• Al Hess

The Making of World Running Down's Cover: sketch-to-finish

I think every author dreams of their cover long before it goes into production. If you're like me, you think about it when you're still in the first draft stage and technically don't even have a book yet. While I was querying World Running Down, I decided that if I couldn't get an agent, I would self-publish the book like my others. So every time I received a rejection, I passively-aggressively went off to work on cover design. I made a few different ones, and ultimately settled on the glitchy text-centric desert scene on the right.



While I still like it okay, it pales in comparison to what I ended up producing for Angry Robot, and I attribute as much of the final result to fear as anything else.


Why? Because when my editor posed the idea of having me do my own cover, I didn't think I could pull it off. I almost said no.


It wasn't that the scene requested was necessarily harder than things I'd done in the past, but I've never been satisfied with many of my paintings the way I am with my pencil drawings. I've had less practice with painting, and this painting would be the face of my debut, on every retailer site and in every bookstore. Even if I produced something that Angry Robot was happy with, if it didn't sit right with me on a personal skill level, I'd never forgive myself.


Ultimately, I said yes because I couldn't pass up the opportunity to have my own art on the cover, but by god if I was going to do this, it had to be the best thing I'd ever painted.

My editor gave me a scene prompt: focusing on the van, with Valentine sitting in the gat-seat on top and Osric sitting in the passenger side, with the salt flats as the backdrop, and Salt Lake City way in the distance.


I gathered a lot of references and inspiration images, and thought hard about the composition. I decided it might be better to have Valentine and Osric sitting together - for one because it would be hard to see Osric through the van's windshield, and two because I wanted a bit of the cozy romantic feel that's in the book. I wanted an interesting angle for the van, and aligned all of the elements so that they were pointing toward the city in the distance.



With some tweaks, my sketch was approved, and AR even liked the art deco font I used in my mockup (yesssss). They were, however, a little concerned that an oil painting might come out too dark, which leads me to believe that my Robot Overlords have only seen paintings by Renaissance masters such as Rembrandt and Caravaggio. I am absolutely not judging, as there are many, many subjects that I'm not versed in. But it did make me chuckle.


They asked to see my proposed color palette for the painting before I started. Because I wasn't sure how to do that without actually starting, and because I'm a little extra, I painted a complete miniature of the entire scene, and then kept swatches of each color for reference for the full size version. I also did a handful of little practice Valentine and Osrics. Again - I was scared I couldn't do this and wanted to make sure I had it right before I started.



I got resounding approval for my palette and the miniature I'd done.


I bought an 18x24 inch smooth hardboard panel, which would be the biggest substrate I'd used to date, drew up my sketch to scale, and transferred it to the panel. Some people use a projector to transfer their sketch, others draw directly on top of the substrate. My method is by contact transfer - I flip my sketch over, cover the back in a layer of graphite, then tape it to the substrate and trace over my lines. By pressing into the paper, it transfers that line of graphite to the substrate.


Because it's not as easy to tweak a physical painting as it is to change something digitally, I took a lot of in-progress pictures and sent them to my editor.



By the time I'd reached the stage of painting each ridge of salt on the flats, despite it being incredibly tedious, I was overcome with emotion. This. This was going to be the cover of World Running Down. World Running Down, a story I wasn't even sure I should query because of how frankly trans it was, was going to be a real book.


And I was happy with the painting.



And because I did this painting myself, I was able to add some fun little details and Easter eggs from the book, like the pirate arrow stuck in the side of the van and the fact that Osric isn't wearing shoes or socks (I at least gave him pants and a shirt, though he's often without one or the other in the book because he doesn't like wearing clothes.)


AR's Design team took care of the rest of the cover. The final font treatment worked out swimmingly to allow the clouds and sky to show through, and that little AR logo in the bottom right sealed the reality of this being my book cover.



I hope you love it as much as I do. I can't wait to see it printed, and I'm crossing my fingers for that sweet slightly raised glossy treatment on the title.


I don't know if I'll be asked to paint anymore of my future trad covers. If I get another deal with Angry Robot, it seems likely that they could ask again. Would I still be scared that I wouldn't be able to pull it off? Hell yes.


But I'm already dreaming up what I'd paint for my aliens 'n' pie book. Just in case.



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