What Can Novel Cover Art Teach Us About Making Art?

Well, it’s been a little while since I wrote about making art. So, today’s article will be an art-based article with a slight twist. I’ll be looking at what the cover art of novels can teach us about making art.

But, before I begin, I should probably illustrate the difference between good and bad cover art. In short, good cover art includes visual storytelling and is designed to grab the audience’s attention in some way or another, whilst telling them what to expect.

To give you a comparison, here are the covers of two modern books by the same authors and the same publisher. One is better than the other. Take a look for yourself:

This is a comparison of two UK paperback covers by the same publisher and the same authors. Apologies about the label remnants on one cover though.

Out of these two covers, the one on the left is more well-designed. This is because it includes intriguing visual storytelling (a helicopter flying away from an exploding building) and it also includes an orange/blue colour scheme that is reminiscent of posters for modern Hollywood action movies. The slightly tilted perspective also implies movement and action, as if the viewer has been knocked down by the force of the explosion. This cover unambiguously tells potential readers “this novel is like an action movie!“.

On the other hand, although the cover on the right includes some beautiful high-contrast lighting and a gorgeous black/gold colour scheme – it isn’t very well-designed. Why? It doesn’t really include much visual storytelling. It could be a historical novel. It could be a horror novel. It could be a political thriller. It could be a lot of things, but there’s nothing in the artwork that unambiguously tells the reader what to expect. Only the mention of “adventure” in the small text at the top and bottom of the cover clues the audience into the fact that it is an action/thriller novel.

So, cover art can teach us a lot about the importance of visual storytelling in art. It can teach us about how the most interesting pieces of art are ones where something is happening and/or which look like they could be a single frame taken from the middle of a film or a cartoon or something like that.

This doesn’t mean that your art has to include lots of explosions or fighting or whatever, but it should hint at some kind of story. And, if you think that this is a modern thing, it really isn’t. Historical paintings will often include lots of visual storytelling.

For example, here’s a painting by one of my favourite 18th Century painters, Joseph Wright of Derby:

“The Orrery” (c. 1766) By Joseph Wright of Derby [Via Wikimedia Commons]

Although this painting doesn’t include any bombastic action, it contains a lot of visual storytelling. In the background, a man eagerly makes notes whilst an older man glares at him sternly. Beside him, two children stare at the brightly-lit orrery with awe-struck fascination. To the right of them, a man leans wearily on the table, deep in thought. Beside him, another man tries to say something to the older man in the background etc… There are a lot of things happening in this painting.

In addition to this, cover art can also teach us the importance of colour and lighting choices when creating mood too. During my early-mid teenage years, I used to love reading old second-hand 1970s-90s splatterpunk horror novels. Although the internet was around then, smartphones thankfully weren’t. So, if I hadn’t heard of the author before, how did I know when I’d stumbled across an interesting horror novel in a charity shop? Simple, the cover art told me:

This is a comparison between two paperback covers of novels by Clive Barker and Shaun Hutson, two great horror authors of the 1980s.

Old horror novel covers were instantly recognisable because of the colour and lighting choices. They would often feature gloomy Tenebrist lighting and they would often only include a few bold colours that stood out dramatically against the dark backgrounds. In other words, the colour and design choices literally screamHorror novel!” to any potential reader.

Good cover art in many genres will often use colours and lighting expertly to create a mood and to signal to the reader what to expect. For example, gloomy lighting and bold colours work really well on the cover of a horror novel. However, when used on a thriller novel (like the thriller novel cover I showed you earlier) or on a light-hearted romance novel, it will just bewilder and confuse potential readers. So, cover art can also teach us the importance of colour and lighting choices in art.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂


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