A new bindup of Holly Black’s magical con-artist trilogy The Curse Workers is coming out in November — and I designed a new silhouette chapter header for each book. It’s available to pre-order now.
They are great books, gritty and with a cynical enchantment. Much as I love Holly Black’s Elfhame and fae enchantments, I’m always so surprised and drawn in by the patina of her (almost) real-world settings — it adds such a salt-and-acid note to the sweetness (however decadent and cruel) of the more fantastic settings. And The Curse Workers is all that side of the story. It’s also a story of embedded rather than discovered magic, where it’s a (disreputable) part of the structure of technology and fashion, politics and society and organised crime.
Let’s get back to the making things type of Observation Journal page. The first half of this post is about the approach to an exercise, the second half of it is the resulting list of some possibilities to use foil on book covers.
I’m a fan of the twenty things exercise, either starting with an object and working out twenty uses for it (my dad used to make us do this on long car trips); or starting with a question and listing twenty answers.
I think it’s fun, and it’s also interesting to watch the process of ideas being pushed through different barriers — for example:
with the “twenty uses” version there’s often a point where the obvious gives way to the interesting and then to the ludicrous and then circles back to the intriguing;
with the “twenty problems” variant it loosens my grip on the first/obvious choice I imprinted on (even if that turns out to be the final choice, it’s usually stronger for a bit of objectivity).
This is also why I’ve kept the self-reflection panels on the observation journal pages. Not just to do the exercise, but to step back and watch myself doing it, and learn. You’ll see here I noted on the side that “20 really is the magic number. 11 is where I had to look further/do more research.”
This page was also for a cover — in this case for Juliet Marillier’s Mother Thorn, for which we had the opportunity to use foil on the cover of the special edition (out in April). But I hadn’t designed specifically for foil combined with a silhouette before. So I made this list of 20 WAYS WITH FOIL TREATMENTS. (The activity is also great for tricking yourself into working on something.)
Here’s the list (excluding the running commentary to myself alongside). It’s project-specific and non-exhaustive:
GOLD on BLACK (or colour)
BLACK on GOLD
Gold-limned silhouette on coloured ground (almost calligraphic)
Gold base/border on coloured ground
Foil highlights in silhouette design
Above plus gold background (2)
5 plus flyaway bits in foils
Fine foil pattern supporting coloured silhouettes
Black on colour, gold lettering
Gold support/background for lettering
Colourised/textured silhouette with foil ornament bits
1 but with many cut-out details
Multi-silhouettes, different foils
Silhouette (black on colour) surrounded by drawn foil pattern
Gold effect on blue texture
Gold silhouettes, deeper-coloured shadow
Black on colour. Only important details picked out in foil (e.g. figures, coins, birds).
Border in one foil, title in another
Foil silhouette on coloured ground with overlapping white title square
Spot gloss blacks with foil lettering background
You’ll see that my terminology here is not particularly technical! That’s one reason for accompanying it with sketches. Ballpoint drawings aren’t hugely informative for foil/colour treatments but did help me to think through the practicalities, and whether an idea reminded me of something I’ve seen elsewhere, or made me feel (to quote) “ugh”, at least for this project.
The next step (square box on the side) was to do a test version, to run through a few of these.
The final cover used approach C, which was a combination of 11 and 5, although there was briefly a 19 in the running.
20 Things: Pick a handy object (or something you’ve seen today). Come up with twenty uses for it.
This could be as light-hearted as 20 Uses for a Plastic Fork.
It’s good for car trips and working out how your friends think, but it’s also good practice for just thinking sideways.
Afterwards, it can be useful to note where the ideas got more difficult, or sillier, or if you know where some of them came from. This is interesting, but you
It can also be useful for turning objects in a story into plot (or other things).
20 Ways: Think of an aspect of a project that you are stuck on, or something you’d like to play with but haven’t quite managed to, and list 20 Ways To Deal With It.
I find this more useful when the initial problem is narrower — 20 Ways to Tell A Short Story is fine, but I can get past 100 without breaking a sweat. 20 Ways to Tell A Short Story In An 8-Page Accordion Booklet forces more invention. (These examples are from current pages of the observation journal, and I’ll get to them in time!)
Like Ten Terrible Things, I find this lets me have fun exploring options without feeling like I have to commit to any of them, or abandon my early ideas. The list is the point.
Sometimes your first instinct will still have been right, but you’ll be more certain of it (and have stress-tested it, and maybe come up with some new ideas for future projects), and you’ll have released your stranglehold on it a little, too.
A strong commonality among the December books was a twinned sense of costuming on the one hand, and becoming more who you are on the other. How that turned into a moth girl I’m not entirely sure, but that was where the associations started.
Borrowed Dreams — May McGoldrick (romance, villainy, benevolent interference)
Which brings us to Inktober. I’m repeating my approach to it last year, using three main boundaries:
Prompt: I use the main/official prompts (there are many others), because that’s simple, and because where they don’t fit my personal tastes/interests (i.e. “radio”) it makes me work harder to come up with something that pleases me. I like using and fighting against external prompts and timeframes, and having to incorporate something that’s not entirely from inside my own head — that was the appeal and lesson of Illustration Friday way back when (and that tag is a deep dive).
Technique: Ink, obviously, but I further limited it to silhouette brush work because I want to get better at brush work and silhouettes seemed simpler (why I, of all people, would think that, but here we are), and incorporated imitation-gold leaf (because it’s pretty and I have a lot to learn).
Second prompt: I’m using tweets from Fairy Tale Fragments (@fairytaletext) on Twitter. This pulls everything into my preferred fairy-tale area, but involves some mental acrobatics to incorporate e.g. “radio” into that sort of setting.
Note: It’s tricky getting good photos of the foil, and impossible to scan usefully, but it’s got a lovely buttery-gold gleam under lights.
Two family cards from September! Both ridiculously tiny, although in the first case it was because I started too close to the top of the paper.
Look at this tiny car!
The first is for my dad for Father’s Day. He was always a fan of Badger in The Wind in the Willows, and after illustrating Kij Johnson’s The River Bank, I still haven’t had enough of playing in that world.
This instalment of the observation journal includes a lizard, a very nice shade of green and the difficulty of scanning gold leaf — it’s also part of the series working out the questions to ask myself when I’ve finished a project. (See previously: Creative post-mortems.)
Left page: This was the splendid day a water dragon joined us in one of the university eating areas.
Right page: I was being fairly flippant, gluing scraps to the page, but in the process I discovered a question I want to add into my template of post-project questions: What is left out and what is left behind? What is excluded and avoided and skimmed over?
In relation to silhouettes., I often have wonderful ideas as I’m cutting things out — how to do a project differently, ways to treat branches, an image suggested by a shadow. But usually I forget afterwards. And on other projects, there are things that are often deliberately left out — characters who never appear on the page, or questions that are there but never directly addressed. So it’s a question that’s useful both for new ideas, and finding the edges of a project, and confirming decisions made.
This black paper offcut was the trim from a silhouette unicorn (for stationery for Patreon supporters). However mostly, for some reason, the leaf-shapes suggested pigs. I also tried stencilling with gold sizing and leaf, which was marvellous fun, the more so because it didn’t work at all.
It’s a story of promises and hospitality, set in Australia (or something like it), and I’m still rather fond of its heroine and her not-entirely-absent family.
This is the first publication of Undine Love since it appeared in ASIM in 2011, and although Tor.com doesn’t usually illustrate reprints, I wanted to do a fresh set in the style of the silhouettes in Flyaway.