Harbor Springs, Michigan, USA
May 07
Illustrator, Book Designer, Writer
Janice Phelps Williams is a book designer, illustrator, and writer. Learn about services for authors and publishers, as well as her artwork and books at www.janicephelps.com.


Editor’s Pick
AUGUST 1, 2011 5:00AM

Birth of a Book Cover: Norah

Rate: 13 Flag

I love creating illustrations for book covers, but there are some interesting common moments that happen in nearly every case. First, I have a vague idea of what the cover might look like. 

Second, I am sure that implementing that vision will be too difficult for me to accomplish. Three, I figure out (well, okay, I wake up one morning and have a good guess) how I might be able to create the cover. Four, I begin the process and worry again that it's not what I want it to be. Five, everything clicks and I finish it (which usually coincides with arrival of deadline).

The following cover design was for the historical fiction, NORAH, by Cynthia Neale when it was published by Lucky Press, LLC in 2011. It has since be released in a new edition, as Lucky Press closed in 2012. Please look for NORAH on Amazon or at a bookstore near you.

Here's the process...

1. "Norah" by Cynthia Neale is about an Irish immigrant, Norah McCabe, whose family lives in Five Points in New York City in the second half of the 1800s. Norah is in her early twenties, strong-minded and creative. She owns her own used-clothing shop, and takes cast-offs from wealthy women and resells them. She also dreams of being a journalist -- there is no stopping Norah from reaching her dreams.

We wanted a cover that would capture Norah's strength, her love of fine clothes, and the "feeling" of that period in NYC's history. I asked the author, Cynthia Neale, to send me any documentation she might have on dresses Norah might have worn (though Norah is a fictional character, accurate historical details were most important to the author as she wrote her book). Cynthia sent me a book of historical costumes, noting the images correlating to Norah's generation; I also found some costume images, from museums, online (see photo at left).

2. In the meantime, I also looked at photographs available from stock photo agencies. There was one photo that I liked very much, but the woman's face was not right for Norah. I also looked at images of women in period costumes, but they all looked very posed. Here are some images we came across (available from Superstock Images):

3. I did come up with an idea using one of the images from Superstock, but, again, the author did not feel the image was quite right and, after all, she knows her character best!

Here is an early idea for the cover.
 4. Also, I needed to familiarize myself with Five Points; so I visited websites and came across these photos.

5. I played around with using an image of a woman plus an image of Five Points…

Above is a rough "sketch," but I wanted to see how the cover might look with a city view behind it.
 6. We also looked at a lot of covers on Amazon, noting what appealed to us. I was surprised to find how many bookcovers do not show the woman's face!

7. Eventually, though, we decided to see what an original drawing might look like. I decided to use Cynthia's costume images as the basis for an illustration. The dress I referred to was yellow, and had roses on it, but no shamrocks. I decided to change the design of the pattern on the dress and add shamrocks. I also altered the details of the dress slightly. I drew the dress in pencil, then did the lines in ink with a Micro Pen, .005 and .01 thickness nib. I then added watercolors to the drawing, which was done on smooth Bristol paper. 

This shows the drawing as it originally was created. Although I didn't think we'd use Norah's face, I wanted to draw it. The author noticed the chin "wasn't quite right" (and I agreed). I altered the chin/jawline slightly. Also, as you see below, I cropped the illustration and flipped it.

8. I didn't want the cover to appear "pastel" though, because the book is gritty, dark in some places, and while there are some romance, love, and light moments, it really is a struggle for Norah to find her way and she is surrounded by people with ulterior motives. I didn't want the book cover to indicate a light romance. I wanted it to be strong. So, the illustration was imported into Photoshop and treated with art filters.

Here is the drawing, scanned and imported into Photoshop, and treated with filters.

9. When I was satisfied with the look of the drawing, I then turned toward the title, subtitle, and author's name. There was some tweaking of the fonts and voila! a book cover for Norah!

10. Still to be done before printing: adding a hyphen in "19th Century"... But this is a small thing. 

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Janice, this is a wonderful post on the creative process you went through on this book cover. I imagine a lot of people outside of the design field have no idea how much time and how many variations are looked at in the design of a cover. Your final design looks great and I'll check out the book now that I have read your interesting description of it!
Thank you, designanator! Your comment means so much to me. It is also helpful to me to review the process and what worked and what did not. Hopefully, it will help me to improve. All the best, Janice.
Thanks for this lovely story on the process that produces such beautiful art.
Hi Janice! I loved reading about the journey from concept to completion forNorah's cover. I'm so glad you posted this here! The drawing you did is beautiful; I loved seeing the transition from "pastel" to "dark and nuanced" in the coloring, and appreciated how the design and linework in her dress was preserved in the final version. It's an alluring cover that, to me, really stands out on a shelf. Great work!
fascinating insight into your creative process...thanks! rated
Thanks for sharing your creative process with us. This is lovely.
Wonderful piece; exquisite work. Thanks SO MUCH! [OS "timed me out" while I was studying it all, but I managed to get back here! ;-)]
Mary: Thank you for stopping by and commenting and for your support that I see of so many folks here at OS.

JJ: "stands out on the shelf"--music to my ears! Thank you! (I am so glad for the art filters in Photoshop and old enough to find them absolutely magical.)

mistercomedy: Thanks for commenting and rating! I posted a link to your "I made a damn pie" (I think that was the title, at least that's what I'm remembering) on Facebook and it was quite a hit. I'm a bit sick of reality (politics, war, etc) today and hope to laugh at more of your posts again soon.

Rei and Podunkmarte: Thank you so much for visiting and commenting.

Later in August I will post the process of designing the cover of "String Bridge" for Jessica Bell (I got to draw guitars!), and then in September, hopefully, the process of illustrating a 72 page children's book for a wonderful publisher in L.A. The project's been "top secret" so I've not been allowed to talk about it. I can't wait to talk about it, though, because it's consumed me for a whole year now…
Very nice work and illustrative process.
How cool! I love seeing the evolution of the cover.
Sheila: Thank you for reading my post and commenting.

Miguela: I think you are inspiring too. Love the artwork that accompanied your recent post.

Alex: Thank you for following the evolution.

Kate: Oh, thank you for staying with it and waiting for the graphics to show up. I just joined OS a few months ago, if that, and I cannot understand why things are so slow at times. From what I've read, it seems to be a problem that's gone on for a while.
I found myself saying "Ah!" when I saw the "darkened" drawing. This was fascinating--thanks for posting!
This was a fascinating post. I enjoyed the process but also the subject as my great great grandmother came over from Ireland on a boat together and started a life that was also hard and at time I am sure gritty. Your work is lovely, I thank you so much for sharing this with us. I am sorry I missed it before.
I appreciate the thoroughness and detail.
I appreciate the thoroughness and detail.
Julie: I said "ahhh" too! I was a bit worried it would not work!

Rita: Thank you for your comment. I hope you will give NORAH, the book, a chance. If you do, let me know what you think.

Jeff: Thank you for stopping by and commenting.
Beautiful work. And fun to see the process... Not all too different from the writing process. Thanks for sharing!
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