Cover Art: Compositing

This all started because I was very cheeky to a friend recently. Tom Rogneby writes wonderful stories, with a dry wit I really enjoy, so when I saw the cover for his upcoming Boogeyman book, I was both happy, and sad, all at once. It’s complicated. I know the value a cover can give to a book. And I know that I’m probably more critical of book covers than your ordinary reader, because I am also an artist, and someone who specializes in creating book covers and the art, layout, and so forth. So bad book covers make me cringe. Usually, I shut up and scroll on. There are a lot of bad covers out there but it’s like babies. You don’t tell the lady her baby looks like it might have some warthog genes, even if they are on the dad’s side. Authors, especially authors who have paid good money for a crappy cover, don’t want to hear that their baby looks ugly. Shut up and scroll, Sanderson, shut up and scroll.

Except this time was a little different, as you can tell from the existence of the post. Tom does his own covers, and being a humble sort of fellow who is interested in getting better at his craft, he asks for feedback. This is the way. You can only learn through gentle guidance when you are off the track. And asking before the cover is out in the wild, as it were, is a much gentler guidance than the jolt of reality as the tracks fall off when the book isn’t selling or worse, shows up on a site like Lousy Book Covers (and no, Tom’s draft wasn’t that bad. But I have seen them… the monstrosities that make you gawk). I jumped on that request for insight with both feet, and shot Tom a request for the stock art he’d used.

Here’s the draft he had ginned up, first of all.

So the basic premise of the story is that the boogeyman turned private eye gets involved with this dame, y’see?

While the Noir feel is sort of there, so is the Romance feel, and that’s not at all what Tom’s story needed. Because the woman is a succubus, and Martin Shelby is far too sharp to let a woman like that get her fingers too deep into his head, as it were. So right away, that’s an issue. Second, and it’s not as bad here as I’ve seen it on other covers, is the ‘collage effect’ of the stock art layers.

Look. I’ve said it here dozens of time. I’ve said it elsewhere hundreds of times, if I’ve said it once. You should not, you CANNOT PUT A PHOTOGRAPH on fantasy or science fiction covers. I swear, I’m on the verge of banging my head on my keyboard with this. It is not at all difficult to come up with software or an app that can filter a photo to look artsy. Some of them look like crap, too, so you’ll want to experiment. But if you can’t take a couple of hours, and later that will be a few minutes, to run a photo through a filter, then I am not going to be arsed to read your undoubtedly low-effort story, either. Sorry. I’m moved to unladylike language with this… this stuff.

Tom has at least had the sense to grab art that isn’t unfiltered. So I didn’t have to do much with it, other than work on blending the elements together cohesively with the background. A little tweak to the composition, while I was at it, some effects on the text (I know he was going for the pulp Noir look on that, and I’m familiar with that look *glances at shelf full of crumbling paperbacks* a little bit). Get rid of that windshield that isn’t transparent. Add some magic, and boom:

I sent this as a draft to Tom, who shot back immediately ‘you did that in 20 minutes?’

Yep. You know that parable about the hammer, and knowing where to apply it? I have the tools, and I know how to use them. Given longer, I might have done some things differently, but with the colors of the girl and the car it does pop at thumbnail. I left the colors of the title and his name mostly alone. I did make the author name bigger, because if there was one thing (and it was considerably more than one) I learned from Dean Wesley Smith’s workshop on covers, it’s to make the name bigger.

Everything but the background. The edges are a little rough, but I wasn’t worrying over the small details. Bodging up a cover like this in a hurry, you’re not worried over anything but the thumbnail at first for composition purposes. Besides, I’m fairly sure Tom isn’t going to blow this up to poster and print it.

The first thing I did with his file was open it in Photoshop (I have been working in Affinity Photo, but he sent me a psd file, and I’m more familiar with PS, i.e. faster and I was tired that night). I looked at the three elements he had: woman, car, background. I dragged the background layer up until it was on top of everything. Then I set it to soft light, so it was laying over everything like a semi-transparent veil. At this point, it looked a lot better. You could stop there I suppose. I couldn’t.

Part of the reason it looks collaged is the light sources are wrong.

Art, photography, they share a trait. It’s not so much the portrayal of an object, as it is the impact of light on that object. I don’t recall who said it, but a photographer once referred to their art as ‘painting with light.’

This is a sketch of the light, and only the light. Yet you can see the objects, even though they are not explicitly outlined.

For Tom’s cover, I chose to portray the light as coming from the righthand side of the image, and then I pulled up the ‘burn’ tool – it doesn’t matter what program you might use, you will find the burn tool and the dodge tool, because they both derive from photography developing techniques. The difference with digital art is that they are reversible! There are other ways to do this, by the way, with masking and using a soft airbrush set to ‘multiply’ for darkening, or ‘screen’ for lightening. You can do what you’re comfortable with. I had it set to a fairly large, soft radius, and I painted in shadows on the woman, and the car, until it looked right. If you aren’t familiar with what you are doing, the ‘ctrl-z’ for undo shortcut will become your best friend. I then used the ‘dodge’ tool to lighten a few areas I wanted to highlight, as if the light were hitting them first.

Finally, I selected the windshield of the car with the magic wand tool and deleted it entirely. Glass has enough transparency that it shouldn’t look opaque white under this lighting.

I then added magic, or at least my version of it. I use Apophysis fractals for this. Some of the covers I do – like Margaret Ball’s Pocketful of Stars – have designed fractals that I made look like something specific. Stars, of course.

Blue Fractal Stars! Also, the moebius balls are fractals, but different program.

For Tom’s cover I just wanted to add some cool FX and liven up the background a little. Maybe make that car look like it’s got a spell on it. Well, I have a magic generator, in the form of my Apophysis fractal program, and I use some of the downtime when I can’t write to mess about with abstract electrical fractal effects and have a file full of those pretties. So I pulled a couple of my random fractals from the files and popped them on. I softened the background fractal with gaussian blur, and Bob’s your Uncle (actually, he was my grandfather) we had a working cover draft.

Are there rough edges? Absolutely. I didn’t have the time to really dig into this art and make it a cohesive piece. What I did was composite the elements into something that looked pretty darn good at thumbnail, and not bad at all when you see it on the screen. If Tom wants to put this art on his print cover, I’ll spend a little more time on it. But until then? You could read the story. The art is just wrapping paper for that, like the dress is on the woman in the art.


  1. e. You should not, you CANNOT PUT A PHOTOGRAPH on fantasy or science fiction covers. I swear, I’m on the verge of banging my head on my keyboard with this. It is not at all difficult to come up with software or an app that can filter a photo to look artsy.

    A family friend makes a decent amount of money taking “western” photos, putting them through a basic painting filter, and selling the results.

    Looking for programs, found at least a dozen that weren’t obvious spam– stuff like this:

    1. And there’s always apply more than one filter. I did for “Jewel of the Tiger” which started with a photo of a tiger.

  2. I wonder if its been long enough that you could get away with a “red object on shiny black background, white font” cover for a Ten Shades of Twilight parody yet? (Yes, I know it signals “YA fantasy with steamy bits.”)

  3. I wish to hell I understood what you were saying enough to duplicate it, but I don’t. Sadly there’s no glossary to explain things like a “burn tool” etc… It’s a shame because I have a book with the beta readers that doesn’t have a cover yet. le sigh.

  4. I know I need to redo the covers on most of my existing KDP books, but right now it’s in the To Do jar alongside getting most of my websites rebuilt to be up to modern standards (most were built around ’08-’10, when mobile was barely a blip on the radar and ADA compliance wasn’t an issue) and getting a bunch of book reviews written for my book review site so that I can get those books back to the library (our library has instituted a new rule that you can only renew a book ten times before it has to be checked in and checked back out to you — which means lugging the books back to the library, so I’d much rather be able to let them stay rather than do the labor twice, and have to bring them back when I do get the reviews written).

    It doesn’t help that every time I use GIMP, I lose the ability to print and to transfer files to other computers on the network until I restart my computer. I’m not sure if it’s weirdness with my computer or weirdness with the UVerse gateway, but it means that if I have any webpages open that I may not be able to reopen (a lot of sites that allow only x number of free downloads per month count re-downloading a page as a second download), I tend to put off graphics work until I don’t have a bunch of other projects in progress.

  5. I wonder if cover fashions would ever change enough for photographs to work for science fiction and fantasy covers.

    1. Go to the “Galactic Central” site ( for stf magazine covers and you can find thousands of examples over nearly a century of changing styles. I should estimate that the number of undoctored photo covers number in the single digits. i should have said low single digits except for Asimov’s SF Mag, which featured photos of the mag’s namesake on several of the early covers. My guess is that the art department was imitating what they did for Hitchcock’s Mystery Mag until they learned better what worked for stf.

  6. I have a new trick for you for the completely reversible Dodge and Burn. Create a new layer and fill it with 50% gray (an option in Photoshop along with white and black, so it’s probably a common thing.) In Photoshop, you then set the layer style to Soft Light and it visually disappears entirely—until you dodge and burn on that layer. It darkens or lightens the area underneath without skewing the color, and any area you need to redo you can simply fix with 50% gray.

    I picked up that trick working for a photography studio. Photography tricks work well in artistic formats, so it’s worth checking out a few tutorials.

  7. And now I FINALLY know what dodge and burn are for! I swear over half the learning curve for specialized programs is learning the jargon.

    Next up: Why is “sharpen” a “blur” filter?

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