Step-by-Step with Cover Illustrator Gene Mollica

There’s a good chance that, if you’re a Science Fiction, Fantasy, Steampunk and Urban Fantasy reader, you’ve read a book featuring one of Photo-Illustrator Gene Mollica‘s incredible covers. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Gene began his artistic career as a traditional painter, but soon moved into the challenging world of digital media.

When chatting with Gene, one thing becomes very clear: creating the most stunning image possible is his goal, and he goes above and beyond to make that happen. The wrong cover can confuse an audience, so it’s Gene’s job to make sure that his work is not only eye-catching, but captures the attention of the right readers. The key is visually interesting texture and detail to “anchor the eye,” while still encouraging movement across the page. And of course, the image should reflect the story within.

“I put a little something of myself in every cover,” says Gene.

The result is beautiful images that offer a window into an author’s world. And the best part is that he absolutely loves doing it and loves chatting about it.

The Crimson Campain by
Brian McClellan

We learned a little about the cover design process in our recent Cover Lover, featuring Mark Smylie’s The Barrow, but Gene very kindly offered to go deeper, taking us through the steps that bring his brilliant covers to life.

STEP ONE: The brief. 

There are many important factors that go into the design beyond the outline of story and characters. The current market trend and competing books within the genre need to be considered, which is why it is important to find what makes an individual book unique and bring that to light in the cover.

The information a cover designer receives from an editor/art director can be quite sparse, and when Gene first began in the industry, this was an obvious challenge. Now that experience has made him far more confident, he readily pushes back to the art direct/editor to request more detail. Authors have also found that his friendly and receptive nature, and his desire to truly understand their vision, means they can really get down to the defining details. Does the character have a tattoo? What kind of attitude and expression would they have? Are they wearing a specific style or piece of clothing?

Lena Greenwood from Codex Born

The visual challenges Gene deals with can be as basic as those in Brian McClellan‘s Powder Mage series, which required a civil war costume with a medieval background. Or they can be far more intimidating, such as working on the notorious Jim C. HinesMagic Ex Libris series. Gene says that he’s learned a lot from Hines’ critical analysis of the posing of female charactersCodex Born, the second book in the series, presented a real challenge based on the character description of a Native woman of a larger body type. “Oh it was terrifying!” Gene laughs, but fortunately, Hines was pleased with the end result.

STEP TWO: Agreement on a desired direction.

Through thorough back and forth discussions with the art directors, editors and/or the authors, Gene is able to put together some rough sketches for approval, before getting down to business.

STEP THREE:  Pre-production.

“I love the costume part,” says Gene. Many of his covers are for the Urban Fantasy genre, featuring jeans and tank tops, but he really gets to have fun with Fantasy. Then Steampunk came along and opened up a whole new world.

Initially, Gene attempted to rent all the costumes, but discovered that rental shops tend to fulfill the more robust demands of theatrical costuming. Now, he works with professional costume designers and his growing collection of weapons and gadgets to get the perfect look.

Gyllian of Eeldrytch Armouree is a critical member of Gene’s team. He handles all of the leather pieces, belts, baldrics and customizes the weapons. Gene also works with the fabulous design team of Shirley and Victor Forster of Renaissance Sewing, but Deborah Gerard has become his lead after years of working together on Gene’s many projects, from start to finish. “I totally rely on her expertise and thorough knowledge of historical costumes and traditions. Her design capabilities experience and versatility across a wide spectrum has really brought my work up to a new level.”

Looking for a custom designed costume based on the cover of your favourite novel? All of these gorgeous designs can be recreated!

Once the props and costumes have been chosen, it’s time to select the talent. Gene’s preference is to work with professional talent agencies which, while a bit more costly, has the advantage of filtering talent that is the most suitable to his needs.

Experience has taught him a lot when it comes to finding the right talent. Even something as seemingly small as an inability to smirk can ruin a photo shoot if the model is unable to bring the right attitude to the character. Conversely, while he had not worked with them before, Gene felt he really lucked out with the three models used on the cover of The Barrow.

STEP FOUR:  The photo shoot. 

With the costumes, props and talent in place, and a quick review with the art director again, the process advances to the photo shoot where Gene rounds out his team with his, assistant, Mike Moosbrugger, who’s knowledge of professional studio lighting and work flow is exceptional. And on-set stylist Agata Smentek transforms the models with her fantastic hair and make-up.

Then the stage is set and the photo shoot begins. Gene used to direct the them himself, but “it made me crazy not to have that control,” so in July 2013, he invested in his own Canon 5D Mark II camera to expand his creative talents into the realm of photography. “The camera is a tool that I wanted to understand better,” he says. The transition makes sense for a man who is always looking toward the future. With book trailers becoming very popular, video shoots might be the next big thing and Gene plans to be right on top of it.

STEP FIVE: Composites.

Wolfbreed by S.A. Swan

Once pictures from the photo shoot are approved, Gene creates some quick composites and rough images for review. He used to provide ten or twelve comps, but, as with all processes, experience allows for a lot of streamlining. With a firm understanding of the direction the cover needs to go, Gene is able to rough in the background and foreground colour palette to create just a few high resolution comps that are very close to the final product.

STEP SIX: Final illustration.

Finally, working in Photoshop with stock photos – a mountain from here, a tree from there – Gene creates his masterpiece – a seamless blend of colour, lighting and design to catch the eye of the reader.

I’d like to take the opportunity to thank Gene for our delightful chat. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more books featuring his amazing cover design and can’t wait to see what he’s working on next.  Be sure to visit Gene’s website at or say hello at Gene Mollica Studio on Facebook.

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