"Alternate Routes," by Tim Powers, is an intriguing adventure set in modern day L.A., a tale of a man and woman who must navigate either side of a supernatural rift that opens in the freeways of Los Angeles, connecting the land of the living with the land of the dead.

I know Tim Powers peripherally and he’s a sweetheart of a guy, so I wanted to knock this out of the park for him. It was a tricky book to figure out, though. I asked my assistant, Allen, to read the manuscript and give me some ideas, I read it too. This is the first step in any cover commission: what’s the story about?

The hero and heroine interact with ghosts, in L.A. It’s something of an urban fantasy, but it’s not at all Butcher-esque. L.A. is sunny and colorful, not gray like Chicago or some inner city. That was a consideration. I saw two possible directions to go at first: one sort of John Jude Palencar-ish, with neutral tones and an image more iconic and suggestive. The other was more literal and action based. The neutral tones didn’t make sense for a story set in Hollywood, and I didn’t want this cover to look like every other Urban Fantasy. 

Allen’s first thumbnails took several approaches, but I could see that it was going to be tricky. First of all, what was this genre? It wasn’t really Urban Fantasy. I expanded on Allen’s ideas to see what would come of them. I don’t always spend this much effort on thumbnails. Sometimes the image pops right into my head. But I didn’t even know what genre this was. The story had plenty of visual hooks: metronomes, a motorbike, pigeons, guns of course. But the city and especially the freeways were as much characters in the telling as the two protagonists. 

After some discussion with the art director/editor I coined the term "Hollywood Sci-Fi Noire," and that resonated with her. That became my starting point. I settled on three of the ideas and tightened them up as slightly bigger thumbnails. 

 I liked the kick-ass perspective in the image with the motorcycle, so I did a Google-search for inspirational reference. One image in particular seemed tailor-made for this thumbnail. The text was very specific about the breed of bike the hero rode, however, and when I chased down pictures of that bike I was disappointed. It wasn’t very cool.

We agreed on the third approach. I drew it up a little larger, now with an eye for making the composition of the thumbnail more dynamic and getting gesture in the poses to build my photo-shoot around. I pushed the forced fish-eye perspective hard, so I could work in some of the iconic imagery of the city behind the people. More importantly, this would be a versatile visual hook for future volumes, giving the series (if there was to be one—I assumed there would) a consistent visual language. 

With that approved, I got to work gathering reference. This is a very important step. Realism comes from knowledge. I needed shots of my model (Allen again, as both characters. If they look like they might be related, that’s why). I had gathered images of metronomes before I abandoned that idea. I collected images of everything I might need to reference, assembled them on screen and took screen snaps in groups. I stack these in the picture viewer so I can scroll through them as I draw. I’ll spend an entire day doing just this—gathering, sorting, and choosing my best reference shots.

I needed some idea of the terrain. Ultimately, I used cues in the manuscript and Google Earth to determine the exact spot in L.A.’s sprawling tangles of road where the rift in the story opens. There it was! I collected screen snaps of Google Earth street views of the very spot. 

Now I’m ready to start the final drawing. This is 80% or more of any cover, because you can’t make a good painting from a bad drawing. I’ve taken a couple dozen shots of my model for each character and frankensteined the best of them together. I position them in my format on a multiply layer, then draw beneath it on my ground. The heroes stand beneath a highway sign at the Intersection of Sanity and Madness. A weird factory shows through the opening rift.

You can see these images in much greater detail in the Stacked PSDs available at the $10 level.

When I have a solid cartoon rendered, I colorize my drawing. I want this painting to feel like it’s saturated with light, like Hollywood. I’m thinking about gaudy, colorful postcards. So I start glazing over the cartoon with Digital Water brushes, one of the suites of tools in Corel Painter, my favored painting software. I use a little bit of Photoshop here and there, but it still hasn’t matched the natural feel of Painter’s approach for old traditionalist me. I keep it saturated, because I want those bright colors to shine through the layers to come.

I build my layers the way I would have in oils. More “opaque” color goes over top of the bright washes, working from shadows to highlights, transparent to opaque. With digital media those may sound like archaic terms, but they still work. I add pigeons, flying dust, and swirling leaves. 

After a pow-wow with her marketing people, the art director asks that I put some ghosts in the portal. Easy peasy. I keep them subtle, and spooky. One ghost in particular is important—a little girl in a straw hat and overalls. I make her the most corporeal. And the painting is done.

As this Patreon site builds, there will be many more process blogs like this, plus time-lapse movies, high-res images, and wallpapers.