Monday, September 14, 2009

Illustrating a book cover step by step

This past summer I finished work on the picture book "The Can Man" written by Laura E. Williams, published by Lee and Low Books, due for release in spring 2010. It's a wonderful fiction story about a young boy who wants a skateboard for his birthday but due to tough economic times has to earn the money himself by collecting can in his neighborhood. The title refers to a local homeless man he meets along the way. The last painting I did for the book was the cover and I wanted to share my process of completing the illustration. While this was the cover, I use the same steps for all of my paintings. I hope you find this enlightening!

So when starting work on the  book I began with sketches of all my characters and what I wanted them to look like. These are the main characters Tim and "The Can Man".

Also at this time I did lots of research traveling around Seattle looking for settings for the book and taking lots of photos. I found a perfect street and used a great apartment building there as Tim's home.

When it came time to start coming up with ideas for the cover I began with several pages of sketches called thumbnail sketches. I try to explore all the possibilities until I get something I like. I usually show all of them to the publisher and together we choose a few we like best. This is one of the pages.

We narrowed it down to two thumbnails. We liked the concept of showing Tim beginning to develop the idea of how to earn money for a skateboard.  A moment that isn't really shown in the book. The next step was to take the ideas and draw them larger so a final decision could be made by the publisher. You can see here that they are both pretty much the same except for Tim. We were unsure if he should be more interested in what "The Can Man" was doing or not.

They decided on having a more curious Tim which I agreed. The next step for me was to do a few color studies which makes it much easier having the color decisions made when doing the final painting. I take my original drawing into Photoshop and apply color. Its so easy if I want to try out different colors! You can also see the designer and I were beginning to think where the type should go.

The next step is to take photos of my models dressed in costume. Since my paintings end up being pretty realistic I like to have great reference with good expression, lighting and details to work from. Here are a few of the photos I took.

I loved painting Tim's shiny warm coat! Now its time to complete a final drawing based on my original drawing and reference photos. After the drawing is completed I will often take it into Photoshop and make any final adjustments, moving and scaling elements etc. 

I then take this drawing and use my projector to transfer it to my stretched and gessoed canvas. Finally its time to start painting! I usually work in oil paint. Its thick, painterly and dries slowly which allows me to rework a painting. Below is the final painting!

Usually it takes me 2-3 days to actually paint it. You may notice if you compare the final drawing and painting that there are some subtle changes. The Can Man is looking up more and Tim's head is not tilted as much. I made the changes while painting because I felt they made the scene more engaging. Hope you like it! I will post the final cover design here once it has been approved for release. My art will soon be shipped to the printer in Hong Kong. You will be hearing more about "The Can Man" in the next few months.  I am very excited about this book!


  1. Craig,

    Thanks for this--a great look at your process.

  2. Thanks so much for the feedback! Glad the info is getting out there. I think the blog will be a lot of fun. Would love to get some more SCBWI followers!