6 top tips for creating a killer horror book cover

greg staple book cover

Expert illustator Greg Staples reveals the secrets to creating a killer zombie book cover that appeals to kids and adults alike

In honor of Halloween rearing its frightening head next week, we look back to ImagineFX fan favourite, Judge Dredd illustrator, Greg Staples' killer cover for Fighting Fantasy's Blood of the Zombies.

The original Fighting Fantasy books were aimed at 11- and 12-year-olds. They had the fun of D&D-style adventuring without the need for four other players, five hours and six rulebooks.

Today however, those readers are in their 30s and 40s. So deciding how to draw a cover that would appeal to old fans, and new, was something author Ian Livingstone and illustrator Greg Staples had to ponder.

"Originally, there was one sketch with a character in it who was running towards you through a meat locker with a chainsaw," says Greg. "That was a really good idea. But the problem with something like that is that it can be too gory and it can go straight back to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If you're directing it to a certain age group, you can make it bloody but you can't make it too bloody."

To add the "cool factor" Greg and Ian came up with the idea of zombies coming through the door. Here's how Greg created the fearsome zombie attack...

01. Thumbnails

zombie book thumbnails

Greg began the process by drafting three thumbnails no bigger than the palm of your hand. These were then all considered, but each one 
was rejected for numerous reasons – mainly because they were too gruesome to publish in this market.

I literally don't paint anything until it's agreed in thumbnail size, because it's a waste of time and energy. I usually have a pretty good idea in my head anyway, and the thing is, once the composition is agreed on we can then go, "Here's a colour rough."

02. Final sketch

zombie book cover final

A toned-down play on the chainsaw sketch was selected and the zombie door crunching scene 
was set.

Detail can mean the artist is insecure about the composition. Don't add detail to hide poor drawing. Frazetta relied on strong drawing and composition – he didn't draw tons of detail.

03. The pluses of acrylics

zombie book rough colour

"The original painting took maybe five days. I kept playing around with the lighting, that strong lighting to the right. 
I thought, 'Do I want it strong? Do I want it subtle?' Then I went with medium. But 
I think it was all ramped up at the end because it needed to jump off the cover."

04. Colour selection

"I never look at any reference or anything, but I think I had the original Resident Evil games in the back of my mind. So for the colours 
I suppose I was thinking of the lighting of those dark corridors 
and stuff."

05. It pays to plan ahead

added detail zombie book

"I grew up thinking about painting techniques and painting cool textures. About five years ago I abandoned all that and started thinking, 'Okay there's a light here, this is what the room looks like, there's a light over there…' and everything became 3D, almost."

06. Set the light source

"I thought there was a wall light just to the right-hand side. But 
I'd also thought there was light at the bottom, too, just like our player's got a torch. He's shining the light up at them as well, which is why you get the slight under-lighting from the right. Then from the left, the blue was kind of an indication that there was a window and moonlight."

final image zombie book

Greg's final image was used on the cover to Ian Livingstone's Blood of the Zombies 2012 Fighting Fantasy novel

This article originally appeared in ImagineFX magazine issue 88.

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