Hey everyone. A while ago the awesome folks at Go Media asked me if I was interested in writing a tutorial/case study. I was absolutely honored by the inquiry so I obviously took the opportunity.
The result of the case study and tutorial is this post. With it I will give you some insight in one of my recent projects, as well as a tutorial on how I made the concepts that pass along in this article.
So, who am I? I am Maarten Kleyne, a freelance graphic designer from the Netherlands who specializes in design for music. If you went to the Weapons of Mass Creation Fest earlier this year, which Go Media/Jeff Finley hosted, you might have seen some of my work at the design show. I was one of the proud designers who had their work exhibited at the Wall Eye Gallery during this incredible festival.
For this article I chose to dive completely into the album design project I did for Irish artist Andrew Danso and his newest EP named ‘f i n d‘. Here’s a preview of the final design:
When Go Media asked me to do this I was pondering over which project might be the best fit for such an article as this. After some thinking I decided to use Andrew’s project because it was, as you may notice during this read, not a very typical client project. There’s quite a story behind its process, so I thought that would be interesting. Because of the nature of this project I am also able to show you how we (Andrew and I) went at it from start to finish. This article contains the occasional quote from conversations between Andrew and me in order to show you why we made certain decisions as the project progressed.
How it started
Back in February 2010 Andrew Danso contacted me about his second solo-album project which he had planned. He asked me to do the artwork for it. A little more background detail: I had already done the design work of his first solo-album and his band’s (/Tera’s) debut-album prior to this project. So we were quite familiar with each other when we started it. This project started out with the name Blue2, which was a reference to Andrew’s first solo-album named: Blue Hat Thinking.
“Blue2 is me getting away from everything, and especially the buildup of me leaving my home country to live elsewhere. It’s also about me getting away from the political and social loathing of Tera. I’ve even got away from my Metal influences, looking more toward the other genres that I love (electronic music, jazz, avant-garde etc). The EP is made up of 9 tracks, which reflect different themes that I’ve been killing myself to do for a long time. The EP revolves around many themes, but I don’t want it to rest on one genre, or one theme. I want it to reflect many themes, and other types of music I would’ve rejected perhaps a year ago. Most of all, I want the EP to reflect a sort of appreciation of art, and how much more open minded I’ve become over this year in particular.”
In terms of artwork, Andrew gave me a free pass to do whatever came about in my mind based on his explanation and some more details. A few days later I presented the near-final concept to him. I will keep this shorter because we ended up revamping the entire thing a year later. Here’s that concept I made for Blue2:
With this artwork I reflected the feelings of leaving for good, being free and more accepting of rejections from the past. There’s some more aspects, but like I said: I’m keeping this one short. In this cover I highlighted a new start and the path towards a brighter self. I also tried to reflect the part of appreciation and being more open minded; the acceptation of past denials.
I visualized that with the visage on the front cover, the man with his arms spread open embracing his new future image. Evidently the EP sets a more dramatic mood, both that and the actual title of the EP made me go for the color usage as it is.
Reinitiating the project
A year had passed.
In the meantime, Andrew Danso and his project had been through a whole bunch of changes. Because the story had changed over time we felt that the EP had outgrown its artwork. In a cover design I strive for a solid visual interpretation of the story, which was not the case anymore due to the shifting of ideas. So we decided to revamp the entire artwork to match the new story of the EP.
Before I start showing some actual images, I’d like to show you how the concept phase went. It mostly consisted of conversations, brainstorms, sketching thoughts and whatnot – you know, the dry (yet important) stuff. If you bear with me, this will give you some true insight into the “Why?” on which I later on based my design choices, arguably the most important role of the designer.
“I guess I’d give you a much more concrete idea of what I think the EP is about now, but I’d also want you to make it feel about something personal too; for you to go on your own journey when listening to the music and relate those thoughts into the cover design.”
However, instead of roaming free I suggested we’d collaborate closely on forming the new album design. Andrew told me he had always wondered how I went about creating my designs, so I figured this would be a great opportunity for him to see up close and personal. Firstly I asked Andrew to elaborate on that idea of what the EP is about.
“There is no big vision. There is no grand story pulling all of this together. There is no schematic background. It’s a little record on a collection of ideas. The ideas themselves have their own backgrounds. The two themes that reoccur throughout the EP are something moving away and coming back.”
He also provided me with detailed background stories on each track. Most of it was quite moody and perhaps even sentimental. All together it explained something of a two-part journey. Aside from his thoughts I asked Andrew if he could give me some rough versions of the tracks he had so far, so I could truly experience the mood of this EP. Most of the tracks were experiments, embedded in those various genres which Blue2 started out with. The whole vibe contained several mood swings.
I decided to make some sound sketches on paper to visualize those moods. That’s not something I usually do but I wanted to make sure I’d catch the right vibe, tempo and atmosphere so I wouldn’t create something out of place. (For example: a crowded and heavy design opposed to relaxing and calm music.)
He gave me 3 tracks which defined the entire outlines of the EP. I listened to those tracks and started drawing simple figures based upon the tempo, volume, instruments and overall sound. Like figurative visualizations of those tracks.
My notes to Andrew about these sketches:
“As you can see they mostly are pretty calm and relaxing, which I think your music is as well. My conclusion would be that a crowded heavy album design would be out of place. Considering the sample tracks I think we should go for a more relaxing/calm cover (in its overall presence). I do think we should strike a moody nerve, because I think that fits the big picture best…
•…I want to give it a serene vibe with a moody color palette. I have made a mood board according to these two terms.
•I’m thinking of creating a feeling of nature, much like some of the pieces on the mood boards. Only then I will create the entire imagery myself using several photographic materials. Afterwards I will give it this serene and moody coloring. I feel that it would fit the relaxing vibe of the music and the dramatic essence, however small that may be, of the story.”
Mood board #1
Mood board #2
Andrew Danso also sent me a heap of cover designs he personally liked, here’s a few:
During the concept phase I constantly shared my thoughts with Andrew about how I interpreted the music and story. He would then reply to that, which totally made me grow into his story. I actually made a few mind maps with terms that I felt related to all revolving Andrew’s music and story. At one point Andrew told me the extensive concept phase resulted in a better understanding of his own EP for him. That was very interesting and it felt quite nice; that the way we handled things resulted in a better understanding on both ends. On another note, it also made him decide to rename his EP.
“…trying to explain the EP as best I can. It’s actually been very useful to figure all of this out.
I have been thinking of renaming the project. I’m not sure how the Blue² title really relates with the current material now. Initially it was supposed to represent a continuation on from Blue Hat Thinking, along with the colour representing calm, and a kind of placidity, as the album isn’t grounded in anything metal. But now, since the vision has changed, I’m going to try and go with something more relevant. Something perhaps relating to a journey. Anyway, I’m still figuring this out.”
“Setting a great title is hard, I can imagine. Perhaps you should make a mind map yourself as well. Write down EP in the centre and start adding words around it which come to mind when you think of the EP, make sure to do it unrestrained. Just write down anything, even if your feeling says it’s irrelevant and makes you refrain from writing it down. Just let it flow. When you’re down try associating words together with the same relevance and I’m sure you will come up with something good inspiration wise. (It’s just a technique, but of course there are many more and I don’t know which work for you.) I will be doing the same for the design process.”
“I’ve definitely learned tons about the EP, and in that, even a little more about myself. It’s been a really valuable, and exploratory experience.”
So somewhere along the road Andrew had decided to change the EP title to: f i n d.
“I’m going to call the project/EP “Find”. I think it suits the ethos of the entire piece. I figured out earlier that a lot of what I’ve done has been a catharsis of sorts, and that my head has been at a different place over the past year, trying to discover and adapt with change.”
Here are some font explorations I tried with that new title:
And a little how-to
Time for some action, don’t you think? With the concept phase behind us, I finally started designing. My traditional drawing skills are very poor, so I’m afraid I have no pencil sketches I can show you. At this point I dove into Photoshop and went ballistic.
In a bit I will show you, step-by-step, how I made this concept. But first here’s the final image of that and some explanation behind it to start with:
I set the atmosphere of this concept out to be incredibly dark. (Which would bite me in the ass later on.) I tried filling it with dread and horror, making it feel very hallowed. This concept was mostly based on the mood boards I made earlier on and the following terms: searching, experimenting, moody and striking. Because the EP contains a lot of experimenting and ‘searching’ I used a kid image in this concept. I feel that as a kid you’re always busy adventuring, searching for interesting things and experimenting. I emphasized that feeling with a dark house in the woods, which would be a true adventure to a kid. Do I dare to go in or not? There was more to it connecting it to the concept phase, even a metaphor of sorts, but I’ll keep it at this.
Now I’ll show you the step-by-step process this concept went through. If you want to experiment with me you’ll need to following things:
- A computer/laptop with Photoshop (obviously)
- A decent amount of various source/stock images
Start by making a selection of the various source/stock images you’ve gathered for your concept. (Always have back-up subject images, in case the ones you plan to use don’t work out during the process.) Fire up Photoshop and create a new document on 300DPI and the desired canvas size. (The canvas of my document was: 13 x 13 cm on 300DPI.)
This might be a no-brainer; but make sure that the source material you’ve selected is large enough for use on the canvas you’ve selected. The following stock photographs were the 2 core images I used, alongside a bunch of others from which I picked minor details (such as the trees and bushes):
Add the core subjects to your canvas and create the base composition. In this case: remove all the saturation from the images and work on a sketch look (low transparency). We’ll heavily bump up the contrast on all of this later on. Place the subjects on separate layers and give those the blending modes: soft light, screen and/or multiply. Also add a layer with shades of grey underneath (on multiply as well).
Add more of those layers with shades of grey (try experimenting with the transparency levels as well) underneath the subject layers. This way we build up the contrast. At this point I still kept the area of the boy rather highlighted.
Work more on the darker parts/shades to dramatize the lightening on the scene. (The true light fall will come later on.) Also add some shadow to the corners to add a vignette kind-of effect, to draw the eye more inwards. I also lessened the highlighted area around the boy a bit by adding more shade to the outer parts of that glow.
As you may notice this entire piece falls or stands with the lightening/shading. Which is why I’m still working with black and white at this stage. You can do all this with black and white brushwork on separate layers, experiment with blending modes and opacities.
Try to keep a keen eye on the depth aspect. If you have a look outside you will see that the farther something is the more blue-ish/vague it becomes. So: depth, keep an eye on it. Compare it with a view outside if you must, I personally think that’s an easy method. The point is to make it feel ‘natural’ so that the viewer might actually believe it. Even if you’re creating an abstract or surrealistic piece, try to make sure that the depth of the image is believable.
I added more bushes to the left bottom corner and house to fill it out more. I also amplified the vignette effect slightly.
Now go dark. Add the adjustment layer ‘solid color’ to your document using a dark grey color, such as: #404040. Place this layer on top of all the others with the blending mode: overlay. Duplicate this layer and set transparencies to 50% and 80%. All the shading and highlighting we did before will come back later, so don’t worry. (Suggestion: try experimenting with different transparency levels.)
Go even darker. (Yes, even more.) Add the adjustment layer Black & White on top. Set it to: high contrast blue filter. Be sure to check if this still works out for you once you start coloring the artwork. Also add the adjustment layer ‘Brightness/Contrast’ with the values: -15 and -20. Which pushes back the lighter areas and makes them feel more natural (or ‘nightly’ in this case).
Let’s add that dramatic light fall. Draw some soft white and light grey brushstrokes from the top right towards the roof of the house and a bit over the centre of the scene. Use gaussian blur to soften the effect and make it look like fog. Set the layer’s blending mode to overlay with an opacity of 40%. Duplicate the layer or simply create another one to emphasize the effect.
So, the composition and lightening are solid. Now let’s add color. For this concept I wanted to create this incredibly dark atmosphere. So I chose to use colors matching that and the mood boards I had made before. In my mind these had to be darker shades of green and blue. Here are the mood boards again for easy reference:
There are various techniques which you can use to add color. I will show you a mixture I regularly use when working with a black and white start. First add the shades of green to form the foundation, we’re going to build up on that green base. I added the following gradient twice with the blending modes normal and overlay and opacities 15%/30%. Focus the gradient on the composition/subjects on your canvas.
Some color codes I used which you can try: #facb61 (yellow), #587153 (mid-level green) and #112120 (dark green/blue).
Then I added some grungy textures with low opacity blending modes on multiply and soft light. These textures also contained matching greenish and yellowish colors. This resulted in the following:
(A proper texture you could use for yellow is this one. Use it on a low opacity with the blending mode: multiply.)
So that’s way too green, right? Compared with the mood boards it is. So let’s draw that more towards a blue tint. To do so, add the adjustment layer photo filter set to cooling filter (82) with a density of 25%. (Blending mode overlay on 30% opacity.) This also boosts the contrast, makes the image less pale and the blue of this filter enhances the actual feeling of the sky in this image (because it mostly alters the green levels we have there).
You might think this isn’t going to cut it, because it doesn’t feel right yet. That’s because I only needed these colors to form a base upon which I was going to continue the rest of my coloring. So at this point they are just that: a starting base so we can start creating the right mood.
I brought in one of my favorite adjustment layers, one which can completely alter the vibe of an image. A tool which you can use to quickly adjust the colors of any image. Add the adjustment layer: color balance.
Experiment with the various tones of the shadows, midtones and highlights. Adjust them until you find a color scheme to your liking. This is a very powerful adjustment layer in my opinion and I highly recommend experimenting with this in various artworks.
In this case I had set the following values:
Now that’s more like it (more natural feeling). Again, I kept the mood boards as a reference point. At this point I still felt that something was missing, something truly striking. So it’s time to add the true drama, time to work with reds and oranges. To be more specific: we’re going to work on the boy and his highlighted area, because that’s the main subject of this scene and the only thing we can enhance. (Also, the dirty yellow area around the boy simply felt wrong and out of place to me.)
You can brush on layers set to multiply and/or soft light with lowered opacity. You can also use textures or water color images containing red, yellow and orange colors. If the edges of those source images are too rough you can use Gaussian blur on them for a better color flow. Use any technique you prefer.
Here’s how my brush work looked on 2 layers, which I then set to multiply:
What I did there resulted in the final version of this concept:
I hope you learned a thing or two from these few steps. To summarize the core steps involved: brushing, highlighting/shading, using the blending modes of layers, using the opacity function and the adjustment layers. As you can see, the lack of traditional drawing skills doesn’t matter in my case, you can build up an artwork using images solely for their subjects form. Creating a scene with a sketch look and work its lightening plus coloring from scratch.
End of tutorial #1
OK, so now we have this dark concept. Earlier on in this article I told you this would bite me in the ass. Here’s what followed:
“In contrast the music on the EP feels quite different. It feels relatively spacious, and calm. It feels brighter. Maybe my ideas come across dark, and complicated, but the end result seems to be something quite colourful. I’m ultimately not sure if this image fits with the sound. It might reflect some of the darker feelings I’ve felt over doing the EP, but I don’t think this is a dark record. I suppose as dark as moody goes in my eyes. Don’t get me wrong; I think this an awesome piece of art. It reminds me a lot of a metal or rock cover, as most of these bands are usually airing negative sentiments. Something Katatonia, or Opeth would vein in.”
“I do agree that I set out to make it calm and spacious. I tried to reflect that in the mist and natural vibe of the design. Anyway, it may be a good design but if it isn’t fitting, it’s nothing more than that. I think I focused a bit too much on your darker perspective over the entire past year.”
So we went for a second concept. This time I weighed more heavily on the terms: calm, spacious and colorful. Yet still quite moody and with a twisted atmosphere. I thought the boy concept quite fitting so I kept that intact. Which resulted in this:
Before I dive into some tutorial details, again, here’s what followed:
“Yeah, that concept is beautiful. I think it relates to the musical idea of the EP nicely. It’s got a huge ambience about it, it feels bright, and distant. To me it’s almost existential in a way, with the boy traversing in such a grand landscape. The radiance or flurry of light surrounding the boy says to me some kind of empowerment. The colours feel powerful too. They’re really striking, as I had to peel my eyes a few times before I could understand the colour scheme. On hindsight, that kind of said some sort of awakening to me – I’m not even sure you were trying to make this point, but nonetheless, it’s a beautifully subtle one. Metaphorically it says a huge amount, to be so brightly lit amongst a barren landscape.
But then, I’m wondering why I felt doubtful toward the image. I’m not sure why I can’t really get to grips with the art, but something in me keeps nagging. Is it the boy? Is it the distance? On the other hand, is it the power? Is the image too dramatic? Is it the colours? Ultimately, why didn’t it feel right? I think I’m looking for something less on Find, I’m sorry about this.”
While discussing these first two concepts Andrew Danso shifted towards a favor for macro imagery. Some more conversation and reconsiderations came to pass in the meantime. Eventually we decided to drop the chosen subject and move on to a more abstract macro concept, mainly because he wasn’t completely feeling this second concept either. Here’s a part of our conversations in which he supports that macro thought:
“…I kept looking at the leaves, flowers, shrubbery even just the greenery itself and I was thinking that shots like these would somehow encapsulate my ideas. I’ve only realized now, that I keep thinking of a macro shot for the EP’s cover (and thank you so much for getting me to this point). The reason for this, is that the small details of macro photography tend to reveal a bigger picture – and I think this says tons about the EP. It’s so simplistic, and close.”
I created this concept the same way I created the previous one, I applied the same techniques and workflow here. Considering there’s not much difference between the workflow on both concepts, I will simply show you the parts which were slightly different, parts which I think could interest you.
(Fire up Photoshop and create a new document on 300DPI with a canvas of: 13 x 13 cm. Add the core subjects to your canvas and create the base composition. Again: remove all the saturation from the images and work on a sketch look (low transparency.)
Here’s the build-up of my composition from scratch:
OK, so now we have the rough concept sketch. What’s different in this image are the rays surrounding the boy, with which I tried to empower the boy and focus. I will show you how I built that up. My buddy and fellow designer Michael Ostermann once gave me a set of wired images he made with a vibrating pen (yeah those old school things) which I used to create the rays. Here are a few examples of the ones I had chosen to manipulate.
I started cutting out a bunch of the wires from these images and inverting them to white, then I started adding them to my image. The first thing I did with these wires was creating something of a halo effect around the boy’s head.
Then I added some the left and right sides of his body:
Followed by some main wires surrounding the boy entirely:
I added all of these wires in circular forms to truly ‘surround’ the boy. So the head contains a small circle of wires, the torso a wider circle of wires and the entire body is surrounded by another larger circle of wires. By doing so they make the boy radiate, as if this ‘flurry of light’ is emitted from him.
Here’s how my layer palette looked like after merging the single wires together in groups:
As you can see I also used some layer masks, which I used to erase some unwanted parts.
The final coloring of this piece differs quite a bit from the first concept. I did however use similar techniques to achieve it. I will skip the ‘in depth’ part of that process on this one, I will however show you my layer setup and the individual settings of the adjustment layers I used.
I started by creating a minor yellow highlight for the focal point (you can use this texture for that if you like):
Followed by green, red and brown for the overall vibe (by using a gradient map and adding some brush work):
Which I then bumped up some more (by using more gradient maps):
That was followed by the true change of colors to something less ‘sickly green’ (by using the marvelous color balance adjustment layer):
The last thing I did was a very subtle contrast adjustment (by adding a Black & White adjustment layer):
Here’s my final layer setup for the color process:
End of tutorial #2
Like I said earlier on in this post, I developed these concepts in a similar way which was explained with the dark concept. In a nutshell, I made the basis and composition in black and white, switching to coloring only when I felt their core was fitting to the concept. That also applies to the final concept (which I will show you in a bit). I am telling you this now because the final concept does not include any tutorial steps. Because it’s the actual EP design I want to keep that more ‘closed’, even though that’s slightly ridiculous since I worked on it in the same way.
The album artwork as it is
For this part I will mostly use images of the artwork guided by quotes from our conversations about those designs.
In this final album design I kept to the color scheme of the second concept and visualized the abstract macro thought we worked on. There’s a whole bunch of hints to elements of nature in this cover, like leafs and their veins (like in the upper right corner).
I decided to approach a natural feeling and underline the spaced and progressive feeling of this EP with an overall minimalistic vibe. The logotype I created of Andrew’s initials are also shaped like a rock to support that natural vibe, which fell in good taste with Andrew:
“Man, that’s gorgeous. Just seen the update a few minutes back. I need some time to digest it, but this is absolutely fantastic! Thank you so much. I’ll get back to you with a more fitting response, once I can get past my “wow” factor.”
A few days later:
“That front panel is lovely. The logo sits great. The macro shot fits wonderfully. The whole thing “feels” like something to me. As if it is tangible, like something I can touch – that’s what hit me hardest about it. It must be the colour combination, natural aesthetic, and the textures creating this sensation. It’s as if the cover is being archaeologically dug out of the ground to a degree, and dust is blowing off the surface, revealing its meaning. Metaphorically this is amazingl. It jigs with the whole meaning of “find” really well.”
I reflected the two-part journey – which was mentioned in the concept phase – by the specific coloring of the interior and exterior as opposed to each other. The darker interior was only partially based on concept, there was also a practical function to it: readability of the text elements.
“…darker in colors to increase the visibility of the texts. I figured, because it is the interior, it makes sense to go a bit darker when you open it. Like your literally looking at the inside, the ground, of something.”
“I do get that ground, looking inside vibe you’ve thought off, and I’m loving it. Cheers man!”
Andrew Danso had chosen to release this EP as a slim case, so with the exterior and interior artwork complete all that rested was the CD label for the actual disc.
“The CD label, I don’t really have much ideas here. A smaller leaf might be lovely here, even just water might be beautiful. I’m not sure, but I trust you. If you have a specific idea here, feel free.”
“For the CD label I figured it would be cool to add the interior background to it. When you first open the case you’ll see the exterior and the CD label which then hints to the interior. It gives you that top-bottom (ground) feeling I was looking for in one instant.”
“Man, this is beautiful, thanks. I wasn’t sure what to expect regarding the CD design, but what you’ve done here is completely logical and very fitting. Yeah, I fully agree about the top bottom feeling which you described; what you’ve produced certainly carries that effect.”
With all this you should have quite some insight in the progression of this project and how I created the concepts. Now here’s some more photographic material of the physical release followed by some final notes:
Thank you for your time
So that was about it. I hope you enjoyed this case study and I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read it. It was rather long, but I felt that none of it was unnecessary. Feel free to let me know what you think of it, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Finally, I would like to thank Go Media and the GoMediaZine editors for providing me with this incredible opportunity. Simon, Jeff, Jon and Adam: thanks a bunch guys, you rock!