Mother Thorn Process Post

The art for Juliet Marillier‘s enchanting collection Mother Thorn has been shortlisted for a Ditmar! This post is about the cover art process, but I will show more of the internals in a future post.

The book is available from Serenity Press:

I’d known of Juliet, and loved her historical fantasies and her enchanting fairy-tale novels, for a long time before I met her at the very first Aurealis Awards I attended (when they were still hosted in Brisbane). We were both at the back of the room being quiet, because I was very shy and she’d just got off a long flight. She’s a delightful author and person, and so I was utterly delighted to have this (first!) opportunity I had to work with her on a project.

The first step was, as usual, to read through Juliet’s manuscript and sketch possible images for the four stories — moments, poses, incidental creatures. This serves as reference for the cover and internal sketches.

Based on those thinking-sketches, I proposed a few cover treatments. We were always talking in terms of silhouettes, but I included some alternative line-and-wash options. At this point we hadn’t definitely decided on what the internals would look like, so it was possible that a drawn cover might be more suitable.

After discussions with Juliet and Serenity, we were pretty sure we were going with either A or D — or maybe both, for different editions. Or possibly one for a title page.

We were hoping to use foil on the cover, in some way (in the end, it’s on the special edition hardback). I’ve posted before about working through different ways to play with the foil for this cover: 20 Ways With Gold Foil.

Double spread from observation journal. On the left, five things seen/heard/done and a picture of a painting leaning up against a fence. On the right, a list of 20 ways with foil treatments, with accompanying drawings of a silhouette dog.
I’ve typed up the list over on the previous post: 20 Ways With Gold Foil

I then cut out a test silhouette so that we could compare approaches to colour (this design also turned into printable stationery for patrons).

I also did some test treatments with the sketch for cover D (this silhouette ended up as a title page).

Here are some more test patches, to see how I wanted to approach certain leaves.

At about this point, I refined Sketch A into these almost-final pencils, ready to be approved and adjusted.

Then I flipped the design, traced it down with white graphite paper, and started cutting it out.

Bonus process shots of cover B, including silhouette lettering.

Next came the really fiddly bit. I scanned in the art, then selected the main colour areas. I had to make sure they overlapped, and put them on separate layers (top left). Then I vectorised each layer (in Inkscape) for a clean strong edge, and stacked the layers again in Photoshop (top right).

This made it easy to select each layer, adjust the colour, and then add shading, texture and detail digitally without interfering with the other areas.

Here is a comparison of the raw scanned silhouette (left) and the colour version (right). The yellow box at the bottom right appears on every layer, and let me quickly line the layers up. I deleted them later.

In the end, we used yellow on the coloured cover, instead of foil, and printed the whole silhouette in foil for the special edition.

More on the internal illustrations soon, but in the meantime, the book is available from Serenity Press:

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

Mother Thorn: The Special Edition

The special edition of Juliet Marillier’s Mother Thorn and other tales of courage and kindness is available!

It has a linen-texture cover and the silhouette illustration is printed all in gold.

And in this edition, the illustrations inside have details in metallic ink!

The special edition is available from Serenity Press at this link: Special Edition Linen Hardcover.

The other, matte edition (paper and hardback) is also available here: Matte editions.

There are four stories in the collection, each with a full-page silhouette illustration and various incidental images and ornaments. I will be putting up a process post soon…

New story: The Wonderful Stag…

Once, not so long ago, a marvellous stag lived in the forest at the foot of our mountain, on the other side of the little bridge you must still cross when you leave our village…

My (very) short story “The Wonderful Stag, or The Courtship of Red Elsie” has just been published on Tor.com — with this gorgeous and luminous illustration by John Jude Palencar.

Art by John Jude Palencar

That lit crescent of its antlers! The strange wise oddity of its face! The texture of its fur! The ears!

A fun fact about this story is that it actually began as an illustration — one of the earliest of the ink-and-gold Inktober fairytale illustrations I did in 2019.

A silhouette of a man in medieval garments offering a gold ring to a stag with rings on its antlers.

The story I imagined behind this illustration was a little different (although it survived as one of the narrator’s asides about possible origins). It was prompted by a @fairytaletext tweet “Before long, the suitor fell in love with a mischievous stag.”

A silhouette of a stag with gold rings on its antlers leaping

I couldn’t shake the image of a stag running through the forest, hung with rings with which it had made off. When I sat down to write that, however, the consequences became rather deeper-reaching, and George-the-Wolf emerged to listen to the rumours, and Red Elsie flickered into being, and all the courtship arrangements of the isolated village…

But you can read all about that here: https://www.tor.com/2021/09/01/the-wonderful-stag-or-the-courtship-of-red-elsie-kathleen-jennings/

Birthday cards — mermaid and dragons

We’re heading into family birthday season for everyone except me. It’s touch and go whether people get handmade cards (I like to keep them guessing), but this time I managed cards for both my mother and my (second) nephew.

Here is a column from my notebook, where I was working out what to do:

I loosely sketched the designs onto thin white photocopy paper, so I could use them as a guideline for the inks using a brush pen.

No calligraphic intent, just loopy handwriting, with some classic ornamental creatures.

And, of course, some hasty (imitation) gold leaf to brighten things up.

Not tidy, but cheerful

Pandora’s Box — A Spell for Returning

Pandora’s Box, one of two Light Grey Art Lab art swaps, has arrived, very full of postcards, stickers, pins, tiny sculptures, bandannas…

You can find the collections on the Light Grey website, and throughout the show, works will be available on the online shop as special mystery packs. You can check out the mystery packs here! And select pieces will only be available at Light Grey Art Lab in Minneapolis. 

I posted, before, about a design I didn’t use for my contribution. I still like it very much, but it didn’t work for what I wanted to experiment with, which was stickers (I used StickerApp, because they print on the backing paper as well).

Hand holding cut-paper skull, in black paper, crowned by strawberries

After cutting out the silhouette skull above, I redrew the concept with a brush pen, with a looser wreath of strawberries, and a coin in the eyesocket.

Drawing of skull crowned by strawberries, with a coin in its eyesocket.

I coloured it digitally, for the sticker.

Sticker of skull crowned by strawberries, with a coin in its eyesocket.

And on the back, in keeping with the theme, I put a tiny hint of a story — a little braiding of superstitions for going back to enchantment (and obliquely part of a true story).

Reverse of sticker, with writing

A Spell for Returning

I knew the strawberries were enchanted, so I ate them.

I promise —

I threw the last coin into the stream between night and day.

nothing will bar my way.

Art process: a small discarded skull

Hand holding cut-paper skull, in black paper, crowned by strawberries

This little cut-paper skull was one of two designs I worked on simultaneously for Light Grey Art Lab’s Pandora’s Box art swap. I still find it very charming, but I had envisaged the design in colour and couldn’t get that to work the way I wanted.

Skull coloured in natural colours, and purply-blues.

The way I coloured this silhouette was to cut it up digitally into the different colour areas — I include bits that will overlap, to make a cleaner join. 

Then I run those through a vector program individually and layer them back in Photoshop — this gives a smoother edge than I get if I just colour it directly in Photoshop (I strongly suspect there is an easier way to do this, but this works).

Here are the four layers:

The trick here is to put an identical dot in each section. You can see it at the top right of each colour. This makes it much simpler to align the layers!

Once they are stacked together, I add texture and shadows, etc. 

In the end, I went with a pen and ink design, but the purple skull is beginning to appeal to me.

You can find the collections on the Light Grey website, and throughout the show, works will be available on the online shop as special mystery packs. You can check out the mystery packs here! And select pieces will only be available at Light Grey Art Lab in Minneapolis. 

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Timelapse silhouette cutting

Here’s a little process video of me cutting out the bagpiper illustration for “Undine Love” on Tor.com, a story related to Flyaway, in which bagpipes also make a significant appearance.

My last post was about the process behind cutting silhouette portraits of characters for Chain of Iron, and involved a lot more steps. Because this bagpiper was for my own story, you can see in the video I skipped a lot of those stages, and simply sketched the design straight onto the back of the black paper before cutting.

My fingers supporting a cut-paper illustration of a girl with a ponytail and bagpipes beside a wire fence under a gum tree
Should have used a sharper knife — I’ve finally ordered a stack of Excel blades which are much nicer than what I was using.

You can see the other illustrations and read the whole of “Undine Love” over on https://www.tor.com/2020/06/11/undine-love-kathleen-jennings/) — and read an excerpt of Flyaway while you’re there, and/or buy a copy through all good bookstores!

The Australian and US covers of Flyaway, with a pattern of branches and birds growing out of a heart

Art Process: Chain of Iron silhouette portraits

Cover of Chain of Iron, with a girl with long red hair and a yellow dress
Chain of Iron cover art by Cliff Nielsen

Chain of Iron is out in stores! (These photos were taken in Where The Wild Things Are, because my copies are still somewhere in the international postal system and also it’s a great bookstore.) You can get Chain of Iron through all good & usual bookstores, and see all the illustrations in the Collector’s First Edition.

Silhouette portrait of a man tipping a hat, with an oval frame surrounded by flowering vines, a spear, a newspaper, a dagger, and a bottle

This edition has 10 silhouette portraits by me. It was a really lovely commission to do, and interesting — trying to work spears into circular compositions and distinguish flowers in silhouette and hint at bottles when working in cut paper… and that was just this image.

To begin with, I had a wish list from Cassandra with all the characters and a selection of moods and elements. I got out a stack of folded drawing paper (I cut A3 paper in half lengthwise then make it into little 4-page accordion-fold A5-sized booklets).

I began with some very preliminary sketches, sorting through some of the possibilities for combining a silhouette portrait and a frame. This stage is just me thinking through the pencil, watching what happens on the page, getting a feel for what is interesting and plausible.

Several tiny pencil drawings of head-and-shoulder faces in profile, with scribbly frames and a globe pendant, etc
This is actually one whole 4-page sketchfold pieced back together after I scanned it

At that point I was pretty sure of the rough dimensions of the frame, so I drew a template on the computer, printed it out, cut it out, and used it to trace little page outlines that I could use for my thumbnail sketches.

4 photos, cutting, tracing and drawing in an oval template

Here I was working through several different frame treatments for various characters — flowers growing from a central oval frame, from a rectangular outer frame, various patterns of growth, etc.

Four tiny pencil sketches of framing arrangements, very scribbly

Once the appropriate style was decided, I enlarged the chosen thumbnail sketches and developed them into clean pencil drawings. I scanned those in for minor adjustments, and so I could send them for approval. Here they are all stacked on top of each other in Photoshop, before I flipped them for printing.

Illegible stack of scribbly lines

I printed each sketch larger than my original pencil drawing (I work small!). Then I printed them again because I forgot to flip them! Because I’m working on the back of the black paper, everything has to be reversed. Then I taped each printout to a sheet of 80gsm black paper. I have to be careful to make sure the tape doesn’t go over the area that will be cut! Especially here, where the image runs nearly to the edge of the paper.

I put white graphite paper in between the drawing and the black paper. I used Royal & Langnickel white graphite paper, which smells like a drawer of tailor’s chalk, if you’re into that.

As you can see here, the line is a tiny bit fuzzy because the copy paper diffuses the pressure of my pencil. Also I’ve used the graphite paper before, and the white has worn off in some places. All to the good! Everything gets refined further as I cut.

9 photos of stages of positioning, tracing, and cutting silhouette elements

Then I work around each image, section by section, until it’s all cut out, and then I lift the excess paper away (carefully cutting little threads and sections I missed).

Here is the back and front of an image before I cut it out. (I actually cut this design twice — there were some composition issues that only really showed up once it was actually in silhouette, in spite of all the pencils and emails and tracing — possibly I could have corrected it in Photoshop but it was in fact easier this way, and good to have another go at some of the more complicated sections of e.g. necklace chains.)

Front and back of Anna & Ariadne picture (woman in dress on balcony, woman in suit reaching up to her, with frame of ivy, roses, necklace, top hat, sword, snake). On the back, white tracing lines are visible.

They are quite fragile once freed from the backing! I put them in plastic letter sleeves for scanning. Then I clean up minor corrections and run it through a vector program — this preserves almost all of the little wobbles and angles and personality of the hand-cut line, but it gives a really strong, clear, neatly resizeable silhouette that the publisher can wrangle into position.

4 photos of a hand holding silhouette elements: spider and web, cogs among geraniums, old-fashioned car, skull

Most of the individual silhouettes were separate from their frame, for this ghostly one we reversed the centre, to give a ghostly/negative effect (and funnily enough, keeping the centre of the flame solid seemed to effectively change a regular silhouette candle into a silhouette of a black candle).

Portrait cut out of black paper (so it is white on black) surrounded by thorns, a coffin, comb, sword and candle

You might have noticed something missing! That’s because I hand-lettered the names. I printed the pencilled names all out on one piece of paper, put that on a lightbox with clean paper of the top, and lettered it with a dip pen and ink (Hunt Crowquill 102 nib and Winsor & Newton black ink).

I usually have to do some names several times, to get them to work the way I want.

Pencilled and inked loopy writing of character names

Then I scanned those in too and cleaned them up, and sent all the art off to the art director (the excellent Nicholas Sciacca).

I really enjoyed this project. It was an intensive process, because the paper cutting is fairly physically wearing. But there were so many beautiful and intriguing images to play with, and technical challenges and new approaches — how to put a spear into an oval frame? How to convey fictional personalities through only head-and-shoulders silhouettes? — so it was both pleasing for the sake of this project and as part of being an illustrator trying variations and solving puzzles.

(The originals for these have been claimed by the appropriate people, but there might still be a few City of Bones and Clockwork Angel drawings available at Book Moon Books in Massachusetts.)

Let me know if you have any process questions!

You can get Chain of Iron through all good & usual bookstores.

Also, if you’re into supporting artists and art and posts about it: Supporters on Patreon got some sneak-peeks of this and other projects (and process posts) — I’m at www.patreon.com/tanaudel, with levels of support starting from US$1/month. Or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and when cutting out this many silhouettes, I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Silhouette card: A 21st Dragon

White card with a black cut-paper silhouette of a dragon holding a ring of keys that spell "BEN"

This is the 21st-birthday card I made for my oldest nephew (and godson), who is… somehow 21, and delightful, and very very tall.

I always have a crisis about presentation for these little silhouettes: are they part of the card or a separate gift? do I glue them down, or attach them loosely to the card, or…

Lately I’ve taken to doing the following:

  • Cut a separate piece of heavy paper down to be smaller than the folded card but (barely) larger than the art.
  • Put the art onto the paper but do not attach it.
  • Put the art and backing paper into a cellophane art bag.
  • Tape the bag tightly back, trapping the art against its backing paper.
  • Use two strips of double-sided tape to attach that little parcel to the folded card.

This sort-of frames the picture, while protecting it, and also leaving it unglued, in case someone wants to mount it properly on a backing (or frame it, or put it in a folder, etc).

There are probably simpler ways to do this.

Below is a work-in-progress shot. I sketched the dragon directly onto the back of the paper, and refined it as I cut it out. I did check the keys spelled out his name correctly by holding it up to a mirror first, though!

Fingertips and point of knife cutting out dragon.

Cover Reveal: A Skinful of Shadows

A book cover, with writing in Hebrew. The background is red, the writing is white, and a large silhouette image of a bear with trees and figures on its head (dogs, ghosts, girls, a comet) form the main image.

Utz Books have just announced their translations of Frances Hardinge’s wonderful A Skinful of Shadows (here’s an English link, too, although with the original and wonderful cover art: A Skinful of Shadows)! But for this translation, the art is by me, with cover design by Dor Cohen Studio.

It’s a cut-paper design, to match my previous covers for The Lie Tree and Cuckoo Song — and I will put up a process post soon.