Creating CONSTRUCT’s Cover

For several weeks now, I’ve been staring at the cover art to CONSTRUCT. Just… oogling it. And gushing over it, publicly. Even after working with the artist, Carmen Sinek, for several months on it, I’m still in awe of the final product. So, I thought I’d post a process article, describing how we got there.

Self-publishing a novel gives me a ton of leeway in areas I would not otherwise have it, one of the most prominent being cover design. Book covers, in general, have been moving away from painted art and more toward photo manipulations or abstract designs, especially for self-published books. Many self-published authors don’t have the money to contract an artist to do a unique painting, and instead either make or buy passable, if somewhat simplistic, designs.

From the start, I knew there were two expenses I refused to eschew: editing and cover artwork. Having grown up in an era of fantasy and sci-fi book covers by the likes of Boris Valejo and the Hildebrandt brothers, I knew I wanted to have a classic fantasy image for the cover of CONSTRUCT. I briefly enlisted the help of Jon Schindehette, former creative director for Wizards of the Coast (whom I knew from working there), who pointed me in Carmen’s direction.

0001_Initial_Thumbnails_1  0002_Initial_Thumbnails_2  0003_Initial_Thumnail_3

My initial description of the cover was to have a cloaked Samuel, emerging from shadow in the forest to have only parts of his mechanical anatomy revealed by the light, his face hidden and the glow of his eyes shining from beneath his hood. With a slightly more fleshed out version of that description, Carmen put together a series of thumbnail images that we discussed until I found the pose that I liked: Samuel’s arm raised, his three-fingered hand revealed as it touched a tree, and stepping forward to reveal his lower leg.

0004_Bleeding_Pine_1It was at this point that I made one quick addition: the tree that he would be passing would be the Bleeding Pine, a landmark from the start of the second act of the book. Visualizing the Bleeding Pine would be a different challenge from a normal tree, since the entire bulk is covered in reddish-brown running sap. Not only was Carmen cool with the change, but she embraced it wholly. I sent her some photo reference, and she came up with an initial design for the tree based on the photos I’d sent her.

This was the first point where I was floored by her designs. To see my imagination come so vividly to life in a painting is something I’ve never experienced before – and she hadn’t even gotten down to the task of fully painting it, yet. This was just a preliminary pass. When I approved of the design, she moved on to painting Samuel.

0006_Initial_Leg_Design 0007_Leg_Design_2I adored her design for Samuel’s hand from the get-go, and it was largely the same as the final version (with more detail in the final, obviously). Her initial design for Samuel’s leg, however, didn’t quite fit with his bulky, armored structure, and led to the first major change from my end. Her second design was much more to my liking, and only required a couple of tweaks before painting the final version in earnest could begin. (I still want to have her design a few other constructs in the book, because that initial leg design would be fantastic for others… just not Samuel.)

At this point, I had been thinking that Samuel’s pose felt a little static, but I was so enamored with the work Carmen had done on the design that I didn’t want to really say anything. As if on cue, I received an e-mail from Carmen: she was thinking 0009_pose_changethat Samuel’s pose felt a little static, and was wondering about changing it. I think this was the first time in our collaboration that we realized we were working via some sort of hive mind, but it would not be the last.

Enlisting the help of one of her friends, she sent me a sketched over-paint that showed a potential pose change. I was immediately on board. While I wasn’t a big fan of the position of his off-hand (I think I told her that it looked like he was snapping like a member of the Jets, and that he looked a little “dancy”), the pose in general was much more dynamic, and she started work on changing it. 0011_almost_finalThe re-paint turned out to be more work than she originally expected. Although she initially though she could keep the lower leg in the same position, it never really looked right, so she decided to turn the leg outward just a bit. The position shift made a world of difference.

Around this same time, we’d had a brief discussion about a change she’d made to the Bleeding Pine. When I asked her why she’d made the change, she said it was to make the tree more identifiable. I told her that I was fine with it being weird – it’s a fantasy world, after all – and it was almost like I’d opened up a floodgate. She asked if she could “go over the top awesome crazy alien tree” with it, and I said go for it. I’m so happy that conversation happened, because the final result is phenomenal.

0013_leg_positionShe’d been cramming on the repaint for a few days when she e-mailed me again, this time about the newly-positioned leg. Something about the position of the leg looked off to her, and she was asking for my opinion. I was able to identify that the knee plate looked a little out of position, and that if she repositioned it just a tiny bit so it was more in line with the lower leg, it would probably solve her issue. Her exact response was “You are my motherfucking hero.”

These kinds of little interactions are something that a lot of authors likely never have. Having this much editorial control over the painting that would grace my cover was amazing, but the beauty of my collaboration with Carmen was that I didn’t need it. Some people would take “control” to mean that they needed the painting to exactly match the image in their 0015_almost_finalhead detail-for-detail, and would constrain the artist into that narrow view. With Carmen, I could trust her to take a general description and run with it, and in virtually every case her final decision well exceeded the scope of my vision.

Once the leg was fixed, the rest came down to finalization of details. She sent me one more review copy and I nitpicked a few minor things, and then she spent the next couple of weeks fiddling with the minutia to get everything just right. Her last pass was primarily lighting, and the lighting in the final version adds a whole new level of contrast to the final piece that makes it really work both in color and black and white (the light-mottling on the forest floor around Samuel’s feet is stupendous).

0016_FINALI had worked on the basic typography design over the course of our collaboration and had an idea of what I wanted it to look like. Once she sent me the final version, I spent two straight days on the cover text, bouncing ideas off of my wife along the way. My primary concern was that I wanted the artwork to be full-bleed. I felt like a border would detract from the amazing piece Carmen had put together. I wanted the text to work along with the art and not detract from it, and I think the final succeeds in that.

I can’t even describe the feeling of seeing the final cover after so much back-and-forth with Carmen. I was – and still am – nothing short of elated. Every day, now, I get to see a fully realized painting as the cover to my first fantasy novel that evokes the kind of fantasy artwork I grew up with.

Even now, I’m oogling.

Check out the final cover with text in place, and get a little more info about Carmen HERE. You can find more of Carmen’s work at her website,

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