Case Study: Book Cover Illustration by Dave Hile

Case Study: Book Cover Illustration

With almost all illustration being created digitally today, does anybody still paint old school? (You can’t see me, but I’m raising my hand!) To be more specific, when I say “old school,” I mean using a tool that was the medium of choice for many artists before the digital era — the airbrush. I recently had the opportunity to work in this medium again, to create a book cover illustration, and I documented the steps in my process from concept to completion.

The Series

Figure 1

Back in 1997, I painted a book cover for a fictional biblical adventure story called Jotham’s Journey, about a young boy who, after many exciting and harrowing adventures, ends up at the manger in Bethlehem for the birth of the Christ child. (figure 1) Little did I know that the book would still be selling robustly 20 years later. In subsequent years, four additional books were released by author Arnold Ytreeide, each featuring a main character whose adventures intertwine with the ongoing storyline of the series. I painted the covers for each of these, in the same style as Jotham’s Journey. The fifth book, entitled Ishtar’s Odyssey is about a young prince of Persia, the son of one of the three wise men, who, along with his father, follows the Christmas star foreshadowing the birth of a newborn king.

Concept, Composition and Layout

Case Study: Book Cover Illustration by Dave Hile

Figure 2

After reading a short synopsis of the storyline for Ishtar’s Odyssey, I signed the contract with Grand Rapids, MI-based Kregel Publications. Since a storybook’s cover art is important to the sale of the book, I am always looking to portray the central character at a dramatic turning point. For Ishtar, I chose the moment the boy spies a strange new star from his rooftop balcony. Since I have completed several book cover assignments for Kregel, a very quick, rough, freehand sketch of the boy on the balcony pointing to the star, with a suggestion of the background, would suffice for approval to move forward with the illustration. (figure 2) Our designer, Vaiva, created a layout for the book’s headline type so I could plan the placement of the star on the finished artwork. Planning the illustration within the layout ensured that the star wouldn’t interfere with the title.

References, References, References

Case Study: Book Cover Illustration by Dave Hile

Figure 3

The great illustrator Norman Rockwell was famous for being a stickler about getting costuming and props just so. He once traveled through three states until he found the right oriental rug that would appear in one of his paintings. (Poor Norman didn’t have the convenience of the Internet!) Since my painting would be very realistic, I needed solid references. While I would rely on images found online for some of the background, I knew I would need to create my own reference photos for the illustration’s main character. Fortunately, we have a photo studio in our office, and I turned to our designer, Vaiva, who knows her way around a camera, while I art directed. (figure 3)


In preparation for the photo shoot, I needed to find a reference model, appropriate costuming, and stage the composition and lighting. The author’s synopsis stated “Ishtar isn’t small for his age, but he seems very . . . fragile.” It just so happens that our company’s Web Director, Laura, has a son about the age of the Ishtar character. Laura provided me a current photo of her son, Nolan, who she described as a “skinny kid,” and I thought he would work great as a reference model for 10-year old Ishtar. (figure 4)

Case Study: Book Cover Illustration by Dave Hile

Figure 4

I sent the photo on to the publisher and received an almost instant approval via email. For the period costume I called a local church’s theater department, where I had borrowed all of the costumes for the past four books. When no appropriate costume was found there, I started my online search for “biblical costume” and (thank you, Google!) one of the very first images that appeared was a “wiseman costume,” which I ordered. Unfortunately, it came with a cheesy-looking crown that wouldn’t work. I was able to find a “fez” hat that was much more appropriate, which I purchased separately.

A key to the reference photos was the dramatic lighting with the shadow on the right side, so after a few test shots, Vaiva shot multiple poses with different exposures. When we were sure that we had what we needed I selected three images to be printed out. I decided to use the figure from one photo, with the foreground hand from another photo. (figure 5, 6) After finalizing the figure and sizing it appropriately to my painting, I retuned to Google and searched for “architecture, Parthian empire.” The search results showed that I had a lot to work with. I selected several images for reference to create the final sketch, which included a quarter inch of “bleed” area for trimming. (figure 7) I then transferred the drawing to illustration board that I had previously covered with gesso (which is the same primer used on canvases for oil paintings) and then sanded smooth. Covering the board with gesso seals it and allows me to easily wash off any mistakes.

Case Study: Book Cover Illustration by Dave Hile

Figure 5

Case Study: Book Cover Illustration by Dave Hile

Figure 6

Case Study: Book Cover Illustration by Dave Hile

Figure 7

Method of Choice: Old School Airbrushing

The airbrush is a tiny, fine-tipped paint sprayer that looks like a fountain pen with a small paint reservoir attached to an air compressor via a nylon hose. You control the spray of paint with a series of adhesive and loose masks, which are cut in various shapes out of clear acetate with an X-Acto knife. The spray can be delivered as thinly as a pencil line, or up to 2 – 3 inches in width, depending on air pressure and the distance the airbrush is held from the working surface of your artwork. I still like the airbrush (no, not because I’m old, but…) because I like the tactile physicality of painting. I like the process of manually sketching, cutting masks, mixing and spraying paint, and then working the details with a fine brush and colored pencils (even though the medium offers no “Command Z” for redo’s!). I can paint for hours while I’m “in the zone.”

Painting the Background

Case Study: Book Cover Illustration by Dave Hile

Figure 8

Case Study: Book Cover Illustration by Dave Hile

Figure 9


Case Study: Book Cover Illustration by Dave Hile

Figure 10

It had been four years since my last airbrush painting so I needed to get my sea legs again. After making sure that I had the right gouache colors (the kind of tube paint I use), checking my compressor to make sure it still worked, and securing all my other supplies, I began with painting the background city. Why did I start there? Because I knew it would be tedious to paint all those tiny buildings and I wanted to keep the fun parts for later on in the process. After applying an even brown tone to the city, I selected a portion to the left of Ishtar to paint first. (figure 8, 9) That way I could develop the city and background hills, and if I made a mistake it would be easy to wash off and start over. I knew I wanted a sky reminiscent of the great illustrator Maxfield Parrish, with a deep blue color at the top, and gradating to a light horizon. I wanted the same dramatic shadows on the buildings, cast from left to right, that I had in mind when I photographed Nolan, so I planned to add a bit of setting sun to the left of the painting. This additional color would also help direct the viewer’s eye to the left of the painting since the sunset would be directly underneath the Christmas star. My artistic challenge was to imagine how the night sky would affect the city so I wouldn’t have to go back and darken it later on. In order to get texture on the buildings I quickly and rather sloppily painted them with an inconsistent wash using a medium brush. Then I airbrushed in tone, shadows, doors and windows to bring out the details. I finalized the city and background hills with a fine brush and colored pencils. (figure 10) When I was satisfied with the background I applied a water-based varnish to seal the paint and colored pencil work against peeling. This is an important step, since I would be applying adhesive film (called frisket) to mask off the city as I painted the balcony, figure, and sky.

Painting the Foreground

After finishing the background, I decided to paint the balcony. This represented the only significant redo in the project. In my original finished drawing I included several decorative lion reliefs, which I had found as Parthian period reliefs on Google. I spent quite a while getting the lighting and shading just right. After I finished them I immediately realized they had to go. They were drawing too much attention to themselves and even though they looked cool, the painting overall was less effective. Plus, the author’s name would be placed in that space, and I thought it would be more legible without the lions.

Painting Ishtar

After painting out the reliefs, it was finally time to paint Ishtar. For many artists and illustrators, creating natural-looking people is a challenge. But this has always come easily to me, and people are my favorite subjects. At the beginning of my career, after several years of commercial assignments, I knew I was finally a real illustrator when I got past just being able to paint a realistic person to being able to convey feeling and emotion.

Case Study: Book Cover Illustration by Dave Hile

Figure 11

Case Study: Book Cover Illustration by Dave Hile

Figure 12

First I painted the arms and hands to establish flesh tone values, and then I painted the head. (figure 11) To avoid seeing the graphite pencil lines in the flesh tones, I erased my black guidelines until they were just barely visible. Then I established the shapes within the hands and face using colored pencils. The colored pencil values appear through my initial airbrushing so I can go back and lighten (by erasing) or darken (by painting) the skin tones. I always use the same four colors for flesh tones —various mixtures of Naples Yellow, Grenadine Red, Burnt Umber and Jet Black. I changed Nolan’s hair color from brown to black to appear more Middle Eastern. I then painted the hat, which I used to establish the bright red of the outfit as well as the mid-tone shadows and then the deep shadows of the fabric. Because of the complexity of the folds, I masked off various areas of the drapery and tackled them section-by-section. The hardest part was the large area of the robe from the neck to the bottom of the painting on the right side. I had to carefully work left to right so I could control the folds of the garment. It will never look right if you try and go back into a dark shadow to paint a red highlight, so a game plan was important for this section. (figure 12)

When I finished the figure, I realized that the balcony didn’t seem to be on the same plane as the figure so I brought it into the foreground by painting it darker. Lastly, I painted the sky. Except for the Christmas star, which I painted with the airbrush, I created the stars by scraping the paint off with a sharp X-Acto blade. When the sky was finished, the hills didn’t look right, so I softened the edges of the hills and worked light gray colored pencils into the background to add an atmospheric distance that I couldn’t have foreseen until the sky was painted in. (figure 13)

Case Study: Book Cover Illustration by Dave Hile

Figure 13

It’s Finished

The only thing that remained was to protect the painting with an acetate flap, and cover paper, then package and ship it to the publisher by FedEx. I hope that Ishtar’s Odyssey will still be selling strong in paper and digital format 20 years from now. (figure 14 is the finished book cover obtained from the publisher)

Case Study: Book Cover Illustration by Dave Hile

Figure 14

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the Jotham series of book covers over the past 18 years. The ongoing assignment was interesting because of the historical period costuming and architecture I had to research, as well as finding just the right kids to model for each character. Most of all, I like painting people. The challenge is always thrilling. Illustrators can get away with landscapes, and architecture that may not be spot on. But people have an uncanny ability to see even the most nuanced mistakes in the rendering of a person — a hand that doesn’t look quite right, something a little off about the symmetry of the face, or the feeling that the person is more like a mannequin without the spark of life. People respond to people, and that helped make the books personally fulfilling as well as best sellers.

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