Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Penguin Classics - Don DeLillo's White Noise Book Jacket Art

This is a bit of a long blog post. But that's because it's about a dream assignment that I recently completed. A few months ago, I got an email from Paul Buckley, the wonderful art director at Penguin Classics, who asked if I wanted to illustrate a book cover for him. Naturally, I was thrilled, but I was even more thrilled when I read what book he had in mind: Don DeLillo's award winning White Noise. When I got to that part in the email, my jaw hit the floor.

Now, to explain a bit, I should tell you that White Noise is a favourite book of mine. I read it in my late teens, and it has a place in my top 10 books of all time. So I was more than thrilled, I was humbled.

After talking to Paul a bit more about the assignment, I was actually awestruck. Basically, he gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted -- something I rarely ever get as an illustrator. And not just on the art, but also on the design. I mean, I was allowed to put whatever copy I wanted, in whatever way I wanted, pull quotes as I saw fit, and even draw on the flaps if I wanted to. The only restrictions I had were to make sure that the Penguin logos were on the front, spine and back and to leave room for a UPC box. Honestly, I'd never experienced that kind of freedom with a book jacket assignment before. Usually, at least marketing factors partially determine how a book jacket will be illustrated, but in this case, I was asked to just follow my muse. Amazing.

Now, I thought I'd spend a few paragraphs here detailing my process for coming up with the jacket art. The first thing I did, of course, was read the book again. It had been over 10 years since I last read it, so I needed to re-familiarize myself with it. After reading it though this time, I skimmed it again but with an eye toward the major concepts and images. Then I sat down over a few nights and thought about what the book meant to me.

Once that was clear, it was easy to come up with some jacket concepts. The first thing I wanted to do was use multiple images, similar to comic panels, or layers of competing media. After working out what those images should be, I drew a quick pencil thumbnail:

You'll notice that the main image on the cover is missing in the above thumbnail. That's because I already knew what was going to go there, but I didn't have the heart to sit and draw such a complicated scene in a thumbnail. I'd already drawn something like it in a comic I wrote a while back, so I decided to just lift that and use it as a temporary placeholder.

After that pencil thumbnail, I went to work and drew up a colour rough in markers. I usually send in colour roughs to art directors, since my pencil roughs can be a bit misleading. I also wanted to work out and present a colour scheme. Normally, my colour roughs are just that - roughs. But in this case, I was inspired to add a bit more polish to them. I also roughed in by hand where the copy should go, with some placeholders for the various pull quotes I had in mind. Below is my first colour rough:

The turquoise images on the left and right are obviously the flap artwork and the crop marks indicate the trim area.

Having drawn that first rough, I thought it was a bit busy, so I eliminated one of the back cover images and came up with what I thought was a much better design. I liked this one better, and showed it to Penguin:

They were happy with the rough, but wanted to run it by Don DeLillo to get his thoughts. After some back and forth, a few images were swapped out on the flaps, and the likenesses of the main characters on the cover were tweaked. I then arrived at this new rough, incorporating the changes in pencil:

Finally, everything was approved, and then it was time for me to paint up all the images in gouache and ink and then composite them together to make the final art. While a lot of people think I work digitally, I actually paint my artwork the old fashioned way -- with brushes, paint and ink. After a week of painting, this was the final jacket art I submitted:

I left it to Paul Buckley to do what he felt best with the copy and title treatment. Originally, He suggested I that could hand-letter the type if I wanted, but I felt that White Noise was too "cool" a book for such a "hot" approach as hand-lettered type.

Overall, I have to say, this was one of my favourite jobs in recent years. I was humbled to be able to illustrate a book jacket for an author like Don DeLillo, especially a book that is a favourite of mine. And I was grateful to Paul Buckley and Penguin Classics for giving me the freedom just follow my inspiration.

If you want to see a final hi-res version of the book jacket, with all the type in place, you can check it out on Paul Buckley's flickr.