Illustrating book covers: the insider's guide

Diana Beltran Herrera's cover artwork for Rajia Hassib's A Pure Heart for Penguin/Random House.

Whether you’re a seasoned pro with a varied portfolio and keen to break into a new market, or an emerging illustrator with their heart set on seeing their artwork in Foyles, designing beautiful books and understanding how to get on the radar of publishers is key to success in this market.

For this feature, we’ve spoken to illustrators working in a wide range of styles whose work has been commissioned by major publishers across a broad range of genres – but first it’s important for illustrators to have an understanding of the process by which book publishers conceive and commission covers, for which we spoke to The Folio Society.

Founded in London in 1947, The Folio Society publishes carefully crafted imaginative editions of the world’s finest fiction and non-fiction books, offering a rich literary experience to readers of all ages. A Folio book is a unique object, one in which typography, illustration, paper, and printing and binding techniques all play a part in creating a harmonious whole.

The Folio Society's edition of Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder, illustrated by Sandra Rilova

Art director Raquel Leis Allion is one of only two art directors at The Folio Society, responsible for all the bindings and artist commissions across all genres from history to poetry, science to sci-fi.

“Before working on any book we meet with the editor and the production team to discuss an approach and if there is anything specific they need from a commission,” she says. “We look through selected images – if it is a picture researched book – and discuss materials we might use for the bindings. Then there’s the ongoing collaboration with artists and, of course, there are new commissions to be made.”

Folio books have built a reputation for working with incredible illustrators to bring their books to life. They commission emerging talent including Jonathan Burton, Jillian Tamaki, Sam Weber, and Anna and Elena Balbusso – in addition to seasoned masters such as Quentin Blake, Paula Rego, John Vernon Lord and Tom Phillips. Depending on the number of illustrations, their complexity and the artist’s chosen medium, it can take between six and 12 months to get from planning to finished artwork.

The Folio Society's edition of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, illustrated by Taylor Dolan

Raquel explains the process, saying that “we always begin with in-house research and discussion; and I present the artist at our weekly meeting – and check their availability – before seeking approval from the author or estate if required.”

The artist will then read (or re-read) the book themselves and is asked to suggest scenes to be illustrated and detail the type of binding they think should be used.

“Once this is all settled we begin the real work,” says Raquel. “The binding roughs will be looked over and approved, before the final artwork is delivered and accepted. We then decide upon colours, materials and foils – and have binding test sheets delivered, checking all of the elements work perfectly together before signing off the final for press.”

Tests and sketches for Phantom of the Opera

Raquel notes that the variety is what is possible is using different media is huge – using cloth, leather, paper or silk in a colour palettes from muted pastels to vibrant neon.

“We have a vast library of cloths and papers, varying in colours, weights and textures, and I will work with the artist to chose the perfect colour and material,” she says. “Often this is intuitive, but sometimes I’ll be picking a colour for a very specific reason; for example, a book may contain a particular historic uniform and so I will match its colour and sometimes even its texture.”

From here the commission is fixed and the illustration process begins, so we’ve spoken to illustrators including Diana Beltran Herrera, Matt Saunders, Melissa Castrillón, and Harry Goldhawk to gain insight into how they create illustrations that are artistically brilliant, delight publishers and – most important of all, perhaps – sell books.

Paper craft for paperbacks

Bristol-based paper artist Diana Beltran Herrera enjoys making things, transforming materials and replicating the world that surrounds her.

“I work mostly with paper because it is a very flexible material, easy to transform and inexpensive.” explains Diana. “I like making structures and skeletons that later I cover in paper, but generally everything I do is made with paper.”

Diana's initial sketch and final artwork for Ruth Hogan's The Keeper of Lost Things.

For 2D works like book covers Herrera uses a combination of sculptural elements, layering, textures and surfaces.

“Usually with the book covers there are different layers and the arrangements and cutting techniques are important so everything can fit in the frame and make sense visually,” she explains.

Commissioned by clients whom include Marina Rinaldi, Mercedes Salazar and Greenpeace, she has also designed a number of book covers for publishers Hodder & Stoughton using her unique paper craft approach.

“I like doing layering with paper, cutting things and exposing textures. The shadows have become quite important recently, and paper can give more life to a simple design for a book cover.” adds Diana.

Inspired by Asian illustrators, everyday objects, art books and natural elements, she plans her work meticulously. Sketches are very important, as is deciding on the specific technique to use as there are many ways to work with paper, explains Herrera.

“I try to [plan] it all digitally first so that the process of making comes easy,” she says. “Otherwise you can drift too much and struggle to narrow the ideas. I like to use paper cutting with a little bit of sculpture, so I have flat parts and then parts with a lot of volume and texture.”

Sprinkling a little magic

London based illustrator and art director Matt Saunders first came to the attention of publishers with his work for JK Rowling's Pottermore, the global digital publisher of Harry Potter and the Wizarding World creating the illustrated scenes for The Sorting Ceremony and wand selection.

“I was creating personal projects at the time that visually perhaps lend themselves to book covers and that's maybe what got me in,” he says. “Pottermore opened my work up globally to publishers – most of the books I do now originate in the States where for my work really resonates.”

Saunders has illustrated around 50 book covers for clients all over the globe. Taking inspiration from the natural world and his love for film and cinema, his work often focuses on striking landscapes, dramatic lighting and atmospheric scenes created by hand and then coloured digitally.

A sketch and a rough for Kamilla Benko's The Last Unicorn.

“I was a student of the DVD commentary era and would learn why directors made certain choices with lighting, staging and lenses,” he notes.

A print-led approach

Colombian illustrator Melissa Castrillón prefers a mixture of traditional hand-drawn and digital-colouring-and-compositing for her book illustrations, approaching the design of each image as you would a screen print.

“I combine a limited colour palette and hand drawn layers with a mechanical pencil,” she says. “Each layer is then scanned in and digitally coloured in Photoshop as a series of single colour layers – for example, so black-and-white layers end up being red, blue & yellow on the computer. I then layer them over each other in Photoshop and it will – hopefully if I have planned it well – make a full illustration.”

It was during her Masters in Children's Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art where she honed her printing technique and developed the style she is known for today.

“They have an amazing print room with everything you could wish for: etching, letterpress, lithography, Riso printing and screen printing, which I was immediately drawn towards,” she explains. “It forced me to think of an illustration as a limited number of colour layers which could translate into a whole image.”

One of her most recent covers was the new gift edition of Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, which centres around an armoured bear.

Roughs for Melissa's cover for Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

“I played around with the shape of the bear and how it can work on the cover format but also how the title and author name can fit and not battle for space in the design,” explains Castrillón. “All the elements have to be considered throughout and work as a cohesive whole. The colour was already mapped out after speaking with the publisher so it was quite fun to have that decided and then have the challenge of 'How am i going to make that palette work and compliment my design?'. Sometimes having pre-set parameters can be enjoyable – but obviously not all the time.”

Melissa says that understanding the key imagery that dominates the story helps her to get a clear feel of the atmosphere, which in turn impacts the colour palette and overall design.

“I like to choose one main piece of imagery to use on the cover and incorporate other objects as small sub-imagery or decoration around the design,” she explains. “The main piece of imagery tends to exemplify the story the most and also provide me with the most interesting composition: so a mixture of those two tends to equal a book cover I’m happy with – such as Northern Lights and the armoured bear or Monica Kulling's Mary Innings’ Curiosity and its ichthyosaur fossil.”

Covering Shakespeare

Graphic designer and illustrator Harry Goldhawk works out of his studio in Cornwall, alongside his wife and fellow designer Zanna. He recently completed Shakespeare for Every Day of Year, his third in a series of Poetry books, edited by Allie Esiri.

“Right from the start I knew that it had to look like part of the rest of the set, so a lot of the compositional decisions were made immediately,” he says. “I knew that the text would be centred and be surrounded by florals which made my job easier in a lot of ways.

“The trickiest part was figuring out a way to fit the word ‘Shakespeare’ in a way that looked organic. It took me a little while to figure out a way to place it.”

Harry had a lot of freedom for the cover, and chose a series of themes and objects that appear throughout Shakespeare’s literary works, intertwining them with leaves and flowers.

“If there were any elements that the Publisher was unsure of, they’d let me know and we’d discuss what we could swap them out with,” he explains. “I had to take into account the two previous books in the series, Poem for Every Day and Poem for Every Night, so that the palettes didn’t overlap or clash at all.

“The colour schemes were discussed from the very beginning. I knew that it couldn’t be a dark blue or a red and that it had to stand out on a shelf, which led me to go with the teal and gold foiling.”

Don’t be afraid to share your work

Promoting and sharing your artwork online is crucial to get your work seen by potential commissioners, and publishers frequently use platforms such as Instagram and Behance to source new talent. Melissa Castrillón says social media helped her connect to clients in the beginning.

“I wasn't confident in my work at that stage and felt anxious about emailing publishers.” she admits. So she was surprised to get her first ever commission when an art director at Simon & Schuster US got in touch after discovering her work on Pinterest.

“I would definitely encourage others to be brave and email publishers directly as well as using online platforms and going to book fairs,” she says.

The Folio Society encourages emerging illustrators to participate in art shows.

“We regularly visit events, such as [yearly grad shows] New Blood and New Designers to look for up-and-coming talent, and of course we do online research too.” reveals Raquel, who regularly looks at illustration agents websites, alongside keeping their own files on artists they would like to work with.

“Occasionally an artist may contact us at the same time as the perfect project for them appears,” she notes, “but if not – and we like what we see – we’ll keep them on file to hopefully use in the future.”

YoAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman was released in this exquisite edition by The Folio Society with illustrations by the author's long-time collaborator Dave McKean. Read our interview with Dave McKean about the project here.

Agency representation is another valuable consideration for illustrators keen to cross over into the world of publishing, adds Melissa, who is represented by Helen Boyle at Pickled Ink agency.

“They are very nurturing and really want you to do the work you love and that will push you forward,” she says.

Her agents have an expansive list of publishers that they are regularly in contact with, and she notes that “before I had an agent, I was pretty bad at approaching publishers. I have secured all but one of the 18 book covers I have illustrated through my agents.”

13 Treasures by Michelle Harrison. Illustration by Melissa Castrillón

There are also numerous organisations out there that offer support and advice, such as Picture Hooks, an Edinburgh-based organisation who provide access, opportunities and development. There’s also the newly launched Pathways which offers a two year intensive study programme for emerging picture book illustrators.

Melissa concludes that the importance of self-initiated projects should not be underestimated.

“Set setting yourself personal briefs, where you produce a piece of narrative illustration that you would love to be commissioned to do,” she says. “The more work you have which you love and are able to show publishers will increase their interest and will show them what you’re capable of.”

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