Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Cover Art Secrets

In my previous posts in this series, I discussed branding and basic cover construction. I've addressed topics of software, fonts, and sources for stock photos. I've illustrated ways to take a basic image and make it something unique and eye-catching, and how to supplement that art with fonts and colors that will appeal to your market. But there's one thing I haven't talked about, and that is what happens when you can't find the stock photos and art you want

It's bound to happen eventually. Maybe you can't find an artist whose work fits your needs (or credit limit!), or perhaps you just can't find a model who looks like your character. There just isn't a stock photo in the whole world that gives you what you need. You know exactly what you want, but for some reason you just can't get it. Well, don't be dismayed. Here's how you can do it: The answer to your problem just might be 3d modeling. 

Don't dismiss this idea right away. Don't assume that modeling is beyond your abilities. If you can use Gimp or Photoshop, you can use 3d models. And don't assume the price is beyond your reach. The truth is that some models and modeling programs are free! Just like public domain images, resources abound for 3d models. You can use models that are cartoonish, anime, or incredibly photo-realistic 

So where should you start? 

I'm going to point you in the direction I started, and that is with DAZ3D. This company is amazing. They are the Kindle of 3d models, thousands available within just a click. They even provide a very powerful modeling program absolutely free. It's called DAZ Studio, and you can download and use it free of charge. DAZ Studio is a powerful modeling program that allows you to use figures, such as humans, animals, and 3d objects to construct scenes. Several models are included with the program. The site also provides extra freebies that rotate monthly, and thousands of low-priced models that will astound you. Download it. Play with it. View their tutorials and learn how it works. 

An early version of Breeze (left) from T1, and a later version (right). Not the differences in lighting, posture, and props. Small things make a big difference in the final product!

Without going into too much detail, this is what you can expect: DAZ and other modeling programs allow you to load 3d models into a graphical environment. It's something like the 3d environment of a video game. You can change your perspective, circling around the object, pulling in close or pushing out to a great distance. You can load multiple objects, for example a man, a woman, a car, and mountains for a backdrop. You can pose the characters simply by clicking on one of their limbs and moving it around like a doll. You will also learn that there are pre-configured poses for characters, and a variety of different ways to manipulate objects.You can also modify the features of a character. For example, you can make a man thin and wiry, athletic, muscular, or even overweight. You can change features of his appearance that make him look like a teen or an old man. Same thing goes for females and to an extent, even to animals and other props.

Once you're happy with the characters, you can dress them in different clothes, change colors and textures, alter their skin and hair appearance, and manipulate the lighting to dramatic effect. Essentially, you can create your own characters, dress and pose them as you please, and then take a picture!

A scene I created for the cover of Shadow Born. This is what it looks like loaded into Poser, a 3d program very similar to Daz. I used a basic free character (Michael 4) with some modifications, clothing and props, etc.
 The final process, the picture-taking, is called rendering. This is where the software takes over, calculating the light, colors, and so on, to create an image based upon the scene you've created. Depending on the complexity of the scene, the resolution, and the processing power of your P.C., this can take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more. 

When you're done, you have a scene designed exactly to your liking, and ready to load into Gimp or Photoshop for post-production:
The render based on the above scene.

One version of the final cover, post-produced using Gimp. Effects used: hue/saturation, contrast/brightness, softglow, and cartoon.
Doesn't sound that hard, does it? That's because it's not. Of course, you should absolutely expect a learning period. Just like any other software, these programs have their own unique interfaces and idiosyncrasies. You might find one program doesn't like your computer, or that you just can't stand the interface. Don't worry, you have options:

DAZ Studio: I highly recommend you start here because it's user friendly and free. Test the waters before you spend any money. They have only the highest quality models and customer service is second to none, and I mean it. I've had to contact DAZ a couple of times with issues, and they went above and beyond for me. Their non-free models are a bit pricey, but still a great value, and some of the best looking models you will find anywhere.

Poser: Similar to DAZ but with a slightly different interface. Not free, but older editions can be had for as low as $30 US. New editions come out regularly, and features have become quite powerful. Poser is compatible with most DAZ models. Look for older (cheaper) versions at Amazon.

You have a number of other options that I haven't included here because they're either prohibitively expensive or focused more on landscapes and scenery than characters. Obviously, these can still be very useful but don't fall under the strictly utilitarian purposes of this post. Perhaps I'll do an extended post on this topic later...


Daz3D (see link above)  
ShareCG: a great place for free models. Remember to check licensing requirements on anything that's free. Some require an acknowledgment; some can't be used commercially. (Hint: Book covers are commercial)
Renderosity: A huge online storehouse of 3d figures. Prices vary, quality varies, but they have just about everything. They also have a free section.
PoserWorld: For fans of Poser, these guys have a ton of stuff. They have various types of paid accounts, all at low prices, and hundreds of models available to download.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you stick with it, you'll get to know these websites very well and probably find a dozen others. You will find fantastic models for free, as well as a lot of junk. 

As with all things, the key to success is practice. Eventually, if you stick with it, you will spend money on this. Good news, though. A lot of this stuff can be used as business deductions. Remember, if your writing produces income, it's a business. Cover art, publishing costs, and even books might be deductible. (See your accountant for specifics. I'm not a tax expert and none of this should be considered advice!) And remember, the difference between a lousy render and perfection doesn't just require a good model. It requires, patience, practice, and skill. Take another look at the T1 examples above and you'll see what a difference a few minor tweaks can make.

If you found this blog post helpful, take a look at the previous posts in this series. Also take a look at the "Books" tab, where you can find a list of all my published works. Or, click the Amazon banner to go directly to my Amazon page.

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