Saturday, July 12, 2014

Cover Journey: a chat with artist Kristopher Orr

...on the creation of the cover for The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn.

I’m a blessed writer to have Kristopher Orr designing the covers for my novels, and can attest that readers agree. Kristopher takes my thousands (and thousands) of words and distills them into one compelling image that captures many elements of the story’s setting, character, and mood. And does so in a way that draws readers to the book before even one of those words is read.

Kristopher took time to answer my questions about his working process, and the design journey he took with my latest release, The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn. I’ve looked forward since the book's April release to sharing with my readers this behind-the-scenes glimpse into this cover journey (as we did last year with Burning Sky), so here goes.

Welcome Kristopher! Let’s jump right in and talk about how you create a book cover. 

The Design Process

Lori: As someone who briefly pursued a career in the visual arts, I’m curious about the process of book cover design—the day to day work of creation. What’s your first consideration when presented with a new novel to design? 

Kristopher: Much of what a cover communicates in emotion happens within moments of when a reader picks it up. Sending clear signals about the nature of the novel’s emotional experience is really important.

Knowing that, several things stream into your mind when you begin a new cover. Who are the main characters, what do they look like? What is the genre and what does it look like? What is the time frame? What’s the general mood of the novel? How do we retain those visual cues but create something unique and in line with the author’s voice? Is there a history with the author that we need to consider, type treatment, color palette, name placement, that sort of thing. Will the cover be seen mostly online or in stores?

Lori: How much direction are you given from sources other than the story itself?
Kristopher: Your editor, Shannon Marchese, is really brilliant when it comes to reading the market and gathering research. We’re often given some ideas about where the book will travel, but we strive to look at being unique. Original within the scope of what the book is, so to speak. Your novels are really fun in this regard because this era hasn’t been flooded like some. There’s more room to breathe the historical air.

Lori's note: Room to breath the historical air. I like that!

Lori: Can you break the design process into steps?
Kristopher: Wouldn’t dare :) We murder to dissect! But I will tell you there is a path to be taken and that trek is different for me every time, but the general idea is the same. I usually begin with gathering as much information as I can. That often means a cup of coffee, opening up the windows to let some light into the creative cave, and reading what is available of the novel! I’m looking for inspiration and details to include on the cover. Then some research asking: what’s out there? What will it be put up against for comparison? What do I find inspires me as the artist? How can we stretch the genre? What is the next visual step for the look of the thing? How is this book unique? Then I sketch out ideas to process and hopefully answer my questions. Then it’s off to image searching on specific sites for backgrounds, and even characters that fit the character descriptions. At that point I’ll have a good idea if a photoshoot will be required or if I have what I need to begin compositing images together and designing typography.

It’s a system that seems to be working well for me. But a cover is an adventure to be undertaken with thoughtful care and strategy. It’s an art, but also a part of a business, thus systems have to be in place. Just like if you step into the wilds without a compass, you’re not likely to arrive at your destination, to break into a canvas without a strategy is asking for disaster. We set out with our inspirations and strategies and best ideas for how to get there, but inevitably there are unforeseen challenges. My experience is that grace flows strongest from a genuinely desperate situation where a deadline looms, and the creative well’s run dry. Then the only place left to turn to is a sketch book, and a guttural cry out for help to the One who hears my prayers. Invariably things work out well.

Lori's note: I know that feeling of desperation! It happens several times during the content edit phase!I also know how hard it is to break down a deeply creative process into steps. It's all so organic and formless at times, all those steps bleeding into and overlapping each other....

Lori: What part of the design process do you enjoy most? What is the most challenging? 

Kristopher: There has come a time before when I’m almost a bystander as the cover flows together. It’s magical seeing everything finally synchronize and work together. The most challenging part of the process is our critiques and having to go back and change typography I really like, though it might be impossible to read.... There is a tremendous amount of expertise and knowledge that comes together to decide on which cover to use. That makes it easier to submit to their guidance. It’s often very challenging to accept decisions I understand from a mental standpoint, but can’t fathom as an artist.

The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn Cover

Lori: How many comps did you create before the final cover was chosen? Can you share some of those that weren’t chosen? 

Kristopher: We went through a handful, but arrived at the final pretty quickly. We knew what Tamsen looked like and could nail down the model easily with your help. There were 6 unique compositions before we landed the final and cleaned it up. 

Lori: Below, Kristopher shares the developmental stages of the final cover, from concept to finished design. 

Kristopher: First pass is well received. Going for a very painterly aesthetic inspired by Lori’s writing style and by the miniature painting that plays a significant roll in the story. Time to go shoot the right model!

Kristopher: Here’s the first composited and rendered with the painterly filters and overpainting.

Interestingly, it's not uncommon to arrive at the basic composition of the final early in the process. We often need to try some other options before we are confident it’s right.

This comp was well received, but the dress is the wrong color, and the type is dropping out. Also her pose and expression aren’t quite communicating what we are looking for.

Kristopher: Interesting idea, beautiful landscape, dress looks good, but it’s dark overall, and her expression is not quite right. It’s more annoyed than anxious or concerned.

Lori's note: I do love that landscape on this one.

Kristopher: Nice composite but we’ve lost the painterly aesthetic we initially responded to. It’s too photographic, and also too romantic. This has become about the girl, not the adventure she’s going on. It needs more adventure drama.

Losing Lori’s name at the top.

Kristopher: Back to initial comp but with a new pose communicating more hope.

We’ve achieved the painterly style, but it’s too impressionistic. We need to see the dress, not an impression of it.

Also, make it blue.

Kristopher: Looks good!

Finesse for the final. Bring in more dress, and push the colors further.

That long strand of hair going down her back is troublesome.

Also, work on that type- who can read that?!

Kristopher: Finessed, and off to press.

 The Cover Shoot

Lori: My original vision of Tamsen Littlejohn looked something like a very young Catherine Zeta-Jones. 

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that Victoria, the lovely young woman who portrays Tamsen Littlejohn on the cover, was my top choice among the models I was presented with back in 2013. 

Do you have any stand-out memories from the day of the cover shoot with photographer Mike Heath?  

Kristopher: I remember wanting to get some outside shots because I knew the final had to be an outdoor shot. Mike is great at light, so it was no problem to composite an indoor shot. But I still wanted the option… then it began raining. We shot inside, but later the sun came out it made for a great effect- everything looked like it could have been in the Appalachian mountains!

I also remember Heather Miller, who did hair, did an amazing job on the historical elegance of the style. Then she had to go mess it all up to look like Tamsen had been running through the woods for several days. She did it with grace and art, but it was still hard to watch! The end result was perfect!

Lori: Any shots of Victoria in that gown that didn’t make the cover that you can share? 

Kristopher: Happy to!

(below) Hair, makeup and costume are done and look great. Victoria, the model, got into character quickly and gave photographer Mike Heath lots of poses to work with.

Lori: I'd have been happy had we settled on any of the above poses. Thank you, Victoria, for donning that very orange (but lovely!) gown and having your gorgeous hair all mussed to be on the cover of my book. :-)

Lori: Thank you, Kristopher, for sharing these behind the scenes looks at the creation of the Tamsen Littlejohn cover, and for sharing with my readers your experience and craft as a book cover designer. It's a process I'm sure they find as interesting as I do. Thank you, most of all, for creating such gorgeous book covers, for me and many other writers. 

Kristopher: Great questions!~ It’s really fun to walk back through these knowing where we ended up. I’m delighted with these results!

Lori: Me too! And I know readers agree. 

I hope you enjoyed this cover creation journey. If you missed the post Kristopher and I did last year, for Burning Sky, be sure to take a look behind the scenes of that cover's creation too.


  1. I love posts about how covers of my favorite books are developed!! Thanks for sharing!

    1. My pleasure. I love it when my favorite authors share these posts too. :)

  2. Hi Lori and Kristopher, this was so interesting! I loved reading about all the steps and seeing the other images. Thanks for sharing!

    1. It is a fascinating process, one I might have pursued if the writing bug hadn't bit when it did.

  3. marie jank10:52 AM

    Fascinating and helpful. Thanks so much for sharing Lori

    1. My pleasure, Marie. I've been looking forward to this post all year.

  4. What a delightful post! I love learning these behind the scenes tidbits, especially the journey of a cover. Amazing how many steps there are to the final product...I guess like any other phase of creating a novel! Victoria really does capture Tamsen beautifully. Thanks so much for sharing this with us, Lori!

    1. I was so thrilled she was available at the time they had to do the shoot. She was "the one." I knew it immediately. :)

    2. PS: on her Maximum Talent page, there's a particular shot of her when put next to the shot of Catherine Zeta-Jones I have in this post, it's astonishing how similar they look. This is the link to that particular photo (you'll have to cut/paste it)

  5. Very interesting post! I really enjoyed it. Your model seemed to have just the look you were going for and the blue dress was perfect. Terrific work!

    1. I'm jealous of such skills (and software program) that can turn an orange dress such a lovely blue. :) Probably good that I have neither, else I'd find it very distracting from writing.

  6. Ohhh, I love this transformation!!
    I think your cover designer did a fantastic job!

    1. I don't know how he managed to choose between all those wonderful poses the photographer caught. I love the outdoor shot of her looking back over her shoulder, even if it's more flirt than flight. :)

    2. It is more flirt than flight! I love that!

    3. The visual artist that lingers somewhere in me can't help constructing potential covers with all those other poses. But I must stop it and get to work. :)

  7. Very interesting! It is one of my favorite covers ever!!!

    1. I have to agree, Rebecca. :) And I'm so glad readers have, for the most part, found it appealing. I think it must be far more difficult to create a widely appealing cover than it is to write a book that has wide appeal. There are so many elements in a book that there's a good chance something is going to appeal to readers, if not everything. But with a cover, there's just that one shot. No pressure, right?