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Behind the Scenes: Creating a Book Cover with Collage

How I created my book cover for The Waves by Virginia Woolf in collage and mixed media.

An illustration of a pencil drawn arm holding a lantern over the sea. This is a section of an illustrated book cover created by Nicola Ellen Illustration of The Waves by Virginia Woolf.

Hello again! I am currently working on a big project that has been interfering with my blog writing time, so currently these aren't quite as fortnightly as I'd like! But I'm here and this week I want to share with you how I created a book cover with collage! Mixing media is my favourite way to create and it makes putting a project together so much fun as you can literally see the illustration come together with each piece you add! SO.MUCH.FUN!

So here we go, how do I go about creating a book cover with collage...

This was a personal project that I felt inspired to make after reading The Waves by Virginia Woolf. For those who have not read the book, this is about the passing of time for a group of young children as the book follows them through each stage of life, right to the end of their life. At the start of each chapter in their life, Woolf starts with a poetic passage about each stage in relation to the rising of the sun. It is a beautifully written book and you really feel immersed in nature as you read through the book.

' if the arm of a woman couched behind the horizon had raised a lamp and flat bars of white, green and yellow spread across the sky like the blades of a fan.'

This particular description struck a chord with me and the image I wanted to create came instantly to mind. This isn't how every illustration starts, but occasionally it does happen and it's great!

How I prepared for the final illustration (the gathering inspiration part!)

I had a vision of how it would look and I knew I wanted the arm and the cliff to be drawn in pencil. The arm and lantern would be loosely placed to have shadow and I would be using my signature colour oil pastel of turquoise!

I draw from life A LOT. It is the best way to ensure that things look correct and make them look believable. So I had my partner photograph my arm with a bucket in my hand (I don't have an antique lantern to hold unfortunately!) and using this as reference, I drew the arm and hand.

In the last couple of years, we have visited the North Yorkshire coast fairly regularly, so coastal cliffs at Saltburn and Whitby are often the focus of my sketches. So they supplied great information for when I drew the cliff.

Where would I find an old lantern to draw from though? Well inspiration strikes in the most interesting of places sometimes (especially when we aren't looking for it!). Imagine my delight when we went to explore the wonderful Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet in Sheffield and there is a beautifully intact lantern hanging in the Counting House - and it just so happens to be the correct age to match up with the book. Out came my sketchbook and I was able to get down all the details needed to draw this again back at my desk and turn it into the centrepiece of my illustration.

Sketches of an old lantern at Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet by Nicola Ellen Illustration. These sketches were used to inform part of the final book cover illustration created for The Waves by Virginia Woolf.

Creating the illustration with mixed media

The arm and cliff were both drawn in pencil. I loved creating the depth and texture with pencil lines. The bulb of the lantern was drawn in yellow posca pen.

The fans of the sunlight were painted with white acrylic paint and yellow and green posca pen.

The sea was coloured with my favourite turquoise oil pastel, along with some white oil pastel highlights. Blended together and contrasting nicely with the fans of sunlight. There's even an unintentional effect where the oil pastel meets the pencil where it looks like foam from waves washing up against the cliff!

I filled the page with my flat elements; the sea, cliff and sky. Then, using a tiny bit of blue tac under the shoulder, I stuck the arm to the page. I wanted there to be a shadow as I photographed this, so I didn't want the arm to be stuck flat to the page, just like they wouldn't be flat if this were a real life set up! I love the depth this adds to my illustrations and it's a trick I use a lot. Blue tac is fast becoming one of my favourite tools! Who knew?!

The complete illustration of a female arm holding a lantern from behind a cliff, over the sea. This is for a book cover design for The Waves by Virginia Woolf by Nicola Ellen Illustration.

Adding the text

Once I photographed the complete illustration, I uploaded it to my laptop to add the text. I use Scribus to do this. Scribus is not the easiest layout program to use as it's not particularly intuitive, but with some help from the Scribus help pages and google, I was able to navigate it and create what I wanted. I would normally use InDesign, however I don't use it enough to warrant paying for it. Scribus is free and a reasonable substitute - it just takes a bit of effort to make it work how you want it to!

A completed book cover design for The Waves by Virginia Woolf by Nicola Ellen Illustration. The text has been added and the layout is complete.

So there you have it! The creative process behind my favourite illustration!

I hope you found this an interesting read! One thing I love, is learning how other people create even if it's not a way that I would adopt myself - it's just so fascinating to see!!

That's all for this week. In the meantime you can join my monthly Studio Notes newsletter. You can find me on YouTube for fairly regular collage animations and I also post to Facebook, so head over to either of those to see what I’m up to between blog posts and newsletters! It’ll be good to see you there :)


My monthly newsletter, Studio Notes, is where I share with you news and behind the scenes from the studio, along with tips, discounts and freebies.

This is the only place I announce discounts for my shop and you also receive an illustrated desktop calendar with every other email too. Sound good?


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