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I attended the event the mostly to listen to Kirbi Fagan talk about being a fantasy cover artist and how she works.
This was more than worth my time. Kirbi is a talented artist and a very dynamic speaker. The fact that she's excited about her art shines through with every word.
You can't have a discussion about art without examples of art. Waving your hands just doesn't work. Kirbi brought a wide collection of book cover images, both hers and others.
She started with some observations about book covers that are made using stock photography. There's nothing really wrong with this technique, but she pointed out how some images get overused, showing three books with the same image on them, and other books where it was obvious that the same image was used in each, but cropped or turned differently.
She pointed out that none of them really told you anything about the story. Stock art is made to go with a story's genre not your story.
Next, she showed covers designed by various artists. These are covers that work, and she gave each cover a quick discussion of why it works: what features made it stand out, focused your eye to the important details, why those important features popped out at you.
The helped me understand the mechanical facets to what makes the average viewer say "Ooohhh!" instead of just "that's nice".
The themes she emphasized were Dynamic Composition, light-dark contrast, and showing motion.
Dynamic Composition means that there should be things happening on the cover and those things should draw your eye to the focal point of the image. There should be tension (people shouting, staring wide-eyed, laughing or otherwise showing emotion) and it should convey action. The people should be running, fighting, wading through a swamp, not sitting in a chair.
She likes images that have you looking up into the character's face while something is happening. This makes the character appear larger-than-life even though they fit on a four inch by five inch book cover.
Any contrast draws the eye. The human eye is most sensitive to brightness differences. Putting spots of light color on a figure's dark clothing or using bright fireflies to break up a dark background make the image more eye-catching.
A fantasy cover should include action in the form of people floating, falling or flying, if the action is appropriate to the story. This action tells something about the story and is a visual keyword that it's a fantasy novel.
She described how she creates cover art. She starts with the author's ideas either as suggestions, the book itself or a synopsis. From those ideas, she creates a set of black and white sketches. Then come reviews and revisions, until there is a consensus on what the image should be. Once everyone agrees on a design, she goes into her basement to build models and mockups, take photographs and finally paint.
She uses photographs as references to visualize perspective and shading but does most of her work with traditional paints. After the painting is finished she may scan the painting and use photoshop to tweak the paintings further and may print that out for another pass with the paintbrush.
She showed us the intermediate steps that one cover went through, from sketches to models and mockups of the pieces to a the final wrap-around cover.
The early steps looked nothing like the final image. A wheelchair was made by putting a bicycle tire next to a chair with some cardboard taped to it. A futuristic cityscape was made with wooden blocks and strips of paper. A Barbie doll with tin-foil horns became a demon, and a chunk of clay with some gummy worms became the model for a magical mound.
She shoots dozens of photographs of each of the mockups, and uses each of them as a reference for a section of the final cover. One cover she showed used five mockups and hundreds of photos.
Kirbi's style is an interesting mix of photorealism, comic book, and classical Renaissance paintings. It's very appropriate for the young-adult fantasy and adventure novels covers she's been doing. There is a light feel to the images even when the content is dark.
In her half-hour lecture I learned a lot about cover design and art that I didn't know. The information flew fast and thick and was well presented and easily followed.
I'm afraid that the biggest thing I learned was that as a cover designer, I need to go back to the drawing-board and my drawing board is still barely an acorn.