I think this one is working out fairly well. I changed the fortress building itself to be more, well, fortressy. And spent some time playing around with the shapes and positioning of the various walls and rocks and stuff. And I feel like I've got a pretty solid composition.
I guess it's about time I went into Photoshop and started looking at the texture and colour of the shapes...
Getting the bones of the design right before you elaborate is one of those things which should be obvious but I see being skipped all the time.
That is, the necessity to work out the elements and compositon of your piece in as simple a form and as limited a palette as you possibly can, and save all the texture, pattern and other flourishes for later. Because those things are flourishes, they shouldn't compensating for a fundamentally badly put together piece.
For example, one bugbear that always bugs my bear is the 'outer glow' effect being used around type which has been placed over a background image that should have been used at all because it is simply too busy or high contrast. Effects are there to add styling, not to compensate for badly-observed design principles.
What constitutes 'the basic design' is going to vary from piece to piece and certainly from designer to designer. It all depends on what the initial idea that sparked the design was. In the above case, my initial idea was 'the fortress on Svalbard, stylised to match the previous work I have on stylised-structure-book-covers, and with the name of the book and the author inco-orporated into the shape made by it. I knew the words and the image, and the implicit rules that govern this particular series of mine to keep it a series.
And so it was a case of drawing the basic shapes and letters and then endlessly moving them, stretching them, resizing them, redrawing them - until I've got close to the basic composition I want. A glance at some previous stages of the process will highlight the kind of development the image went through while I was trying to find the best possible version of the 'vertically stylised, formiddable ice/rock fortress' I could come up with.
It will also show that I had the basic layout pretty locked down even in the very rough first iteration shown. The lettering is the most important piece of information on the page (at least in terms of visual hierarchy, and certainly if this were an image to be used for cover or poster), so they're the first thing I get locked down into their basic shapes. I've added subtlety to their styling since that first version but you'll notice they follow the same lines.
I've used three colours: dark blue because my initial sense is that this will be a dark and mysterious image in colour and tone; light blue because I need to see how the highlights are sittting in the composition; and pale yellow for the lettering, because I know I want to make them pale and contrasting in the final version. Specifically I have the idea of having the words of the title, 'Northern Lights' to be spelled out in lights. It part of my idea is that I want the words 'Northern Lights' to be formed by shapes of light. This is pretty much the epitome of my thinking about book covers. Imagery should have a tangential relationship to the information given my title, with bonus marks if you're emphasising a double meaning or subtext the author employed int hat title. The Northern Lights of the title most obviously relate to the aurora boreales but to include those lights would be too literal an illustration to be worth it.
Having thus worked out a composition I'm pretty happy with I can progress to elaborating a bit. Not to the effects menu - the next stage will be to transform this from a three-colour blueprint into a fully coloured image. And to introduce the details. Both passes will transform the picture but I know it will still work, because it works like this.
I already know (or think I know, these things can change) that I want to end up with a similar texture/pattern/shading/atmosphere treatment as my Wolves Of Willoughby Chase image so I know somewhere in this process I'll be taking the image into Photoshop to work on those elements. Which gives me all the more reason to get the basic shapes and positions of everything locked down now. I can't pull these lines around in Photoshop; once the shading etc starts going on I hope not to have to change anything about the basic drawing. Though there will, inevitably, be some adjustment. Elements like colour and pattern have a habit of drawing one's eye to problems int the basic drawing you couldn't spot before...