I started off my process of designing this cover by thinking about the visual lead-in the morality tale would use. In the past I've had stained glass windows, puppets, and book illustrations as the delivery system. The idea of using playing cards struck me as a fun way to get in to a story, but it meant I'd have to design my own cards. These early Swiss playing cards I found in doing some research became my inspiration point for how I'd like to treat my design aesthetic.
Like readers of my blog will know, I tend to obsess over the details of the Mouse Guard world, and making up playing cards proved to be no exception. I thought that not only may I need to draw these cards again in another story, but also what if I ever wanted to make a real set with real Mousey rules? I won't bore you with the details, but I created a 50-55 card deck (still debating part of it) with what amounts to 5 suits (trades) and 10-11 numbers (objects) along with another card notation thrown in so that if I ever make a game, I'll have more variables to play with.
With the cards designed, I started on my three main characters. I can't tell you who they are or what the represent, or why they all are holding Black Axes...but I can tell you that they were originally all male, and I changed them to female after a talk with my wife, Julia again about the story. To the right are the sketches of them.
I scanned those sketches and placed them in a new 12" x 12" document (the size of the original cover art) along with the designs of my cards. I tinted each mouse and the acorn pile just to help me clarify all the rough pencils into the various characters and horizon. When I'm putting together a composite like this, I can play with the scale of the characters, their physical relationship with one another, how close or how far apart they stand, check for tangents, odd negative shapes, etc. It's a great way to work on layout without having to redraw anything or sacrifice the feeling of drawing traditionally.
Once I get the digital composite layout the way I want it, I'll print it out on regular printer paper (this one took two sheets of legal paper taped together). I tape the printout to the back of a sheet of Strathmore 300 series Bristol (their 12" x 12" pads come in handy) and ink the piece on a lightbox (I have a 24" 18" lightbox and an even larger light table). The inkwork is all done with Copic Multiliners (mostly the 0.35 & 0.7 nibs) with a bit of brush & ink for the larger fill areas. A lot of my inkwork tends to come down to a series of repeating forms (the acorns, the pattern on the acorn caps, the scale-mail armor, the twist of the axe handles...) and textures like cross hatching and stippling that end up forming small positive and negative shapes of repeating forms.
The last step is to scan the inked piece and color the artwork. I do this all in Photoshop 7.0 (pre-CS). This cover was an endless cycle of changing colors until I arrived at the palette seen here. Color and value are relative to the colors next to them. a midtone can appear dark when next to lights, and then light when next to darks. Greys can look green next to reds and blue next to oranges...this was the case with every change I made for the cover...if I darkened the background, I needed to lighten the mice, if I made the cards more yellow, I need to adjust every character's clothes. Once I had the color choices made, I rendered (added texture, highlights, and shadows) using the dodge & burn tools.
The Archaia FCBD Hardcover featuring this cover, a Mouse Guard story, and several more from Archaia's stock of quality storytellers and titles, will be FREE in comic book stores on May 3 (First Saturday in May). I encourage you to go to FCBD and take a friend who doesn't know about the day ad/or doesn't read comics...because there is a comic out there for everyone, and on May 3rd the first one's free.
MSU Comics Forum: February 22
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C2E2: April 25-27
Motor City Comic Con: May 16-18
Comicpalooza: May 23-25
Phoenix Comic Con: June 5-8
Heroes Con: June 20-22
San Diego Comic Con: July 23-27
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NY Comic Con: Oct. 9-12