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Tips for developing exciting book cover character art

Book character

Bruno used the Smudge tool and custom brushes to develop his illustration

This illustration was commissioned for a book cover. The brief was specific, and went into a lot of detail about the character of the girl. To create it, I worked directly with the author of the book, and it was interesting to compare our thoughts on what we imagined the character would look like.

The girl is a rebel and heroic princess escaping on a powerful and muscular horse. The author was keen for the reader to feel the strength of character and freedom of the heroine, as well as the impressive and somewhat frightening- looking mount.

I found that the difficulty with this commission was achieving the right visual tone. Because the book's readership is a young, female audience, the author wanted the cover to be engaging for that age group without it becoming too kitsch and a caricature of the heroine. She was also keen to avoid an overly masculine illustration, one that’s often seen in the Fantasy genre with the likes of Conan the Barbarian, for example.

So I had to find the right atmosphere and combine soft and feminine tones with a dynamic, elegant composition, while keeping some of my personal darker style, because the author also loved that. Thankfully, everything came together in the end and the author let me know she was very happy with the artwork. Job done!

01. Develop the basic composition

Book character

Foundational artwork doesn't have to be perfect

I use a simple 3D render for the basis of this illustration, created in Daz 3D. But it could very well be a photograph that inspires you or a quick sketch. The key here is to find the starting composition to serve as a foundation. The image quality of the reference doesn't matter, because I'll be working on top of it.

02. Building up the character

Book character

Real life textures were used for the horse's body

I change the face of the character, add clothing, hair, more realistic textures and particle effects to the scene. I also introduce smoke and fog in front of and behind my character, to increase depth. While working on multiple layers, I gradually increase my colour range from pink to blue.

03. Cleaning up and paintover

Book character

The background was painted with a custom Faux Finish brush

I take the time to sort and then flatten my layers. Then I use my brushes with the Smudge tool. I choose an appropriate Opacity and Hardness, and for the hair I use a brush with a strong and fine point. To smoothen the horse's body I use a brush with a larger tip on a low Opacity.

This article was originally published in ImagineFX (opens in new tab) issue 129.

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Bruno Wagner
Bruno was born in Strasbourg in 1979 and he graduated in applied arts. Now he's the art director in his own agency and an illustrator for the entertainment industry.