Friday, July 29, 2011

Does the latest digital software mean no need for art school or to hire a pro?

by Aidana WillowRaven

I have lost count how many times I've seen on Twitter: "Anyone can be an artist/illustrator if they own Adobe Illustrator or Daz/Poser. You don't need art school or to hire a pro."  I'm sorry, but WRONG!

I agree that most anyone can buy, and learn to utilize, almost any software. And I agree that there are some amazing tools out there to help one create great works. What I disagree with is that these programs and tools can be acquired by a novice and used to replace a crucial aspect of publishing ... the cover artist or illustrator.

These programs take practice ... months ... years of practice, before attempting to do your own cover art or illustrations, unless you have a strong art background already. Of course, as with anything, there is the acception. But odds are, you're not it ... lol.

Even for a 'digital artist,' an understanding of composition, light, balance, and form, is only learned through practice and training (even if it's self-training trough tutorials or online classes). And these things make a difference in your final product. Let me give you an example.

I was formally trained in fine art and design for six years at two universities. Even so, when I started playing with Daz Studio ( a 3D rendering software), I had A LOT to learn, and still do. To prove that these programs do not make you an instant artist, I'll share an early piece, done about a year and a half ago, and my latest pieces. Trust  me, you'll see a huge difference (and keep in mind, I am formally trained).

On the left here, you see an early practice render. You can probable see what I did wrong right away, but first let's go over what I did right.

My training tells me the composition is balanced by the pose I have chosen, as well as my placing the fan staff on the left, to balance the tree on the right.

My training also told me the 'S' curve in her pose is more prefered than a straight pose, and placing that 'S' to the left also puts more weight there, to further balance that big tree.

So what's glaringly wrong? The lack of light and shadow. Real life, even at night, has light and shadow. Without it, the Sarangheti slave girl, looks like a maniquine or waxed figure. Plus, the environment looks contrived.

So regardless of my six years of training, I had to take a year plus to learn how to simulate light and shadows. I know the artists in the Daz forum felt like they were beating their heads into the wall trying to help me, but it has been an ongoing lesson.

Let's see what I did this morning to this same scene. I changed nothing in the pose or scene except I applied what I have learned so far about lights and shadows. Of course, if I were doing this image fresh, I would have changed so much more, but the fact that it's taken me this long should tell you that it's not something you pick up when it's time to slap a cover on your book.

If I were to do this full scene now, I'd add animals, or more textures, or SOMETHING to make this more life-like and unique. Because thousands of 3D artists have this model, this hair, this backdrop, this costume, this prop. I'd want to make it unique in some way. But, at least now you see real life shadows and terrain.

Yes, all it took to make her look 'real' was learning to use the lights and buying a higher powered system (these renders take loads of RAM), but that took me a year. And the new render still doesn't have the brushstrokes and nuances I add to my published cover art in Photoshop. Those are whole other lessons that had to be learned. As is, this revised image is NOT cover ready and is NOT publish worthy. But you get the idea, I hope.

With each new project, just like for writers, my craft should grow and improve, and going through my portfolio every-so-often shows me where I have improved. And browsing portfolios of my favorite artists shows where I still need work. Both are crucial if I want to create good covers worthy of publication.

So what makes authors, whether self-publishing or working with a PH that allows self-illustration or cover art, think they are qualified to buy a program and whip up a cover and not trust the task to a professional? Bad advice and ego, that's what.

Now, I know I am not the best cover artist, but I thought you may like to see a what a pro, who's been formally trained, and practices her craft every day, does with the software...

Emperyeal Fate ~ Being released by 4RV Publishing in Spring 2012

Today's point? Don't cut corners on your cover (or on any aspect of publishing, for that matter). Trust in those who do that craft for a living. Trust your publisher. Trust your editor. Trust your artist. If you've done your research, you'll know who to trust.

Art Director & VP of Operations
4RV Publishing


  1. Aidana,

    You certainly have a talent with shadows and lighting. The difference between the two 'slave girl' pieces is astounding! (Not to mention, I adore your use of shadows in 'Empyreal Fate' as well!) Thank you for the post.


  2. Thanks, Viv & Rachel. I though your cover was an excellent example of shadow play. The render, itself, took almost 18 hours. That didn't include the time it took to set up the scene. My old desktop would never have successfully pulled it off ... lol.


    ps. You remembered to sign your name ;P ... lol.

  3. Thank you for posting this. Your work with the 3D and your 2D illustrations is fantastic. You have mastered both with the addition of being able to create some mystery, intrigue and excitement in all your illustrations.

  4. Thanks, Ginger. I do try to incorporate my fine art training into my 3D work. Of course, I continually feel like a student ... lol.

  5. Fighting with a cover for a non-fiction ebook - and how easy are those in comparison? - I've come to this very truth. I'm a writer, period.

  6. Lol. Yes! Unless you happen to be one of the rare few, writers should stick to writing, just like artists should stick to art.

    I'm not saying one can't learn the other, but attempting it when your book is ready for a cover, is not that time.

    And by the way, an eBook cover follows the same principals as a hard copy cover. To a degree, it's even more important to make sure that cover is smokin'. A small thumbnail of it may be the only shot you have at gleaning a customer's interest. Make sure it counts!

  7. Great post, Aidana. Thank for sharing the differences in the two pictures. I'm not an illustrator or cover artist, but I'm always fascinated by those who have the talent to do that.

  8. Thanks for stopping buy and commenting, Susanne. I mainly revisited an old practice piece to make a point, that even a trained artist has had to practice for quite some time before being able to create a piece suitable for publishing.

    I'm glad you found something of interest.

  9. I agree with you that cover art should be done by a professional. But even professionals can get it wrong (especially when the sales people interfere). Take a look at the cover of my first book with HarperCollins (Avon) UK - a book called "Mercy" (I didn't choose the title either). Give me your honest and frank opinion of it (don't spare my feelings or pull your punches). Then I will tell you something very interesting about how that cover came about.

  10. Hi, David. Personally, I don't like text only covers.

    In my honest opinion, the people who decided to go with design only, and not even take the time to find the right stock photo, much less have an artist create cover art, were not looking at the sales numbers right ... lol. But that is one of the risks you take when getting published.

    When someone else is investing the money, and taking the risks, they get to call the shots.

    Next time, try to look at the PHs other covers for your genre. It will give you a clue as to what works they focus on, and whether you really want to submit or not.

    Thanks for sharing (though next time, a link would help ... lol).

  11. You are sooo right, I'm not formally trained but I learn online & through forums and other graphic designers tutorials and practiced for 5 years before attempting to do 'publishable' cover art, and I still have alot to learn of course, especially now that I'm getting into photography too. GREAT JOB & Great POST AIDANA!!!

  12. Thanks, KD. Formally trained or self-taught ... all takes practice.

    And your right, every time a new tradition is added, it's back to the drawing board, so to speak ... lol.

    Glad your sticking with it.