Painting the Dark Harp

My kid loves to paint. For Christmas a few years back, I suggested his grandparents get him an easel. This Harry and David easel included a chalk and whiteboard. Sitting on top of a painter’s mat, It has been a fixture in my basement for years.

I’m not sure why I wanted him to have it. I just did. It was good intuition. Thinking back, it might have been my wife’s intuition because I loved Legos as a kid. My child not so much. I think we have several unopened buckets of Legos cast about. I tried to get him to like them. It just didn’t happen. Perhaps, I should start building with them. I bet I could build an amazing castle. Big Dragons. Drawbridge. Sharks in the moat. Horses. Army. It would be epic. But these plastic things cost a little too much to try.

My kid paints a couple of times each week. He paints on canvases of all types, pieces of paper, and occasionally scratches on the chalkboard. We use watercolor (not his favorite), oil and acrylic paints (his favorite). And I think I’ve ruined who knows how many shirts by not putting that little white apron on him. If your kid likes to paint, this is a best practice I don’t follow near enough.

I’ve also purchased many masterpieces. He’s a fairly shrewd negotiator. Somehow, I’ll end up paying for all of his supplies, help him clean up his mess, and end up spending 20 bucks for the finished product. More or less, depending on how it turns out. Kids have a way of finding the sweet spot on the value curve.

All in all, I think I made out fairly well.

Then again, maybe I’m the one who got off lucky. Art is expensive and in the eye of the beholder. I marvel at art stores strategically placed in vacation spots. I remember seeing a 10K price tag on a copper statue of General Custard at Little BigHorn. I won’t tell you where it’s at (I know you might want it), but I can’t for the life of me understand how the place stays open. Then, it hits me. You only have to sell one or two each month to make a living at it. With my kid’s projects, I like to think I made out ok. The number of canvases in my office is more than just one or two.

For my first book, Knights of Legend, the cover is actually an oil painting. Most people don’t know that. If you have the hardcover, you’ll notice I used a smoother finish for the paper in the printing process to give it a certain feel. If you look closely, you can make out the brush strokes along the tree line. I think it’s pretty cool and turned out well despite some challenges in the end.

Knights of Legend Cover Art

For the Dark Harp, I wanted to take the same approach. Even in this digital age, I wanted a painted cover. I know it seems silly, but I like to call this my trademark of sorts. However, finding an artist is hard work. Then, I realized I had an art studio in my basement. And I had an artist who could take direction. He had to. He’s my kid. This was also his book. He asked for it. I figured I could at least get something out of the deal.

I drew a few concept sketches and showed my budding artist what I was trying to accomplish. When I was a kid, I loved to draw. Sadly, I wasn’t very good at it. As a person, you have to understand your limitations. Some people are just better at some things.

Then, we went to work. He painted in acrylic. As this is the Dark Harp, we used a darker color scheme. I’d say the cover art took him about two weeks. He painted a base color, built on top of it, and then built on top of that. My son paints on look and feel. I can tell you I really have no idea what I’m doing. But he seems to have a knack for it. At times, he literally throws paint at the canvas. Yes, this does create challenges. My walls get a little unwanted color. But the texture is fantastic.

Once he was done, I went to work. I photographed his painting. This was extremely challenging, more so than I expected. I don’t have a tripod and probably needed one. I also have a little understanding of light settings, etc. The amazing thing about paintings is you do really need to see them in person. It’s amazing how colors reflect light. The Mona Lisa looks drab on the Internet, but special when seen up close and personal. All paintings are like that. Go to a museum. See for yourself.

As expected, my flash didn’t work. To resolve issues with light, my shaky hands and lack of camera understanding, I took a few hundred pictures. Apparently, a Canon DSLR has all these settings for a reason. So, I decided to use each one. Trial and error. Between shutter speed, aperture setting, and bursting shots, I’d usually end up getting one good shot. You can hire a professional or just do the same task a few hundred times. Eventually, you get the results you want. A little luck never hurts too. Or, it could be the law of probability with large numbers.

Then, I ran the best shots through Aperture. I’d change the lighting, darkness and shadow to get the final shot as close to the original painting as possible. It didn’t always work out. The original still looks better. It’s amazing on the wall.

But that’s just for the background. You see, the unveiled cover is actually four different pieces of art. And the Dark Harp in the picture isn’t a painting. It’s actually a drawing from an application called 53 Paper for iOS. They have a fairly cool electronic pencil Santa dropped in my stocking that does a good job. It’s not real paint, but the application is fairly sophisticated, far more than the MSPaint application I used as a kid. It does have the added benefit of being able to erase easily. Lots of trial and error here too.

Once all the individual building blocks were in place, I put it all together using a program called Pixelmator. It’s not Photoshop, but the layering is good enough for what I’m trying to accomplish. It also costs about 30 bucks and the how-to guides are easy to find/understand.

Putting Together the Building Blocks

The finished work ended up being impressive. At least, I like to think so. It follows the same painted feel as my last book, gives a snapshot of what the story is about, and has a raw look. The narrator/voice of the story is a little raw too.

I like to think the cover is fitting. Plus, I built it with my kid. That’s worth the time spent no matter how it turned out. This worked out so well, I’ll probably do a few more of these for illustrations inside the book. Maybe, I’ll find another vein of luck in the mine. Then again, prolific artists do have advantages. Picasso did more than a few paintings. Do it enough times, and you will eventually get it right. And what’s more fun than playing in a little paint?


  • Pixelmator, a suitable replacement for Adobe Photoshop. A year ago, this cost less than 20 bucks; not sure what it runs today. All in all, a great purchase.
  • Fifty-Three, a creative company. I use this for drawing/sketching ideas. I haven’t really played around with the bulleted lists, which is a recent feature.
  • Pablo Picasso created over 50,000 works of art, including over 1,800 paintings. Yes, he was a genius, but if you work at anything long enough you’ll eventually strike gold. Volume matters.
  • Reimagined the original painting lately and updated it to the new cover.