Step One: Sketches
Intruder is the fourteenth book in a long-running series of science fiction classics by award-winning author CJ Cherryh. Like Intruder before it, this was a tale of taught political intrigue, and a good read, as always. But as an illustrator, CJ’s books are challenging. Much of what happens in Ms. Cherryh’s books is in the heads of the POV characters, and action often defers to political intrigue. Reading the book entirely is essential, to get a feel for the characters and the arc of the story. I hate to use a scene from the second half of a book for fear of giving away something important, but often by the middle of a book in this series I’m still looking for a visual hook.
The main protagonist in the series is Bren Cameron, a human spacefarer who serves as the paidhi-aiji, something of an ambassador of the humans on a world of big, dark aliens called the Atevi. He has been on every cover but one.
Fortunately, in this novel, I found my image about halfway through. The story revolves around a visit to the alien homeworld from some human children, friends of Cajeiri, heir to one of the most powerful factions in the political landscape. It had what I needed: the important characters, Bren included, and something I hadn’t painted for CJ yet: a spacecraft–the shuttle that brought them, plus a couple of space marines in armor.
That’s a lot of figures (though not so many as in the last painting!), so a simplifying scheme was in order. I wanted to see the spacecraft, even though it would end up behind the title at the top of the cover. I would take advantage of its shadow to obscure less important characters and put the focus on my Stars: the children as they arrive on an alien world for the first time. With that in mind, I set to work looking for a composition that worked for the client and me. In the end, we settled on the last one–a rare departure. I can’t tell you how many times the first sketch or iteration of the first sketch turns out to be the best. But in this case, it took all twelve to know that the others weren’t “it.”
Step Two: Reference
Good reference is essential. There are artists who make everything up out of their heads, and if you know your stuff you can do it. I do it more than I like to admit, but even if you understand light and perspective and anatomy very, very well, good reference will fill in the holes in your knowledge and add realism and life to the final image.
I was most concerned about the spacecraft, since I have not painted many in my career, but had a very definite idea about how I wanted it to “feel.” I gathered tons of pictures, hoping to find inspiration for something that looked muscular like a helicopter, but sleek like a fighter jet. I also shot photos for the principal characters, using one of my favorite models ever, my son Tyler:
I spend a good day going through the pictures I’m going to use, organizing them and choosing the ones that best fit my vision. I arrange the chosen images together on my left-hand monitor, then take screen-snaps of them, name them, and file them. By the end of the session, I have a dozen or more reference collages, of everything from previous covers to aircraft.
Next up: The Painting