The Artwork of Herald

One of the things that I enjoy about fancy editions of books is the artwork–and when I was bouncing ideas for Unearthed Stories with the dev, we decided that artwork was a great idea. It contributes to that feel of special editions, letting readers immerse into the world (especially SFF worlds!) through a different sense, fostering and aiding their imagination.

Moreover, during that time, the dev and I decided that, whenever possible, we would prefer to include traditional, physical artwork rather than digital illustrations. One of the reasons is that we liked that “handmade” feeling of traditional art, the difficulty of “going back” (not that easy to CTRL+Z in real life), and because (even if ProwessGames and myself are both indies) the idea was to give traditional artists a platform.

Herald is a bit of a unique story. It is (quite literally) inspired by my cat’s mischiefs, written in a light-hearted world I created (called Dely’rae) and meant to bring a cozy laughter to the reader–and so, the artwork had to be equally relaxed.

This post will tell you the inner thoughts behind Herald’s artwork and how I decided to paint watercolours.

The Idea

It was June/July 2023 when I began writing one of Herald’s first iterations. Here I was, setting up the world and imagining the feline protagonist while wondering what to do for the cover. Amidst that mental multi-threading, the tiny bug of wanting to paint returned to me. Let me explain; I am not the most well-versed and talented visual artist, but a self-taught amateur with a love for watercolours and some experience painting model kits (those that are assembled by pieces).

So, here I was, utterly aware that I hadn’t painted in months, needing cover artwork and wanting to paint. Thoughts ensued. Thoughts that led me to a hilly, rocky thought-train. What type of artwork I could do? Where in the story I wanted the artwork to be revealed? How I would draw the protagonist? Down the rabbit hole my imagination went.

Self-aware, I mentally listed all my painting-related weaknesses to gauge the scope of my ability. Given the flawless elegance of Herald’s protagonist, I couldn’t just put anything out there; it had to be as flawless as he is! Nevertheless, I thought that, perhaps, there was a chance. Enthusiastic, I searched the internet for funny, stylised drawings of animals until eventually mustering the courage to pick a notebook to sketch some poses and do some character design.

The Designs

First, I tried doing some more reasonable cat shapes, with proper faces and all; I actually painted two that were quite decent… but the reality-inspired (I cannot do realism) style got me squinting at it and pondering what to do. I wanted something funny, cozy, and relaxed as the story was; thus, a more stylised, cartoonish approach sounded more fitting.

I kept sketching, going back and forth between my own cat (or the cat that owns me) and the notebook, until I got something I roughly liked. After that, I wanted to gauge how the character would look like and what poses I could do; I had ideas for eight illustrations, but it didn’t mean I could actually put them on paper–literally, in this case. Eventually, my flawless Herald had a shape.

After that, I tried painting a few… and once I was comfortable, I got some decent paper to paint on. I chose 300-grams 100% cotton hot-pressed paper, measured the margins (that’s because of the proportion the artworks take on a portrait-oriented phone), and got to it.

Before going on, there is something to confess–I based Herald’s meowing sounds on my cat’s never-ending repertoire of vowel sounds, and likewise, I spent an incredible portion of time watching said cat’s facial expressions to draw them. Cats are very expressive, and that pissed-off face with flattened, bulging eyebrows is definitely one of my favourites! Now, the amount of times I thought I had finished a watercolour and prepared to scan it only to realise the eyes were missing the white dots? Or that I had forgotten the whiskers? Goodness! I lost count of them!

Something else I aimed for (except in 2.5 artworks) was to have a minimal background and concentrate on the character. I did a bit of greenery in the first and last illustrations because the perspective was not that undoable, and the background was minimalist enough. It was quite interesting to find which colours would suit the mood of a particular pose and check whether I had described anything about the scene where the artwork would appear.

It was a challenge, but it was so fun!

The Cover

The cover was a challenge, to be honest! I dallied because I was terrified–this would be far more visible than any other image. I used this as an excuse to go to some bookstores (managing the temptation to buy more books, or more editions of Orwell’s 1984), and analysed middle-grade book covers. Having an idea, I returned and sketched my first attempt at a cover. You can see the speed paint on my Instagram:

Unfortunately, the background was going to be a window’s reflection on the polished floor… but I did not like the result. At all. So, after the fumes of wrath vanished under the weight of “I’m still learning and improving”, I decided to try again. This time, I considered painting the character on the windowsill, with plenty of negative space for a thick font. This is the one you saw at the start of this post.

The idea worked nicely on its own, and that portrait took me five full days to finalise it (counting weekends when I can dedicate it time!). I was actually ecstatic about that illustration and even posted a Tweet presenting it as a cover update…

However, even though I had mocked up some things in Photoshop, I heavily disliked the results when I tried to do the actual cover. The fonts were not right, and it didn’t look good. Now let me explain a bit about this.

Traditional book covers are reasonably sized, meaning you can fit a good amount of details and text into them and still make them readable. In fact, some of the most epic covers out there feature some detailed artwork. That approach had worked stunningly for Dance With Me’s cover, where BuvaFineArt added tons of details from the story into the cover. Nevertheless, the covers on the “bookshelf” screen of Unearthed Stories are not that large, need to have huge fonts to be readable nonetheless, and must look reasonably good beside each other–and my current cover was achieving none of those points.

So, I went to sleep, again pissed off. I wanted to use the second attempt for something, and it ended up in the header… yet I still lacked a cover. So, cue in the next day, went to work, saw a post-it… and had this simple idea of having our feline protagonist hanging off a banner. This would give me enough space to add the title and the subtitle, with an uncluttered artwork that should look reasonably decent in the small size. I sketched the idea on the post-it, slipped it into the bag and forgot about it.

Nearing the evening, I texted my idea to the developer, bounced off some additional considerations, and started mocking it on Photoshop. The sketch looked decent enough, so I went to work on the paper. Since I had recorded both of the prior failed attempts, I decided not to jinx myself and only took some work-in-progress shots.

After completing the cover in Photoshop, adding the fonts and enhancing the colours… the cover was finalised! And I was happy with it!

Some Trivia

Overall, I ended up with quite a lot of paintings. As you read, it took me literally three attempts to paint an illustration I could use as a cover; also, three other artworks were discarded due to irrecoverable watercolour mistakes.

But there are other funny things to add to the toll:

  • I used three leads on a mechanical pencil and somehow managed not to break any. A miracle!
  • I sharpened my watercolour pencils at least 10 times, and again, didn’t break the pencils! At all! Perhaps the dimensions aligned, ha!
  • It was mandatory to scratch my cat’s ears every other hour. However, I had to displease said cat by preventing it from climbing onto my lap while I was painting.
  • I did half of the illustrations with an Oodie in my legs because Australian winter is cold. Yes, June/July is Winter in Australia.
  • Likely consumed 160 litres of tap water while painting. At least every other time, I almost drank from the painting water *facepalm*.
  • Realised I had to sign the artwork and lacked an author/artist signature. Panicked. Used an entire A5 practising signatures.
  • Listened to four audiobooks during the process. At normal speed, mind you.
  • Used The Kingkiller Chronicles as a weight atop the scanner. It wasn’t enough, so I topped it with a hardcover illustrated edition of The Hobbit (a gorgeous edition in Spanish). In my defence, using The Witcher’s boxset was an overkill.
  • Listened to half of another audiobook while editing the artwork in Photoshop. Thrice, I realised I was so engrossed in said audiobook I had stopped actually editing.
  • The last watercolour to be completed was not the fursome feline protagonist but the one you can discover in Chapter 5.
  • On the contrary, the first artwork is the first you encounter in Chapter 1.

Final Thoughts

It was definitely a journey, and I had so much fun during it–learned quite a lot as well, mainly because before this, I had only painted for myself or never seriously. Changing that was great, and now I have tons of ideas! I just need to find time between the day job, writing, and the other mountain of stuff I must do.

However, something nice that I want to mention is that ProwessGames now has a RedBubble store, and there are some cute products with our feline protagonist there. Some teasers are a notebook (hopefully not to be torn apart), phone cases (flawless, of course), pillows (without cat hair), and other items. Take a look if you are keen!

PS: I may have inadvertently designed another character during this whole process. Hopefully, that interactive story will one day materialise in UNEARTHED STORIES. And (hopefully, again) it will feature more watercolour artwork.