Behind The Crown Conspiracy

November 2, 2008 6:01 pm

Tags: author, book covers, books, Bryce, Dee-Marie, illustrator, Making money with your art, Michael J. Sullivan, Photoshop, The Crown Conspiracy, writers, writing

From its conception, the Renderosity Art Galleries have overflowed with medieval fantasy artwork. After reading, The Crown Conspiracy, the first book in Riyria Revelations multiple-book series, I knew the Renderosity community would be interested in discovering a rising star in the world of art and literature.

They killed the king. They pinned it on two men. They chose poorly! So begins Michael J. Sullivan's adventures of Hadrian and Royce, unwilling heroes in the medieval fantasy novel, The Crown Conspiracy. Set in a fictitious land (with a Post-Roman Britain feel), the story revolves around two ordinary thieves with extraordinary adventures. The Crown Conspiracy is a medieval fantasy, with a touch of murder, mystery and intrigue, and a dash of sword and sorcery. Not only is Michael J. Sullivan an award-winning author, he is also an accomplished illustrator, and the creator of his novels' cover art.

In keeping with Renderosity's "making money from your art" series, I was fortunate to talk Michael into sharing his expertise as both an author and an illustrator.

Dee Marie: I have to ask right off, Michael, which came first...the artist or the author?

Michael J. Sullivan: Both talents arose about the same time, when I was 13. In fact, I typed my first manuscript on folded 8 ½” x 11” sheets and illustrated the entire book. In high school, my artistic talents received more recognition than my writing, primarily because of exposure through a series of comic strips in the high school paper.

My performance in various art courses resulted in me obtaining a scholarship to attend the Center for Creative Studies, a prestigious art school in Detroit. After a year-and-a-half, I became frustrated by the academic environment of a primarily creative pursuit. Since I was strapped financially when my scholarship ran out, I left CCS.

Oddly enough, one of my reasons for leaving CCS was the desire to create book cover illustrations. I eventually started my own advertising agency, where I ran the creative department, and Robin (my agent, editor, marketing manager, and wife) handled the business end.

As far as writing, I am completely self-taught. I’ve never even attended a creative writing course or workshop, nor have I ever read any books on how to write.

DM: I am impressed with your innate talent as both an author and an illustrator. Like you, the majority of the Renderosity community members are artists. Many are seeking ways to make money with their talent, and look forward to you sharing your difficulties and successes while creating your book cover illustrations.

I understand that the cover art for The Crown Conspiracy, went through at least one revision. Why did you change your original concept, and what software programs did you use in the creation of each cover?

MJS: In the original cover idea for The Crown Conspiracy, Robin and I, had the idea of a crown lying in a pool of blood beside a dagger. We wanted to avoid placing any imagery of characters in the cover, to leave the reader free to imagine them as they wished.

My first idea was to purchase and photograph a crown, and then create an illustration from the photograph. While Robin researched the Internet for suitable crowns, I attempted to make a virtual crown using Bryce. Although Bryce is not really a 3D modeler in the traditional sense, it is a 3D landscape modeler, and it does have the ability to create simple 3D objects.

Using Bryce, I built the crown using a simple structure of arrow points and thin ring bands that I copied and pasted. Next, I applied a gold texture to the model and added spheres with red glass texture. When I was satisfied that the crown was to my liking, I then set about creating the book cover's background imagery.

According to the novel, the crown needed to lie in the castle chapel, but I wanted to create a close-up view, so the floor became the next most important element. I began by modeling 3D paving stones. Under the stones, I created a liquid layer of red transparency, and tiled the stones so the "blood" would spill over them. I then created blood drops, by submerging red spheres just below the stone level, so that only the tops of the spheres showed.



I created a second image, which included the wall, using similar techniques as I used to create the floor. Using basic prefab objects, I added the dagger, table and bottles. Once that was done, I rendered the two scenes.

Next, I opened the images in Photoshop and "joined" them, one atop the other. To finish the image, I smoothed the jagged edges, added blood to the blade, and drips to the crown, as well as a few more droplets. After adjusting the color and levels, I cropped the image.

For the back cover, I built a castle. Once again using Bryce, I constructed two towers joined by a simple bridge. I then twisted the angle and cropped the bridge so that it appeared to be in front of the castle. After rendering the scene, I brought the image into Photoshop, altering the colors, I gave the scene a blue cast to resemble a moonlit night. In the last step, I calculated the correct spine width, added text, and merged the three images (front cover, back cover, and spine).



I liked the original concept for The Crown Conspiracy book cover, but I love the new cover art. What went into its creation?

MJS: The cover that now appears on The Crown Conspiracy was originally conceived as a traditional watercolor, but I realized that I would not be able to digitize it to an adequate dpi for printing. I also wanted to have more control over the finished image, so that I would be able to adjust the height and/or width to accommodate text, or other formats such as bookmarks, that require more sky. In the end, I decided to create a watercolor image entirely in Photoshop.



I began by creating a textured paper. I then modified existing Photoshop watercolor brushes to suit my needs. Using my Wacom Tablet, I painted from light to dark, just as I would a traditional watercolor painting. The final image became the background for my novel's cover.



DM: Aspirations Media Inc. (AMI), is also publishing your second book, Avempartha, and has commissioned you to illustrate that cover as well. With four additional books in your Riyria Revelations series, will the covers have a similar look and feel?

MJS: The cover for Avempartha (the second book in The Riyria Revelation saga), was also created in a watercolor style within Photoshop. I initially began by sketching the idea and then painting over the sketch, again, utilizing a traditional watercolor method of painting from light to dark.



I kept the same monochromatic color scheme that I had established in The Crown Conspiracy cover, as a means of branding the novels as a set. In the case of The Crown Conspiracy, the book took place in fall, so I kept the color tones to gold, orange and brown. As Avempartha takes place in spring, I went with a blue-green.



An important time-saving advantage of using Photoshop over traditional watercolor was the ability to erase—which was something that I ended up doing when Robin pointed out that the first tower was not sufficiently "elf-like." She felt that the original tower was too heavy and that it needed to be delicate and elegant. As a result, I erased the tower and re-drew it, painting a slender, curving structure that more aptly mimics the description in the novel.



DM: Thank you for outlining your creative process from concept to completion of your book covers. I noticed that you also added a striking book trailer to your creative portfolio. As this is a rather new marketing tool, please give a brief description of the process of producing a book trailer, as well as the software you used in its creation.

MJS: Actually, the trailer was the publisher's idea. AMI put one together for me and posted it on YouTube. It has great music, which was composed by Chad Corrie from AMI, but the imagery was limited to my book cover, as they didn’t have anything else to work from.


In developing my version of the book trailer for The Crown Conspiracy, I looked into doing something a bit more elaborate. For inspiration, I went around the Washington DC area and took reference photographs. I then altered the images in Photoshop to suite the book trailer's storyline. Developing scenes for the video, I created long wide images that I could pan, and put them together using Adobe Flash.

I borrowed my daughter’s Mac and hammered out a miserable attempt at a soundtrack using the program Garage Band. Then, I assembled it all using Windows Movie Maker, which made it easier to add music and to compress the file size. The result is what you see on the website, which is really a novice attempt at making a book trailer.


Click here to view The Crown Conspiracy book trailer.


DM: If that is what you call a novice attempt, I can hardly wait for your future book trailer endeavors. One last question before you go...what advice can you give aspiring computer graphic artists who wish to make a living designing book covers and/or book trailers?

MJS: Well, one thing I’ve found that artists usually forget about when creating an illustration for a book cover, is that there is going to be a title and also a blurb for the back of the book. Illustrators need to plan their design with space for these elements. Also, the spine is very important since, in some bookstores, it will be the only thing exposed to the potential reader. I suggest that the back needs to be more of a background than a picture since the primary focus will be the “blurb” and any review quotes. You might also want to build a website with examples of covers you’ve created (even if they are imaginary). Also, market yourself on Craig’s List to self-publishing authors, and then to small publishing houses, and eventually to large publishing firms. There is a free website called, which is a great resource for writers and illustrators. Having samples of your covers there would be very beneficial.

As for trailers, learn Flash and get to be friends with someone with musical talent. Open-copyright music, in the form of sheet music is plentiful. While there is a lack of quality recorded music, because most artists who perform copyright-free music, copyright their performances.

Dee Marie: I highly recommend The Crown Conspiracy as one of the best novels I have read this year, and I have read more novels this year than I can count (and many have been outstanding). The Crown Conspiracy is available through your local bookstores and on online book retail outlets. To learn more about Michael J. Sullivan, and the further adventures of his anti-heroes, Hadrian and Royce, I invite you to visit the following site:

All supporting images are copyright.
Images cannot be copied, printed, or reproduced in any manner,
without written permission from Michael J. Sullivan

Get to know industry leaders and professionals
as they sit down and talk candidly with
Contributing Columnist, Dee-Marie.

November 3, 2008

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Article Comments

nickcharles ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 12 November 2008

Fantastic interview, Dee-Marie! Michael, it was great to get to know about you and your work! I love your cover work, and this series is now definitely on my list to read!

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