Book cover art is, for me, a source of huge excitement. Be it for reasons of apt evocation of a bygone era — the British Library Crime Classics, say, or the reams of Dean Street Press reissues — or the beautiful, almost utilitarian simplicity of the much-coveted Green Penguin, there’s an ineffable element of skill in striking the right balance.
Let me remind you, after all, that The Langtail Press released a bunch of superb titles by classic GAD authors in the early 2000s, the covers of which have about them the same simplicity of the Green Penguin, but no-one ever got too excited about this:
“Ah, man, I’ve been looking for that…title…?”
Done badly, a cover can put one off a book whose chief appeal is, after all, its contents; done well, the result of careful and intelligent judgement, a cover is often overlooked despite becoming inextricably linked with the identity of the book in question. I don’t own multiple editions of various Golden Age novels because I wish to pore over the texts and compare the infelicities of various generations of proof-reader — I have them because they’re gorgeous objects, evoking a sense of excitement, and the cover used to sell the book is inevitably a huge part of that feeling.
In what I’m hoping will be the first of an occasional series, my aim here is not to convince you of my opinions on the matter, but to invite the artists and designers responsible for these covers to talk about how they come into being. And with Polygon Books having put a great deal of care in their recently-released reprints of the John Dickson Carr novels Hag’s Nook (1930), The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), and She Died a Lady (1943), Abigail Salvesen — designer of the covers for the first and last of those titles — has very kindly agreed to give us a glimpse behind the curtain.
And so, enough from me, and over to her…
I always enjoy the challenge of creating original illustrations for book covers, and even more those that require a style out of my comfort zone. When I received design briefs for our two newly acquired Dickson Carr titles, Hag’s Nook and She Died a Lady, which asked for a modern take on the British Library Classic, I was excited to explore something new. My own style tends towards the richly detailed, monochrome aesthetic of Renaissance etchings, and the bold lines and flat colours characteristic of 30s illustration are pretty alien to me, so I began, as I usually do, with a whole lot of research.
Your typical ‘Golden Age’ detective book depicts the hero, brooding in the foreground as something shady goes on behind them:
With the exception of children’s books, story characters are largely absent from contemporary book covers — we’re in the age of type-centric design, embossing, gold foil and repeating patterns. The emphasis now swings to fancy finishes and production quality than to original cover art. This approach relieves the designer of the pressure of having to visually represent characters, leaving that part up to the reader’s imagination. Whether or not to depict a character on a book cover is certainly an issue of contention for new writing, but for Dickson Carr’s classics I was inclined to go full retro and mirror the imagery of earlier editions which feature the central characters Gideon Fell and Henry Merrivale in full detail.
The difficult task of capturing the characters based on Dickson Carr’s descriptions had already been ticked off, so why not simply translate the existing visuals into a more contemporary style?
I usually begin my design process by making doodles, collages and notes on my tablet, and once something starts to emerge from that I’ll do a digital sketch in black and white, marking out areas of dark and light and leaving space for the text. My first composition for Hag’s Nook shows a pensive Gideon Fell in his study, staring intently up at the sinister tower, illuminated in the moonlight. I love the exaggerated distinction between foreground and background in period illustration — see Roger Broders’ classic travel posters for prime examples of this — so I wanted to emulate this in the design [click on either set of images below for a larger version].
The next stage is to finalise the illustration to give the team a clearer idea of how the finished piece will look – and a chance to give their critiques at an early stage! For this I use a (lifesaving) software that automatically finds and smooths edges. Essentially it erases all the stray marks you don’t want, leaving a nice clean line around your work. The downside of this software is that, well, it’s too perfect. It runs calculations based on pixels to manipulate images, which tends to give everything you produce the same look. Great if you’re after total consistency. Not so great if you’re trying to reproduce the look of hand-printed 1900s lithographs with their unique inaccuracies and imperfections. So, I usually take the image produced by this software back to my tablet to work in small details by hand.
My illustration of Fell is based on those early Dickson Carr covers, and from David Grogan’s artwork on our recent edition of The Case of the Constant Suicides (Polygon, 2018). Initially I drew Fell silhouetted in front of the window to heighten the sense of mystery and foreboding, but the composition just didn’t work with the typographic layout of the series, which has the title at the top. A slight change to the point of view and the addition of some delicate, flowing curtains to bridge the top and bottom half helped bring everything together.
Choosing a colour palette is usually one of the last processes I do. For me, establishing contrast in lighting is the most important step in creating a visually interesting piece so I tend to start there. In terms of colour for Hag’s Nook, I wanted to contrast the warm, darkened interior of Fell’s study with the cold, sinister events of the outside world, keeping to a limited colour palette characteristic of early 20th century graphic art. Originally I went for a vintage brown and blue, inspired by the changing palette of sepia photographs over time as they fade from rich umber to ghostly blue (left-hand image, below). However, the general feeling about this version was that it looked too old and needed modernising. A quick Photoshopping and we settled on a lurid purple and green combination (right-hand image, below) which we felt complimented the story’s sense of mystery, crucially without crossing the line between subtly sinister and Halloween tack!
A final touch was the addition of texture to the cover. The two images below show the difference between the textured (left) and untextured (right) cover. While it looks subtle on-screen it makes a big difference to the appearance of the printed book. Without the texture my feeling is that the image looks too clean and flat, verging on cartoon-like. It looks cheap. The texture – a light grain overlaid on the image in Photoshop – gives the sense that this is hand-printed on aged paper, fitting for the illustration style. It’s a small touch but it finishes off the piece nicely [click on the image for a larger version].
The design process for She Died a Lady was less straightforward. My initial approach was much the same as for Hag’s Nook, sketching out a monochrome Henry Merrivale, supported by a crutch, pondering the mystery of Rita Wainwright and Barry Sullivan’s tragic demise across a stormy seascape. This design nearly went to print, but at the last minute someone suggested it looked too similar to the Fell series, and that this might be confusing to an audience (despite the difference being perfectly clear from the subtitle — what I’ve learned in this line of work is never to assume that people will actually read these things…) [click on the image for a larger version].
To distinguish one series from the other, we decided to lose the foreground character and focus instead on the perilous cliff-face from which the clandestine couple ostensibly fell.
The illustration is based on a collage of images of cliffs and waves. I’ve included the (very) rough version here to give an idea of how I build up compositions in Photoshop. One of the most difficult parts of cover design is learning to push through the ‘ugly duckling’ stage! [click on the image for a larger version]
The final image is based heavily on Golden age travel posters, particularly in terms of the colouring. In classic 20th century British railway posters, and likewise in Broders’ posters of France’s Mediterranean coast, there is an eclectic and unexpected mix of colours that give the landscapes a wonderful, dreamlike look. I wanted to capture a similar feeling on the cover of She Died a Lady in a nod to the tragic, whimsical romance of the story. In the final illustration, the sun is setting on the couple, mid embrace, casting a final glimmer of orange and pink across the shadowy greens and blues of the cliff.
I hope I’ve done these stories justice in my first foray into this iconic style, and I very much look forward to tackling the next of Dickson Carr’s classics – watch this space!
My most sincere thanks to Polygon for taking a chance on these Carr titles, and to Abi for doing such a wonderful job of both designing the covers and talking through aspects of the process — and for teasing us with the fact that there may even be more to come! To get an idea of what future delights any such covers may hold, or to simply check out her other idioms of design, you can find more of Abi’s work here.