Cover Art Design Process: An Interview with Susan Detwiler

The cover illustration is the first glimpse of a book most readers get when they’re browsing in a library or bookstore.  If I’m not immediately drawn to the cover, I, as an adult reader, am willing to go a step further by reading the blurb on the back cover or the first few pages before deciding whether or not to choose the book.  But that’s not necessarily true for younger readers.  The cover art can make or break the desire to open the book and is one of the most important and effective marketing tools a publisher has. 

I admit that as I’m working on a manuscript, I imagine different ideas or concepts I’d like to see on a future book cover, but generally, the author doesn’t have much say.  This time, however, I was both lucky and honored to have my longtime friend and talented illustrator, Susan Detwiler, chosen to do the cover art for That Smudge of Smoke.  Because I thought both readers and writers would be interested, I’ve asked Susan to take us through her cover art design process.

Edie:  Susan, thank so much for joining me for this interview.  First of all, can you tell me if you think it’s important for the illustrator to read the book before starting work on the design?

Susan:  In my opinion it is absolutely necessary to read the entire book before thinking about a cover image. I distinctly remember being annoyed as a child when a book’s cover illustration did not reflect descriptions in the story. While I am reading, I see the characters and settings in my mind’s eye and sometimes take notes or make tiny sketches to help me later. 

Edie:  I am so glad you said that, Susan!  I, too, both as a child and now as an adult, get very annoyed if the cover art doesn’t reflect the theme of the book or specific descriptions.  So, once you’ve read the book, what is your first step?

Susan:  The first step is research. Although I have pictures in my mind of the characters and the settings described in the story, I want to have accurate image resources of the places, objects, hairstyles and fashions of the specific time period to look at before I draw. This gives me a better feeling of the era in which the story is set, and can help me decide on the style of illustration that will most suit the book. 

After a thumbnail sketch is completed and chosen, I have a better idea of exactly what I will need to depict, and can search for the specific references I will need.

I researched the Bay Line of steamships. I gathered vintage photos of the Baltimore harbor, and the places the steamships would dock.

  photo of SS City Of Atlanta

I looked up what hairstyles and fashions would be seen on a young woman in the late 1920s, and what kind of pen Piper might be using.


I collected photos of girls and women writing or reading in the pose I needed to see for Piper.


Photos of clarinets and people playing a clarinet were absolutely essential in order for me to depict Garrett and his instrument accurately… and I fudged it a little bit!

Edie:  You certainly did your homework on the research portion.  And I love the fact that you even researched people holding their cats! So, at this point, what are the parameters that you need to know in order to start your actual design?

Susan:  I need to know if the editor/art director or author have specific requirements for the imagery of the cover so that I can make sure to follow them and don’t go off in the wrong direction. The dimensions of the book is an important specification to know, and whether there are restrictions on where the title of the book should be, since the mission of the cover artwork is to attract the reader and enhance the title.

In the case of That Smudge of Smoke, you and I discussed the parameters of the cover in an email, and we were in agreement. I wrote to the editor:

“I think it’s important to depict both ends of the story, and therefore include the two protagonists on the cover. And, of course our narrator, the diary! The challenge will be to create a compelling image that is also not so complex that it is visually confusing. I am attracted to the vintage aspect of Piper’s story being set in 1929, and wish to make it clear through her costume and style. But I do not want to neglect Garrett’s part of the story, with its mystery and angst. Their connection is Dorie, and so the book must be seen prominently.”

My next step is to create some thumbnails—tiny, rough sketches. I show these to the editor/art director, and one is chosen. 




Edie: I remember this well, and I was so happy that the thumbnail sketch everyone liked best was my favorite, as well!  So now, please walk us through your process once the idea has been chosen.

Susan:  The rough sketch comes next, somewhat refining the elements of the image and deciding placement and relative size of each part. I find the computer to be a big help at this stage; I used to use tracing paper and cut-and-paste methods that were time-consuming and cumbersome. But now I can digitally move and re-size elements of my sketch much more easily to achieve what I want.


Then I do a final sketch, to be approved by the editor. There may be several versions of this step, if changes are requested.




I take the final, approved sketch and put color on it digitally for my own benefit as a roadmap to the paint colors. I may show this to the editor.

I draw the image on Strathmore 500 series illustration board in pencil, refining each element and often working at a larger size than it will be when printed. Using watercolor paints, I color the image beginning with background areas and generally working from top left to bottom right. For That Smudge of Smoke I added some details and texture with soft pastel pencils. The font used for the title and author is Marion, but I altered some of the letters in the title to make them unique and a bit more fancy.


Edie:  Susan, thank you so much for describing your process in such detail.  I had no idea there were so many layers, and I’m overjoyed with your cover design for That Smudge of Smoke!

Susan:  This was a fun assignment, and it challenged me. I loved the story! I am honored and grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this book.

If you’d like to see more of Susan Detwiler’s work, visit her website at:

And her portfolio on Children’s Illustrators at:

And, if you’re in the area on Saturday, July 1st, please join me for the book launch of the special “museum” edition of That Smudge of Smoke at the Steamboat Era Museum (156 King Carter Drive, Irvington, VA 22480) beginning at 10:00 AM.

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