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4 Comic Cover Art and Composition Hacks

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

"You can't judge a book by its cover."

For people, sure. For an actual, real-life book, however? Wrong-o!

As a side note, you're going to hear this joke in every video I share with you in this blog post. This was only the first time of many. You're welcome.

So, as I draw closer to finishing the first chapter of my comic (almost there. Seriously, so close), I started thinking about cover art and promotional pieces. That led me down a YouTube Tutorial rabbit hole!

I found that there are two branches of thought you need to follow when planning a piece of cover art. First, you must be familiar with the rules of composition. Second, you must have a very good grasp of your story before attempting to jump into creating a cover for it. (Which you should have if you've been spending all of your spare time living and working in this imaginary world that you have created.)

Below you'll find the four points I've found to be the most useful as I've moved forward into this endeavor.

1. Rule of Thirds

Wikipedia defines the rule of thirds as:

"...guideline which applies to the process of composing visual images such as designs, films, paintings, and photographs.[1] The guideline proposes that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.[2] Proponents of the technique claim that aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject."

However, if like me, you space out during long-winded definitions, here's a little visual for you. This is the piece in its initial (and very rough) stages. I've got in motion with the rule of thirds grid applied to it. (For those of you who notice that the lines and their spacing aren't perfect, cut me a break, I used Microsoft Paint. Hah.)

cover compistion, rule of thirds

You can see that the main elements in the piece are placed over the areas where the lines intersect. This is a common composition tool artists use to create more visual interest in their pieces and to draw the viewer's eye more seamlessly and naturally through the elements of their work.

For more on the rule of thirds, take a moment to watch this McKay and Gray vid that I have been referencing for myself all weekend. :)

2. Asymmetry

Asymmetry is a tool similar to the rule of thirds. Generally, if you're using the rule of thirds, you're going to avoid symmetry syndrome. I know some people, particularly young artists, find it hard to avoid making everything symmetrical. Some brains are just wired to prefer the perfectly symmetrical.

However, symmetry can most often be equated to boring when it comes to creating dynamic visual pieces.

That's exactly what you don't want to do to your artwork's viewers!

Instead, think about nature. Very rarely will you find something perfectly symmetrical in nature. Even our faces and bodies, which look deceptively symmetrical, are not. For example, you may only have a dimple on one side of your face, or one eye might crinkle at the corners slightly more than the other when you smile. Look at trees, they aren't even deceptively symmetrical, they're just flat out asymmetrical. And, personally, I find nothing quite as beautiful as the organic shapes created by the negative spaces in tree branches. But, I won't wax on about that. (I really do love those negative spaces in tree branches.)

Photo by Sirma Krusteva on Unsplash

If you're an artist that struggles with escaping symmetry syndrome, try drawing a line across the center of your canvas or paper top to bottom, left to right. Like this.

symmetry lines

And then make sure, no matter which way you are to fold your drawing, the sides don't match up when pressed face-to-face together.

3. Study the Genre

This point is pretty simple. Know your genre. What kind of story are you creating? Is it a sci-fi adventure story?

Is it a romance?

Is it a mystery?

Maybe it's an epic fantasy adventure?

Whatever it is, find published works in the genre, and ask yourself:

What is the common color pallet? Are there common poses or other elements in the designs across the covers? Your goal here is to make the type of story you're sharing recognizable, without copying. Please note, plagiarism is never okay. This is merely an exercise in studying your intended genre.

My Mangaka LIFE talks more about this here.

4. Identify the Key Elements of Your Story

This point has the potential to be the most difficult or the easiest. The best advice I can give you here is not to overthink it, especially if you have an epic of some kind in the works. I'm going to reference that McKay and Gray video again here because Ursula does a really great job explaining this.

I broke down my elements as follows, main characters, setting, and important story element, i.e. flower (this is actually cropped out of the image.)

Image story elements

One of the biggest takeaways you should get from Ursula's video is that people tend to pick up stories with covers that have characters on them. As social beings, we are moved by emotions. Creatures that look similar to us trigger empathic responses. So, skip putting that single sword on the cover and show your audience the knight conquering her nightmares, or falling in love, or whatever!

As always, I'm available to take any of your art related questions on Instagram @msrmcgaughey or Facebook @ArtbyMSRM.

Keep creating, friends!

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