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  1. VBT Acronyms and Terms
  2. Book Cover Character Illustration
  3. Final Thoughts
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Book Cover Character Illustration

The following sections take you through the entire creative process for a book cover design step by step.

This will put the methods covered in Vector Basic Training in context of a real-world design project—specifically, an illustration to be used on a book cover. In order to pull off this artwork, I had to be able to build my drawn design precisely, and for that I’ll use the methods and plugins covered in VBT. Let’s get started.

Step 1: Refined Sketch

My initial thumbnail sketch shown on the right (see Figure 1) is far too rough from which to build my vector art. It locks in my general direction, but I still have drawing to do in order to properly prepare the foundation I can build upon in my drawing program.

Step 2: Clockwork Method

The clockwork method (TCM) is nothing more than a mental trick, a way to look at any drawn shape and using the visual association of a clock to discern where to place your anchor points (see Figure 2). The VBT book thoroughly defines this in far more detail and with many more visual examples.

If you look at the lips of the monster, I angle the clock in my mind to discern placement (see Figure 2). On much of the other content, I keep it straight up. When I lay down my initial anchor points, I only pull out the handles just enough to enable them. I call this phase Rough Building.

Once I have the initial anchor points placed, I go in and pull out my handles to form the exact shape needed (see Figure 3).

On the tongue, I angle my mental clock to discern how to build my tongue shape (see Figure 4). Keep in mind any time your art comes to a point gets a point. Those are easy to discern.

When you use TCM, you can orient the clock at any angle to help you discern your anchor point placements. Following TCM will enable you to get your anchor points closer to where they finally need to be in order to form the vector shape needed.

When using TCM, you will always be building your vector shapes via the point-by-point method.

Step 3: Pathfinder

Not all vector content needs to be created one point at a time. Some content is built faster and more precisely using what I call the shape-building method. In this case, I used the ellipse tool and the pathfinder to punch out the final shapes needed.

Think of the pathfinder as cookie cutters and your vector shapes as the dough. You simply remove or combine shapes to form the final shape needed. So if I unite the green circles that will serve as my cookie cutter, the two pink circles underneath when united becomes the dough (see Figures 5, 6, and 7). Using pathfinder, I select both and minus front to get the final shape needed, as shown in Figure 8.

On most projects you'll use both point-by-point method and the shape-building method to create your art. Using both and discerning which method works best in each creative context is what will speed up your vector building over time.

Step 4: Base Paths Done

Once I have my entire base vector shapes done (see Figure 9), I like to make a copy of them and put them in a layer that is shut off. I consider this vector insurance. I'll now use the pathfinder to unite together various shapes in order to form one shape where and if needed, such as the top and bottom half of the monsters body.

An illustration like this contains no straight lines whatsoever. So handling and finessing your Bezier curves is of critical importance to ensure a well-crafted piece of vector artwork (see Figure 10). The final shapes are a balance of correct placement of the anchor points—only placing enough to form the shape needed, not over-extending or under-extending the Bezier handles—with a few areas requiring shape building such as in and around the eyes, the arms, and of course the spots.

Take a look at Figure 10 and keep in mind that all the anchor points have been moved into their Prime Point Placement (PPP). TCM gets you into the right neighborhood when you build, but you may still need to make minor adjustments to the locations of the anchor points as you continue along in order to get them into their correct PPP. The methods I cover in VBT will improve your vector accuracy but you'll never be perfect every time all the time, so it's important to make changes as needed as you build.

Step 5: Borrowing Attributes and Coloring

Coloring of an illustration like this is a progressive task. I prefer to start with base colors and build up the detail until I've modeled the artwork the way I want it.

I also borrow vector attributes from prior illustrations I work on in order to cut corners in regards to my build time. It's OK to rip off yourself (see Figure 11). Something you did before looks good and it makes sense to capitalize on that attribute and re-use it. In this case, I liked the shading tint on the previous character’s teeth, the color of his tongue, and an eyeball from another project I had worked on a while back (see Figure 12).

Part of coloring my illustrations is one of balance. I could care less if in reality it would be that way. What’s the point of illustrating if we are limited by reality? So I want colors that contrast well, reinforce where I'd like the viewer to look, and add interest (see Figure 13).

To add dimension, punch out details, and give the artwork a layered effect, I like to use gradient blends, blend modes, and transparency settings to add in needed shadowing and lighting. The inside brown area of the pupil has an inner glow applied. Subtle but effective. All of these seemingly small details add up and help to form the final art. (In VBT, I provide several source files for the art featured in the book so you can open them up and deconstruct how they were built.)

Step 6: Blend Tool Detailing

I formed the base vector shapes of the tail by first building the shape as if it was one element. I than dissected it using the pathfinder palette. Detailing the tail on this monster was a three-part process:

  1. I filled each individual shape that makes up the tail with a flat color (see Figure 14).
  2. Each of the colors I use in this artwork has a base color, a darker version of the base color, and a highlight version of the base color. This is the type of color hierarchy I use to break down a design and make coloring easier. I then create a linear gradient for each shape, blending from dark base to regular base color, and position the direction to match my overall general light source on my character (see Figure 15).
  3. Using the pathfinder, I form the dark shadow shape that overlaps the entire length of the tail and set the blend mode to multiply and adjust the transparency (see Figure 16).

Step 7: Gradients and Blend Modes

The combination of gradients, blend modes, and transparency make detailing on a project like this far more flexible and editable. There is no set way of using these, so I find the process works best when you simply experiment until you achieve the visual aesthetic you desire.

I create the vector shape to form the shading on the leg and than create the gradient blend to fill it (see Figures 17 and 18).

Step 8: Flat to Final

Let’s take a look at the bat wings I created for this monster. The base shape aligns exactly with the drawing upon which I build my base vector shapes (see Figure 19). I now want to detail the wings out so they fit the aesthetic of the overall illustration.

To add depth to the wings’ surface, I'll create new vector shapes and use the pathfinder to edit them into place within the base of the wing shape (see Figure 20). I'll then begin to colorize them using my hierarchy and a linear gradient (see Figure 21). Once I add a final highlight and subtle shadow so it looks like it's coming from behind the body, I'm now done (see Figure 22).

Step 9: Fresh Eyes Effect

I want to deconstruct the eyeball and show you how simple layering of one small effect upon another can all add up to a very compelling final product. Starting with the top-left eyeball, I created it using the ellipse tool and the star tool (see Figure 23).

I then add in some simple gradient blends—both linear and radial—to begin to give the eye dimension and depth. The blue secondary lighting in the pupil really brings it to life, in my opinion. I also add an inner glow raster effect to the brown area on the pupil of the eye and top it all off with a simple blend from transparent white to zero alpha to form the sheen.

I experimented with an eyelid but didn't like how it changed the character’s emotion so I left it off.

One of the most important things any designer and illustrator can learn is the ability to art direct themselves. Looking at their work with a critical eye and seeing room for improvement helps to set aside a project and re-approach it later with what I call "fresh eyes" so you can pinpoint any areas needing improvement.

With this project, I did that. I put it aside and moved onto something else. The next morning I scrutinized it and sure enough there staring back at me was a glaring problem (pardon the pun): The perspective of the pupil of the eye was off. So I moved it over to the right a bit and that improved it a lot (see Figure 24).

I also added in some background atmosphere so when the character is sitting on a white background, it would be a bit more interesting.

Step 10: Final Art

The final monster is in all his gory (see Figure 25).

On the back cover of the book, I was able to take the same monster and turn him into a metaphorical idea (see Figure 26). The top of the art extended and faded out to black with the text and other items worked into the layout. The whole project was a blast to work on.

Figure 27 shows the actual cover of the book with the monster artwork in place.

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