-By Dan Dos Santos, Lauren Panepinto & Marc Scheff

Trailer Park Fae, by Dan dos Santos

This past season I had an assignment come in, and the cover is extra special because not one, not two, but THREE Muddy Colors contributors played a role in it’s creation.

We thought it would be a great chance to do a process post and let everyone get a behind the scenes look at a typical cover assignment from multiple point of views; the Art Director, the Illustrator, and the Model.

LP: Lilith Saintcrow has a number of successful series for Orbit, mostly in the Urban Fantasy genre, but they’ve always been with female protagonists. I was excited that she had started a new series with a male hero. As I detailed in my recent No-Stilletos Rule post, when I am portraying a character on the cover in the Urban Fantasy genre I have to keep wish fulfillment very much in mind. You want to walk the line of sexy-I-want-to-be while still being sexy-I’m-attracted-to for readers of both genders. It’s really easy for these covers to get cheesy on one side or uncomfortably objectifying on the other side—it’s a definite tightrope walk. I get a cover brief from Editorial that gives me the basics about what needs to be on the cover, what the target audience looks like, and maybe some comparison media – either other books or sometimes movies and TV series.

In the case of male-hero Urban Fantasy, I am looking at already-successful books like The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, but also TV shows like Supernatural. Supernatural is actually a great comp for this, because the majority of the audience is women, but the main characters are cool enough guys to be interesting to straight guys and not hit the cheese button too hard.

Character inspiration

I had a good chunk of the first rough draft to read, so I loaded it on my iphone and started bookmarking every page where there were descriptions of the main characters, the setting, and any weapons or clothing details. I was casting the character a bit in my head, and from the author’s description it was starting to remind me of Marc. It happens a lot that I cast the book in my head that way, so at this point I didn’t think it would necessarily lead to anything on the cover.

I’ve been wanting to get Dan to do a cover for Orbit for a while. Beyond being a master at the visual hierarchy and composition it takes to make a successful book cover, I also really love the way he can make a character sexy but still have a strong narrative. Dan is known for his paintings of women, but I knew he could handle a guy no problem. I had a conversation with Editorial about potentially using Dan for the cover, and I sent them his website, and some comps from his portfolio:

Covers by Dan Dos Santos that the editors particularly called out to give Dan direction

There’s a tricky thing about Urban Fantasy, and it’s a good example of how target audience can affect the look of a cover. A great deal of the UF audience comes over from Romance, and those readers are used to very photo-realistic covers. If you go too far outside the box visually, then you risk the audience not recognizing the cover as something they want to read. This has happened to me before. My rule of thumb is that you can push the visual envelope forward only a half-step at a time. In this case we were already doing something a bit out of the ordinary with a male character on the cover. I wanted to not do a straight photo shoot, because I thought we could make this a bit hipper and edgier because of the writing. Dan’s art was perfect—he has the coolness of illustration, but his work is also tightly-rendered enough that the fans, used to photographic covers, won’t be turned off. That’s a little bit of the reason why Dan’s work is so successful in the Urban Fantasy market. It’s recognizable to the fanbase, but also pushes the cool envelope just enough to be fresh and different.

So, at this point, I got approval from both Editorial and the author to move ahead with the concept and I emailed Dan to talk schedule, rates, and cover concepts.

DDS: I had been wanting to work with Orbit books for a while when Lauren finally found the right job for me. Over that time, I had become very familiar with what Orbit publishes, and what Lauren’s tastes were. Both of those things make a job go much smoother.

Usually, I would read the manuscript and just offer up as many good ideas as I can to the client. But in this case, as is typical with a big name author, there are a lot of people to please. That means Lauren already knew what she wanted. She sent some samples of the mood, descriptions of the character, and gave me a rough idea of what she was looking for. Honestly, if the client knows what they want, half of the job is done. Without the guessing game the rest is just about providing them options, and making sure they’re happy with the results.

In a nutshell, here are the cover requirements Lauren gave me:
  • 30-ish guy, attractive, should appeal to both men and women.
  • He’s human, with a smidge of Fae, so his appearance should be  “sleek”, with a multi-cultural or unusual twist to it.
  • He is a Fae Blacksmith of sorts, and can summon magical weapons from his tattoos.
  • He just wants to tinker on his bike and be left alone. He’s not a fan of having these powers or their responsibilities.

I typically give the client about 3 sketches to choose from. I try to make sure these sketches aren’t just 3 iterations of the same idea with just slightly different poses or camera angles. Instead, I like to provide a variety of options; like one sketch that focuses on the narrative, one that focuses on the character, and maybe one that’s an action piece or something less portrait driven.

The biggest challenge with this particular job was that if we are going to showcase arm and chest tattoos (which were important to the story), we have to show a lot of skin. The cover, if we weren’t careful, could quickly appear too ‘beefcake’ for the intended audience.


Here are the three sketches I gave to Lauren. There are things I like about each of them.

Sketch 1: I love montages. They lend themselves super well to ongoing series that end up being drama driven. I thought the tattoo scheme could play well with a montage idea, allowing me to add in as many narrative elements as they wanted while also appealing to men.

Sketch 2: This piece focuses more on the protagonist, and his lackadaisical attitude. It also allows me to put him in an environment to help emphasize the mood and lighting.

Sketch 3: This sketch was intended as a more graphic treatment of the cover, and showcases the magical tattoo rather than the character himself.

LP: Once I got the thumbnails in from Dan, I circulated them around Editorial and showed them at a cover meeting for everyone to discuss. We decided we liked the feeling on the one in the chair, and I sent it back to Dan with some realllly rough type thrown on, just for placement:

Sketch with FPO type, mocked up.

At this point, I had kicked around the idea of actually using Marc as the reference model. I wouldn’t have been able to get away with it if it was a photo-based cover because modelling is actually very hard, and it’s painfully evident when it’s not a professional doing it. However I knew that Dan could make sure the emotion and attitude was right in case we kept cracking Marc up in the photos.

MS: I work with Lauren on a few other projects for Drawn + Drafted, and have for a long time wanted to be involved with an Orbit book cover. Dan has been a great friend and mentor for years. So when they approached to me to model, I of course said yes. I joke about this a lot, but it’s true that if left to my own devices I would just spend all day tinkering in my studio and let the world go on. I would also love super faerie powers, and Wolverine is my beholden-to-no-one power animal. I felt like I identified with the character already, this was going to be fun.

I’m fortunate enough to share a big open studio space, perfect for a reference shoot. It also happened to be somewhere between Lauren’s office and Dan’s house, so we met here for an afternoon to take photos. I’ve done some modeling before at school, for a figure drawing group, and for fellow artists like Randy Gallegos and students at the IMC. I’m also an artist and know from behind-the-camera what I want when I give directions, so I felt confident we would come up with something great.

We talk about this a lot, but there really is no perfect photo, no one image that you just copy in paint, and you have to follow your gut to get more than you need. Dan took more photos than I could count and reviewed them all on the spot to be sure he had all the elements to put a picture together at home in Photoshop before painting. There  were photos for the pose of the whole figure, and lots of photos of my hands and head. He would have me pose and then walk around with the camera getting every angle. Then we built some makeshift reflectors with cardboard and got some lighting refs he could use for when he got to color. There were many points where Dan saw something he liked and asked me to do “more of that” for more photos. The cover wasn’t set and done at the shoot, they informed each other.

For me, as an artist, it was wonderful to watch someone else run the show. I could experience a crucial step in the process of a truly exceptional illustrator from the inside. It’s one thing to watch a lecture on taking good reference photos, and another to be the recipient of the instructions. I found myself reverse-engineering each shot in my head as Dan explained it’s final purpose.

Fun fact: he actually drew those tattoos on me in my son’s washable markers. I thought it was super cool looking! If i had any interest in full-body ink I would totally go for it.

Shoot day!

DDS: Photoshoots are a really important part of my process. Not only do I need reference in order to achieve a higher level of realism, but many of my paintings are lighting driven, and a lot of that decision making process happens through the lens for me. As such, I spend a lot of time taking photos, usually an hour or more, until I see something that inspires me.

One of the shots attempting to capture the pose of the original sketch.

Prior to the shoot, Orbit had already expressed a few concerns about the sketch. They were worried about him being shirtless, and they also wanted his pose to be more “in your face”.

Knowing the sketch would likely have to change some, I was certain to take a variety of photos; with shirt, without shirt, in the shade, in the light, leaning forward, leaning back, etc.

Once I got back home, I used the photos I took, plus a few additional ones I took of myself for alternate hands and whatnot, to refine the sketch. I sent a revised version off to Lauren for final approval.

Revised Sketch

LP: We loved the rough drawing in-house, but wanted him to add the spear from the story. Dan added our notes and went forward with the painting

DDS: Up until this point, all of the work I had done was digital. It’s best to keep revisions to a minimum when working traditionally, so I try to really nail my image as much as possible before I begin the actual painting process.

I started the painting with a refined pencil drawing on gessoed illustration board. I toned the image with some acrylic washes and airbrush, and then began refining it with with a layer of oils.


First acrylic washes

Because of an upcoming Sales meeting, Lauren asked for a progress shot. Typically I don’t send  progress shots (the ugly phase can really rattle an inexperienced client). But because the meeting was so important and I wanted to catch any issues as early as possible, I scanned my painting as is, and did a bit of quick digital work to make it more presentable for approval.

Rough painting stage we showed at Sales Conference

LP: This was quickly approved in-house and with the author. She had some concerns about the tattoos. She had always imagined the tattoos as very tribal, and Dan & I had decided to go more americana style, while keeping them black and gray style to keep them graphic. We both felt it made the cover cooler and I felt it was a good idea to stay away from the established cover cliché of tribal tattoos in Urban Fantasy. I made this quick jpeg and sent it to the editor and author. The author agreed to trust us on this one.

Tribal beefcake for $400, Alex.

DDS: Once I had the final go ahead, I proceeded to finish the painting as planned. Lauren mentioned a few times that she really wanted to push the ‘trailer park’ aspect a bit more, so I decided to add a few additional environmental elements to the image, like the awning, the christmas lights, and license plates (with all of our initials).

I scanned and sent the final image off to Lauren, and crossed my fingers that they’d like it.

LP: Meanwhile I was playing around with type treatments. I knew I wanted to do a graffiti or spraypainted look, so we narrowed it down early. Here’s a few rough mockups:

Playing with type

You can see I was playing around with the lightness/darkness of the background. Although we had always envisioned all the light in the piece coming from the glow of the tattoos/spear, it turned out it really wasn’t working in thumbnail, it was so dark you were loosing the silhouette.

Often I’ll muck around in photoshop a bit to get Editorial buy-in, but then go back to the artist to make the final adjustments.

DDS: Lauren sent me her mock-ups, and said she felt the lighter background would work better.

With this particular image, I wanted to accentuate the tattoos. So I initially decided to use a very grey, cluttered background that reinforced the lighter, more saturated tattoos. The rest of the image appears a bit ‘noisy’, and ‘muted’, which I liked.

However, what looks good on your easel doesn’t always look good on a bookshelf. The Publisher needs this book to stand out from it’s competition, and the muted image just wasn’t ‘popping’ enough. Again, this was the same concern that made Sales ask for a pose that was more ‘in your face”.

Following Lauren’s mockup, I lightened the backdrop considerably, and added a bit more color to it, in order to get the figure to pop off the background. This helped make the image a more eye-catching cover.

I sent the final revised art, along with a comparison, to Lauren for approval.


Ultimately, I decided that a value somewhere between the two variations was ideal for my own tastes, so I did the required changes for the client digitally. That way, I could meet their needs and my own.

LP:  Dan sent in this comparison and everyone in-house was happy with it.

Wendy Chan, our in-house designer, worked up the mechanical. She knew the model was a friend of mine so she made sure to repeat him as many times as possible on the spine and back, ha.


The book isn’t out yet, but we’ve been getting some really good feedback on the cover from both women and men, which makes me excited to think we might have hit the goal of being both sexy and cool. One of my favorite details (which I only noticed recently) was that the license plate on the trailer wall in the background starts with “DS”.

And now we’re getting started on book two!

DDS: Being an illustrator means you mostly work in solitude. I often miss the fun of collaborating with like-minded individuals. This job was a team effort, which made the overall assignment a fantastic experience that I got to share with friends.

MS: It was, and is, a great pleasure to work with professionals like Dan and Lauren. I’ve been reading SFF since before I can remember and it is a real honor to be the subject of a cover. I’m looking forward to books 2 and 3, and yes I’ll even shave my beard for the shoots.