Evolution of a Cover in Digital Art

To Steal the Dragonrod (soon to be published)

For the longest time, I thought that cover art was a huge problem for me. Or art in general. In real life, I can manage stick figures and poorly drawn houses. That’s it. In the world of digital art, I drew some – much better but still bad – pictures for an adventure game I programmed in the 1980s. Yes, that long ago.

In 2019, though, I finally took the plunge and tried to actually learn how to draw on the computer. The best advice here, of course, is that you should learn to draw reasonably well with a pencil first. (I am not known for taking advice well. <sigh>) It’s been a couple of months now. I’ve had plenty of distractions, so I’m hardly a master of the digital art. Or, to be frank, a journeyman. Nonetheless, I’d like to give you a glimpse into the development of the cover art for To Steal the Dragonrod.

Note: I’ll put a gallery of the images at the bottom of this post so you can see them a bit larger than the thumbnails right below.

Step 1: To Draw the Dragonrod

Well, it’s the central feature of the story, its macguffin. (Alfred Hitchcock coined that word for an item that everybody’s chasing after, but it doesn’t matter one bit what it actually is.) So, let’s place that front and center. Add the author title and the series title and keep the central image simple. Then the cover as a whole shouldn’t look too busy. We don’t want that, right?

Besides, I’m still learning digital art, and whole environments are a step too far for me. All right, so on to the dragonrod. I’d already created the image of a dragon’s head earlier which I’d stretch onto the dragonrod’s end. Good… Add a trophy stand and a red pillow. That should work great!

Except the dragonrod didn’t work. At all. Look for yourself:

Cover version 1

Step 2: Let’s hide the ugly

Make that image smaller, then it won’t be as obviously awful. Okay, yes, good idea. And while you’re at it, fam, enhance the series title, the author panel, oh, and add a “SHORT READ” banner at the bottom. That’ll make it clear this is a novella, not a full-length novel. It’ll also make the whole bit busier, and we want that, right?

Hang on…! We don’t? Ugh. Dude, you really are bad at taking advice…

Step 3: Let’s… let’s just focus on the main image

Fine. Yes, we’ll do that. We’re learning digital art here. And by the way, that room you drew with the vanishing lines doesn’t really pop on the screen. (Oooh, artist terminology! Fancy!) Grmblegrmble. I’ll grab a picture of a corridor from the net and use the real-life walls. That works! And, okay, that gives me a nice space to put the title. (Note that it’s changed from “Stealing the Dragonrod.”)

It’s still so empty, though. Don’t I want a character in there? Sure. And how is Mr. Can’t-Draw going to do that? Uhm… A shadow, perhaps? That’s rough enough. Hmm… That does work. Even a touch of The Witcher about it. (Note: Cornell has been using a crossbow along with his sword in the stories. Why shouldn’t these feature over his shoulder?)

Step 4: Walls and Floors

I’m skipping a step here — you’ll find the picture with the horrid masonry in the gallery below. That was half a day wasted with a terrible result. So, glossing over that, I did get the dimensions right for the hallway. A quickly designed pattern on the wall – inspired by ancient Greek art – makes them look half-decent. Uneven stone plates on the floor add a good touch. I toyed around with the title some more, trying to fit it to the perspective of the wall, also with the coloring.

Cover version 4

Step 5: I… actually like this one…?

A few more changes followed. One is pretty much invisible: The sword at the top originally was a photo image and therefore slightly blurry. I wanted a sharper image, and so I copied the weapon as a vector graphic. Only took me a little more than a day. Plus, I got to add some minor changes that fit the character and story. Huh. I might be getting a handle on this digital art business – at least in some respects.

The colors of the previous version were off: The blue didn’t fit well with the ceiling, the floor and the rest of the cover. So I made them brown. Which looks better. Next up: shadows and lighting. I painted those in and adjusted them to fit the light beam on the dragonrod. It took some fiddling and a few closer looks to figure out that, yes, the light on the right side should be stronger and higher.

Finally, the title in two colors, with the dragonrod highlighted (and the text sort of pointing at the weapon). Slap my “mha|” logo on it, and. We. Are. Done. Phew!!!

Final cover version

I assume that in a year or two, I’ll look back on this and shudder at how bad this cover is. Presumably, good artists are already having a chuckle at a nearly fifty-year-old geezer producing digital art like a twelve-year-old of today. I don’t mind one bit, guys. This is one step on my digital artwork journey, and I am proud of this.

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