The first image you see here is the end result of my 2015 assignment to generate a cover for Realms of Darkover, edited by Deborah J. Ross, published by the Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Trust. I was the cover guy for the final seven volumes of the Darkover anthology series, culminating with the 2023 release, Jewels of Darkover, but it was this one for Realms that I most enjoyed working on, if for no other reason than the way it came together creatively.
With the previous couple of volumes, I had come up with images that seemed “Darkovan” in a general way. I decided it might be cool to develop something inspired by a specific contribution. I hadn’t read any of the stories, but I trusted Deborah, the editor, to find a suitable candidate. Her choice was “Tainted Meat” by Shariann Lewitt. It proved to be just what I needed.
Even as I finished reading the story, I knew what sort of image I wanted. The protagonist of “Tainted Meat,” Gerell MacAran, is a adept of the sword attempting to track down and eliminate an assassin. Vital to the search effort is the establishing of a telepathic bond with an owl, not unlike the woman-and-hawk bond familiar to readers of MZB’s classic Hawkmistress!
Okay. I had my mission. Find a dramatic pose of a sword-wielder. Work in an owl motif. Make it all look good.
I figured I needed at least three source images. First and most important was finding one of the sword wielder. That turned out to be a challenge. While I found many photos of swordsmen, they were too aggressive-looking (or even downright ugly), were wearing armor, or were video-game animated figures. But Gerell MacAran was appealing, unarmored, and was not an inhabitant of a video game.
One photo had potential, the one you see just above this sentence. It wasn’t a hero confronting an antagonist, as I’d dreamed of, but the pose had its compelling aspects and the guy was kinda sorta eye candy, which didn’t hurt. Once I saw that I wasn’t going to find a better choice, I took a second look and decided I could make it work. Among the problems: He was shirtless. Not ideal. Darkover is not a warm world. However, there are points in “Tainted Meat” when Gerell engages in long practice sessions. He could’ve become sweaty and stripped down to the waist. The tattoos? No. Those had to go. The over-developed muscles and the ridiculous bulging veins? No. Those aspects were the product of the model’s sessions at a modern body-building gym, a shaping done for purposes of the look and not at all to improve sword skills, not to mention the fellow might’ve popped a few steroids.
Close enough, though. Using a combination of adjustments with the Paint, Airbrush, and Rubber Stamp tools in Photoshop, and then adding detail dropped in by means of partially-invisible layers, I eliminated the tattoos, toned down the bulging muscles, and erased most of the veins. I also made him leaner and softened the facial features to make him look as young as Gerell MacAran. You can see the result just below this line.
There is one other small change, but you might not be able to see it in this small version. I added a linen texture to the pants. In the original, the garment was polyester or nylon, which was not in keeping with what a native Darkovan of that era would wear.
One change was not kept. Members of the MacAran clan are known for their red hair. Shariann did not specify whether Gerell inherited this trait, but it seemed likely. So I tried shifting the blond hair to red. Alas, this did not look good. He looked like a blond guy who had dyed his hair. I ran the question past Lisa Waters and Ann Sharp of the MZB Trust and with Deborah. Everyone involved agreed we should go with what looked best for the cover. Blond it was.
I now had my main figure, which I sized and placed within the required 6×9 configuration. The crown of the sword guy’s head was now just above the horizontal midline of the frame, leaving plenty of room above him where eventually the book title would sit.
Next step: In order to put this figure on a background, I needed to erase the existing background. I did this by copying the entire image and overlaying it. That created two identical layers. I then deleted everything in the bottom layer. That took about three seconds. The next step took quite a bit longer. On the top layer, using the Erase tool, I went all the way around the figure until only the figure was left. I’m not going to show this step, because it’s the same as the image above, but on an invisible background. You can imagine what that looked like. Instead, I’ll show the step after that. I needed a dramatic background. I decided I’d use the cloudy core of an explosion. Again, Dreamstime had what I needed. I purchased the rights, sized up and cropped the portion of the explosion I decided looked best, and added it behind my sword guy, like so:
The photo of the explosion had a couple of bright spots in the upper area. I darkened those with my Rubber Stamp tool with a soft-brush setting so that the area where the book title would go would be consistently dark. That was done so that the title would contrast enough with its matrix to “pop” and would be legible when the cover was viewed at thumbnail size. Another necessary tweak was that the sword guy was too evenly lit for someone standing in front of a vivid background like that, so I darkened the top layer and increased the contrast, and then added a bit more limning here and there around the contours.
I knew I might want to tinker with the background further, but for the moment, I let it be, and looked for the third element: the owl.
Gerell’s owl is very important to the story, and she’s a real owl (an alien owl known as a Sech owl, but let’s not quibble). However, I knew I didn’t have to depict the critter in a literal way because the owl is often not in the same physical location as Gerell, and yet they are in communication with one another. It’s almost as if he has a dream owl as a companion.
Naturally, the owl does her thing at night. And the climax of the story occurs at night. That told me what to do with the background. Because as you see above, the background was just so damn orange. That struck me as off-putting, not to mention it was a hue that made the sword guy stand out less than he should. So I said to myself, let’s see what that background looks like if it’s not an explosion (presumably representing Gerell’s state of mind as he confronts the antagonist), but a moody night sky. Below you see the result after the addition of the owl and the shift in the hue and saturation of the background.
You might notice the edges of the owl are not sharply defined along the bottom. The legs and talons are missing completely. I did this by running the Erase tool along the bottom edge of the bird, but of course, before I could toss the owl layer into the art in the first place, I had to first find a suitable owl photo (again, at Dreamstime) and erase the non-owl parts of that image.
When adding a “screenback” element of this sort, I typically drop the layer in at about 50% opaque. Which is to say, 50% invisible. However, the photo was of a white owl. The clouds showed through too much until I boosted the opacity all the way back to 91%. Changing the hue and saturation and darkness to match the background clouds turned out to be far more important than the percentage of opacity. Oh, and I had to do a separate adjustment to make the owl’s eyes be the right shade of blue, because they were so yellow in the original, they had too much saturation compared to the white feathers.
If you’ve been keeping track, you’ll assume the pic now has three layers. At first, it did, but what I show above actually has seven. The fourth layer consists of a bit of airbrushed smokiness that overlays the bottom part of the guy, so that he appears to be immersed within the setting, not just overlaid upon in. The fifth, sixth, and seventh layers? They are mostly-invisible overlays of the man on top of himself, each layer progressively darker, and each one erased until only the core remains. This gives his center and his lower body enough darkness that he again looks like he is embedded in the setting, and give his overall form a depth commensurate with the potency of all those dark clouds. The original photo just didn’t have enough of that, and I’m picky.
I could go on about the things I did to the type elements, but hey, I gotta leave some mystery, right? Hope you’ve enjoyed this tour.
(Darkover is a trademark of the Marion Zimmer Bradley Literary Trust. The swordsman photo is copyright Jasminko Ibrakovic. The owl photo is copyright Richair. The explosion photo is copyright Gordhorne. Used by agreement. Further use requires the permission of the rights holders.)