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Jordan: Lou Harper is a dear friend who I respect as both an author and a cover designer. We enjoy talking shop with each other, so I proposed a little challenge where we use the same three elements: a subject, a background and a title, and see what sort of ebook cover we’d design using them. I’m aiming for a thriller and Lou is doing an urban fantasy.

We had lots of fabulous reader suggestions for titles and it was difficult to pick. In the end we went with While the City Sleeps, suggested by Linda Martinez. I thought it could really evoke either genre.

Lou: Jordan used to post Photoshop tips on her blog and I learned a lot from them. She also got me hooked on a handful of sites that offer deals on design stuff. The woman knows my crack.

Jordan: I chose the background image because it seemed like there was a lot of potential to alter it for different moods. Right away, I had my eye on replacing the background but keeping the foreground and using that foreground as a framing element. And I also thought it was likely that Lou would do something completely different with it, and that’s really what I wanted to see.

Lou: I was totally expecting something urban, so this threw me for a loop. Thank you Jordan! My first instinct would be to put a fantasy medieval town into that background, but I wasn't planning to go in that direction. So I set it aside for the time.
Jordan: I’m sure people are way more interested in the model Lou found than in the background…let’s unveil that hottie right now!

Lou: I picked this guy because of his expression—there's intensity in his eyes, but playfulness too. He's also quietly handsome, a little older, different from the fashion youngsters I keep running into. I wished he was wearing something else or even bare-chested, but you can't have everything. And to be honest, that great white canvas was beckoning me too.

Jordan: I was excited to see the model that Lou chose because I haven’t seen him on any covers before and I think his face is interesting and his gaze is really direct, which I like. I wasn’t so keen on the white activewear top, though. So I decided to re-head the guy. I don’t generally do that because it’s difficult to find two models with similar enough lighting and poses that work well together, and the last thing I want to do is call attention to the Photoshopping. It’s difficult to find just one model, but finding two is potentially a time sink.

Lou: Jordan's right; body-swapping is always a pain in the tuckus, but on the plus side it open us possibilities. Rarely can you find the right model wearing the right clothes. It's especially true when working in historical or fantasy, where the right attire is crucial. This guy with his shaved head is not a top candidate for costumes either.

Jordan: Luckily a quick search revealed this guy, and you kind of have to think about the image you’re seeing, or potentially the reverse image on hand to see if it might fit. And in this case, the reverse image would work in terms of the shadows and in terms of the posture.

[Lou: This is perfect example of the advantages of head-transplants. The body donor has the right pose and props for a mystery or thriller but his face isn't right. Normally the designer would sigh and toss the photo.]

Jordan: I had to make some adjustments to the body model because his neck is pretty wide, so I used the liquefy tool to smear and his shoulder and his neck to work better with the head model’s neck width.

At this point I could have used adjustment layers to make theskin tones match one another in a naturalistic way, and if I’d needed to do that I would’ve been looking at making the midtones similar to each other via exposure or curves, and then making the skin colors match.

But when I tried using a dramatic filter for desaturating him (in this case, a gradient map) the head and hands matched just fine. I also added this background behind the trees.

The black/blue/white gradient map blended the subject with the backgrounds. However I wanted this cover to feel more ominous and the cityscape was too white and blown out.

To darken the city in the far background, I picked up a blue tone from the photo and created a “color” layer above the city and set it to multiply, since multiply darkens whatever’s below it. It made the whole thing feel more graphic and cartoonish, which I liked. It also pulls focus to the face and the hands clutching the gun.

It’s pretty easy to pick a font for a thriller, since thrillers have tall lettering. It’s important to select a font that’s designed tall—look for fonts labeled condensed—rather than stretching or squishing a regular font. I very seldom scale fonts disproportionately, it just looks amateur to my eye.

[Stretching fonts is a giant no-no in my book. It's as bad as stretching people.]

Because of the way our model is positioned to one side, the space I have for typography is irregular and potentially more interesting, so for that reason I opted to go with left justifying rather than centering or having the title on one line straight across.

To keep the font from looking too same/same, I increased the tracking on the author name to put more air between the letters, which is a really common tactic in names. Then I set the word CITY in a different face altogether. Doing so adds some interest and this particular font looks like tagging, which works well with the word “city.”

[Lou: I recognize the "City" font! The way you blew the details in the dark areas of his clothing not only focuses attention to the hand and face, but creates an ideal background for the title. Many a cover has been ruined by thoughtless font choices and text slapped on top of the graphic as an afterthought.]

I picked up some gold tones from the model’s temple to color the lettering. This makes the color scheme analogous, gold-green-turquoise being next to each other on the color wheel. I also did some subtle layer masking in an arc beneath the author name and in a gradient around the model’s hand. I noticed the technique on some other covers and decided to try it. I think it makes the type feel more dimensional and integrated with the composition.

[Lou: I'll have to remember this trick.]

To finish, I topped all my layers with a subtle texture set to soft light. My only intent was for it to make foreground, background and typography blend together and feel less like a bunch of disparate elements. But it also brought out some detail in the suit that worked really well.

Here’s the detail it brought out.

I can’t wait for everyone to see the gorgeous cover Lou came up with!!

Lou: I went the body-swap rout too, but a bit differently.

body.jpg guy.jpg

I grabbed this guy in the red top. I'm a sucker for red. If you look at the side-by-side, the angle of the head is remarkably similar. The lighting is not exactly the same, but not too far apart.

Splicing the two together was relatively easy, but that white shirt glares like a torch in a mob scene. (You know, the one where they're going for Dr. Frankenstein's monster.)

So I had the bright idea to magic the tree onto the shirt. It kinda works, but isn't great.

[Jordan: “I love that you included some of the ideas you played with that you didn’t ultimately use! So much of design is comprised of this, trying on stuff to see if it might work.”]


I decided to work on the background, put it all together and see what sticks.


These were choices to make up background because I knew it would be easy to blend them together.


And I ended using the tree similarly to Jordan—I had no idea at the time what she was doing. Poor tree; I'll have to give it the proper fantasy treatment one of these days.

To combine the city and sky I used a simple mask. I set the tree's layer style is multiply—looks solid on top but the stars twinkle through the leaves below.

I used some random font for title and author, just to see where they'd fit in the layout.

Working on this cover was very different than working for a client, where I have to come up with a concept and find the images to fit. Doing this design-off was much more writing on prompt. At this point I started to wonder who my protagonist was, what he was doing in a park overlooking the city and why. I put the work aside for a few days, and when I came back I had the answers, and consequently knew what to do with the design.

  compman4.jpg celtic.jpg

The first thing I did was going back to the shirt. I gave it some color and texture, and put a vaguely Celtic style tree of life logo on it. I used the warp tool to adjust the logo to the curves of the guy's chest. Since I use smart objects it was easy to swap this new version with the old one. Oh, and I also made his eyes green—they were originally gray.

[Jordan: Wow! I love this shirt treatment! I wasn’t sure what color his eyes were, but in my composite he looks odd-eyed, one whiskey brown, one blue, mostly likely due to the gray picking up my overlays. And that kind of makes me want to write a little story where that odd-eyedness is important.]

Lou: I liked that! You should write it. Maybe the odd eye has to do with his paranormal abilities?


The new shirt treatment works much better. I flipped the guy around just because. It felt right. The next step was spending an hour on font choices. I have over 1,800 fonts on my computer, and I bet Jordan has even more. [Jordan: “I don’t think so, I probably have more like a few hundred! I’ll have to count.”] I chose Prida02 for "Sleeps" for is plant-like curves, however the whole title in the same font would've been to much, too busy. The sanserif Arquiteccta gave a good balance. I like this font because it's nice and clean and come in multiple weights. The two fonts together present both aspects of urban fantasy.

I used Arquiteccta for the author name too, but switched to Betm for the subtitle because it's narrower and allows for longer text to fit in the available space. The colors I picked to resonate with the colors in the image. (I picked up both sanserif fonts in bundles on sale—thanks to Jordan.) Prida02 is a public domain font.

[Jordan: I LOVE the simplicity of the sans serif with the curvy deliciousness of Prida02. Yum!]

A slight gaussian blur made the tree in the background blend better with the sky, and a couple of filters gave the city a dreamier appearance.

The design was solid at this point but still needed a few finishing touches. I added asome atmospheric effects and did a touch of color adjustment. I also went back to the composite image of the guy to fiddle with the shadows. This is the final result:

In case you wondered what story I came up for him:

He’s a stealth-druid, who sneaks into city parks at night and plants sentient tree saplings to protect the city from the forces of evil. His companions are a sardonic raven, a mutt with poor personal hygiene, and a 12-year-old girl called Leslie, who’s a druid-in-training. Leslie's familiar is a one-eyed cat called Mephisto.

Jordan: I love that you came up with your guy's whole setup already. I have a sketchy idea of who my guy is, and his love interest, but I don't know what he's fighting against. Yet.
Interested in seeing more of Lou's cover art or maybe commissioning one for your own story? Find her on deviantart and pinterest.
And I've got a new cover out calendar out for 2016, grab it at Zazzle.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 29th, 2015 04:55 pm (UTC)
User lou_harper referenced to your post from Cover-Off saying: [...] See the whole creative process in action on JCP's web page [...]
Dec. 29th, 2015 10:29 pm (UTC)
What a cool idea!
This is so interesting! I have no graphic background, so I found the work process here fascinating. Lou, you have to write this druid story now. It's not fair to tease us with the concept like that and leave us hanging. :)
Jan. 1st, 2016 08:28 pm (UTC)
Re: What a cool idea!
I'm never sure how much process is interesting to someone without a lot of background. Glad you enjoyed it!
Dec. 30th, 2015 07:56 am (UTC)
This is absolutely fascinating! I LOVED listening in to the process :)
Jan. 1st, 2016 08:28 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you found it interesting!!
Dec. 30th, 2015 04:42 pm (UTC)
Very cool, thanks for sharing :)
Jan. 1st, 2016 08:28 pm (UTC)
Hooray! Thanks for stopping by!
MtSnow MtSnow
Dec. 31st, 2015 07:07 am (UTC)
Cover to cover
Man, you both are so good at whatcha do. I'd want to read both these books! Thanks so much for sharing this creative process... I'm a strong believer that the cover entices the reader to want to read what's inside..

and yes, I also love that this guy isn't a 'usual suspect' as an overused model..the head splicing was fascinating. Bully on you both for morphing so undetectably well!!
Jan. 1st, 2016 08:30 pm (UTC)
Re: Cover to cover
I totally agree on the cover. In fact, I think the cover might sway some people more than others. I will balk at reading a story with a cover I dislike even if the blurb is good, for instance.
Jan. 1st, 2016 11:10 pm (UTC)
What a FASCINATING post! (And I have ZERO graphic background!) And I LOVE that you both came up with such different covers! I would buy BOTH of these books. I hope you both write them :D

April Lee
Jan. 2nd, 2016 05:44 pm (UTC)
Wow. Great job, both of you! Loved seeing the process and the thinking behind each. I've used Photoshop a lot, but there are always so many tips and tricks that I've never tried, so reading things like this is fun and informative. (I've done some illustrations for covers, but I have to admit that I totally suck at the graphic elements for covers! I truly admire both you and Lou's talent and skill--in art and writing.)

I was at the San Diego GRL and you were so nice to put up with my friend and I taking photos at the costume party--and being fangirls in general, Jordan!
Jan. 2nd, 2016 06:18 pm (UTC)
It is GREAT to hear from you, April! (I have your gorgeous business card on my desk.) It was great to get to hang out with you guys, you're both such sweeties!

I find illustration and layout are more different skill-wise than I might have thought years go. I'm a lot better at design than illustration for sure, despite the years of drawing I did in art school.
Jan. 2nd, 2016 06:11 pm (UTC)
Very cool!
Thank you so much for this glimpse behind the scenes — both of you! It's been delightful to read your blog posts on cover art during the years, Jordan. I've always found them highly interesting and I think it's so generous of you to share bits and pieces of your cover art process with your readers. And thank you for luring Lou to do the same! :-) I'm a long time fan of the wonderful cover art of both of you, so this was a real treat for me. Thank you again. -- Johanna
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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