About the Emotions In a Pretty Face

Great Hexe nightfall z book cover art by illustrator Duncan Long

I often have folks tell me that I’ve captured the emotions of a character created for a book cover perfectly. Or that I’ve created a really pretty face on a character. There are a few tricks to make such things happen. And they aren’t quite what you might think they’d be. In fact, there’s a bit counter intuitive.

I’ve found that often people “see” the features different actors in my illustrations. Sometimes that makes sense because there is a resemblance. But often different viewers actually see very different “faces” in the pictures. For example, when I get finished with a character, I may think, “Man, I hope that doesn’t look too much like” so-and-so. And then a client who sees it will say, “That’s great — I see you made her a little like” some other actor. And then my wife will come into my studio, look at the monitor, and says, “Does that look too much like” a third actor. Same face. Three different “looks” according to which person is studying it.

So often there’s to be a tendency to see what we expect or perhaps want to see sometimes.

With women’s faces, there’s another oddity: The less defined the face, the more “beautiful” it will be perceived by most people (I’m not sure if this is true with the male face — the only study I’ve seen on this used women’s faces). For example, the “prettiest” face an artist can create is just two eyes/eyebrows, nostrils, and lips. Now when you think about encountering such a person in real life, that minimum of features would be terrifying!

But most people “see” a beautiful face instead.

Hollywood took advantage of this for years by putting gauze or Vaseline on lens to “soften” female faces. (More recently the high definition has taken female actresses in a disastrous direction, showing all their skin imperfections when the camera closes in. One movie is said to cause gasps in the audience when a closeup of a gal’s face shows nose hairs. Too much detail is sometimes detrimental.)

A third psychological “mind trick” I often work with is that when people are presented with photos and look at them for an extended time, they tend to see the expression change on a face. It doesn’t change of course. But the mind perceives the face as making subtle changes. My contention (and I have no proof for this) is that the mind also tends to “shift” expressions in the direction it wants to see them go. For this reason I often make my faces as expressionless as possible so people will tend to “read” the expressions they’re wanting to see in them. I think this works — but have no proof.

For the same reason, I try to make facial expressions subtle so they can easily be “dragged” by the viewer’s mind into the configuration they want to see. At least that’s my theory.

Well… I’ll quit now before giving away all my trade secrets.

Duncan Long is a professional book cover illustrator who likes to play with people’s minds. See more of his book cover artwork — including faces with strange emotions and beauty — at: Duncan Long’s Portfolio

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Reworking Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine book cover illustration by Duncan Long for a book by Robert Fripp

One of this week’s illustration projects was to rework and update my illustration of Eleanor of Aquitaine that I did seven years ago for a historic book written by Robert Fripp.

The original book cover project was tricky because the only recorded “picture” of Eleanor of Aquitaine was a medieval statue along with some contemporary written descriptions of her (which mentioned her riveting blue eyes).

So no little thought had to be given as to how much was “her” and how much the style of the times. Then she had to look like an actual human being AND ideally attractive — but no cheating to make her look more attractive than she likely was. So lots of hair splitting and “cultural archeology” to determine what she must have looked like. (Hopefully the results were close. But I guess we’ll not know until we all get to Heaven as the old hymn goes.)

Since I did the original picture, I’ve got a bit better at creating realistic faces, so this week’s work mostly had to do with enhancing her skin tone and texture as well as reworking some of her crown — and a bunch of time getting the folds on her scarf under the crown more realistic.

Hopefully it will meet with the art director’s approval.

You can find out more about Robert Fripp’s book here: Power of a Woman. Memoirs of a turbulent life: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Duncan Long is a professional book cover artist and graphic designer. See more of his book cover pictures at: DuncanLong.com

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Creating the Cover for Patricia Little’s The Blue Between

I got word today that Patricia Little’s fantasy novel is now in print. Creating the cover for The Blue Between went through a number of steps — with several false starts — before arrived at the final illustration for the book.

First, here’s a short blurb about the story:

Sixteen-year-old Heather Lucas is the freak girl who got hit by lightning, and she has a scar on her palm to prove it. Since then, everything has gotten weird. Her mother left them, which makes no sense. Her Dad thinks she’s a liar, because she won’t explain why she keeps running away.The thing is, she can’t explain it. She just disappears and then reappears miles away, with the scar on her palm tingling. In between, she drifts in a sparkling blue void outside of time and space, where indistinct forms of people float by, lost in the blue. Is she going crazy?

Odd things are even happening at school. Why would the new boy, Alex, be interested in her? He shows her a paper he’s written about a place called Alanar. The make-believe city from Mom’s old bedtime stories? What does he know about her mother? Heather is determined to find out, especially after she sees the scar on his palm, identical to her own.

There are several key elements for the novel that we wanted on the cover: The lightning, the magic pendant that figures in the plot, and the character Heather.

That was the plan.

So the first task was to create Heather. I created several sketches, with these coming closest to what Patricia thought the character in her book should look like:

Heather 2e2 character sketch for the fantasy book cover

book cover artwork for fantasy novel

While these seemed to be coming close to what had been envisioned for the character, as Patricia and I talked it became more and more apparent that the emphasis in the story might better be placed on the pendant the character wore rather than on the character. Since Patricia had seen some of the other “jewelry” covers I’d created for other fantasy novels, we decided to drop having the character on the cover and instead go with a large version of the pendant (which originally we’d planned on having the character wear, but which would have been very small on the cover).

This was one of several early pendant designs.

Cover 1h-reflection jewelry design for fantasy book cover

As you can see, I tried placing the character’s reflection over the jewel (sort of the gem wearing the gal rather than the character wearing the pendant). While this seemed a great idea on paper, it proved less viable than had be hoped so we abandoned the idea of having the gal’s reflection on the cover picture.

The pendant design also seemed a little too angular and masculine, so I set about creating a new design and drawing in a chain that was a bit more dynamic and capable of counterbalancing the lightning strike that would go down one side of the front cover of the book.

Eventually it all came together for an attractive book cover. To help unite the various elements, I used a color gradient over the entire picture and then painted in reflections that corresponded (more or less) to the lightning flash, with the curve of the pendant being duplicated by part of the lightning bolt. Finally, the chain was arranged so that it appeared the pendant had been thrown or was flying toward the lightning strike.

Here’s the final layout for the wrap-around cover:

Patricia Little Print Cover for fantasy book

You can learn more about The Blue Between and read sample chapters from the novel at Amazon.com; the book is available in both Kindle and print formats.

Artist Duncan Long illustrates book covers on fantasy, science fiction, and other genre novels. You can see more of his book cover designs and illustrations at Duncan Long’s Book Cover Art Portfolio.

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Graphic Novel Witches and Fish — now available in print

Witches and Fish Graphic Novel Cover by fantasy book cover illustrator

I’m happy to announce that my fantasy graphic novel Witches and Fish is now available in both print and Kindle versions at Amazon.com.

It’s basically… well, I don’t know exactly what it is.

A graphic novel? Somewhat. Surreal and Jungian? Very much so. And it’s full of original, fanciful artwork (100-plus illustrations) that I created for this book over several years time. If you like my fantasy artwork, you’re going to love this book.

The print version’s pictures have about three times the detail of the ebook versions of the pictures, so this is one of those times when print has a bit of an edge.

Here are a few other pictures taken from Witches and Fish (and, as you can see, the storyline is quite fanciful with an Alice In Wonderland feel to it:

Witches and Fish- serpent by fantasy book artist Duncan Long

Great Hexe nightfall by fantasy book artist Duncan Long

Dragon Castle Witches and Fish by fantasy book artist Duncan Long

The Creation of Lilith by Duncan Long fantasy book cover artist

If you want a mind-boggling ride, I’m hoping you’ll buy a copy of my Witches and Fish.

Fantasy artist Duncan Long has created over a thousand book cover illustrations for many indie authors as well as large presses including HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, Paladin Press, Enslow Publishers, and many others. To see more of his amazing artwork, visit his Fantasy Book Cover Artwork Portfolio.

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A book cover artist’s thoughts and odds and ends…

Princess and the Cat book cover art by fantasy artist Duncan Long

Into every blog about the publishing industry and book cover designing, a little miscellanea must fall — and this is that post.

Kobo continues to try to capture more of the e-reader market. Here’s its latest new ebook reader.

I suspect that in the future, the ebook and printed book will diverge as much as, say, newspapers and magazines have from books. That said this may be one route taken by those publishing print books: The handmade book.

The Internet allows for many new and amazing things. But possibly this is in the “just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should” category. But it is an amazing book nonetheless: The Frankenfont Project.

A bit superficial in its coverage, but here’s an interesting overview from Atlantic Magazine of how science fiction book cover pictures / artwork have changed over the years: Space Cartoons to Space Psychedelia: How Sci-Fi Book Covers Evolved

Here’s an interesting interview with the artist who created the retro look (and why) resulting in a 1950s-style “pulp” book cover illustration for Stephen King’s Joyland.

OK… this isn’t really book cover related. But many artists are Irish and some of those do have drinking problems, so I thought I’d sneak this bit of history into this post — with a solute to my ancestors known and unknown: The Irish Ether Drinking Craze.

Finally, as schools around the nation are gearing up for a new school year, I want to note that the best 9 years of my life were in high school.

Duncan Long is a science fiction and fantasy book cover illustrator who has created covers for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, ILEX, Moonstone Books, Enslow Publishers, and many other presses and indie authors. Visit his illustration portfolio.

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What Elements Make the Best Cover Illustrations?

Book illustration art picture by Duncan Long

Although eventually used as an inner book illustration, this painting would have been an ideal book cover picture since it has the character making eye contract with the viewer.

How do you decide what the front illustration should be on your book cover?

There’s a tendency for the writer to want to have “everything but the kitchen sink” on the front of the book. Every important plot element and every character… But that’s a mistake. Such attempts just become a jumble of “stuff” to the eye. Effective cover designs are almost always simple.

Remember: The text tells the story. You’re not making a movie. You’re just using the cover illustration to set the tone. The real purpose of the illustration is to “lure” the reader to the book. To do that, you must keep the cover illustration simple. It must create an element of mystery. It must make a reader say, “That looks interesting” and want to learn more.

For fiction, having the main character on the cover is a generally a good idea. People connect with people on a subconscious level, so there’s an “instant connection” if you have a human being on the cover. An even more powerful way to use a character on a cover is to have a “close up” on the face, with your character looking out of the cover at the viewer (as is often done with portraits). People make an emotional connection with such a cover, and that connection pays off with more readers.

While a non-fiction books can have a the main character on it, there’s currently a tendency to have objects on the cover: A compass, jewelry, or something else that’s key to the subject matter (and this even carriers over to some fiction these days, especially fantasy books). Again, keeping the cover illustration simple is key, especially with the reduced resolution of ebook covers as well as catalog and book review cover reproductions.

Dragonfly book cover illustration

For non-fiction and some fiction, an object of some sort often proves effective for a cover illustration. This dragonfly with an ancient-looking background is simple yet eye-catching.

Wrap around cover pictures are often recommended, but I think these tend to create more expense for the buyer than is necessary. For starters, readers generally go to the back of the book not to see more cover but rather to read what the book is about. And lettering over a picture is often hard to read (less legible at best) which can dictate “boxing” the text — basically covering up the picture and putting text in the box. Worse the picture covering the spine REALLY can degrade reading the text. Given that some books will be displayed on bookstore and library shelves with only the spine showing, the harder to read title and author name can really hurt the lettering’s potential to attract readers to the book. Finally, ebooks currently only display the front of a book cover, so the work done on the spine and back are basically wasted effort and expense with this book format.

WÆLCYRIE MURDERS wrap-around book cover painting

The wrap around cover (for the Wælcyrie Murders by Anthony Pacheco) works because the subject matter is simple, and the light colors allow for effective lettering on the spine and back.

While I wouldn’t say, “Never have a wrap around cover,” you do need to give careful thought before going to the added expense of buying a wrap around. Often a front illustration will be more effective and will better use the money you’ve budgeted for your book cover.

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The Lost Predictions of “NostraDuncan”

NostraDuncan tabloid illustration by Duncan Long

The last ten years have seen a major shift in our business from creating illustrations for larger publishers toward clients who are self-publishing authors or small presses. And ebook covers have become a large part of that work (though generally these are generated from the print version of the covers we create).

One of the clients that supplied us with a lot of work back when was The Sun tabloid, which was usually to be found at the checkout counter of Walmart and most supermarkets throughout the US.

Stories in The Sun were always a little on the Twilight Zone side, and most were totally fabricated, though whenever the art director called in need of an illustration, she talked as if the story was legitimate, and I never disputed that. Hopefully most readers weren’t taken in by these hoaxes, but given what passes as “reality” with reality TV shows, perhaps they were.

At any rate, among the werewolves, bat boys, and aliens I painted for use in this tabloid was one that gave me my 15 minutes of fame. The paper was running an article on Nostradamus, and given there were few pictures of him (and no cameras back when) they needed a photo-realistic painting for the cover article about the prophet.

Having a beard and looking a bit haggard, I used myself for the model, altering my nose a bit in the painting process to match the one drawing of Nostradamus that I was working from. I sent off a digital copy, got the okay from the art director, and pretty much forgot about the whole thing as I continued with other projects.

Weeks later, the picture appeared not on an inside article but on the cover of the publication. And my friends who I hadn’t bothered to tell about the illustration were thus a bit alarmed to see my face plastered up and down the checkout line counters where they usually saw two-headed girls, ax murderers, and air-brushed photos of Hollywood starlets who had been abducted by aliens.

After their initial double-take, no doubt they were relieved to find I wasn’t a serial killer or such.

Over the years The Sun ran some crazy stories. Ironically, one story the tabloid didn’t cover but which while true still strains credibility was the tragic death of the paper’s photo editor Robert Stevens; in 2001 when a mysterious letter came into the mailroom, he had the misfortune to inhale some of the bluish powder inside. Weeks later, he was dead; the powder was laced with anthrax spores and the letter was one of many that were sent to businesses and politicians throughout the US. A needless death, and due to my connection with the tabloid, one that has brought home the potential dangers of both terrorism and biological warfare.

In 2012 The Sun closed its doors. But it had a good run and supplied a string of nice payments for some of my more fanciful illustrations, from UFOs to strange creatures that go bump in the night.

Duncan Long is a sometimes model but mostly works as an illustrator. He’s done artwork for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books — and The Sun. Today he mostly creates book cover pictures for self-publishing authors and small indie presses. You can see many of his book and magazine illustrations in his Portfolio of Book and Magazine Art.

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Four Sci-Fi Book Cover Pictures Looking for a Home

Ballet In Micro G - science fiction book cover picture

I recently took a little time off to create four pictures for the consideration for the editor of a science fiction magazine that hopefully will be taking flight soon. In the meantime, I thought I’d show off my artwork. Please note that while these are under consideration by the editor, nothing is set in stone and the rights have not yet been sold. So if you’re interested in using one for a book or magazine cover project in need of a science fiction illustration, drop me a line and I’ll let you know if it becomes available.

My painting above is “Ballet In Micro-G” — and yes, I consciously mimicked the “Creation of Man” that resides in the Sistine Chapel. (Yes, science fiction artists really do know a little about art history.)

Next (below) is the second picture I created, “An Amazing Takeoff” which employs the old-style science fiction rocket that was popular in 1950s and 1960s novels. Also a small Stanley Kubrick 2001 style space station (partly under construction in this picture).

Amazing Takeoff - a sci-fi book cover picture by Duncan Long


A salute to Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone story “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street.” For this one I updated the concept of the flying saucer a bit with additional “stuff” on the hulls, lights, and mysterious projections that one might expect with “alien technology.”

And one lone youngster trying to escape via his trusty bicycle.

As Serling might have said, “Presented for your consideration…”

The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street 2 sci-fi book cover picture by artist Duncan Long

Finally, an illustration that seems to be a repeating theme for me: “The Clockwork Gal.” With talk of robot companions and such, it seems likely that somewhere in the near future such automatons will become functional and perhaps to the casual glance, indistinguishable from real human beings. At least until she pulls open her robe to expose the gear work.

The Amazing Clockwork Woman - science fiction book artwork by Duncan Long

Again, the rights to any or all of these pictures may become available, so let me know if one would work as a cover illustration for your upcoming book or magazine project.

In the meantime, you can see more of my science fiction artwork in my Science Fiction Book Cover Paintings Gallery.

I also have a collection of “ready made” sci-fi pictures in my Premade Science Fiction Book Cover Illustrations Gallery. These have lower price tags — but are sold “as is” with the understanding that I’ll not do further work on them; each is full size for print and can be reduced for use as an ebook cover. (For the secrets of using premade artwork for your book cover, see my how-to article: “The Secrets of Choosing and Using Premade Book Cover Art.”)

Duncan Long has created over a thousand illustrations used for book and magazine covers as well as inner artwork in publications. Among those who’ve used his work are many self publishers and small presses as well as HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, ILEX, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Moonstone Books, and Enslow Publishers.

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So You’re a Writer…

I’m a writer / illustrator. These days I’m mostly an illustrator. But a couple of decades back, I was mostly an author, and at one point had the happy experience of putting 13 novels into print with HarperCollins and Avon Press, along with a host of non-fiction books with smaller presses.

During my time as a mostly writer, I discovered there are many people that are simply jealous of authors — and often will do their best to put wordsmiths down (if not outright belittle them).

Such people will often dismiss a writer as doing something anyone can do. Phrases like, “Everyone has a good book or two in them” or “When I get the time, I’m going to write the Great American Novel” may not be conscious putdowns, but nevertheless most authors will recognize them as such.

And most who have worked honing words and polishing manuscripts know that not most people don’t have what it takes to become a successful writer (any more than most people have what it takes to become a successful brain surgeon, sculptor, or other work that requires a lot of learning, creativity, and craftsmanship).

Another sort of putdown can occur during the “what do you do” exchange that often occurs in social interaction. Sadly some will use this social interplay as a way to belittle an author. Years ago when I worked mostly as an author, an occasional exchange would often go something like this after I revealed I was a writer:

Their first attempted putdown was to ask, “Have you published with any press I’ve ever heard of?” The hope here is that you’re with some small press, in which case the question suggested if you weren’t with a big press, your work was less than noteworthy (which anyone who knows anything about the business of writing is not the case).

Fortunately, I could counter with, “Have you ever heard of HarperCollins?” This was a sort of subtle counter putdown since it suggested they might be very unfamiliar with publishers and writing.

Often the conversation went from there with no more attempted putdowns.

But sometimes they’d persist: “What sort of books do you write?”

“Action-adventure and science fiction.”

“Oh,” they’d say with the hint of a smile, as if I’d just admitted to writing Nazi propaganda. “But when are you going to do some serious writing?”

Of course there are all sorts of comebacks to that question. But suffice to say, if you’re a writer, all you need to know is that some folks will never admit you’re a success. They will be jealous of the fact that you’re living your dream and doing what you enjoy. Because of that, they will try to puncture your balloon, to bring you down in order to make themselves feel more important, or simply to spread their misery. Unless you’ve just won the Pulitzer Prize, these folks will find a way to look down their noses at any achievement. And even if you just did win that prestigious prize, they’d likely still manage a putdown of some sort by speculating as to why you hadn’t won it earlier, or whether you’d ever win again.

Today many authors take the self-publishing route, and these folks can really get hammered with hurtful words like “vanity press” or “so you couldn’t find anyone to publish you?” Even as more and more writers are becoming successful in realizing their dreams, there seem to be more and more people who have become jealous of such success.

As a writer, never allow these folks to discourage you. Learn to ignore their verbal barbs. Ideally you’ll even come to understand that these folks should be pitied since they are, after all, very likely dissatisfied with their own lives.

Remember that you’re lucky to be doing the thing you love while many others cannot. You’ve worked hard to get where you are. Don’t let anyone rob you of your joy or sense of achievement.

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Into Every Blog, Some Miscellanea Must Fall

A little news from the publishing world — and design tips and ideas for those who are self-publishing or who have a new book to promote:

Barnes and Noble posted a $119 million loss in Q4 2013, and now B&N is hoping to “partner” with 3rd party for selling/developing future Nook tablets. This latter bit of news might very well slow down sales since no one wants to buy an ebook reader that might soon become obsolete. I suspect the chances of the Nooks being discontinued is actually quite slim. On the other hand, there have been some nifty ebook readers in the past that have fallen to the wayside.

I suppose the real winner in this is Amazon and the Kindle.

If you’re self-publishing, you can never know too much about typefaces (aka “fonts”). Here’s Jill Bell’s useful video: “The Top Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Fonts.

If you’re involved with the process of laying out a book, magazine, or web site, you’ll likely enjoy this very useful typographical checklist from Ilene Strizver: Typographical/Page Design Checklist.

About to launch your new book? Then here are some Useful Tips for Your Book Launch Party.

For real diehard fans of type, typographer Martin Majoor offers some tips on mixing types in books, as well as revealing his experiences designing typeface pairs — and has some insights into what the sans italic should really look like.

Here’s an interesting study of how people view web pages — and I suspect print pages as well. Important for both web page design as well as book cover illustrations: A look at how people read web pages (and books, I suspect) with an eye toward designing to maximize impact: 10 Useful Findings About How People View Websites.

Finally, we’ve all heard that readers (and buyers) judge books by their covers. Well, here’s more evidence Mark Coker, the Founder of Smashwords.

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