Greetings fellow Earthlings. I’m Don Maitz, an artist who has worked professionally in the book publishing industry for nearly fifty years. I’m here to explain how, given informed visual information, you CAN tell a book by it’s cover.

You’ve heard it said, “ A picture is worth a thousand words.” and, “ Every picture tells a story.”  What gives truth to these statements is that images have a language. If observed with insight, they speak to us.  Studied consideration is required to parse out the words pictures reveal. 

Here is an example of a picture communicating with a word. On your person you likely have a camera, the one in your cell phone. Most cameras offer two choices. One can position the device so the subject is framed in a vertical format, or the desired image can be captured in the horizontal position. There is a word being communicated for each orientation, regardless of what is in the frame. In the vertical selection the word is, “Impressive”.  We admire tall things. We look up to them, literally. Things that have vertical stature impress us. When framing the subject in the horizontal format,  the word that emerges is, ‘Expansive”. This is because things wider than they are tall, urges our peripheral vision to kick in.  As our limited scope perceives the world as flat, the horizontal framing suggests a nearly endless horizon being evoked. This is subtle communication that implies a reaction we know deep down, but is taken for granted, and so becomes overlooked.  Our subconscious registers these visual cues and “reads“ the images we see. It is word association, inspired by graphic content. 

The French Impressionist painter and sculptor, Edward Degas, once said, “Art is not about what we see, but about what the artist makes us see.”   How do artists accomplish this?  They use five tools, which are the underlying structural principles of a  visual image. Much like composers of music utilize string, wind, and percussion instruments, the instruments of the graphic artist are; LINE, TONE, SHAPE, COLOR & TEXTURE.  These forms are engineered or orchestrated to create a design, much like musical instruments work in concert to create a sound or tune. Each of these five visual elements ”speak” to us in different ways. Careful observation interprets what they say.


COLOR –  is complex because it has many facets subject to personal interpretation. These facets are; HUE, VALUE SATURATION, and TEMPERATURE.  With additional considerations involving how colors interact. All these points lend options to project the nature of the book on it’s cover. Every picture has color that tells a story. Selecting the color or colors that relate to a specific story needs intuition,insight, and common sense. 

When my career called for a cover to be commissioned before the manuscript for that book was completed, the publisher might suggest asking the author to describe the story’s content. This is a poor substitute for actually reading the book. An author understandably relates the plot, and sometimes describes the characters, similar to the outline initially pitched to the publisher.  Such a long winded cover blurb is interesting for sure, but leaves a lot unanswered. What is the theme, the conflict?  What is the mood? The tone? Is the story slow moving, fast paced, colorful, fanciful, or dark and dreary? What range of emotions are portrayed through the characters?  The cover of a book can evoke answers to all these questions because the author’s writing will inform the graphic mind for visual interpretation.Color can provide nuanced responses to written cues if the understanding of color is applied to manipulate an intended response. So, back to the facets. 

HUE –  describes the “family” where the color resides. Red, Yellow, and Blue  are each a hue. These three are also called  Primary Colors. That is because no other color exists to create them. Whereas, the hues, Orange, Green, and Purple, are a result of combining two of the primary colors ( red+yellow = orange, yellow+blue =green, blue+red = purple)  Combining all three Primary Colors creates an overload, resulting in a version of gray. When intentional, this combination creates a subtle complex gray tone much richer than merely adding black to white. When unintentional, it creates a color commonly known as – “mud”. 

A while back, a feature in Wired magazine,  gave me an interesting revelation about primary and secondary colors.  There was a sort of nerdy graph that presented the costume colors of comic book heroes and villains.  In nearly all instances,  the comic book heroes had all, or some, Primary Colors appearing in their costumes. In nearly all cases, the villains had all, or some, Secondary Colors making up their costumes.  The revelation being that, just as good guys wear while hats and bad guys weal black hats, so too, good guys a can be expected to appear in primary colors and bad guys in secondary colors. The phenomena went beyond one comic publisher, but held true for all. So, good equates to primary colors, bad embraces secondary colors.  Long before I saw this article, I was commissioned to do art for a card game. The requirement was to make an image of a Good Shield and a Bad Shield.  My subconscious, knee jerk reaction was to put primary colors on the Good Shield and feature secondary colors on the Bad Shield image.  So these color combinations “speak“ to us in a subconscious way as do black and white tones. 

To decipher color and it’s relationships, a color wheel presents the complex color relationships adding many layers to a straight forward white to black value scale.  Rather like a compass , but with three major points ( Primary Colors) rather than four (directional points). Midway between the three Primary Color points lie the Secondary Colors and midway between those points are found the Tertiary Colors ( blue green, yellow green, red purple, red orange, yellow orange)  Between those, further color relationships (blue-blue green, green-green yellow etc), array much like compass points – south-south by south west.   Colors next to each other on that color wheel are called analogous colors.  These provide a smooth transition between hues and have a comforting aspect. They appear like family, interrelated. However, if one leaps across the color wheel and marry the opposing colors, one creates a shock value. It is said, “ Opposites attract.”   This has been used to full advantage commercially.  Opposing hues  Red + Green = Christmas Holiday colors. Blue + Orange represent Halloween. Purple + Yellow= Easter season. 

 VALUE -. Just as black and white have a full range of gray tones between them, each HUE has a full range of values between the presence of light (white) and the absence of light ( black). For example, red can be the merest blush of pink in a near white environment and go through deeper shades of pink towards red, then descend into maroon then deep maroon to black. So each individual HUE contains a full value range. All the effects of tone regarding good vs evil, light and joy vs darkness and sadness, apply to the value relationships of each color.   

 SATURATION – each hue can have degrees of color intensity at nearly all value ranges.  A colorful story would benefit from cranked up color saturation.  A moody, bleak story would do better with unsaturated color.  There are two methods of graying out a color. Adding black or white to the color is one way, or mixing the opposing color on the color wheel will also desaturate a color’s intensity. When the ratio of the opposing color reaches an equal percentage, the resulting color approaches a neutral gray.  Each application has a dimming effect to the color’s intensity, but the resulting effect of leached color impression differs.   When the opposing colors on the color wheel are positioned NEXT to each other with the same amount of SATURATION and, at the same VALUE, this creates a visual vibration. The result is shocking and can be difficult to look at because neither hue has dominance, so the viewer is confused.  But if one hue has greater saturation or a change in value, the opposing elements form a relationship that offers aesthetic interpretation and does not present conflict.   Introducing color wheel opposites at extreme differing values, creates an enhanced FOCUS POINT.  This offers the same eye catching attraction as placing dynamic value contrast at an intended area of interest, but is augmented by the opposing color shock response. Another big LOOK HERE statement.

TEMPERATURE – as a general rule, warm colors (yellow, red, orange, and yellow green) visually come forward and cool colors (blue, purple, green) are perceived to recede. This is because, our atmosphere is blue and things in the distance tend to become more blue the further away they are, because more atmosphere is present between the viewer and the distant objects with the warm colors filtered out. The blue cast is termed atmospheric perspective. On a rainy day the depth of clarity is reduced due to water in the air reducing visibility.  As sunlight and candle light have been the most common forms of illumination, and they have a yellow or warm cast, objects affected by this illumination appear closer than things further away that contain cool colored atmosphere between. This situation can be reversed to startling effect. Those golden sunsets where the sun actually illuminates the particles in the atmosphere creates warm color in the distance.  On book covers, a shock value can be arranged by manipulating the values so that cool colors are lighter and brighter than darker, or muted warm colors, creating an other worldly appearance which is very effective for science fiction books. Bright cool colors against a dark background generally implies an un-earthly setting. This effect appears in Star Wars, where the Light Saber beams all have cool casts. Those with a red glow are not a hot red, but rather leaning towards a cool red with a shift to crimson or red purple.

The overall color effect suggests the overall nature of a story, book or intent of animage.  Dim, grim, bright, jarring, soft, shocking, soothing, harsh, edgy, unsettling, unexpected, and  peacefull are some descriptive words that can be conveyed through color. 


Please note: I’m posting this on behalf of Don Maitz on the blog, he was nice enough to share his knowledge and expertise with all of us and there will be several parts to this series posted each Monday. The series will cover Line, Shape, Tone, Color and Texture. If you’d like to find more content from with or learn more about Don he (and Janny Wurts) can be found here on


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