Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Psychochronography in Blue (Part 5)

A little over 16 months ago I sent the following words to Philip Sandifer, the author of the Tardis Eruditorum books, for which I regularly do the covers.

"Just had an idea for the first Tom Baker cover. If I can pull it off it will be a most magnificent cover, if I can't then it'll be an okay painting on it's own. For now though I'll leave you with the words Chris Foss"

The first Tom Baker cover ended up featuring Jelly Babies, so the words Chris Foss were held over for the second Tom Baker book. If you've not seen the first, or any of the other covers I've done for Phil you can see them by clicking on the related number 1, 2, 3, 4, and also check out the tangentially related A Golden thread, and Last War in Albion cover posts.

Now, I know, you may be thinking "'Most magnificent?' this seems rather out of character for our usually predictable blogger." Well, I did add a caveat. But honestly, I'm the least qualified person to say if I succeeded in hitting those lofty goals. I do know it was one of the more challenging things I've ever done, and that you can decide if I did indeed pull it off by reviewing the image of the cover below.

Clicking most of the images gets you a larger view, as usual.

Chris Foss, if you're unaware, refers to the staggeringly influential and prolific science fiction painter of the 60's, 70's and 80's (mostly the latter two).  He's still working today, and I own a book of works by him.  He didn't just do Sci-Fi covers (he also illustrated The Joy of Sex), but it's what he's best known for.

So, anyway, as I've said, the history of this cover starts before quite a few of the others.  Before Volume 4 (and 1, oddly enough), before A Golden Thread, and before Last War in Albion.   The day I sent Phil the email quoted above I sketched out the following thumbnail.

This is the first time anyone but be has seen this.  You can probably guess why I'd not shown anyone the picture before (it's bloody awful).  But I had an image of what I wanted for the cover in my head, and I needed to get that down as swiftly as possible before I started second guessing myself.  This may be a craptacular mess, but it does capture all the major elements of the final cover, albeit with a couple of extra bits (the mooring tower and the 'belt' bridge) and without the planet.  The whole thing took less than 10 minutes with no reference, and served its function admirably.  In retrospect I wish I'd stuck closer to the palette, but that's a relatively small thing.

The next step was to work it out in more detail, so I spent a couple of hours building a ship and towers in SketchUp.  This would prove very useful for when it came time to light the painting (or should that be paint the lighting?), and lay things out.  You're probably thinking I traced the ship for the final image.  You would be wrong, but I did trace the towers.

I have no recollection as to why I didn't trace the SketchUp version of the ship because I didn't do so over a year ago (I'll get to why I'm not calling it a TARDIS in a minute), I even questioned myself on whether I incorrectly remembered not doing so when I was prepping the images for the blog, so I opened the original PSD (Photoshop image file) for this and took a look.  There's the render of the towers, neatly traced, and there's the ship, not remotely aligning to the one in the image here.  Lots of perspective reference lines though.  I've even got the perspective on the far side of the front wrong.

Really, I was making work for myself - I have no idea why.

The rest of this is near enough the final layout of the cover.  I cut the moon from the back cover, and removed the bridge between the towers (ok, by 'removed' I mean forgot all about it), and at this point I'd already decided I didn't want to mooring tower connected to the ship.  Other than the towers there was no tracing here - though I did use a reference photo of Mr. Baker - not that it was all that much use, since I had to modify it a lot so he'd line up with the towers.

This was it a month later (I wasn't in much of a rush).  Obviously I had a long way to go.  The planet was painted using the airbrush tool and a couple of masks, while the rest was all done with the Oil Paint tool.   Each element was on it's own layer (Mountains, Towers, Ship, Clouds, Planet), this was because I wasn't sure of how much 'atmosphere' I wanted on each element, or if I was going to need to repaint things (as I obviously had to do with the clouds here).  As a result you'll see the mountains and the Ship vary in intensity through all the following as I try to dial in a good balance for them.

So this seems as good a place as any to speak to why I'm calling the ship 'the ship' instead of a TARDIS.  Simple reason is that it's not the TARDIS, It's a spacecraft with a passing resemblance to the beloved icon, but also with lots of differences.  One of my rules for the covers has been that I never simply put a picture of the TARDIS on them.  Partly because that would be too easy, and partly because that way lies... issues, with trademarks and copyrights; the closest I've ever come to breaking that was with the silhouette of Pertwee's box on book 3, and even that wasn't exact.  I'm pushing it a lot with this one, and I know that, and because I knew I was pushing things I went out of my way to make it as inaccurate as possible while still having it be clear what it was based on.  Obviously there are design differences, but I also used no reference to the real thing when I was building the SketchUp model.

I also used no real reference to Tom Baker beyond the one mentioned above (and that was the only time that was used), as one of the other rules is that I never just copy a picture of an actor on the covers.  Again, I've come close, but there are always changes, and the closest I've come was Pertwee's silhouette on Book 3, except I drew that with a lot of guesswork as I couldn't find a good profile shot of him.  So in this case I'm painting some clouds that have a  passing resemblance to Tom Baker as the Doctor, but I didn't work from any particular photograph (though I did have some as general reference).  That's why there are three main attempts before I was happy that it was sort of recognisable (and this wasn't the final revision either).

So once I got all that done I took the cover to Book 1 (which I had started working on at this point), threw the painting behind the grime and wear and graphic elements, added a text box to the back, threw on a logo and sent the whole thing off to Phil for his opinion.

He swore in his reply. Phil never swears in emails (I'm guessing you don't spend a fortune and years of your time and effort on English doctorates just so you can swear in emails and spoil it all), so I took that as a good sign I should continue.

And then I didn't.  I decided that this style was far more in keeping with later in the decade as covers go, and that it didn't really suit the gothic horror tone of the Hinchcliffe era.  So I went and did something else for that, which also didn't have anything to do with Gothic Horror, but did feature Jelly Babies, and I felt we really needed Jelly Babies, because they are delicious.  I didn't even look at this cover again for a year.

Actually, looking at the dates again, it was exactly a year between that cover mockup and my returning to work on it.  That's... Weird.

When I did come back to it I decided I didn't like the Ship being such a dingy blue, and wanted something with a little more pop.  So this is where I started to switch over to a new blue, and really start to integrate the lighting. Before I was done though I realised it would be beneficial to have some sort of reference to work from other than the washed out looking SketchUp render.  I was still avoiding actual photo reference of the TARDIS like the plague, so I went online and found photographs of blue construction equipment, transport containers, buildings and doors.

I just took a look through my reference folder and they break down like this (These things interest me, you can move on down if you don't care):

Blue Industrial Things/Buildings: 43     Clouds: 16
Mountains and deserts: 58                      Chris Foss Covers and Paintings: 60
Foss inspired paintings: 25                     Other book covers: 35
Photos of Tom Baker: 5                          Pictures of the TARDIS: 0

That wasn't enough though, so I went into Photoshop, took the SketchUp image and started to throw things onto it to get a more specific representation of what I was going for.  You may wonder why I didn't just do the whole thing like this and completely replace the one I was painting in ArtRage.  Well, back when CG 3D modelling was first blossoming, Foss was still a large enough influence that everyone and their dog was building spacecraft in his style, and they had a very particular look.   That look was not entirely dissimilar to this rough mockup.  Not a look I wanted.  I could have worked on it a lot more, but I liked the look I was starting to get in ArtRage, so this became just reference.

Once I'd blocked in the lighting and base colours in ArtRage I decided I didn't like the blue after all, so I toned it down.  I didn't repaint the whole thing of course, I just twiddled with the saturation option, and pulled it back to something more reasonable.  Then I started painting in details.  Panel lines, paint discolouration, text, that sort of thing.  I think I spent about a week just adding detail to the thing.  The trick was balancing it so there was enough to look natural, but not so much in one spot that the eye was always drawn to one area.

At this point I'd added the mooring lines going from the ship to the towers, with the accompanying scaffold.  I kept putting off working on the Bridge (on the TARDIS this would be the lamp), and instead I used the airbrush tool to paint in the thrusters.  I wasn't happy with the result of that, but rather than just remove it I decided to have a think and get on with the Bridge while I did.

I also added a couple of references to other Sci-Fi things I quite like. The star on the side is a reference to Asimov's Foundation series (it's based on the Empire's logo, described as the "Spaceship and sun"), and very faint at the top of the white strip is an inaccurate map of Targ from the Mercenary series.  TE-TB-02 stands for TARDIS Eruditorum-Tom Baker-Two of course.

Oh, and I added windows as part of the detailing pass.  Not terribly exciting.

Did another mockup of the full cover at this point, and decided that the logo just wasn't going to work the way I'd envisaged it, so I needed to come up with something else.  While I was thinking my eye was drawn to a book of "Extreme Science Fiction", a collection I've had for a while.  It occurred to me that when I was a kid there were loads of these Sci-Fi collection books on the shelves (many of them with Chris Foss covers), so I thought I'd try replicating that sort of logo.

Instead of looking any up, I just used a reference I already had - a cover for Herbert W. Franke's The Orchid Cage.  The logo there isn't orange, but it's big bold text with a line underneath followed by the author's name.  I rearranged the elements, and then went with the orange based on a painting of a sun on a different cover as it really popped (and if I'd bothered thinking about my colour theory knowledge I would have known that to be the case anyway).  I was concerned with dropping "Volume Five" and going with just the 5 in the logo, but Phil has never commented on the change, so I guess he's fine with it, and Amazon didn't spit it back at him either.

I don't show it here, because it's boring, but that 5 went through several revisions too, the final one being hand drawn, rather than taken from an existing font.  Also, you may note that the image on the cover mockup has a lot more contrast than the ArtRage painting.  that's because I know from experience that the grime pass has a habit of washing out the underlying image, so this is a post process intended to combat that a little (I actually want it to happen a little bit).

With all that in place I felt it was finally time to take a crack at the mountains.  I had assumed this would be an easy task, which was why I left it so long, but it turned out to be the hardest part of the painting!  Even with a number of references nearly equal to the number of Chris Foss ones I still had a surprising amount of difficulty getting the mountain to look the way I wanted, while also giving it some details that might be found on a coat.  In the end I just said "Good enough!" and moved on, but I really need to look into better ways of doing that.  I do tweak them a little later on too.

The last image in this strip shows my solution to not liking the thrust flames.  I'll cover that in more detail below though.

So here's the almost finished painting.  Actually, I sent it to Phil saying I was done, but then I couldn't leave it alone.  There is one element done in Photoshop rather than ArtRage, and that's the smoke from the thrusters.  I did that in Photoshop because I have a brush that's originally designed as an oil smear for grime passes on texture maps, but I realised it might work well as airbrushed smoke or cloud too, and what do you know, it worked really well!

I've also added rings to the planet.  These were done in ArtRage, but the masks for them were done in Photoshop as it's easier to manipulate shapes there.  Originally I was going to stick with the moon, but I liked the idea of planetary rings spilling onto the front cover from the back.

I realise now that I've not covered the detailing of the towers.  Really though, that was one of the quickest things I did, and it's basically the same process as that used on the ship.

As I said, I couldn't leave it alone, so I went back in and took a final pass at the mountain and the clouds.  I think the result helps, although probably no-one but me will ever notice.  I also added some additional text and small details to the Ship, but you'd have to look very close to see them.

There follows an image showing a snippet of the painting at the size I actually did it (haven't done that for a while), and at Phil's request there's a link to some wallpapers if you happen to want this as your desktop background (if you want other sizes let me know in the comments or I'll have no way of knowing).

Phil's post on the launch is here 
The book is available here (there are more options in Phil's post too)

Follow the link, then hit 'Download' or 'Actions>Download' to copy it to your machine - Sadly there seems to be no way to set it automatically as the wallpaper:
640x480      800x600
1024x768    1280x720
1280x800    1366x768
1440x900    1600x1200
1680x1050  1856x1392
1920x1080  1920x1200
1920x1440  2048x1536

And that's basically it; another cover done.  The longest I've spent on one of Phil's covers (in actual hours, not just because it took over a year), and since I do work for him at a flat rate this one is the greatest value for money too.  Nice :)

Firstly, a spelling mistake made it through the first batch of copies - I'd written Wondeful instead of Wonderful in the quote.  So that was mortifying.  The mistake was corrected though (causing Phil some terrible problems - Yet more mortification), so new copies have no error.  If you got one with the error (I did!) consider it a special limited edition for early adopters.

Secondly, after writing the post, I did find a picture of Tom Baker in a completely different folder that looks remarkably like the one I painted.  I don't recall copying it (and if I had it should have been in the same reference folder as everything else), but it's conceivable I did and forgot (this was over a year before I wrote the post you'll recall), and entirely likely that it strongly influenced the result subconsciously if I didn't.  Given that my no copying rule has been around from the start, it's probably the later.


  1. Very interesting to read how you create the covers for the TARDIS Eruditorium series of books. I presume that you'll be posting entries, in time, for the Logopolis Choose Your Own Adventure and the Davision/C. Baker books and whichever ones come subsequently, should you be the one to design those covers?

    1. I will indeed, barring accident or Act of God. Glad you like the writeups. I sometimes enjoy reading them back again after a while to help me get back into the right headspace. Sadly it often ends in me going "What the heck was I thinking?" :)