Designing Blessed Assurance

Maybe it's appropriate that this was the book that taught me to draw with my left hand – my 'wrong' hand. It’s said that you either use one side of your brain or the other when it comes to drawing, and I'm pretty sure this cover proved that point to me. For a designer it's really important not to close off too many creative avenues at the start of a project, and while I try my best to use traditional techniques in most of my covers, there's no denying the life-saving advantages of the final digital stages. In this case, it came to an actual reversal...


Joseph Kirkland's map of Kilhaugh lies at the centre of Blessed Assurance, and the biggest challenge in this commission was to create that map in the authentic style of an 11-year-old child. I became a reluctant faux-naïf. Whether or not I succeeded, I'm undecided. Picasso famously said that it took him four years to learn to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child. It's certainly not an easy thing to fake (in fact I almost asked my own kid to draw it for me. The trouble is he was the wrong age – and too good at drawing anyway).


I met up with the book's author Stewart Ennis for a chat and a pint in Glasgow's West End one sunny evening in the Spring of 2019. I had just finished reading the penultimate draft of Blessed Assurance and I was bursting to discuss the characters and themes of the novel with its author. Stewart told me I was first person to have read the draft and he was pleased that I liked it so much. He had the giddiness of a soon-to-be-published author that says I'll be happy no matter what is on the cover. However, he did have some thoughts about what form the front of his book should take. He mentioned the artist Joan Eardley, and specifically her vibrant studies of Glasgow children. Stewart's characters are Scottish kids from a spectrum of backgrounds, and he saw Eardley's characterful style as a perfect fit. On the other hand I had William Blake in my head, for his queasy religiosity. The novel is earthy and grounded but with a spiritual aura around it. Joseph himself has an mystical undercurrent in him that occasionally comes to the surface. His inner struggle to come to terms with his family's religious expectations and his own inner demons was what I had to try somehow to get across.


Early cover concepts – spread from notebook
Early cover concepts – spread from notebook
A very early concept
A very early concept

I always saw a portrait of Joseph as central to the cover. It should be formal, carefully arranged, decorative; perhaps like a bookplate in one of those old books gifted to a youngster for perfect attendance at their Sunday School. Or he should be depicted surrounded by stars, or the rays of the sun, or some kind of religious symbolism. I began poring over images of Blake's watercolours and trying to absorb his style but I quickly reminded myself that it's one thing trying to ape someone's style, but a different matter to borrow their sensibility. I'm quite eclectic in terms of drawing but it's usually safer to stick with a style and technique that's my own. So, I decided to get my fingers dirty with a flickery, colourful pastel drawing.

The portrait took two or three days to complete. As is usually the case with a drawing, the first attempts were poor and frustrating. What you see in your head stubbornly refuses to appear on the page. When that happens it's best to leave it alone for a day, and move on to something else. So, returning to this scraggy pastel eventually, I tried to be simultaneously bold and looser and also to be more precise in the actual drawing of the details. What did Joseph look like anyway? Stewart told me he pictured him with a dark crop of hair – kind of curly perhaps. Again, a description vague enough to leave me with room for artistic license. I wanted his expression to be blank, but not vacant. It had to suggest his openness, with a slightly uplifted face. Looking to God? His glasses obscuring his eyes.


The artwork gradually took shape, and finally, in placing the image into the design itself dawned the realisation that maybe I had drawn him the wrong way around. In a notoriously dangerous move I flipped the image. (This, as any art teacher will tell you, is how an artist reveals the flaws in his or her drawing. Look at it in the mirror and the disastrous lopsidedness or skewed proportions miraculously and disappointingly reveal themselves.)  As it turned out I hadn't accidentally taken on Picasso's cubist style, and mirror-image Joseph looked relatively correct. So then I tried him small, large, centred, to the left, to the right. Too many choices make themselves available to you when you go digital. In the end, I had him facing 'outwards' to the right, centred and large. He had to be dominant. 


The left-handed Map of Kilhaugh.
The left-handed Map of Kilhaugh.

That Joseph ended up surrounded by a dense grey fog instead, with all the colour inside him struggling to get out, is due to the map. Joseph's Kilhaugh Mappa Mundi sucked all that colour and symbolism into itself, and took its place on the inside covers. Stewart had been determined to have his first novel feature a map of some kind at the front (because "all the best books have maps at the front"). In his pages the description of the map was detailed enough to help me populate the drawing but also vague enough to give me the headache of not really knowing where everything laid in relation to everything else. Which was probably ok because in a way that suited the naïve style of the map. I went through multiple drafts, trying to achieve that childlike style. My daughter suggested I draw with my left hand instead, which opened up a new definition of painful awkwardness for me. I'm aware that wrong-handedness is an art exercise but it's not one I'd choose to repeat very often. It was stressful – I could actually feel my brain resisting my hand. In the end I didn't really use the lefty drawings, they were just too rough. But the map was completed at last, then coloured in with scribbly coloured pencils, and decorated with monsters and mermaids around the edges. I figured that for these, Joseph would have referred to his old books & maps and found some original drawings that he could copy quite closely, so they would appear to be drawn in a more sophisticated style. The fog that cloaks the town during the passage of the novel is there too, pressing up against the village boundaries and hiding all the lurking terrors of the outside world – including the many gates to Hell that Joseph has been warned to avoid.

To extend the homespun feel of the cover I decided to create some hand-drawn typography. While it's one thing to try to remain old-school for technique, I needed the flexibility of digital editability with my titling. So I drew up my lettering on pastel again, with a faux three-dimensional aspect, scanned it, then began to compose them, settling on a framed arrangement, top and bottom on the page. A slender border around the portrait and a further border around the very edge the cover takes on a formal aspect which wasn't too far away from the religious iconography that I'd had in my head originally. The final elements were a pair of illuminations for the title: Grandpa's budgie in its cage, and the tinker's dog, looking almost wolf-like, caged by the woods. I tried to show them in a 'rampant' aspect, in the style of a medieval woodcut. It struck me that they formed a kind of symbolic symmetry that just fitted the themes of Blessed Assurance.


Blessed Assurance can be bought from high street bookshops, Wordery.com or the publisher's website: Vagabond Voices






Designing Three Kinds of Kissing


When I'm asked by a publisher to design a cover for another person's novel, I'm taking on a responsibility – that author's creation is being put into my hands. For a new novel, the cover becomes the book's calling card, its face. So whatever I create as that face has to be true to the tone, the flavour, the heart of that story.


Helen Lamb died in 2017, shortly after completing Three Kinds of Kissing. It was her first novel. Helen's manuscript became the responsibility of her family, and through them – and publisher Vagabond Voices – it has made its way finally into print. Her book initially read to me almost with the flavour of a junior novel – the protagonists are teenagers, the trappings an adult world impinging on young lives – but its subtext is darker, more complex: spliced into this story are strains of alienation, guilt, shame and death. It’s this subtle complexity that inspired me to design one of my more unusual covers: a wrap-around image with key points of the story encoded into it.


There's a small pink heart in the middle of the artwork. It sits above the head of Grace, the narrator, like a thought, or an exclamation.


“We stopped to look in the chemist shop window and waited for him to pass. The loofahs and long handled brushes for scrubbing backs always made us shudder, and we both coveted the Hartnell in Love talcum powder in the pink plastic heart-shaped dispenser. But right then we were more interested in watching for Peter’s reflection.” (Three Kinds of Kissing, p. 141)


I wanted that little heart to be a quiet focus of the design as a whole. It's centred on the spine of the book, which often will be the only portion of that publication that you'll see when it's sitting on a shelf. Grace is there spanning the back cover, spine and front. The hand of Peter (Grace's best friend Olive's little brother), pointing his toy gun, leads in from the front flap; the back cover teases the reader with Olive leading out of frame, on to the back flap.


The idea of a panoramic illustration came to me while I was trying to figure out how to show the dynamic between these three characters. On the face of it the scene I've depicted is almost directly lifted from the pages of the book: when Peter pursues the girls along the street while wearing his cowboy holster, cap gun in hand, peppering them with shots. Grace infuriates Olive by responding to the ever-annoying Peter by suddenly deciding to play along with his game. She playfully returns fire, her fingers in the shape of a gun; it is a sweet and unexpected moment in the narrative. I knew this would be the perfect framework on which I could hang the cover design.


In Springfield Road, he drew his cap gun and took aim. 


 “You’re dead.”

 Just two words but a lot for him. I whipped around in time to see a puff of smoke rising from the muzzle of his gun, caught a whiff of sulphur. His eyes narrowed to vicious slits and he aimed again. The bang cracked through the air and crows took off from the rooftops squawking and wheeling in the blue sky. I ducked behind the nearest car and fired my imaginary pistol back. 


 “Don’t encourage him,” Olive said and stormed on ahead.

 I pretended I didn’t hear. 





We kept the gunfire going past the red phone box and on to the railway bridge. Olive was waiting for me at the far end, fuming. “Don’t you know what he’s up to? Whose side are you on?” (Three Kinds of Kissing, pp. 139-40)


Expanding my design across the entire cover, including its front and back inside flaps, enabled me to give more dimension to the story by providing the scope to show the relationship between Grace, Olive and Peter in its troubled form. Here was space to illustrate the separation that would reflect their relationships to each other, but that would also subtly mirror their positions in the narrative: Olive moving on; Peter shadowed by misfortune; Grace caught in between.



Three Kinds of Kissing takes place over two time periods: 1969 and 1973. I'm very deliberately playing up to that era with the style of illustration and the colour palette. Looking at period illustration from that time, I borrowed a discordant scheme: the spectrum of the illustration changes by degrees from sky blue, bubblegum pink and sunshine yellows, to a poppy orange, turquoise, to purples, gloomy navy and browns. From memory my own bookshelf was laden with books featuring that very distinctive style which seemed to span the late ’50s through the ’70s: stylised, heavy, ragged outlined figures, fragmented backdrops in lurid multicolour. The high street I have illustrated here is also a relic of the past. I can remember traipsing round these places with my mum in the early 1970s: chemists, grocers, toyshops, corner shops. Windows crammed with goods, colourful, varied. We can still see traces of that comparatively understated high street in today's more shouty and ever-larger signage. Those mosaic-tiled frontages hidden under layers of paint; tongue-and-groove panelling disappearing beneath sheets of PVC; hand-painted signage occasionally revealed when a shop is refitted. 


A deep well of nostalgia exists for those of us who were kids in that time. So Three Kinds of Kissingchimed with me on many levels. Set in unnamed suburban Scotland, I recognised many of the elements that formed the backdrop to the story, as that was my era too. Helen has captured a sense of those very suburban, pre-Internet, sun-drenched summers: boredom in the park, gazing through shop windows; exploring woods and walking embankments. Elsewhere in the novel we read of the moon landing, and shoe-shopping. Saturday jobs and hints of hidden troubles in the lives of the adults in the orbit of the young people at the centre of the book. Everyday elements that shaped a time. The cap gun was a very key element of every ’60s and ’70s kid's toybox: the unspooling roll of spent caps gradually snaking from the top of the pistol, the wonderful, pungent smell of sulphur from exploded caps clinging to the die-cast metal. The toy gun is also something of a signifier of changed times; the way of life from fifty years ago is rapidly becoming obsolete. It was perhaps a less protective, less self-aware society.


I wanted to create a cover that spoke the same language as the novel, and that also reflected the period. I felt I had to draw something colourful but that also carried threat. A design that looked almost as if it were from that time, reminiscent of those junior novels on my shelf, but without becoming a pastiche. Working from memory and referring to photos of the time I drew out the row of shops in pencil line, then transferred my artwork to a digital format to apply colour and texture and to maintain control of the colour palette, which was key. By keeping the background elements tonally restrained, and using no other black but on the figures' heavy, ragged outlines, I gave them prominence. Their facial features I kept largely hidden beneath curtains of hair, with their eyes out of sight. And I photographed my daughter to capture the correct stance for Grace's finger gun toting.


I wanted to create a cover that spoke the same language as the novel, and that also reflected the period. I felt I had to draw something colourful but that also carried threat.


I felt from the early stages that the cover needed a really dominant use of typography. I found a typeface that said late ’60s/early ’70s hopefully without falling on the wrong side of kitsch. I spent a long time prepping the exact proportion and arrangement of the buildings and figures to each other and to the panels of the book. In practical terms I had five panels – two covers, two flaps and the spine. But without knowing the extent of the book in the early stages of its production, a spine width had to be estimated. So I had to keep the design elements flexible.


This is where traditional illustration techniques are eclipsed by modern technology: by drawing the high street separately and by making the children movable, separate elements that could be arranged independently, I left myself some wriggle room. Furthermore, I had to make sure I was leaving myself enough usable space for back cover text and flap text: the blurb, endorsements and author biography. Without having that copy available so early in the project, I asked the publisher if the necessary wordage could be kept as concise as possible (or reasonable) as a favour, to help complement my design. I'm grateful for that level of understanding from the publisher, which gave me the leeway I was hoping for, and I was able to bring my design to a satisfactory finish.


This is what I took from reading Helen's wonderful book: characters' motives and interactions that are largely hidden from view. I hope that I've stayed true to the book's character with this, my cover.






Designing Doubting Thomas


When it comes to creating a new book cover, many ideas are stillborn. In this case though, I found my inspiration quick – and fully formed.

Intimate and invasive, the exploration of a human body by another person (specifically in this case the insertion of fingers) may induce discomfort, pain or nausea; pleasure, embarrassment, or disgust. At the opening of Heather Richardson’s novel Doubting Thomas we are introduced to Dr Carruth, a 17th century Edinburgh surgeon who is about to assist in the autopsy of a heavily pregnant young woman. The subject’s abdomen is opened up but as he slips his hand into the cadaver his fine sleeve is soiled by the dark blood within the body cavity. 


It’s almost a throw-away moment of clumsiness – but I saw that blossoming stain as a key moment: representative of everything that follows, and of the moment that his safe notions of religious truth begin to become irreversibly polluted. The effects upon the protagonist in this case are manifold: sexual, political and theological. They resound throughout the novel. That this pivotal moment comes so early in the book is not only structurally interesting but in retrospect is the keystone on which the whole arch of the story rests.


In designing a cover for a novel I’m attempting to distil the essence of the book into perhaps a single image, or at least find a visual that will represent the thing, do it justice. In many cases a front cover image will be needed before the book is even edited. It will often be required in a hurry. Reading a manuscript against the clock is not usually the most beneficial way of finding inspiration, and while many of the Vagabond Voices titles I have worked on have been dense and challenging, in the case of Doubting Thomas I felt no such pressure. Richardson’s prose is tightly written yet it overflows with potent imagery, leaving me with no shortage of material. Written as separate narratives from four different characters, the tale is told in a multifaceted and richly textured way.


As I’m reading, it’s my habit to scribble in the margins of my print-out as I come across moments that strike me as possibilities for cover ideas. With my designer’s hat on as I make my way through the book, I’m on the lookout for an ‘in’ to help me with the cover. Often, it’ll come gradually or towards the end of the book – a reveal, a twist, or simply an understanding will let something spring to mind. However in the case of Doubting Thomas the very opening scene of the book provides the moment, setting the tone as dark, visceral, intimate and willing to present an unvarnished truth: that what is concealed may be brought forth bloodily, messily but inevitably into the light. 


I felt that a dramatically lit hand combined with an undefined fleshy, freshly exposed cavity waiting to be probed, would make for a suitably arresting image. 

The title ‘Doubting Thomas’ most obviously brings to mind Caravaggio’s masterpiece of realist art: Jesus inviting his sceptical disciple to probe his wound with a finger or two. That painting certainly informed my thoughts as I set about designing the cover. However it was maybe more my intention to seek inspiration from the 17th century Dutch school of art in particular: dark, starkly lit, and concerned with depicting the earnest truth (or maybe it was just those ruffled sleeves on Rembrandt’s subjects that inspired me...) There followed for me then a very long series of thumbnail sketches depicting pretty much the same scene: that of the hand, sleeve and cavity.

After toying with the idea of revealing more of the cadaver, and from various intimate angles, I settled on a more conservative view of a nevertheless disturbing tableau. Eventually I set up my camera phone in my dining room and snapped my hand in a variety of positions until I found the pose I was looking for. I could use print-outs of my photos to draw from. The next night I rooted in my wife’s wardrobe for a flouncy blouse and pulling it over my right arm, again I took various snaps to guide me as to how the material would hang, and how the light would fall on it.


I blew the dust off my trusty tin of soft pastels, and proceeded to work up my drawing over 2 nights and 2 mornings. I had determined to keep this as old school as I could with as little digital footering as possible. Inevitably though I bowed a little to the electronic editing, and introduced a slight strategic blur in some areas of the drawing in order to create focus where I needed it most. 



The extension of the artwork onto the spine and back cover was a later addition. Here I am harking back to early medical illustration, using inked line artwork to suggest an ‘engraved’ style. The wide, generously spaced typography came as a result of looking at medical treatises of the time which are fascinating and of course beautifully illustrated. A more authentic view of the past is found on the inside cover with a detail of mid-17th century Grassmarket – another important location in the novel – taken from Cassel’s Old and New Edinburgh.

Work in progress ...
Work in progress ...
Coincidentally the exhibition 'Beyond Caravaggio' was on at the RSA in Edinburgh during this project. A reminder of the real masters.
Coincidentally the exhibition 'Beyond Caravaggio' was on at the RSA in Edinburgh during this project. A reminder of the real masters.






Illustrating for Aliyyah

“I’m very excited about this one!” was publisher Allan Cameron’s mantra throughout this project.


Unusual for me in that it was not just a cover job, this was a commission for ten (nine, as it turned out) full-page illustrations. Aliyyah is Chris Dolan’s follow-up to Potter’s Field, his Glasgow-based contemporary crime novel, and it marked a characteristic change of tone and direction for him. Basing his story loosely upon one by Robert Louis Stevenson, Chris described Aliyyah to me as a fable of sorts, or a modern addition to Tales from the Thousand and One Nights in scope and setting, with touches of Eastern mystery, Western technology and Shakespeare’s Queen Mab making an appearance. Something simultaneously timeless and contemporary was what he was aiming for, with an unspecified setting, in an undefined time period, peopled by characters with clouded backgrounds.


If that sounds a little vague, it was fitting. My understanding of the story was to be built up only gradually as the text was fed to me in sections practically as they were ripped from the typewriter. I designed the cover without having read the full manuscript, but I had enough knowledge of the story to complete that first important stage. Allan needed the front for advance publicity and thankfully my approach of a very linear, almost Art Nouveau style was met with approval. The author had a notion that this little book would be a one-off “special”, perhaps designed to look like an old, found object, without even a author’s name on the cover. Although that didn’t quite come to fruition, I had the idea that the title — this unfamiliar word, “Aliyyah” — should become part of the pattern, an element of the overall design. Because it was not a particularly recognisable word anyway, I felt I could afford to make it almost suggestive of Arabic script, and more decorative than legible.


I decided I had to wait until the text was completed before I could make an informed decision on which were the key scenes I should illustrate. During our correspondence Chris supplied me with a list of suggestions which happily tallied almost exactly with my own choices. Publisher and author waited patiently for my first batch of pencils, which I had promised several times but which proved, ah, reluctant to make their appearance. When they finally did, they were met with great enthusiasm, much to my relief. The guidance I had received was that these should be reminiscent of the Victorian style of book illustration: full page, bound in a simple hand-drawn line frame, and with a legend beneath drawn from the body of the text. While it is one thing to draw inspiration from the greats such as Rackham, Goble and Beardsley, it was quite another to get down on paper the images I saw in my head, and to produce work of any kind of quality. I wanted to create something stylised and elegant, using negative space and line pattern to create balance. And I had to do justice to the quality author’s jewel-like tale.

Happily, both Chris and Allan are generous in their advice and appreciative of the artist’s role. In fact, they trusted me to do pretty much whatever I thought worked — which is music to the ears of the illustrator, but perhaps risky unless you are familiar with his or her body of work.


Having read the text I began to sketch thumbnails in my diary at a very small scale — an inch or two — to see what might work. Moving up in scale for the final pieces I tried to bring them all along concurrently to maintain consistency; however, my memory was letting me down at this stage — For example, when I drew the scene in which Haldane experiences what he takes to be a vision of Aliyyah floating in the dark evening sky. I had the notion that he was walking through the orchard, and so drew the brightly lit young woman partially obscured by a lattice of branches. In fact there were no trees in this scene, and I had concocted them entirely. I quite liked the way they looked, and was disappointed to discover they would have to be chopped down. Chris, however, didn’t object even after I pointed this out, and so the trees remain in the final illustration.


The balance of tone throughout the batch veers between clean, white empty spaces — whitewashed interiors, sunlit fountains — and dark, dense texture and movement: night woods, library shelves creaking with leather-bound volumes, swirling smoke and curling drapery. Throughout cover, illustrations and text drop caps I threaded a recurrent motif in the form of the damaged radio from the crashed helicopter that has been salvaged and becomes the soldier Haldane’s only chance to bridge the gap between his enforced, enclosed recuperation and the army life and colleagues which remain elusive in his memory and throughout the tale itself. Its form of a dark, square box, with circular detail and tentacle-like cables was a counterpoint to the more natural forms of the fig trees, flowers and rippling water of the gardens surrounding his rescuer Duban’s house in the idyllic enclosure.

I can admit to a minor lack of satisfaction in my final submissions, in that despite trying to work them up to a finish simultaneously, my style wavered from drawing to drawing just a little too much. The earlier illustrations show a more regimented, laboured line style (such as the white bedroom) as opposed to the looser, more free line evident in the latter drawings such as the homecoming. On a more technical note, I drew these on my favoured tissue-like layout paper which develops a pleasing, crinkly quality as it is worked upon. However, in retrospect a more stable surface might have given me a cleaner line. Furthermore I should probably have worked on a slightly larger scale to allow more control in my line work. These drawing are reduced only to 90 or 80 per cent on the page. Lesson learned for the next time, perhaps…


Maybe these are quibbles only the illustrator could raise; on the whole I’m satisfied with the result. More importantly, Chris Dolan is enthusiastic in his appreciation — and happy to have them alongside his story.

This blog first appeared on Vagabond Voices.co.uk






Great Scott!

The City Award recognises “an outstanding creative contribution or activity that has promoted Edinburgh nationally or indeed, internationally”. The City of Literature Trust beat off competition from Hidden Doors and The Arts Festival. - See more at: http://www.cityofliterature.com/great-scott-campaign-wins-creative-edinburgh-award/#sthash.PrNUaeBW.dpuf


Red Axe, with Waverley Books, designed this new book, part of the award-winning campaign, developed by Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sir Walter Scott's novel WAVERLEY, and to mark the 10th anniversary of Edinburgh’s designation as the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature.

As part of this campaign, 25,000 copies of this free book – GREAT SCOTT! – were given away in Waverley Station, Edinburgh. Telling the story of Scott’s incredible life, the pocket-book includes a timeline, quotes and musings and gives tips on things to see, read and do relating to Scott. The book and campaign celebrate the life and work of one of the world’s most famous writers who was a major celebrity in his time and continues to influence writers today.


The City Award recognises “an outstanding creative contribution or activity that has promoted Edinburgh nationally or indeed, internationally”. The City of Literature Trust beat off competition from Hidden Doors and The Arts Festival. - See more at: http://www.cityofliterature.com/great-scott-campaign-wins-creative-edinburgh-award/#sthash.PrNUaeBW.dpAward-winning
The City Award recognises “an outstanding creative contribution or activity that has promoted Edinburgh nationally or indeed, internationally”. The City of Literature Trust beat off competition from Hidden Doors and The Arts Festival. - See more at: http://www.cityofliterature.com/great-scott-campaign-wins-creative-edinburgh-award/#sthash.PrNUaeBW.dpuf
The City Award recognises “an outstanding creative contribution or activity that has promoted Edinburgh nationally or indeed, internationally”. The City of Literature Trust beat off competition from Hidden Doors and The Arts Festival. - See more at: http://www.cityofliterature.com/great-scott-campaign-wins-creative-edinburgh-award/#sthash.PrNUaeBW.dpuf
The City Award recognises “an outstanding creative contribution or activity that has promoted Edinburgh nationally or indeed, internationally”. The City of Literature Trust beat off competition from Hidden Doors and The Arts Festival. - See more at: http://www.cityofliterature.com/great-scott-campaign-wins-creative-edinburgh-award/#sthash.PrNUaeBW.dpuf


The City Award recognises “an outstanding creative contribution or activity that has promoted Edinburgh nationally or indeed, internationally”. The City of Literature Trust beat off competition from Hidden Doors and The Arts Festival. - See more at: http://www.cityofliterature.com/great-scott-campaign-wins-creative-edinburgh-award/#sthash.PrNUaeBW.dpuf