I was contacted a while back to create a cover for an upcoming novel by Mike Resnick, titled ‘The Master of Dreams’. I have done some covers for Mike Resnick before, so I was already familiar with his writing, which is always full of adventure, and little bit of camp, and lots of magic. All the ingredients for a really cool cover.

The story revolves around the protagonist, Raven, who keeps hopping through alternate realities, and doesn’t know why. These realities appear to fanciful depictions of storybook worlds, and in each reality he takes on a different persona fitting for that world. Be it the Wizard of Oz, A Humphrey Bogart film, or Camelot, he is always thrust into an adventure and keeps encountering the same people (albeit in different forms) as he tries to figure out why this is happening to him.

The novel begins with Raven taking his girlfriend to get a Tarot reading. The cards hold a lot of significance in the story, and I thought they would be a great vehicle by which to sell the magical narrative of the book. So most of my concept sketches began with the cards as a jumping off point.

I also wanted to play with the idea of his reality being a bit fluid, and capture the sense of a storybook land. So I tried to make the background look like a stage set for a play… something that is not quite real, and ever-changing. I also felt that by making that stage set crumble away, I could use some interesting textures that matched the often gritty texture of the story.

The client settled on sketch #1, and I was then tasked with refining the image to a finish, which I typically do with the help of photographic reference. Up until this point, I’d been sketching purely from imagination so that I don’t get too restricted by ‘accuracy’ when I’m trying to be creative.

I went ahead and hired a model through a website called www.modelmayhem.com, and was lucky to find a local model that a had a look quite similar to what I needed. I shared my sketch with him in advance so he could arrive in clothing that matched the sketch as close as possible… which was surprisingly accurate. I set up a simple backdrop in my garage, and took as many photos as I needed to help facilitate a more accurate final drawing. In addition to the whole pose, I also take lots of detail shots of things like faces, hands and props that I can later mix and match to suit my needs. I also shot some of the poses from the unused sketches, just in case. The model did a sensational job capturing the poses I was going for, and made my job so much easier!

With reference in hand, I then begin redrawing my concept directly onto my painting surface, which in this case was primed illustration board, approximately 16×20 inches in size.

I knew the tarot cards were going to be a particularly difficult task to paint, as fine line work is really challenging in oil paint, especially at such a small scale. Because of this, I decided to “draw” the cards as finely detailed as I could in ink first, and then just wash transparent color over them so as to preserve the drawing and details. In order to do this, I first drew the cards in real life, at actual size. Rather than just photographing real tarot cards, I wanted to draw them because I wanted to modify the Major Arcana cards to match the story. The ‘Lion’ card could be the Lion from the Wizard of Oz, the ‘Hermit’ card could be Humphrey Bogart, and Merlin could be the ‘Magician’ card, etc.

I scanned my drawings and distorted them in Photoshop to match my sketch. I then printed them out on a Laser Printer and used a commonly know trick called an ‘Acetone Transfer’ to transfer this drawing directly to my board without the need of re-drawing them, which would be really tedious and really difficult to do in such an extreme perspective. The transfers never come out flawlessly, so they take a little fine tuning to refine them, but that’s a simple task by comparison. You can read more about the transfer process here: http://www.muddycolors.com/2018/09/how-to-do-acetone-transfers/

With the tarot cards transferred, my underdrawing is complete. I can then seal the drawing with a workable spray fixative to avoid smudging, and begin the long process of oil painting the image.

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