The launch of any new fantasy series can be stressful. You are making a lot of decisions up front that will, hopefully, stay with you for years to come. In the case of Ken Scholes‘ The Psalms of Isaak series, the pressure was enhanced by how much everyone who came near the books fell in love with them. With the first book, Lamentation, we wanted to start off fairly bold. We also had to set a stage that was, unlike most English language fantasy novels, not necessarily set in an European medieval backdrop—they are fantasy novels set in the future with a mix of quasi-European, Middle Eastern, and Asian aesthetics. Knowing that I needed an artist that was equally proficient with multiple figure compositions and sweeping landscapes, I immediately went to Hamilton King Award-winning Greg Manchess.
About Lamentation, Ken said “I was blown away when I saw Greg’s cover for Lamentation and I just had to track the guy down and tell him how amazing I thought it was. It ended up that Greg lived just a stone’s throw away and we arranged to meet in a bar in downtown Portland. It’s pretty rare for cover artists and authors to mingle. Those relationships can get problematic, I’m told. But there was a resonance—Greg’s got this easygoing nature and his enthusiasm for capturing just the right image to draw the eye towards the book is contagious. And we both love what we do and our work goes nicely together. ”
Since Lamentation had an all male sequence on it, we felt it was important for Canticle, book 2, to show off the strong female characters of the series. The editor suggested this “counsel” scene. Below the break see the various thumbnails, embarrassing reference shots, and further thoughts that went into creating this cover.
Greg Manchess: This was the first sketch coming off the board. This scene was ripe for the setup, but the busyness of it canceled it for being effective on this particular cover.
Irene Gallo: I love this sketch. It would have been my favorite but I knew my boss would think it was overly crowded for a cover painting. And in fact, the first thing he said when I showed him some of these sketches was, “Not that one, too crowded.” Someday we’ll use something like this, but not this time.
Greg: This was a favorite sketch for me. A main character, Lady Tam, is being led through dangerous territory, her Gypsy Scouts at the ready. This was close to working well, but we kept going back to the final sketch below. I’ll use this one again soon, too, I’m sure.
Irene: I liked this a lot as well…and now, looking back at it, I’d love to see it painted. But the other scene (the approved one below) felt like an important moment in the book—it gave the story a sense of weight, the meeting of two important people.
Greg: This is actually the above situation but from a different point of view and with a more relaxed but alert attitude by the guard. Here I’m beginning to feel the foggy background trees in my mind…an overcast day. But it’s a tricky thing getting that across in a loose sketch. Right about here is when I had some dinner with Ken and we started to hash details out. I wanted to get his take on the scene and what I was trying to present. Well, I had a lot wrong. But Ken was gracious enough to help me work it out for the better. I also realized that we were supposed to be showing a snowy scene.
Irene: This is a fine sketch but, for something that tells the same story as the drawing above, I thought the one above has a more interesting rhythm to it.
Irene: This was the sketch we kept gravitating toward. It felt like an important moment. While a staid image, it still had a sense of mystical “secret counsel” about it. As a side note: I love the cartooning in this drawing.
Greg: I usually don’t like picking a literal scene, I feel that the reader would rather get an idea, a flavor, of the book rather than a visual retelling of a particular part. But the composition worked so well, we kept coming back to it to work it out so that it made sense.
Ken Scholes: Greg called up and we talked a bit about the scene he had in mind and we met one rainy Monday night at the Rock Creek Tavern with our laptops and his sketches. We talked for a few hours, pulling details from the book on what people were wearing in the way of weapons, armor, clothing.
Irene: A vacation shot that Greg used to explain the background values might look like.
Greg: I take shots of forests and settings that I find particularly moody or intriguing when I’m out & about, and later on I can imagine scenes into them and have a solid setting for a piece.
Irene: Our scene was set in winter time, that, and the values in the above photo, made me think of this N. C. Wyeth painting. This became another point of reference while working on the cover.
Irene: After the sketch is approved, the artist does a photo shot to get the characters just right. I love seeing these. Besides comic relief, they show just how much hand-made, string and sealing wax, imagination goes into paintings. (Thanks to Greg for being brave and letting this go public.)
Irene: The more refined pencil drawing. He’ll use this to project onto the canvas and start painting from. At this point the only change I asked for was to move the branch away from the foremost character’s neck. Having the branch cut through the neck creates an uncomfortable tangency that draws attention away from the main action.
Greg: So…I had my general composition, lighting, weather, and color scheme. The point of view is from someone possibly eyeing the scene from a concealed position in the snow. I was ready to draw a refined sketch, and in doing so, work out what everyone was wearing and doing. The branch became a problem that I hadn’t noticed, because I wanted some interference within the frame. Something I like about the randomness of photography. As I drew, I worked out color schemes, value shifts, atmosphere. I could start to feel the cold air of the scene and worked in that the main horse’s breath could be seen. I also had to work out how to add color to the snow so that it didn’t become too monochromatic. But I wanted the bold color against that cool snow. So the cools get some warms in them, and the warms get some cools into them. This spreads the color out and makes the piece live.
Greg: I had tree reference, snow reference, horse, clothing, weapons. I also made up costumes, weapons, horses, snow, trees. It’s a mix of everything, but the end result takes precedence, not the reference. I planned the color of the horses carefully, as well as the characters. The Gypsy Scout in front is wearing a bit of winter camo with his long white coat, like the mountain troops wear today.
The main characters had to be regal, but not overly so. We should be looking at the main character and keep the opposite character a little mysterious by not seeing her entire face. A hint of her guard is plenty, while we should see our main character protected and supported. The trees add mood to the situation and a little foreboding.
A thoroughly fun painting for me. But I do wish I had added some more breath to the right hand horse, the scout, and the bay on the left. Next time.
Ken Scholes: I was, once more, blown away. He’s somehow able to capture that sense of “otherworldly” biblical-type epic that I’m trying to write into the series. I’m glad Tor brought him on board for these covers. I think they catch the eye nicely and compel folks to pick up the book and give it a closer look.
Greg: This method of painting has developed for me over the years of focusing to hit deadlines. As anyone can see, it’s based on extensive pre-planning. Before the first stroke hits the surface, I must be able to ‘see’ the entire piece completed in my mind. This helps me meet the deadline, because from that moment forward I put down what needs to be there. Period.
I knew the darks were going to be fairly heavy, so why not just put them in? I knew what value the whites had to be, so between the darks and the lights, I had my range to stay within.
This part is a joy. I slop paint on there in a deliberate manner, but I can be as loose or as focused as I choose. Here’s a little secret from the Golden Age Illustrators: They knew when to paint loosely and when to tighten up. It’s not all loose paint. And more can be said with a determined stroke than with a blended series of tickles.
I saved most of the skin work for last. It has to fit with the color and values of the drapery. This allows for a balance of focus. Besides, it’s fun to watch the characters spring to life while I work. And then the whites….which are never pure white anyway. there’s always some color mixed in. And finally, adjusting the background values to reflect atmosphere, mood, and depth….brings it all together.