Sunday, June 17, 2012

Creating Album Art

Album art by Starr Weems for Mary Crowell
"Acolytes of the Machine" Starr Weems. 15x15 Transparent watercolor on 140 lb. paper. 

I was excited when Mary Crowell commissioned me to do the cover work for her new gaming-inspired solo album. It isn't often that I work with a client who has such a clear vision of what she wants for the final product. What did Mary want for her cover? An ornate, fantasy organ with multiple ranks of pipes, a dark-haired organist with her face reflected in a mirror and creepy stone children singing, all with a slight steampunk feel. Here is the process I went through to get to the image above. 

Step one: Research and sketch ideas
The first part of my research is to read the lyrics to the song that goes along with the image. I want to make sure that I understand the feel of the piece. I don't remember what a pipe organ looks like, so I also spend lots of time looking at pictures of different styles. I sketch out thumbnails of possible painting compositions. 

Step two: Develop one of the thumbnails
I choose the thumbnail I like the best and develop it into a preliminary sketch. 

I send the sketch to Mary for review. She confirms that we are headed in the right direction and has some suggestions on changes she would like. 

Step three: Revise the sketch

I spend some time playing with the images and moving some things around. I send it back to Mary. Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner. 

Step four: Create a clean sketch for paper transfer

I start from scratch on a new sheet of paper and redraw the image, making minor adjustments and leaving out any shading. This is the image that I will use to transfer to the watercolor paper. I go to Staples and have this picture enlarged from 9x9 to 15x15.

Step five: Create a value sketch

With watercolor pouring, it is especially important to have the value placement mapped out in advance. I complete a value sketch so that I know exactly where to paint the drawing gum. 

Preliminary sketch for "Acolytes of the Machine."  Starr Weems

Step six: Correct an unforeseen problem

With the value sketch complete, a problem with the design becomes apparent. I want the organist and the background to appear as two separate but related images. This way, I can capture both the looming quality of the ranks of pipes and the detail of the console. The adjustments that I made to the preliminary sketch have made the organist and pipe ranks too cohesive. I need some way to separate the console and the background. 

I put a piece of tracing paper over the value sketch and try different solutions. Adding a cloud of steam around the organist seems to work the best. I show the addition to Mary and she adds that she would like for the steam to be thin and wispy so that it does not obscure the creepy, glowy-eyed children. 

Step seven:  Transfer the image
I transfer the image to the watercolor paper using a graphite transfer sheet.

The copy that I am tracing from is very low quality because Staples ran it off on their blueprint machine, but I have the value sketch to reference. 

Step eight: First pour
I mask the brightest values with drawing gum and pour the first layer!

To make sure that the steam is wispy, I decide to use a paper towel to lift out the color on each layer that I pour. 

Now I set it aside to dry for a few hours.

Step nine: Second pour
Following my value sketch, I mask out the next lightest values with the drawing gum. 

I am ready to pour the second layer. 

I get impatient this time and dry the painting with a hair dryer so that I can get another pour in before the day is over. 

Step ten: Third pour

I mask the next lightest value with the drawing gum. 

And pour...

I let it dry. I think one more layer will do the trick. 

Step eleven: Fourth pour

I mask and pour the final layer.

I really, really want to be impatient and remove the masking to see what my picture is looking like underneath, but I wait because I know I will be heartbroken if I jump the gun and rip the paper. 

Step twelve: Remove drawing gum
Finally! The piece is dry and I get to remove the drawing gum with a special eraser. 

Now I can see what I have to work with. 

The lines are rough and there are no details painted in yet. 

Step thirteen: Scrub
I use a scrubber brush and a melamine sponge to soften the lines and move some of the paint around. 

Now I have all of the scrubbing finished and the piece is ready for some direct paint. 

Step fourteen: Add detail with direct paint
I add some detail...

And more...

And more...

I'm finished! I send the image to Mary for review and she loves it. Now I am all set to work on the back cover of the album. 

Questions? Contact me or leave a comment below. To see more step-by-step photos of how paintings like this one are created, see Start to Finish: Pouring Watercolor. You can also connect with me on Facebook to see my latest work. 


  1. Oh thank you for posting this, Starr! Simon and I really enjoyed reading this and getting all the updates last week. The art is GORGEOUS and creepy and wonderful. Eeeee!

    1. I am so glad you enjoyed the process. I'm working on ideas for Rupus as we speak.

  2. did you literally "pour" the watercolor onto the paper?

  3. did you literally "pour" the watercolor onto the paper?

  4. Yes! Well, I actually squirt it on with pipettes from a science supply store.