Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Collector - The Making of the covers

It was our pleasure to recently work on two covers for the awesome book publisher Angry Robot. Dead Harvest and The Wrong Goodbye are written by Chris F. Holm and are the first books in The Collector series, a noir-tinged supernatural fantasy about 'soul collector' Sam Thornton.

The brief from Angry Robot was quite concise - they wanted to echo the famous Penguin crime novels designed by Romek Marber during the 60s and 70s, with stark images and a minimal colour palette.

First the first book, 'Dead Harvest', Marc Gascoigne, art director at Angry Robot, asked for a scene showing Sam in action - his arm plunged into a man's chest, harvesting his soul. We produced a few very rough sketches and then worked up the more successful ones into... slightly less rough sketches.

Above: the initial rough thumbnail sketches for Dead Harvest

Above: the slightly more refined sketches showing areas of contrast.
For the wide angle shot (pic 3) we pushed the characters even further away into the alley.

Each one was mocked up onto the cover template we had already designed based on the Penguin covers and sent over to Marc and Chris for their comments. The consensus was that this was the preferred option:

We originally used the circle of light as a shorthand for simply showing the light source in the image but it quickly became an integral part of the image! Next, using various bits of photo reference found online, we worked up a more complete sketch.

Above: Not entirely sure at what point the image became flipped. I think we realised that in the original sketch he was using his left hand. You'd have to ask Chris if Sam is a south paw but the image just felt more comfortable this way around.

This was scanned and then inked on a Wacom tablet in Photoshop. Other elements were added and then removed and then put back and fiddled with and then removed again and then thrown around the studio and then we made a cup of coffee and the cover went backwards and forwards to Marc and Chris a couple of times until, via a process we like to call 'luck', we got to this:

And there. Done. Except it wasn't. We'd grown so in love with the clean geometric loveliness of that damn circle that we tried something else:

Above: What's better than a circle? Two circles, clearly...

There. Now we're done.

So, onto book two, 'The Wrong Goodbye'. This one called for Sam to be surrounded by ghoulish looking people at the Day of the Dead carnival. The original brief asked for him to be in the middle of a row of people wearing skeleton masks, his face the only human one on display.

We tried some sketches along these lines but the problem with a line up of people is that it can look a bit flat on the page and it just wasn't gelling.

Then, fired up by our new found love of everything circular, we doodled this:

Aha! By putting Sam, lighting a cigarette in the middle of the circle he becomes both the focal point and the light source - just as he is on the first book - and putting the skeleton-people around the circle makes for a pleasing, geometric composition which again focuses attention onto Sam.

Above, right: A slightly more refined version of the previous doodle. This was mocked up onto a cover and sent to Marc and Chris for their thoughts. Luckily for us, they too love circles.

Above: the cover mock ups we sent to Marc and Chris. We also toyed with other colours.

We always knew that this cover would demand a great deal of picture research and we went all out looking for cool pictures of Day of the Dead revellers. Then, as with book one, we sketched up each of the characters, including Sam.

Above centre: Sam. Remember: don't smoke, kids.

With the pencil work done, we scanned everything into Photoshop and comped it all together.

Meh. It was kinda ok. There was something slightly off with it but we couldn't place what it was. Anyway, pushing such thoughts aside, we inked up the work in Photoshop using the trusty Wacom tablet exactly as we did Dead Harvest.

Above: Digital inking in progress.

No. There's just something wrong about it... and Marc and Chris got it. It's Sam. Oh god, it's Sam. There's something wrong with the drawing of him. As the central image he needed more presence. One of the reasons for doing each character individually and comping it all together was so we could pull it all apart again if we needed and so we took another stab at drawing him:

Ew, that's even worse. He needed to look more 'real' than we could manage by hand like this. We had trouble finding any photos online in quite the pose we were after so we knew there was only one way to achieve this...

Above: This is Martin, the Amazing15-er who project managed the Collector covers. Everyone say 'hi' to Martin. Martin doesn't smoke anymore so used a pen as a guide and we shortened it in the drawing stage.

Obviously Sam doesn't look anything like Martin, we simply used the photo to ensure we got the correct posture, hands, stance, arm shapes and head angle. We redrew the face. Even Martin doesn't want that face, why the hell would we give it to Sam?

With the new pic of Sam in place and working the rest of the cover fell together quickly and easily. And here it is:

And there we go. Simple! Sort of. Obviously we skipped over the long periods of banging our heads on the table and the shouting at the Wacom tablet.

It was a pleasure and a joy to work with Angry Robot, Marc and Chris on these covers. The patience, wit, imagination and enthusiasm they showed made the whole experience so much fun and I think together we managed to create a couple of awesome book covers.

You can preorder Dead Harvest here (for the UK) and here (for the US). The Wrong Goodbye is out in November 2012. In a week or so we'll post the 'making of' the Anno Dracula cover we did for Titan Books a few months ago...

Toodle pip!

- Martin (yeah, the guy in the photo)


  1. Pretty damn awesome! The entire process is pretty amazing. I really love these covers and enjoyed learning about the creative process behind them. Also, circles totally rock! Excellent.

  2. A marvelous post, and some damn fine covers. This process was a thrill for me from start to finish.

    Nice to know I've got an Amazing15 Easter-egg on my cover, in the form of Martin's kinda sorta self portrait.

    And a funny bit of thematic resonance with regard to the circles: the books are, in part, inspired by Dante's INFERNO, which describes hell as a series of concentric circles. DEAD HARVEST even opens with a Dante quote. As soon as I saw that connection, I knew we had to go circular; it seemed exactly the kind of wit one often finds on those classic Penguin covers.