Rainbird: Birth of a Book Cover

For some time I’ve been wanting to do a post describing the step-by-step process and collaboration that results in book cover art. A successful cover starts with communication, winds through a forest of various interpretations and ideas (and a few side tracks) and comes out at the other end with an image that both represents the book and hopefully intrigues would-be readers. If both the artist and the author or publisher listen to each other, giving in on some things and standing strong for others, it works.

Usually, however, it’s not a quick process. Perhaps it’s just the way that I work, but I tend to go through a lot of mockups – as you will see.

Author Rabia Gale contacted me regarding rates and information for a fantasy cover for her book, Rainbird. I responded, and asked my usual initial questions, which Rabia kindly responded to as follows:

I went ahead and filled out the answers to your questions. Here they are:

  • What text will go on the cover (title, author name, tagline, etc.)? Rainbird (title), Rabia Gale (author) — not the text in the parentheses, of course!
  • What genre is your book (fantasy, paranormal, suspense/thriller, etc.) and who is your target market (YA, adult)? Science fantasy. Adults, though it’s clean (maybe borderline YA)
  • Is this book part of a series? If so, I will work on a concept that can be carried across a series of books to tie them together visually. This is a standalone story, but I have other science fantasy stories in the works and I’d like to tie them all together visually.
  • Please give me a short synopsis of the book, and any major themes that you feel are important. Rainbird (the title character) is a half-breed (offspring of a human & winged humanoid) who lives on the sunway–an arch made of dragon bone and metal. This land’s sun moves along a track on the underside of the sunway (this is high-altitude, btw, not space). Rainbird is one of the workers who maintains the sunway. She keeps her head down and doesn’t draw attention to herself because she’s a runaway criminal–until the day she finds that someone has sabotaged the sunway, and is drawn into the fight to save it. Themes–identity is the big one. So is familial love.
  • If you are interested in having a main character on the cover, give me a short description of them including age, sex, race, colouring, hairstyle, general style of dress, and personality. I can do two characters, but more than that gets messy – the simpler, the better. Rainbird: late teens, early twenties. Female. Short, but athletic. She has membranous (not feathery) wings that she hides under a big coat; because she’s half-breed she can’t fly, and they were ripped a long time ago. She usually wears a halter or tank top of some kind under her coat to deal with the wings, and pants. She’s a mechanic, so she’ll have a tool belt and probably be grubby with grease. She has elf-like ears and short, wild white-blond hair (dandelion fluff!). Personality-wise: She’s generally cheerful, sometimes cheeky, good-hearted. She adores her father. First scene has her dancing (acrobatic, rather than balletic) on the sunway under the stars.
  • Do you have any initial ideas for your cover? (I will provide other concepts as well.) Rainbird on the sunway under the starry night sky. Maybe dancing. Probably reaching out to the stars, or blowing them a kiss. She’s like that. :D
  • Are there any covers that your particularly admire, or hate? This isn’t to copy other’s work, but it is easier for most people (even writers!) to convey what they like via images rather than words, which are very subjective. I started a Pinterest board. This does not include all the covers I like, just the ones I thought would be most relevant to this project. I do not usually like close-up girl faces, or the current crop of girls in long dresses (though I do love the movement rippling fabric can give a scene). I prefer girl characters on book covers to look strong rather than sexy. The readability of the font in thumbnail size is important to me.
  • What “feel” are you going for? Gritty? Fantasy/fairytale? Yearning? Dark, light? Fantasy, with a hint of higher-tech (not steampunk, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a hint of metal somewhere on the cover).



This type of feedback is essential to a cover artist, and this is where the collaborative process begins. As with all projects, but especially with creative ones, you get out of the final product what you put into it. The descriptions, ideas and requirements above were absolutely essential to me – it is quite difficult to begin work without them, although I have had to work that way many times.

The first step, once there are some visual concepts kind of percolating along, is to begin looking at stock. Looking at pictures of pretty people may not seem like much of a chore, but believe me – after a few hours, after (in some cases) a day of doing it you are lose the will to live. Sometimes I would rather stick a pencil in my eye than look at another page of white toothpaste smiles, pouty come-hither looks and all of the other thousands of images that are just wrong, wrong, WRONG.

(Someday I’ll tell you about the Western/historical cover I just worked on, which required an intense young rancher on the cover. Tell you what…google for “sexy cowboy” or “handsome cowboy” or any variation thereon. See what I mean? Yep, they were probably wearing jeans and cowboy hats, but not much else, amirite? Flexing all those muscles? Did you find one solitary goodlooking guy in workshirt and boots, looking intensely into the camera? You did not.)

Anyway, this one was easier. Dancers are fun, and there are a metric buttload of great pictures of street dancers, ballerinas, and so on. And so I did a ton of mockups. :)

And then I did the final one with the three different backgrounds that I had:

Do I normally do so many mockups? Lord no. However, in this case it didn’t take an enormous amount of time, as I’d prepared preliminary versions of the three backgrounds that I’d thought we might use. Interpreting Rabia’s description of the Sunway was interesting, and I’d gone with a narrow version (which turned out later to be incorrect) because if you show it wide, with a central character large enough to have impact, it kind of looks as though she’s standing on a flat surface. Or a really wide road. So, three background ideas, with the model stock roughly cut out and superimposed on top.

Rough mockups are just that – really rough. I cut them out without taking hours and a lot of care, and do very, very minimal paintwork if needed (in these, I brushed some flyaway white hair on each one. Not much else.), but aside from that they are basically the stock photo version of doing storyboard sketches. Not too pretty, but hopefully you get an idea of composition, colour, and what the model looks like.

First Response

Rabia responded:

Hi, Ravven,

Thanks for getting back to me so quickly!

Of all the models, I like the pose on #7 the best. Most of the others look too much like modern dancing… I know I said acrobatic rather than ballet, but maybe we should look at ballet as well.

The bare midriff works fine because Rainbird doesn’t wear much in the way of a top because a) she’s got these wings to worry about and b) she’s genetically disposed to living in the cold. I know you can’t add clothing, but can you take off the long sleeves? And I’m assuming you can change the color on the pants so they don’t look so much like jeans? :D

I don’t think you need to worry about the coat–if no one’s around, Rainbird will shuck it off.

I wonder if it might be easier for the detail work if we decided to zoom out more on the cover or got for a silhouette shot (like the covers for Eona and Fire/Bitterblue/Graceling on my Pinterest board). That way we won’t have to worry so much about the wings looking absolutely right, because it’s probably hard to photomanipulate wings on to people in the first place.

That was an interesting concept for doing the sunway. I had it in my mind as something she stood on, not going behind her like that. The sunway is really wide, and it’s made of bone and bumpy (it’s from the backbone of a giant, really GIANT dragon), so this does not fit my mental image, but I’d rather get Rainbird right first.

Backgrounds–I’d prefer the more fantasy-ish night sky, land wayyyy down below background (maybe a hint of distant city lights like from an airplane?), like in 9a. I would love to see stars in that sky, since stars are important to the story and the cosmic dragons come from space. I should probably talk more about the lighting! The sun goes on the track under Rainbird’s feet (on the other side, of course) and transcribes a huge arc. There is a day when the sun is moving, and a night when it’s at rest on either end of the arc. There is a dim sun in the sky above the sunway, but it doesn’t provide nearly enough light (hence the reason for an artificial sun in the first place).

I love that dragon on the Born in Flames cover that you did (and the one on Eon’s cover, though that’s more blatant than this story needs).

Whew. I hope I didn’t overwhelm you with too much information! Thanks!

An additional set of mockups are done using more ballet-type dancers, and zooming in and out. I’m not as happy with these, are they are much less colourful, and the image feels weaker.



Round Two

Back to the drawing board. It never feels great to get it wrong, but through the whole process Rabia was helpful, positive, and full of ideas even when telling me that something wasn’t working. We went back and forth through a couple of mails and Rabia even looked herself at stock, in the end choosing a model who was perfect.

Hi, Ravven,

So, I took a look at stock sites yesterday, and now that my head has stopped spinning, here are some possibilities that I pulled out. Let me know if any of these pictures will be a bear to work with in terms of clothes or wing placement or anything like that. I’m not wedded to any of them, and I have a limited understanding of what’s possible or not possible with photomanipulation, so you get final say. And of course, I’m happy to be guided by your aesthetic sense as well–I know that as a writer I get too caught up in portraying everything absolutely right, down to the last detail, and I know that cover design requires flexibility. :)

Oh, btw, wings… I envision Rainbird’s wings to come from her shoulder/upper back (shoulder blade area?), and I think of them as long and shimmery and translucent, like dragonfly wings, going down her back. For her, they are pretty much vestigial–she’s a half-breed so she’ll never fly with them. I just want them to look pretty on the cover, so aesthetic trumps function there. :D

So, here they are! Feel free to veto.

* I still like the model in A1/A2. She’s a definite possibility.
* I like this one model, though she’s wearing shorts and a long-sleeved jacket that might be a bear to work with. Here she is in poses one, two, and three. I like pose #3 best, though the others are interesting.
* Here are two in the arms up, side view, spine-bending pose, but their hair is partially covering their faces so I don’t know if they will work: arched back one & two.
* These are from Dreamstime–I don’t know if you use them or not. Here are three (let me know if the links work for you… Dreamstime does not play nice with links. I have these in a lightbox as well). One, two, three and four.

So, I think that what I like best for poses is the one arm up towards the sky pose or the just landing from a leap pose.

I hope this is helps! Yes, the models from the second time around were definitely warmer.

The Perfect Model

This helped an enormous amount, and all of the choices were good ones…and they came with links and additional information! This is the way to your cover artist’s heart, lots and lots of feedback and participation in the entire process. So wonderful!

Hi Rabia,

I like these two very much:

I can add pants, especially if her lower half is going to shadow/silhouette. Regarding the jacket, I can either extend that into a longer coat, or just paint her arms. I use that as a last resort because the painted areas never quite look like the original skin, but it can be done. The shapes that the body makes are quite nice here. I don’t know what the ballet pose is where one foot is on the ground, one leg is bent directly up behind the back and the arms are up is called, but photos of it always look quite awkward (and painful!). These two images are more like joyful leaps, if that makes sense. Aaaand I just noticed that you liked the third one best, so it’s up to you! :D I can do a mockup with all three.

If we do one with hair across the face, I’ll need to try to fit a head on the dancer – I did that on one of the ones I initially did, but it doubles your cost and it’s preferable to find a good face as well as pose (I always do some plastic surgery!).

Regarding the zoomed in/zoomed out versions of the mockups, which did you prefer? Personally, I like the larger/closer images, especially since that allows us to hint at the bridge. If we’re showing the bridge as a focus, with a small figure, then I need to try to get a handle on how to portray it as extremely wide, while still indicating placement without totally losing the character.

In covers, simpler is always better, especially since you’re usually selling it in a small size (thumbnails on Amazon, etc.). Very complex covers lose visual power, especially when viewed small. I would also hesitate to get very representational with a cover…usually images are more successful if they convey an emotion or a theme rather than a direct representation of an event that takes place in a book. As in the covers in your Pinterest board, you have strong central images with simpler backgrounds that convey menace, strife, loss, romance, etc.



The Final Image Comes Together

Once final decisions have been made on stock, the final image comes together very quickly. I composite the image with care and do some intial painting – in this case, I did a version with a long coat, and one without which required bare arms to be painted in. A quick check to make sure that we’re on the right track, with mockups, and then I’m ready to begin doing the final paintwork and text.

At this point we go through a lot of back-and-forth mails regarding hair length, coat vs. wings, and so on. There are also decisions to be made regarding the background – originally I had a city in lights beneath her feet, but there was just too much light and it distracted from the overall image.

Once the overall image is finalised, I start the paint layers and detail on a separate layer(s). I leave this until the end because if I need to move a figure, or change a background element, then that image become mis-aligned with the detail work. I usually don’t do all the painting on multiple layers due to laziness the sheer number of layers that I am working with at this point.

Fonts, Fonts, Fonts

The next round of mockups (you knew more images were coming, right? This page probably loaded as slowly as an elderly labrador into a pickup truck) all involved font choices. Rabia had wanted to remove the original leaves and swirls, as they weren’t relevant to Rainbird’s world, and I did so, then redid the mockup with various title fonts. I won’t show them all here, but this is a sampling of a few of them:

And the result? Go here to see. This is one of my favourite covers to have done, although the author and I both put in an enormous amount of work on it. It was a collaboration based on communication and listening to each other’s ideas, and in the end we had a cover that I was very happy to have been a part of.

Rainbird isn’t available for purchase yet, but as soon as it is I will update this with links. Go forth and buy it, for Rabia Gale is an enormously likable person and the book sounds amazing. I plan on purchasing, and I hope that you give it a try as well.

In the end, there are (unfortunately) no cover fairies that create book covers out of glitterdust and magic…just a lot of hard work, a lot of emails, and a hell of a lot of mockups. And fun, don’t forget the fun! If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

5 thoughts on “Rainbird: Birth of a Book Cover”

  1. Those were rather intense days on my end. Stock image sites are not for the faint of heart! But the final cover really makes all that time and angst worth it for me. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: under a blanket, thinking | Rabia Gale

  3. Pingback: From Concept to Creation: How we designed the cover for Mortality «

  4. Pingback: Interview with a Book Cover Artist: Ravven | Lucinda Whitney | Author

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