Art, Books

Vintage Book Cover Design

I recently came across a treasure trove of illustrations and book covers from artists stretching back over the last hundred years. Everything from ads, to book covers, to what really caught my eye: the simple line art illustrations common to magazine and books. The same thing I’m working on for the hunting anthology this month. 

You can find them, organized by artist, here in Leif Peng’s Flickr galleries. 

I started looking at them for the line art, but quickly realized they are a fantastic resource for studying book covers as well. If you look at, say, Gene Szafran’s work, you might think ‘that would never fly on a modern ebook’ you’d likely be partly right. However, if you shrink them down and take another look, you’ll find there are resonances to the composition we find effective in the modern market. A central figure, or lines that draw the eye to either the title, or the edge of the page you’d turn to open a book. Still, in an ebook, most readers are subliminally thinking of that page orientation even if they preferentially read in ebook now. It will be interesting to see when, or if, that goes away. 

Genre mattered then, as now. You’ll see immediately if you look at the work of Joan Beltran Bofill that it is very different indeed than the SF stylings of Szafran. It’s art that speaks to a certain kind of reader, and they knew as soon as they saw the cover what they’d get inside. 

The single piece by Barney Plotkin shows a very distinct layout that must have been intended for a book cover, with the far left open for back cover text, and the right being the front cover, with little space remaining for the title. Almost unnecessary, though, that cover art tells you exactly what you’ll find in the story inside. 

Which isn’t to say that an artist couldn’t or wouldn’t work in many genres. Lou Feck’s work shows both SF, action, and sport covers. They all show his unique style, but also call out the differing genres fairly clearly. 

I’ll be taking the time to study these. When I’m working up a cover for a client or myself, I go to look at what’s selling well on Amazon in that specific sub-genre. I want to both have a cover stand out, but also call out genre in a way a reader can immediately and usually subconsciously recognize. I think that adding these classics by master artists and designers to my mental ‘library’ of art beats and cues will help me improve my own work. not that I want to create retro covers, per se. More than there’s elements here I can see really help a work stand out. 

Besides which, I’m always up for learning and adding new information to this trivial mind of mine. 


3 thoughts on “Vintage Book Cover Design

  1. Also remember the difference in printing capability. Line art was about as good as they could do, no photo scan printers back then.

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