Guest Post: Jake Murray on creating the cover for Macaque Attack


Hello readers! My name is Jake Murray, and I illustrated the covers for Gareth L. Powell’s Ack-Ack Macaque, Hive Monkey, and Macaque Attack. With the release of Macaque Attack Solaris Books asked me to pen a guest article exploring the creation process behind the book’s cover. Not being one to dismiss the opportunity to ramble on about my work, I happily agreed. Working on the Ack-Ack Macaque series has been one of the great joys of my career so far, and I hope that sharing some of the “behind-the-scenes” process will pass a bit of inspiration on. So, without further ado, let’s go!

            After wrapping up the art for Hive Monkey last year, I was told that there would be a third Ack-Ack Macaque adventure on the horizon, and was excited to find out what our crass, ninja-slaying monkey would be up to next. I soon received the commission for Macaque Attack, and after reading the brief, immediately knew it would be the most epic vision of the character we’d seen yet!

            In the world of book cover illustration, there can be a lot of variance between commission requirements. Sometimes the publishing team and author have fairly specific ideas of what they’d like to see on the cover. At other times, it’s up to the illustrator to pinpoint what he/she thinks would be a compelling part of the narrative to showcase. With Macaque Attack, Gareth already had some ideas in mind of what the cover should be, so my job was primarily to take those ideas and try to make them as visually explosive as possible.

            The general focus of this book’s cover would be our herioc monkey leading his ragtag army of apes into battle on Mars – which is the kind of awesome thing that every sci-fi illustrator dreams of at night. Gareth had suggested a few different ways of how we might show that, from more literal depictions of an army in battle, to more conceptual ideas reminiscent of old Soviet space propaganda posters. In any case, the image would need to be unique and exciting, but still carry the same feeling of adventure and intrigue as the previous two books.

            Whenever I get the opportunity to create a series of book covers, I try to imagine what each book would look like sitting next to each other on a shelf. How will a reader be able to to tell that the books all go together and yet be able to quickly distinguish each one from the others? With Ack-Ack Macaque and Hive Monkey, I had established a precedent for showing the main character’s full figure, which could be used in this new cover to create visual continuity. The way I would distinguish it from the others, however, is with color. Each of the two previous covers had made use of a particular primary color (the first one being yellow, and the second one pale blue). Since the focus of the Macaque Attack cover would be Mars and battle, it seemed a perfect solution to limit the color palette to browns and reds.

            After submitting sketches to the publishing team, it was decided that the “Soviet poster” concept (concept “C” in the image above) would be the way to go. The team felt it had enough action mixed with just the right amount of quirkiness to help it feel at home with the previous two books. From there I set out to gather and photograph all of the reference imagery I would need to execute the painting.

            When painting anything that needs to look real or semi-real, good visual reference is an absolute necessity. I mean, a good still-life artist doesn’t just paint an orange sitting on a table out of his head, right? He actually looks at an orange sitting on a table! So too is it with even the most fantastical images. Of course, I don’t actually have a macaque that I can dress up – and if I did, I certainly wouldn’t give him a gun. But there is an abundance of animal photography on the internet that helps me figure out what the character should look like, and I can also create and photograph various people and objects to approximate everything that should be in the painting.

            One tool I make use of for painting fantastical creatures is called a “maquette,” which is basically just a fancy word for a small-scale sculpture. For the Ack-Ack Macaque cover, I sculpted a miniature head for the character which I’ve been able to use for each cover in the series. Because the maquette exists in the physical world, I can pose it and light it any way I want and it will still look like the same character in the end, as long as I’ve drawn and painted what I’m seeing correctly. This is especially important when painting multiple cover images of the same character. Ack-Ack Macaque has to look like Ack-Ack Macaque! So having a real-world physical representation of the character to look at is extremely helpful.

            In addition to the maquette, I also photograph a costumed live model (in this case, myself) for pose and lighting reference. Since monkeys and humans are built pretty similarly, it would only take some adjusting of proportions (and hairiness) to transform myself into a whole army of animals. Even if I don’t have the exact items I plan to paint (my studio is sadly lacking in miniguns), I can use other household items to stand in for them and see how they affect the light and shadow of the scene. It’s basically like playing pretend in front of a camera.

            Once I have all of my reference material assembled, it’s time to begin work on the final painting. I use a program called Painter 12 from Corel and a Wacom digitizing tablet to create most of my art. Though completely digital, these tools really allow me to take a traditional painter’s approach, with the added bonus of the “undo” command. The final art is created at about 250% the size of the final printed image. This ensures that it will look detailed and crisp when it is reduced to print size.

            Typically I start with a detailed priliminary drawing in black and white. It allows me to really figure everything out up front so that when it’s time to put color down, I won’t be grappling with any added difficulties of form and perspective. Having a solid drawing in black and white creates a road map for your painting – as long as you follow it, you can be pretty well assured that the painting will come out solid as well.

            When the preliminary drawing has been approved, I go to town painting. I start with a transparent block-in of color over my drawing to establish the overall relationships, not worrying about details. From there, I set out painting opaquely each area to completion, usually starting in the background and working my way forward. However, a lot can happen throughout the painting process, and every decision you make about a color or paint stroke will determine every following decision. Sometimes you can end up painting something early on that you won’t realize is “wrong” until you’ve finished painting everything else around it. So there can be a lot of back-and-forth in the process as well.

            After roughly 30 hours of painting and repainting, I’m happy to call the piece done and email it out to the publisher for final review. If everything looks good to them, then my work is done!

            And that’s how a book cover evolves from a typed email to a full-color image! Though the overall process is basically the same with every commission, each piece presents its own unique artistic challenges. Solving these visual problems and telling compelling stories is what I live for as an illustrator, and I can only hope that the solutions I come up with will inspire others to do the same!

Thanks for reading!

You can find more of Jake’s art at his website (including prints to purchase):

Macaque Attack by Gareth L Powell is out now! Click the navigation tags at the top of the page for more information and related posts.