On Thinking Like A Book Cover

I split my photography between photos for the wall decor industry and the book publishing one. When shooting for book covers, I need to adjust my thinking quite a bit from that of the fine art or decor market, which is more concerned with producing a pictorial image that can enhance a living space.

For the book cover market, I am looking for the story, or the potential story. There are times when the two can overlap, but I usually put myself into a different frame of mind for covers. Since I like a good mystery or suspense story, I often try to think in terms of that genre when out shooting. The resulting images often have a bit of a dark undertone to them. Like this bison skull, below. It has a clear bullet hole in the head. Overall the image tells a story that could be successfully used on the cover for a variety of stories, besides the stereotypical western genre.

A bison skull with a large gunshot wound.

The image below of the old fashioned workshop, could be used on the cover of a suspense novel. Perhaps a story about a mass murderer, or the disappearance of an important person. But it could just as easily be about the breakdown of a marriage. The loss of a grandparent, or a story set in the past. What about a story about a seemingly idyllic neighbourhood with a dark secret. Is it the caretaker?

An old farm workshop with antique tools.

Even seemingly random subjects can make great book covers. I would never have thought when I snapped a photo of our cat on the fence with a specialty camera set up that it would end up the cover of James Patterson novel, but it did.

The silhouette of a cat sitting on a fence.
James Patterson Book Cover

The book cover industry engages my creativity and imagination and allows me to become a bit of a storyteller in seeking out and composing my images. It’s a job I truly love.

You can view my portfolio’s of images for licensing on Arcangel Images and Millennium Images.

About Storykins And Staffage

In painting Staffage is the human and animal figures added to a landscape scene used for decoration rather than the main subject. Their importance lies in the life they add to an otherwise static scene. Storykins derives from the Dutch storykens meaning Little Stories. These elements can animate the scenery and bring the viewer into the narrative of the scene. They can help provide scale, enhance the composition of a painting giving direction to the eye, or provide an anchor. Often, though they are small and painted without detail, they become the focal point. 

During the 19th century books of staffage were published for artists with hundreds of examples to use for their painting. Often, these same symbols can be identified in multi paintings of a given time period – both by different artists, and the same figurative symbol used over and over again by the same artist. 

Most Old Master landscapes featured staffage in the form of people going about their daily activities, livestock in the fields, or wildlife as a part of the natural environment. A marsh is a busy place teeming with life. To paint it devoid of even an insect, frog, or bird, would be to depict a falsehood that can’t portray the cacophony of sounds and actions present on a summer day.  

Claude Monet – Lane In Normandy (altered)

Does Claude Monet’s Lane In Normandy tell the same story, or have the same interest without the two little boys walking in the lane? (Digitally altered to remove figures above. Original below.)

Claude Monet – Lane In Normandy (original)

What about John Singer Sargent’s Olive Trees, Corfu? Can the painting be considered as successful without the figures as with them? 

John Singer Sargent – Olive Trees Corfu

In my own work, I have found adding human or animals symbols to my landscapes has greatly improved the storytelling quality of the works, and is providing a vehicle for buyers to be able to form more emotional attachments to the works. The challenge is being able to come up with the symbolism necessary for telling the story. In the absence of staffage sample books, it is necessary to create your own inventory of samples that can be added to the painting when necessary. 

I can often be found in the evenings watching a tv show while creating my little sample cards filled with small figure sketches. I try to add only enough information in these sketches to tell the story, and to be able to interpret that figure onto the canvas. Much like a chef has their recipes of sauces, or a musician has their keys and chords, these little drawings are a base that can be used to mix and match to suit the mood and theme of a painting. 

Pen and ink figure thumbnails for staffage.

Whether your decorative elements are human or animal, there is a great benefit to having a ready made supply of samples to reach for at a moments notice when your fancy strikes, or the need arises. 

When Brian Was A Boy – 16×20” – Oil on canvas

When Brian Was A Boy above, is an example of the use of staffage in one of my paintings. Here the figure provides the anchor point of the painting, but also helps tell the story. Where is the person going, or where have they been? What is on their mind? The title suggests maybe they are thinking of away times. Perhaps remembering life on the prairies when he was a boy. The stories that can be played out go so much further, than if the landscape had been painted without life in it. 

Without the figure it becomes a nice landscape painting. The story becomes about the weather and season, and not much else. The viewer can pass by it quickly without much thought. With a figure added to the landscape there is something for the viewer to stop and consider, to linger a little longer over, and hopefully, fall in love with the story of their own invention. 

Pre Planning The Perfect Painting

Once I finally settle down on an idea for a painting, I get impatient and want to see the end result before I’ve even started. In my attempt to slow down and be more deliberate about my paintings, I am attempting to preplan them, by manipulating the reference photo to strengthen the design, and test colours.

One of the problems with trying to get mountain reference photos for paintings is that our Canadian forest is heavy. Unless one can get a special vantage point higher up or further away, which is usually not easily achieved (especially the further away one if you are right in the mountains), finding an interesting composition is difficult.

Take the following photo as an example. I wanted to paint the lakeshore and canoes. In the original you couldn’t see the distant slope and mountains. It was just a solid block of trees. I suppose one could make an interesting painting from that if you made the subject about the trees themselves, and found some sort of rhythm to them.

Altered reference photo

I’m not so keen on evergreens and think the overall photo would be quite boring as a painting. Previously I probably wouldn’t have attempted it and ended up with a dud to throw away. Now, I’m trying to work out the potential problems before I even get to the canvas.

I want to reduce the number of canoes, open up the forest and create a path to guide the eye through the painting, and give some colour to the sky. So I attempted to illustrate these ideas digitally on top of the reference photo, playing with both the design and colours. It’s just a rough roadmap to help me visualize what I want.

Digitally altered reference to plan painting

Now to see if this pre-planning results in a successful painting. What changes would you have made if you were painting this?

The Pressure To Perform

I have had a huge artists block that has lasted for over a year, and almost derailed my entire career. I have beat myself up horribly over this fact. The more I stressed about it, the worse it got, until one day I just said “I’m done”.

But I knew in the back of my head that was the furthest from the truth. You see, I’ve always painted or drawn. Yes, I’ve had periods of rest where I wasn’t very active, but that deep seated desire to create has always been there niggling away at me, making me feel incomplete if I wasn’t painting.

The expectations placed on artists today are unreal. There is this huge push to create daily. Daily painters, daily practice, a painting a day, daily posts on social media. The competition to get better, be the best. Look how easy it is to compare your work with the worlds artists. Imagine how much easier it would have been when artists didn’t have access to the worlds best artists instantly there to compare their own work to. How impossible is it to feel competent today?

The chatter, and resulting pressure, is TOO much! Maybe this works for some artists, but for others that kind of pressure is crippling, leaving many wondering if they’ll ever be good enough, or how to find time for all their commitments in life. Job, family, health, friends, and all the other daily, weekly, monthly things that need our time and attention.

For me, before my slump hit, I had an empty nest and a husband working long hours, living in the country in almost isolation – too far away for friends or family to just drop by. I had tons of time to myself and this made it easy to get studio time almost daily. (I took the weekends off.) Then my husband was laid off and transitioned to retirement. We got a new dog. We moved to the city close to friends and family.

Suddenly all those hours of solitude had vanished. If I was in the studio, I felt guilty I wasn’t paying attention to the new dog, the at home husband, cooking, cleaning, or out visiting friends and family. If I was doing all those other things, I was getting frustrated at not finding enough time to be in the studio. I couldn’t seem to find a happy balance.

Today, I’ve decided to give myself a break and quit stressing about it all. I do not have to produce 30 top quality paintings a month. I don’t even have to produce that many a year. I wonder what the storage rooms of some of these daily painters looks like. I know what my painting storage looks like!

Even if I could produce a painting a day, I couldn’t sell that many. What happens is that I end up contributing to the environmental mess the world is in, by landing many of those paintings in the landfill. The realization of the environmental impact of needing to produce like I was a robotic factory, has helped me get over all the anxiety I have had over the past few years.

Wouldn’t a dozen good, sellable paintings a year be better for the world? I know it is certainly more doable for what my life demands right now, and has made it easier for me to relax and enjoy my painting time guilt free.

Despite the message the only way to improve is to paint daily, I think the opposite has been true for me. A slower pace has given my brain time to catch up with all the learning I have done over the past few years. With fewer painting days, my skills have improved. I have more time to think about and plan a painting, rather than rushing in to get it done. Win, win!

We do not have to buy into this all or nothing scenario. If the message you are hearing over and over causes you anxiety, know that you do not have to adopt it. Define your own parameters for your artist’s life and create from a place of contentment.

Baby Wolf

Baby Wolf – 6×6″ – Oil on panel

This was a commission from my grandson. We were visiting a local wildlife park when he casually asked “Grandma how much do you sell your paintings for?”. So I told him it depended on the size and asked why he wanted to know. He wanted to know if he could afford to pay me to paint him the baby wolf we had seen.

He was 7 at the time. I told him if he did all his school work, didn’t fight with his mom, and generally behaved himself for the next month (this was during Covid home schooling), I would do it for a dollar. Pretty soon he’s digging through his pockets counting his money.

And just like that I got hoodwinked into creating 4 commissioned paintings for $5. Painting isn’t about the money, but the joy and love. Both mine and the recipients.

Expressing My Love Of Nature

The sea, sky, and all living creatures are transient. It is only the land that endures. It is the land that sustains us.  I am creating nature based images to provide an escape from the everyday and foster a connection with the importance of the land to mans well-being.

When Brian Was A Boy – 16×20” – Oil on canvas

Rather than provide a mirror to what is easily seen, I am trying to represent ordinary scenes in an expressive way to capture a fleeting mood or impression. Not to explicitly say what I feel, but to allow the viewers imagination to interpret the work, and form a connection to a fleeting thought or emotion they may have felt once before. I want them to sense the importance of the land, and how man needs nature to survive; not just physically but emotionally as well.

“I don’t paint the landscape. I paint the spirit disguised as a landscape.”

I am trying to represent the poetry within a place which the viewer can connect with through the human spirit, more so than the intellect.  It is a form of visual storytelling to communicate with them where words fail. You can speak the words to someone and have them understand, but through a poem or painting you can speak in a language people can feel in the depths of their soul. Because I want to speak on a more emotional, intimate level, my paintings are in a smaller format to foster a closer, quieter conversation. I don’t have a loud personality, so why should my paintings be any different? 

About Roberta Murray

Since childhood art has been my window into freedom – a private retreat which I could escape into. Painting, drawing, and photography were a means for me to create my own world; a world that could be whatever I wanted it to be, real or not. My other passion since childhood is nature. I lived for trips to the mountains, picnics by the lake, stays at family ranches, a trip to the zoo. What I wanted most was to see wildlife or be around animals – dogs, cats, horses, cows, you name it. I loved them all. Bears were, and still are, at the top of the list.

 I have spent the majority of my life living in the country, surrounded by nature, wildlife, and domestic animals. The connection I had with the wild critters of the land was broken when we moved to Red Deer, Alberta in 2018. Though I always knew how important nature and the outdoors was to a persons wellbeing, the move to a city has really made how important wild, open spaces is to a persons soul. 

Mary Oliver said it best:
“Ordinarily, I go to the woods alone, with not a single friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore unsuitable. I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of praying, as you no doubt have yours.”

Today, the opportunity to view wildlife is even more thrilling and important for my sense of wellbeing than ever before. Some have stated I get as giddy as a child in a candy store, who has just been told they can buy as much as they like, when I see wildlife. It’s true. The thought of our wild places and the creatures who live there being threatened, or disappearing, is of great concern. 

The Artist And The Ego

A recent rejection was balanced with some glowing reviews of my art. This yin and yang of life lead me to ponder the roll of ego in an artist’s life.

Dave Ames said: “Trash and treasure are two sides of the same coin. Low self-esteem produces one, and public adulation the other.”

I am genuinely surprised by positive reactions to my work, and am so grateful when another person forms a strong enough connection to my work to want to purchase it. I normally don’t take rejection personally and can generally separate myself from my art, even though it is such a personal part of my inner being.

Ego is defined as “a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance”. Self-esteem is defined as “confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect”.

When talking to others about my surprise at positive critiques, I was asked how I keep working if I don’t expect others to like my art or if I didn’t think it was good. It’s not that I don’t think my work is good, exactly, but more that I’m unsure of how it measures up in the big scheme of things. When I begin a painting, I don’t start it with the public in mind. I don’t start it thinking about the ultimate sale. It starts from a deeply personal part of me. There is a need to create this story that end results are unimportant. It doesn’t even matter at this stage if it’s any good. It’s all about the story and how it relates to my spirit. At this stage there is no separation from self.

When the painting is finished I will usually, though not always, put it out there for others to see and judge. I am able to separate myself from the work. When praise comes in it is because that person connects to the story of the painting, not because I have superb painting abilities. When criticism comes in it’s because the story wasn’t clear to that one person, or was one they could not identify with. Yes, it could also be from sloppy technical execution of the painting process for which I am responsible, but it is a criticism against the painting not myself as a human being.

My ego isn’t very big, yet I have enough self-esteem to believe I can succeed if I work hard enough. I know my work has value, yet I know there are so many others who are better. When I paint, although I might enjoy the end results and feel I conveyed the emotion of the story well, I know where the flaws are and what can be improved. There may be technical aspects I’m unsure of. Sometimes I will love a painting and others don’t think much of it. The opposite is true as well. I will hate a piece that the public seems to love. That is why it is so important for an artist to go beyond their own walls and expose their work to the criticism

The ego is a double-edged sword in art. An artist at once needs to believe in themselves and the work they are doing in order to promote it, and have the confidence to show it to others, but at the same time they need to separate themselves from the art to avoid total discouragement and quitting in disgust.

On the other end of the stick, is the danger of an artist becoming so full of themselves to the determinant of their own career.  Most stereotypes of artists are built around the big ego. This is the person that thinks they are a genius and every painting a masterpiece to be held up on a pedestal for all the world to see.

If I were to think like that what motivation would there be for me to learn, grow, and improve? The big ego would become stagnant and dull from a lack of growth.  They already believe themselves to be the best they could possibly be.

Instead my ego tells me there are many others better than me, and so lots more for me to learn. There are a lot more things for me to strive to achieve. Yet, the praise gives me the courage to cast a wider net and reach for some of those higher milestones that will propel my career forwards.  

Duende

Duende

(n.) a quality of passion and inspiration.

  • a spirit.

ORIGIN 1920s: from Spanish, contraction of duen de casa, from dueño de casa ‘owner of the house.’

An abandoned church at sunrise with crows.

In art Duende loosely means having soul, a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity, often connected with flamenco. The artistic and especially musical term was derived from the duende, a fairy or goblin-like creature in Spanish mythology.

I saw a posting going around Facebook which states Duende is the mysterious power of art to move a person. While the definition may not be quite correct it’s a wonderful sentiment. There should be a word for such a thing, shouldn’t there? 

As an artist that is the ultimate goal. To create work with soul, emotion, expression, and authenticity, which has a mysterious power to move another person. For as long as I live that is what I search for – that is the thing which I strive to create. Art is a continual process of learning, refining, experimentation, and play. 

What is it that keeps the artist going? It is the search for that magical something – that duende which is different for everyone. We want to inspire passion in not only ourselves, but others as well. We want our work to move a person. The ultimate feeling of satisfaction comes not from awards or accolades, but from the story from that one person who was spiritually moved by your work. The irony of it all, is that the artist will rarely know when they’ve achieve a work having duende until it is placed before the public. 

Swept To Sea

Mouse and Hare thought they would escape the fire by floating down the river. Mouse in his walnut shell boat. Hare in the washtub. But the river went too fast and they soon found themselves swept out to sea. Hare got really scared, like scaredy hares tend to get.

Swept To Sea