When Kristine Smith asked me to come up with new covers for her “Jani Kilian” series of science fiction novels, she had a particular item on her wishlist. She wanted covers that featured a woman who actually looked like Jani. Kris’s original publisher had not managed to do that for her, but at Book View Café, authors have more say in such matters. The wish seemed like it might be an obtainable goal. Or should I say, an obtainable goal within reason. I am not a painter. I’m a renderer. I don’t have the fine-artist chops to create views of a particular human subject from nothing more than a verbal description. My working method requires that I have an existing image or combination of images I can manipulate.
Fortunately Kris had found photographs at Dreamstime and Depositphotos of a particular model who had the right look. Moreover, the set showed multiple views of her in different outfits and different lighting and expressing different moods. Having a substantial number of poses was essential. Finding just one image might have served the needs of a single volume, but not of the series. We needed the variety if we were to have any hope of a diversified set of covers that, despite that varied nature, looked like they portrayed the same lead character.
Okay. We had a face. What we needed now was a composition that reflected the category of content to be found within. Science fiction, yes, click that box. Specifically, the sub-genre often called “military SF.” Click that box, too. (Personally I prefer more nuanced labels but that’s a discussion for another day.) And for the first book, Code of Conduct, we really needed to pin down the aspect that gives the whole series its drive: Kick-ass heroine.
The pose was essential. I looked around and found this:
I hear you thinking it: What the hell, Dave? That’s a dude. Jani Kilian is not a dude.
Yeah. I know. But the fact is, if you go combing the internet for pics of kick-ass women, you’d have to search for far too many hours to find anything that does not feature at least one and usually all of the following: leather, tattoos, piercings, a lot of skin, and a whole lot of silicone. And that is not what Jani Kilian is all about. Once I shifted to looking at pictures of males — while simultaneously steering toward sub-sets of images with futuristic and/or military themes — I found the above image rather quickly, and saw that it would do.
The pose was everything. The pic had the pose. It also had the weapon, and a suitable style of uniform, and the lighting. By cropping the lower part of the figure and adding more space above the head for the title, I had the foundation. I could see where to go.
First, of course, I had to make the figure female. This took some time and a lot of hand labor, but that in my view was an acceptable price to pay. I narrowed the waist. I added shadow to the chest area to create a bust. I got rid of a few excess straps and buckles along the way as well. Voilà, female figure.
Here you see how things looked not only after that transformation, but after I’d completed five other essential steps. The most obvious alteration is the swapping-out of the head. That actually took more effort than I devoted to the torso, because it wasn’t a simple case of taking the model’s head as-is and dropping it into the right spot. I had to transform it. For one thing, the model had shoulder-length hair. Jani’s hairstyle, particularly in the early chapters when she has only recently been removed from the field of fire, is short. I had to do some clipping. Again that was a matter of hand labor. Fortunately I didn’t have to be severe. Jani does grow out her hair a bit over the course of the story — perhaps not as much as what is shown here, but trending in that direction.
Far more important, I could not leave the skin tone as it was. The model is probably Spanish. The photographer is. Certainly her looks are typical of Mediterranean-region heritage. By contrast, Jani Kilian’s complexion reflects the fact that a portion of her ancestors hailed from the subcontinent of India. Put plainly, she is brown-skinned. That was not well reflected in prior editions. With the BVC editions, Kris wanted that part of Jani’s identity to be apparent. I hadn’t actually done that sort of adjustment before, but I found a way. Since then I’ve learned how to do it in a simpler fashion, but I’m glad to have gone through the process of experimentation. I gained insights I would not have gained if I had first done it by the simple method. Those insights have helped me with the rendering of other covers, even though few cases have involved changing the skin tone of a character.
One more change was that the model had red lipstick in the original photo. Jani is however the sort of woman who ordinarily would wear lipstick only if she were attending a formal function and a superior officer ordered her to go the extra mile, cosmetics-wise. So I shifted the red to the same color and saturation of the check and jaw. It was not difficult. A greater challenge was the fact that the complexion of the arms was still that of the male-mercenary figure. The devil of it was, unlike the head of the female model, there wasn’t much visible texture in that pale while complexion to “grab” and shift toward brown. I had to create a mask of the skin areas of the arms and overlay three layers of different shades of brown at varying opacity percentages until the arms more or less matched the face.
You won’t see one other change. The sclera of Jani’s eyes are green. This was an aspect of her appearance that was important to include if possible, but in this composition, the eyes take up too little area and are reflecting too much of the blue glow of the environment to incorporate an exotic aspect like green sclera. I did try, but after showing the result to Kris, we agreed to introduce the detail in later covers. And indeed, on the cover of volume three, the green hue is well showcased.
The last of the aforementioned “five steps” was the background. I erased the background you see in the photo of the male mercenary and manually created a substitute in order to shift the bright area to the focal point. That wasn’t special enough, though, and there was still the issue of genre. The figure itself did not convey science fiction, especially given the omission of the green-eyes aspect. And so…
What could be more SF-nal than an image that implies “tech” at a glance? It’s a combination of circuit board, magnetic-resonance scanner, and barcode. The original was more horizontal, but as soon as I’d cropped away the righthand portion, the fit was damn near perfect. I still needed to keep the periphery darker in the lower left and upper right corners in order to preserve the focal-point lighting. I accomplished that by including some of the hand-done background at low-percentage opacity.
The rifle still looked too much like something that could be picked up at a modern-day Arizona gunshow. Adding a cylindrical feature containing what looks to be some sort of charged-up energy was enough to provide a futuristic feel. And with that, the artwork layer was just about ready for prime time.
Which brings us to the words. They were no afterthought. The drama of the figure and the weapon against the tech background was strong. The type elements needed to preserve that feel. A thin, curvy font for the title would not have done the job. What was needed was impact. So I went with Teko SemiBold, a robust sans serif choice. The color needed to be high contrast, too, so bright flame hues were a natural choice to sit in all that blue. I created some glow, added a sharp, utterly black dropshadow, and now the cover as a whole was close to final.
All that was needed was one more touch. Impactful as the title was, sitting there, I knew it should contribute, not compete with, the human figure. Jani had to be front and center, not just thematically, but in the design sense, literally. So the crest of her head and the end of the rifle overlap the title and create a sense of depth, drawing in the eye layer by layer. Welcoming you into the adventure, as it were. And it’s quite an adventure. I wish I could take credit for that part, too, but my contribution is over and done with by the time you get to page one and start reading.
(The gas-mask mercenary photo is copyright Prometus/Dreamstime. The blue circuit board image is copyright Kran77/Dreamstime. The photograph from which the woman’s face was taken is copyright Fernando Cortés de Pablo/Dreamstime. Used by agreement. Further use requires the permission of the rights holders.)