I don‘t always do environmental-art book covers, but when I do, I love the creative freedom Creative Director Lauren Panepinto gives me with Orbit Books! I am thrilled to be a part of the upcoming series ‘Ashes of the Sun’ by Django Wexler. Coming in summer 2020. More info here.

This post will be a behind the scenes of the preliminary process. What happens before we even start painting the final cover.

But the funny thing is it didn’t start as a landscape intensive piece. It started as a front and center figure piece! Which shouldn’t surprise you too much, after all I am not usually the first person an Art Director thinks of for landscapes.

So Lauren hires me to do what I do. A figure cover. And here are the sketches I sent her.

Those are what I consider ’round one’ sketches. The idea is to get a basic composition, and arrive at a flavor and mood for the cover. Details are not important at this stage, we save the nitty-gritty for the next round of sketches. We are just trying to get everyone on the same page.

But we never got to the next round. A change in direction was called for- Landscape with tiny little itty bitty figure in it. Thankfully Lauren didn’t panic. She could have just ended the gig there and paid for sketches. Instead, she asked me if I could do landscapes, and, as important, asked if I even wanted to do a landscape.

Well, hell yes I want to do a landscape. It is a funny thing when you get known for something, it is sometimes hard for people to see beyond it. And who can blame them. They are taking a risk everytime they hire an artist, so they want to limit as many question marks as possible. Especially because they have to convince a table of people that this is the artist for the job. It reminds me of the time right out of artschool where I showed a fine art portfolio to an art director at Dragon Con. He said, “Wow this is great stuff! Man I’d love to have this on my wall. But… what the hell does it have to do with my Space Ship game. NEXT!”

So credit again to Lauren. She took a risk here. She believed I could do it. But to make others at the company brave as well, I sent them this piece, Isperia from MAgic the Gathering. Which, even though it is figure heavy, it has a lot of environment. Looking in my portfolio it really was kinda shocking how few pieces had massive environments.

With the go-ahead it was time to get sketching again. It should be mentioned that Lauren had an extensive brief for me to look at. She does her homework.

I treated this sketch process the same would I would a figure cover. In fact here are the figure silhouettes I used to make the the first batch of sketches.

After some rough thumbnailing, I paint individual elements in the free program Alchemy. I can work fast in that program. I build up using a lasso tool that auto fills. (I’ve talked about this program extensively here on Muddy, so check my past posts out if you want to learn more.) I usually have a entire google images window open of whatever it is I am painting. And I glance over to that screen as I develop the elements. This is just about every piece of the puzzle I used.


We take those pieces, and keeping a strong focus on composition and value we arrive at these sketches.

The selection was made, or something in between. Next we had to determine what pose to put the character in. Back to silhouettes.


The selection made, Lauren also had an additional request to simplify the number of elements. So she sent me this. And it was the right choice. The problem when you make a ton of cool props is you want to use them all! Often less is more. Part of this request was also to make the buildings less Sci-fi. THis book is a tough one, because is isn’t classical fantasy and it isn’t Sci-fi. It is something in between. Love how Lauren took the tower from my Isperia painting, and got it in here to get the point across.

So I painted a couple more buildings in Alchemy.

I also took the statue further. If I do this sort of grunt work in Alchemy and import it into my photoshop image it saves me heaps of time. I have something that is pretty finished and I can just react to it with out creating it from scratch on the live image.

I also painted up some landscape elements, once again in Alchemy, that I was able to bring into my image and manipulate at will.

And with that we were off to the races! I was so consumed with this piece that I did not take that many progress shots of the final painting process. It is all photoshop at this point. Using real scanned textures and marblized paper and loads of drawing and mark making, for days and days on end. But we eventually got to the finish line. Or so we thought.

One final color tweak at Lauren’s request. And a request to chop down that tree next to the figure as it was competing too much. Once again I like it better. Also I actually like getting to do simple changes like color swaps. It dosn’t take long, and it is often days after you handed it in. So when you see it with fresh eyes, you get to go back in and make it better. I tweaked to my hearts content. The challenge always for me is how much detail and rendering to do vs letting texture, silhouette and ‘style’ persevere. For instance many of the trees on the right are just silhouette with a bit of marbleized paper texture on top. I am glad I resisted the urge to go in and paint every leaf. Let the silhouette speak!

Here is the result. I am stoked this is a series, because I am itching to do another landscape. I feel I scratched the surface of what is possible here. I want to get lost in this world. Write fast Django!