“My Guilty Pleasure”
The life of a Shadowrun cover artist
By Echo Chernik
It all started twenty years ago in Brooklyn, New York with one simple sentence, “Hey, would you like to come back to my dorm and play Shadowrun?”
Somehow this game has remained an integral part of who I am throughout the many years since my (now) husband asked me that question so many years ago. We played in college when I was getting my start as a fledgling RPG illustrator for White Wolf. We played in the early years of surviving on the streets of New York as penniless artists. We played during all those years while I became a prolific mainstream advertising illustrator. We played until one day while I was working on a project for Miller or Camel or Celestial Seasonings or such—and my mind wandered. I randomly and abstractly dropped an email to the new art director of Shadowrun, who turned out to be a fan of my work. Thus a door opened and I became a Shadowrun cover artist. We still have a regular game every Friday.
There are few things in the world better than the chance to create cover art for a game that has been your passion for so many years. It is the opportunity to contribute to the universe at large and to help define it to the new generation of shadowrunners. It is a great honor and one that comes with a lot of responsibility, mostly self-inflicted, to always give it your all.
I remember well the early years of playing Shadowrun. I would sit, flip through the books, and study every detail of Larry Elmore’s cover. I was amazed and entranced by the gritty details, affectations, and the amazing line quality of Jeff Laubenstein’s pieces. I loved the slick cyberpunk look of John Zeleznik, the gorgeous textures of Janet Aulisio, and the otherworldly quality of Rick Berry. My goal with each and every cover is to be that cover—the cover that binds itself into the very fabric of some young player or artist as they study it for hours in the middle of the night (generally while waiting for the hacker to finish their Matrix run).
I had pitched the concept for a rooftop extraction scene to Brent some time back, so when he contacted me to create the cover for the Intro Box Set, I was excited.
The original concept in my head was vertical for a book cover. I wanted to show a rooftop team making their escape. A confiscated Doc Wagon chopper was there for the pickup of a kidnapped executive, with the cityscape behind. However, because of the new dimensions, my original concept wasn’t sketching out the way that I had wanted. If a concept fights me too much, I will rework it completely into a new and more flowing scene.
Products like the Core Rulebook and this Box Set are the first ones newcomers to the game are likely to pick up because they have rules for character creation and overviews of the setting. For these types of books, the cover art—in addition to being great—needs to incorporate a detailed snapshot of the universe with a variety of characters that represent the archetypes of the game. Important elements should be introduced here as well such as magic, chrome, and a not-to-distant-future dystopia. It needs to be both generic and exciting at the same time.
Lazarus (a.k.a. Mr. “Want to come play Shadowrun in my dorm?”) and I discussed what should be included. We yanked the sketches for the SR5 cover off of the Catalyst server and took a look at Michael Kormarck’s painting. I needed to make sure that my cover complemented his, since many new players are likely to purchase both. My cover should also have elements important to the universe that are not included on that cover so that both pieces side by side are a wonderful representation of the world.
His cover has a wonderful insect spirit; therefore, I know I don’t want to feature a spirit, but instead something equally as specific to Shadowrun.
We decided that a dragon would be a nice addition. I changed the concept of the chopper taking off from the rooftop to the chopper being chased by a dragon while coming in to extract the team. I studied the covers that contained dragons and saw that most of them are Western dragons. My goal is to create a cover with diversity. I’m never one for illustrating the generic, so I decided to go with a feathered serpent. Since I played an Aztec shaman for several years, I had done copious amounts of research on feathered serpents and decided to go with the traditional snake-like body and head with the quetzal feathers.
Since Kormarck had a hacker/rigger on his, I went with a sniper on mine. Never underestimate the power of a good sniper. Since the team has obviously retreated as far back as their sniper’s position (not a good sign), it shows that this is an escape scene. She is covering the team, chopper is incoming, pickup location is somewhere to the right, and threats are somewhere to the left.
The original palette of my early versions contained more “alarm” reds up front, and neon and toxic greens in the background with dark ominous overtones throughout. I was requested to make the sky red and suggested that I use the BattleTech Boxed Set as a reference point (which has a bright sky and silhouetted figures). That effectively flipped the entire color scheme, so what was originally a much darker sky ended up much brighter, and the foreground hues shifted to sickly greens. This gave me some trouble as the skyline, chopper, and dragon kept popping to the foreground, drawing too much attention to them no matter their size and no matter how much I tried to minimize them. It was a palette shift issue. Eventually I went ahead and minimized the bright sky, focusing on the characters, though due to the palette shift, I had to rework some of my figures to really pull in that depth.
I paint everything in layers so that I can move people around if I’m not happy with the composition. I ended up doing that with this one. When composing a piece, you want the viewer’s eye to easily wander about the artwork and not be forced off the page. The golden mean is your basic artistic rule for this. Dividing the page into thirds compositionally will guarantee success. This can be through composition or color. In my case, color played a lot in the composition, and by deviating from my original palette, the color shift was forcing my balance off. Therefore, I needed to rework it a little.
To the left are a series of heavy shapes: smokestack, mosque, smoke, and out of control thrown ork. This is the left side of my thirds. The central negative space that peers back into the city is my central third. The troll and shaman to the right is the last third. The central third may look wider visually to you; however, keep in mind that there are shapes jutting into it. The central third needs to be equal visually, but the rules are flexible. It’s a balancing act.
Also, the eye needs to travel easily around the page. This is best done in triangles—at least one, maybe more depending on the complexity. When you look at a piece, you can usually find the triangle just by letting your eye wander. Wherever your eye naturally rests and then moves on, those are your points. An artist does this on purpose to control where your eye will go. When you look at a piece of art and lose interest quickly, the main reason is probably that the composition is off.
In this case, I use a series of triangles to keep your interest. Remember, I want this piece to gather depth the more that you look at it, so I need several sub-compositions and a lot of detail to do that. The painted stripes on the wall take your eye and bring it to the fireball. From there, it can wander to the shaman’s face or to the troll’s hair. If it goes to the troll’s hair, it will slip down the highlight on his arm to the shaman’s face (triangle between shaman, troll nose, and arm). There is also another loose triangle between the sniper’s goggles, the highlight on the tower, and the feathered serpent face.
Designing for a book cover requires much more thought to certain details than designing a piece of standalone art. For example, there is going to be a large logo in that big dark area to the top. Illustration often looks odd without the logo and text with them. That’s because without the visual weight of the type, the golden mean is thrown off. There is meant to be something there, it’s not just a painted element. I could put something there, but it shouldn’t be important because few would ever see it. The actual painting of this piece is also larger than what is just on the top. It wraps around the other four sides of the box. All of it had to be painted, yet remain outside the composition with no important elements and had to allow for more logos and text. So, when you look at the complete painting without the type and without it being wrapped on the box, the composition is strange. A cover artist needs to be able to compose around things like type, book spines, instructions, UPC codes, and price tags. They can’t be ignored.
My Shadowrun work is always gritty. I never intend it to be quite as gritty as it usually ends up being, but somehow my artistic subconscious refuses to paint slick and shiny. My world ends up dark and damp. In my mind the very fabric of the universe is frayed and worn. Each piece has a story, a history. Regardless of the current scene, there are remnants of past tales: handprints of dried blood on the walls, old bullet holes, etc. I want the viewer to ask, “Who tied the ropes around the ladder, and why?” Questions that have become part of the scene add to its flavor and depth. The characters themselves are pieced together. Often in my artwork, their armor doesn’t match or is held together with tape. They may have two different pistols. “Did they buy or acquire their gear?” “Is it in perfect working order, or repaired?” Not all of my characters are pretty either. That doesn’t mean that they have to be generic, though. In this case I was asked to match the look of the ork and the shaman to existing characters, but I still put my own twist on them. The ork on Kormarck’s is proud, bestial, and a real badass, but in mine something has literally thrown him backwards off his feet, making him both surprised and frightened. I would hope this would lead someone to ask, “What on earth did THAT?”
For anyone familiar with my mainstream work, my work for Shadowrun is very different in execution and style. I encourage you to go and look at some of my other pieces if you haven’t seen them. I hope that you can see my passion for the game in my work. I enjoy putting details in my pieces that are exclusive to the Shadowrun universe. These are not accidents.
I love advertising illustration. It is my passion. However, after I’ve finished painstakingly painting a piece of fruit or a beer can for the day, sometimes I get to spend my afternoons painting dragons, or street samurai, or shell casings. I can think of few things that are more fun than that. No one should love their job this much. I call it my guilty pleasure.
Come by my booth at Gen Con (booth 1345). We will be releasing a book of my Shadowrun pieces called Echo Recoil. At the very least, come by and say hoi!