Well, I didn't win the Kelpies Design Prize this year (probably for the best in retrospect, I was decidedly off-colour on the evening and almost fainted, so winning might have finished me off) - here's the one that did - but I thought it might be nice to show the working process I went through to come up with my design. There's lots to it, mind.
I can't be certain when I first became aware of the Kelpies Design Prize, or when I decided to give it a shot, but it would've been some time mid-October last year. Perhaps it began, as so much does these days, with a tweet:
Or perhaps it was the Creative Scotland Opportunities newsletter. Whichever, it was well timed - I spent a fair chunk of last year plugging along with life drawing and daily sketching but feeling creatively adrift, lacking focus or anything to really aim for beyond making pretty pictures and hoping somebody out there liked it (I'd love to be one of those artists who doesn't give a damn what others think of their work and creates solely for themselves - alas, I ain't). A cursory glance of last year's posts attests to that, no direction beyond life drawing and shilling paintings. Not ideal, but there didn't seem any room in my life for any kind of personal project, something to get my paint-stained teeth into.
This is why the Kelpies Design Prize intrigued me from the get-go - a project! With a purpose! And the prospect of payment! Run by an Edinburgh-based publisher, Floris Books, it's an annual competition to design a book cover (front, spine and back) for a soon-to-be-published book for a 10-12 year old audience, the winning entry being used for the published book (plus £250 for the designer). The book for this year's competition was The Hill of the Red Fox by Allan Campbell Maclean, a Skye-based Cold War thriller first published in 1955 (and adapted for BBC TV in 1975). Submarines and crofting - what's not to love?
Although I've had a painting of mine used on a book cover a few years ago (see right), I'd never actually given any thought to book cover design. In retrospect this seems baffling, as it turned out to be the ideal combination of artwork, typography and design, but before October it just wasn't on my radar. But the Prize made me take notice. It seemed to straddle the line between amateurs and professionals, like a potential entry point for the former without excluding the latter - and with three months until deadline, it didn't seem completely unrealistic for a part-time civil servant/stay-at-home-Dad to have a go. The fact that the book was a thriller based on beloved Skye sealed the deal, although goodness knows when I decided to give it a shot - I kept shtoom about it on Twitter and Facebook all the way to February, only telling family and a few workmates during the three months, in case I embarrassed myself with the result.
As soon as I read the brief, I checked Edinburgh Libraries to see if they had a copy of the book - result! Although the brief included an excerpt from the book, I wanted to read the whole thing and get a real feel for it if possible, not to mention pull out key events/images for potential use. It took a few commutes to do so, scribbling key quotes into a notebook (the lack of CTRL-C and CTRL-V in real life is such a bind) before getting the book back to the library, knowing full well there'd be others out there wanting it for the same reason and not wanting to delay.
Straight off the bat, I was coming from a 1940's/50's spy thriller direction, which to my mind fit the source text (which has an impressively action-packed climax, not to mention a body count, so hardly fluff). In particular, posters for The Third Man and The 39 Steps leapt to mind and stayed there for three months (not to mention imagery from the former, one of my favourite films). I loved the way they conveyed drama, tension, a sense of action swathed in mystery. The best posters - and, I'd like to think, covers - plant questions in your head, pulling you to the story with curiosity and concern.
Now, this may be where I doomed my chances to win, because the brief included a list of books which the publishers considered to have covers that were relevant to the competition. And I did look at them, I did - the one for The Silver Sword my favourite of the lot - but after reading The Hill of the Red Fox there was no shaking those images of off-kilter, shadow-drenched, high-contrast post-war thrillers from my mind. In retrospect, if I'd read this blogpost from the publishers I might've made more of an effort to exorcise Harry Lime and his shadowy ilk, because it underlines the importance of working with a sound understanding of the market and bearing in mind what's worked well with similar publication - hence the references in the brief, and no doubt hence a notable difference in approach between my design and the others shortlisted. Ah well, I went with what I felt was right and I stand by it, even if it ultimately failed.
The other key visual reference for my design was looking at classic rail posters, especially those for the Highlands. I've been a huge fan of Norman Wilkinson's artwork for years, so it was good to study these in greater detail, examine how he and similar artists conveyed the light, the scale, the mood of the Scottish landscape. From early on I knew that I wanted to try and make the imposing landscape of Skye's peaks a key element in the design, a great force looming over whatever else was going on, dwarfing humans. Just look at the elemental drama in this beauty from John Mace in 1935. PHWOAR, says I, PHWOAR.
My first sketches didn't come until 27th October - see above. Despite all the visual development that followed over the next few months, there's key elements in that first day's drawing that made it to the finished design.
By the end of October I was latching onto a stark black-red-white colour design (Black Cuillin, Red Cuillin, y'dig?) which made it nice and easy to scribble down designs while commuting, what with it only requiring two colour pens. Into November, recurring themes were running silhouettes, looming mountains, explosions and a scarred hand. After drawing stuff like the above on paper, I moved onto the Mac for some scribbling on Mischief.
Working digitally gave me lots of space to experiment in quickly, with the whopping disadvantage that I could only do so when on the computer at home with an hour or two to spare - something that doesn't happen all that often just now. Development continued apace on paper, with an increasing obsession on the idea of a hand-centred design...
By 10th December, I accurately scribbled "struggling with the cover" - I knew the hand design was completely inappropriate for both the story and the market (with odd echoes of Carrie and Evil Dead 2) but couldn't settle on a particular scene/image to work on instead. Instead, I played with the thought of a multi-frame cover, maybe 3-4 letterboxes containing particular scenes from the story. But would that work shrunk down for mobile device consumption? Hmmm.
As you can see, I was still carrying a bit of a torch for the hand design, but also slowly bringing together elements that worked for me.
And then, 21st December, after a few thumbnails I enthusiastically scrawled "THIS!" at the first design to really go DING-DING-DING-DING for me. Only took two (very part-time) months, eh?
TO THE GRAPHICS TABLET! I began serious digital drawing on Corel Painter, an app I've used on and off since 2000, and am still learning - it's certainly my favourite digital art programme, especially in tandem with a graphics tablet. Working within the dimensions of the template provided in the brief I roughly nailed down aspects like the horizon and vanishing point (particularly crucial for the text in perspective), not to mention some serious struggling in getting the pose of the hand & gun correct - oooh, that took some work.
Once key drawn elements were ready I moved over to Photoshop in early January. Now, there was a slight hitch in me not actually having Photoshop but - hey! - you can get a free trial of it for a month, which was just enough time for me to actually get the cover completed. Lovely. And, to be honest, it was a delight to work with, but that monthly subscription model really doesn't appeal - I like knowing that I own Painter, lock stock and barrel, rather than temporarily rent it. That said, if Adobe ran a cut-price package of Photoshop and Illustrator (as already done for this photography bundle), I'd be sorely tempted. (In the meantime I'm experimenting with Serif's Affinity Photo which could just fill that Photoshop-sized gap).
My relative n00b-ness at Photoshop meant that there was a fair bit of learning on the job, and I had to take care not to make the amateur mistake of over-processing, over-filtering, over-doing the whole bloody thing (indeed, maybe I did, certainly in comparison to some of the far cleaner designs on the final shortlist). Advice within issues of ImagineFX certainly helped, as did a wodge of reference books from assorted libraries, but what I would have given for the luxury of learning Photoshop in a classroom setting rather than flailing away on it at home.
There's not really any images to show of the development on Photoshop - I didn't save numerous different files at different stages, trying to minimise the temptation to keep looking back, and those I did save were deleted once everything was done (those file sizes got big). The design of the back of the book came quite late, especially as it hadn't been 100% clear from the brief whether the back was included or not. I ended up using some old maps of north Skye, out of copyright, run through a few filters. And even while the front of the cover was coming together, I continued to look at work like Lone Wolf & Cub and artists like Frank Miller, Will Eisner and Bernie Wrightson for hints on how to clearly depict rain in the night without everything being just flat out black (thank the stars for this thread). This tutorial was quite the blessing too.
Right up to the end I kept trying new things, often quickly undoing them right away, as the picture lurched on either side of the fine line between too bright for night and too dark for making any damned sense. Filters would go on, then off, then on, then off again. The fact I could only work on this in evenings was a boon in some ways, each evening looking at the previous night's work with fresh eyes. And, much to my pleasant surprise, when I finally sat back and said "DONE" (yes, in capitals) there was still more than a day to go until the deadline - fancy that!
Looking back, and knowing that I didn't win, it seems horribly likely that I went for too 'adult' a design - that my thrill in evoking The Third Man drowned out the fact that The Third Man isn't really aimed at 8 - 12 year olds, whereas this brief certainly was. I should have relied less on a near-monochrome study of light and shade, instead making greater use of colour and not being afraid of daylight. But still - I like my cover! I like that it thrums with energy, that it has a tension and a thrill to it, that it just about succeeds in capturing the thundering rain of a Skye storm.
And, despite the frustrations in self-learning Photoshop, I had a fantastic time working on this cover. I loved coming up with ideas in the sketchbook, bashing certain images and concepts back and forth until something finally stuck. Working with text, finding ways to make it a part of the design rather than an add-on, was a challenging joy, very different to anything Illustration Friday might throw up. This combination of imagery and text, of narrative and atmosphere, was probably one of the most satisfying self-propelled projects I've ever worked on - so satisfying, that the lack of any financial reward for all those hours of work doesn't spoil it in the slightest.
It begs the question - would I like to be a book cover designer? Good god, yes, although quite how one starts down that road in your late thirties I don't know. But perhaps that's all this was, all it needed to be - a good start.
All of the shortlisted entries will be on display in a special exhibition from Saturday 11th to Friday 17th April at The Creative Exchange, 29 Constitution Street, Edinburgh, EH6 7BS