How to Design a Book Cover

How to Design a Book Cover

By Carlyn Beccia

In publishing, a book’s cover can make or break its success. The cover is often the public’s first conversation with the book so it needs to start off with the right impression. The most difficult aspect of any book design is simply being noticed. Book covers today have to work even harder to stand out amongst crowded shelves, and to look arresting at short distances or shrunken down to thumbnail size on sites like In this tutorial, Carlyn Beccia will show you the steps she used to redesign one of her favorite childhood stories, Watership Down by Richard Adams. She uses vector art to contrast with a soft portrait of the book’s two main characters — Hazel and Bigwig. Sometimes, just adding a modern twist to a traditional painting technique can give an updated look to a classic story.

Software Used
Corel® Painter™

Hardware Used
Wacom® Pen Tablet

Watercolor Underpainting
Vector Art
Oil brushes
Impasto Effects


Step 1: Sketching a Layout

Examining the past

In successfully redesigning a book cover, it helps to understand current trends. Although it certainly has nostalgic appeal, the original book design may not be bold enough for today’s crowded bookshelf. I decided that I wanted to retain the nostalgia of the original tale while making it look more sophisticated (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: First edition cover, 1972



I first made a sketch by using pencil and paper, and then scanned it. Despite the book’s talking rabbits, Watership Down is quite a dark tale with many of its characters as ruthless as the humans that the rabbits fear. I needed elements to communicate this subconscious underworld so I chose to surround two of the main characters, Hazel and Bigwig, with thorny branches. This twisted frame of branches reminded me of the dark undergoing in the rabbit’s warren (see Figure 2).


Figure 2: The cover does not need to tell the whole story but it should pique the viewer’s curiosity


Setting tone

Nature is an important theme in Watership Down, so I wanted the background color and pencil lines to have an earthy feel. In Painter, I put the sketch on its own layer and set its Composite Method to Multiply.

Next, I used the Paint Bucket tool to fill the background with a light, yellowish brown. I created a new layer above the sketch layer and filled it with a darker brown color. I set this new layer’s Composite Method to Colorize. This will make my lines look more like brown Conté crayon (see Figure 3). Lastly, I dropped the Colorize layer and the sketch layer down to the canvas.


Figure 3: The browns will be the base color for the next step and set the tone for the subsequent paint layers.


Step 2: Creating a Watercolor Underpainting

Applying base colors

I created a new layer and selected the New Simple Water brush from the Digital Watercolor brush category. On the property bar, I changed the Opacity to 10%Grain to 100%Diffusion to 20, and Wet Fringe to 0 (see Figure 4). This creates a very soft tinting of color with some slight texture.


Figure 4: By varying the New Simple Water brush’s settings as you paint, you can create a more spontaneous-looking underpainting.


Remember that with any brush that has a Grain option, your chosen paper will determine the shape of the texture. I wanted my brush to pick up a very fine pebbled tooth, so I chose the Sandy Pastel Paper from the Paper Selector (see Figures 5 and 5b). To display the Papers panel, click Window > Paper Panels > Papers.




Figure 5 and 5b: I often work up the background colors before painting in the foreground figures.



Adding more texture

To pick up even more texture, I next chose the Sponge brush from the Sponges brush category. On the property bar, I changed the Opacity to 20% and the Grain to 20%. I then created a new layer above the Base Color layer and painted in the mottled sponge texture. Lastly, I lowered the Opacity of this layer to reduce the amount of texture (see Figure 7).


Figure 6: If you want a finer tooth in your paper, lower the paper’s scale (A). You can also control the Contrast (B) and Brightness(C) of your paper. I often vary these settings as I paint to avoid a tiled-looking texture.


Figure 7: The Sponge brush creates a mottled texture around the edges. This texture reminded me of aged paper.


Painting Grisaille figures

Next, I painted in the rabbits with soft gray tones by using the New Simple Water Brush that was used previously. I made sure to work from the outside in, keeping the edges darker. This creates more of a rounded feeling in the bodies that echoes my circular composition (see Figure 8).


Figure 8: Creating an underpainting in Grisaille (mostly gray tones) is an old master’s technique made popular in the Renaissance. This method allows you to better see your painting’s values. Get your values right and you have conquered the most difficult part of any painting.


Step 3: Creating a Vector Frame with Pattern Brushes

Creating a vector brush

Using the Pen tool on a new layer, I created a thorny branch in black (see Figure 9). If I needed to adjust the branch, I used the Shape Selection tool to adjust the points.


Figure 9: I drew the branches as vector art so that I would get a clean edge to contrast with the soft edges of the rabbit’s bodies.


Adding a masked pattern

On my branch layer, I made a selection around the branch with the Rectangular Selection tool. I made sure to get enough space at the top and bottom. This step is important if you want to avoid feathering the black portion of your masked pattern. I then clicked the Capture Pattern button in the Pattern Libraries panel. To display the panel, click Window > Media Library Panel > Patterns (see Figure 10).

In the Capture Pattern dialog box, I named the brush Briar Branch 1, and set the Horizontal ShiftRectangular Tile, and Vertical Shift to 0. I then repeated steps 7 & 8 five times to create five different Briar Branch brush patterns.


Figure 10: Masked Patterns

If your masked pattern does not turn out properly, there are a couple of common mistakes. First, make sure that you are making your brush from left to right and not up and down. Second, your branch must be on a transparent layer before you hit the Capture Pattern button. Lastly, select enough space from top to bottom to get a clean edge to your mask.

Painting with patterns

On a new layer, I drew a rough black frame around my painting. I selected the Pattern Pen Masked brush from the Patterns brush category. From the Pattern Library, I selected one of my new Briar Branch patterns, and used my paint brush to paint in a swirling motion (see Figure 11).


Figure 11: Using Pattern brushes saves time with repetitive elements.


I then painted with each of the different Briar Branch patterns around the circle (see Figure 12).


Figure 12: The new pattern brushes will automatically follow the direction of my hand.


Step 4: Adding Depth

Applying oil paint

Next, I switched to the Real Round brush from the Oils brush category. On the property bar, I set the Opacity to 20%, the Feature to 3.5, the Resaturation to 100%, and the Bleed to 100%. This creates a brush that is perfect for rendering hair. It paints with wet bristly strokes that blend with the underlying paint (see Figure 13).



Figure 13: Brush feature settings

As I paint, I vary the Feature setting of my brush. A higher Feature setting creates a stiffer brush that has fewer hairs (above left). I also vary the Impasto amount so that the paint’s depth varies (above right).

Adding weight

Next, I further built up my paint by increasing the Impasto Effects (click Window > Brush Control Panel > Impasto). On the Impasto panel, I selected Color and Depth from the Draw to list box (see Figure 14 – A). Then, I chose Pressure from the Expression list box (see Figure 14 – C). With the Depth Slider (see Figure 14 – B), I started with around 2% and slowly built up to 10% making sure to add heavier paint to the lighter areas so that they appear more three-dimensional.



Figure 14: Remember to vary the depth of your Impasto Effects to create more realistic paint.




Figure 15

One of the most common mistakes that I see in digital art is that the paint lacks weight, meaning the paint’s depth does not vary. Remember that you don’t have to use Impasto brushes to get impasto effects. Impasto effects can be added to most of Painter’s brushes.

Step 5: Adding Texture

Creating cross hatch

Next, I wanted some light cross hatching on the background and the rabbit’s edges to give it a bit more texture. From the Brush Selector, I chose the Pencil brush category, and then the Grainy Variable Pencil. I could start cross hatching manually, but there is a faster way to create this texture. First, I created a small pattern of cross hatches on a white background (see Figure 16).



Figure 16: A small cross hatch pattern on a white background.


Capturing a Dab profile

With the Rectangular Selection tool, I made a selection around the cross hatch pattern without selecting any white edges. In the Pattern Library panel (Window > Media Library Panels > Patterns), I clicked the Capture Pattern button, and named it Cross Hatch. Then, I changed the Horizontal Shift and Vertical Shift to 50% and clicked OK (see Figure 17).



Figure 17: You may choose to create several of these hatch patterns to add some variance in your painting.


Using a Pattern Pen

From the Brush Selector, I chose the Pattern Pens brush category and the Pattern Chalk brush. On the Dab Profile panel (Window > Brush Control Panels > Dab Profile), I changed the Dab Type to the Dull Profile dab so that my new brush would create a softer mark (see Figure 18 and Figure 19).



Figure 18: The Dab Profile panel allows you to change the shape of your mark.

The Dull Profile creates more of a feathered mark while the flatter brushes create a sharper mark.



Figure 19: The Pattern brush speeds up the hatching. I always apply this texture on a separate layer in case I need to remove some later.


Step 6: Capturing Character

Adding a final wash of color

Next, I increased the warmth of the colors by clicking Effects > Tonal Control > Adjust Colors. I used the Hue Shift slider to select a warmer tone. With the Saturation slider, I increased the amount to 65% (see Figure 20).



Figure 20: You can increase the warmth of colors by using tonal controls.


Giving the bunnies a makeover

Lastly, I re-evaluated my characters and changed the face of Hazel (left-hand rabbit) to be a tad friendlier looking. I also had forgotten Big Wig’s signature tuft of hair. So I increased the Feature setting of the Real Round brush to 6, and painted in some hair on the top of his head (see Figure 21).



Figure 21: A final makeover for the bunnies.


Adding text

Finally, I added in the text that best matched with the book cover’s mood. I chose an elegant font to match the swirling vines, but kept the author’s name in a modern font to give it an updated look (see Figure 22).



Figure 22: The redesigned book cover.


We hope you found this tutorial helpful and we would love to hear your feedback in the Comments section below. And don’t forget to visit our social media pages and show us what you’ve learned by sharing your photos, videos and creative projects with us.

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Comments (4)

  • Carlos Vera-Cristo Reply

    Wanderful imformation. Thank you. But how do you format this front cover image with Paint pro 2018 so that it makes part of the total cover you want to upload in create space? That is, so that it has the spine and back cover information too? Sincerely,

    November 16, 2018 at 5:15 pm
    • Adam Reply

      Hello Carlos,

      If you are looking to create a full-size image that wraps around the back, spine, and front of the book, we would suggest making a painting that is the same size or a little larger than the dimensions of the flattened out book. The image can be shrunk slightly to fit if needed!

      Alternately, if you were looking to lay out the cover of your book along with creating the imagery for it, we would suggest a program such as CorelDRAW, which has tools more suited to this kind of work. You can find some examples of layout design in our Create a Magazine Cover and Create a Brochure Template tutorials.

      Hope this helps,
      Discovery Center Team

      November 19, 2018 at 12:23 am
  • Judy Reply

    Thank you for sharing so much info.. my original question was, as an artist, can I take a painting of mine & use for my book cover? I’m actually painting it for my cover design. I’ve got the formatter as I’m self- publishing. Just uncertain the process behind not using image from computer. Thank you- if you’ve anything to add about photographing painting for book cover. Judy b

    February 22, 2018 at 12:24 pm
    • Adam Reply

      Hello Judy,

      If you are looking to photograph a painting for a professional use such as a book cover, the most important part is making sure you have the camera well squared up with the painting – if the camera is tilted up or down, sideways, or crooked, the picture will be subtly distorted from the off-axis angle. This can be corrected digitally, but the best way to make sure the photo comes out even is to take your time setting up the shot, make sure there is plenty of light (soft light is often best, we don’t want any glare on the painting!) and use a tripod or other stand to keep the camera steady.

      Hope this helps!
      Discovery Center Team

      February 24, 2018 at 9:42 pm

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