here are a few of her suggested typefaces:
Due to the nature of Teresa being in Victoria and how busy both of us have been the past week we weren’t able to conduct a formal presentation for the end of this project. Also, in book publishing I got the impression that a final presentation seems a little redundant given how involved the publisher, art director, illustrator, and designer are at each stage of the project. Because the illustration and design are not typically done by the same person communication is crucial throughout the project and leaves little presenting to do at the end of it as if communicated properly everyone involved should be on the same page. However, I’m still glad I got the chance to present this to my classmates and Judy as I can really use all the practice I can get in presenting especially to those who have not seen the project the whole way through as I feel that ensures that I don’t gloss over important details as frequently. Presenting is hard for me and probably will always be, but presenting a piece of work you feel good about and have had large amounts of feedback on to that point, helped lessen the stress a little when it came to that final presentation.
I also had the good fortune of being able to get feedback from Pascal on this project during the third year portfolio review. He gave me a lot of additional feedback and critiques to think about that will certainly be helpful as I continue to refine this project and make it portfolio ready for when I graduate next year. It was definitely helpful to have another illustrator take a look at this project as I feel the more varied points of view and feedback one gets on a piece the more cohesive it ends up feeling as less things get overlooked.
This project was really impactful and having Teresa as a mentor was fantastic. Her critiques always helped push the illustration further and during our phone calls she always had something inspiring to tell or show me. From week to week, I felt myself gaining a better understanding of what goes into designing and illustrating an enticing book cover that makes a reader want to pick up a book and dedicate their time to exploring it. I gained some confidence in the possibility that I could handle working in a more realistic style in the future without feeling quite so intimidated and Teresa helped reassure me that having a strong concept and composition for a book cover is ultimately more enticing to publishers and just being able to render something nicely. Publishers seek out some illustrators for their styles and others for their conceptual abilities and as someone who identifies much more strongly with the conceptual aspects of illustrating, this was really inspiring and reassuring.
As a final sendoff for this blog post, I want to thank Teresa Bubela again for all the time she put into helping me make this a project to be proud of.