Taking Stock of the Stock Art

by wjw on March 28, 2012

I’ve been trawling through stock art sites in hopes of finding something suitable for the ebook release of Aristoi, and I’m finding that there are certain images that appear over and over again.

Bald heads, for one.  If there’s a person without a helmet or something covering his or her hair, ten to one that person’s bald.

I don’t think this is because science fiction artists have a strange fetish for bald heads.  I think it’s because hair is difficult to paint using Photoshop or other electronic tools, so it’s easier to leave them bald.  (Maybe an artist out there can enlighten me on this matter.)

The endless progression of expressionless bald heads begins to get really eerie after a while.  (Oh, I didn’t mention that most of the baldies were expressionless?  Trying to get an expression right probably takes too much time.)

The characters who actually have expressions tend to have strange expressions, as if they had just been jabbed in the buttocks by a cattle prod.  (I’m thinking that expressionless is better.)  I’m also thinking, again, that getting an expression right takes too much time.  But I keep looking at the pictures and thinking, “I might buy this one if the character didn’t look as if he had just stuck his finger in the light socket.  What was the artist thinking?”

There are an awful lot of androids and cyborgs.  I suspect they’re easier to do than people— you pose your maquette and then you just give it a machinelike gloss. You don’t have to worry about clothing or musculature or, again, expression.

There are a great many penis substitutes to be found in the stock art pages.  This is, of course, not uncommon.  Surely we’ve all seen many suggestively-posed swords and strangely bulbous weaponry on the covers of science fiction books.    But I keep looking at the art and thinking, “I might buy this one if it weren’t for the BIG FREAKING PENIS.  I don’t want my readers to look at the cover, and the first thing they see is the BIG FREAKING PENIS!   If I do that, they might think I am a big freaking penis!”

Space suits with boobs.  Oh yeah, there are a lot of those.  It’s the way you know the astronaut is female, especially if she’s bald and has no expression.

Planetary mashup.  There are lot of astronomical scenes with way too many planets in the picture.  Often one of them is ringed like Saturn.  Another favorite is the Death Star, aka a moon with lots of windows.  There are also lots of pyramids on the planets being loomed over by Saturn or the Death Star.

The Greys.  Nothing says science fiction like a bald, expressionless alien descending from a flying saucer.  You don’t have to get the proportions right, and if the expression looks weird, hey, it’s an alien expression.

Cute humanoid robots.  Big threatening transformerlike robots.  Cute animals that happen to be robots.  Lots and lots of scientifictional cityscapes with Saturn or the Death Star looming down on them.

Weird, uncomfortable poses.  A lot of the artists who are very good at spaceships or future cities or astronomy tend to be less comfortable doing figure drawing.  So the figures end up looking as if they’re posing for a statue in some deeply uncomfortable way.  The result doesn’t say, “I am a titanic, adventurous figure in a landscape of the future.”  It says, “I just got frozen in Carbonite and now I’ve got a cramp in my leg.”

I think I’ve been doing this far too long.  And I’m not really complaining: all illustrators have to start somewhere, and all are better at some things than others.  Besides, illustration thrives on cliché, at least on some levels.  I’m sure they sell a lot of grey aliens and cute robots and pyramids standing tall beneath the rings of Saturn.

And there’s a lot of good art to be found.  It’s just not art that’s right for this book.

Fact is, Aristoi is a very difficult book to illustrate.  I doubt very much if I’m going to find a striking image that resembles anything in the book, so I’ll probably end up taking a striking image that suggests something in the book, and using that.

But I wish the stock art pages were a little easier to search.  I wish I could look for science fiction art but somehow exclude the bald people, the dachshund-shaped robots, and the flying saucers.

But I want you, the reader, to have the best experience possible when viewing this book.  So I shall soldier on through the Forest of the Stock Art; and tonight, when I wake up screaming from a nightmare of being surrounded by a horde of bald, expressionless cyborgs, I shall comfort myself with the knowledge that I endure this only to make you a happy consumer.

Lisa Osman March 28, 2012 at 7:38 am

Considering how much time it is taking to find stock art, why don’t you just find an artist whose style matches what you want and commission them? I realize it would cost more up front, but your time is valuable too. The time you spend hunting for a stock image could be spent more profitably elsewhere. And you’ll get an image that is both more relevant to the book and expressional-ful. With hair!

My understanding is that deviantart.com is often used to find an artists for such projects.

Stacy March 28, 2012 at 10:59 am

I’m afraid I can’t offer any constructive advice, but I just have to say that the cover art on the hardback and paperback was the best I’ve seen on any of your books. Loved the two leads and the background landscape.

We all know what they say about judging books by their covers, but I think it was the cover that at least caused me to pick it up, before I knew who you were.

edi March 28, 2012 at 12:59 pm


I’m a semi-regular reader of your blog 🙂
And also it happens to follow another blog, Concept Ships http://conceptships.blogspot.com
Maybe you can connect with some of the artists there to obtain your cover art.

Hope it helps,

Ralf The Dog. March 28, 2012 at 1:32 pm

Lisa, I can’t answer for Mr. Williams, however, I would guess, the way his millions of screaming fans are screaming for the book, he wants to get it published fast, before the riots start. It takes time for a commissioned artist to draw a picture. It takes longer if you want a good picture. It takes much longer if you want a good picture you like.

If it was me, I would get a bunch of my better looking 20 something friends, have them put on some fancy looking clothes from a costume shop. (The costumes need to look good from 10 or more feet.) Then I would take lots of pictures of them at some futuristic looking place and apply different WAPF (Weird Assed Photoshop Filters) until I had something that looked good. Unfortunately, that would take several days.

Alex Kreis March 28, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Given the source material, perhaps you should consider looking through Ancient Greek-themed pictures, especially masks. You might get a better selection.

A little Photoshop and you could add a pixellation effect that says SF.

Some quick examples:


Ralf The Dog. March 28, 2012 at 6:59 pm

I don’t have much time to play, here are a few images that, with the right filters could look good for your book. One option would be to just select the image, copy it, then paste it onto the foreground of some classical bit of architecture. I would do some sample images myself, however, I am not in full blown Aristoi mode today. I would be lucky to rank Therapon.






Ralf The Dog. March 28, 2012 at 7:02 pm

I should have said, just select the model.

DensityDuck March 28, 2012 at 10:06 pm

Lower left of picture: Heroic man with SF gun.

Lower right of picture: Woman doing chemistry experiments (holding a beaker or pouring something

Both have a “whooshing clouds” sort of transition up to…
Center of picture: Man and woman embracing with cybertechy holo-readouts all around them.

(top of picture is author/title, sides are for blurbs)

This could be hacked together in Photoshop by an amateur and look, well, absolutely awful.

DensityDuck March 28, 2012 at 10:15 pm

Incidentally, speaking as someone who has a hobby designing spaceships in 3D, I have to say that it’s amusingly difficult to not unconsciously create a giant flying penis.

Ralf The Dog. March 28, 2012 at 10:23 pm

Mr. Duck, if you think that is bad, try designing a tall building sometime.

Timothy Standish March 29, 2012 at 12:30 am

well it could be worse. A big bald head that looks like a penis.

wjw March 29, 2012 at 4:21 am

Thank you all for the lovely suggestions. For the moment none of my ebooks has earned enough to justify commissioning a brand-new work of art, not if I want to pay the artist what he’s worth.

Maybe someday.

One thing I’ve learned is that each cover has to contain a strong central image. That’s because in the online catalogs, the picture gets reduced to postage-stamp size, and if it’s too dark, too busy, or has too many elements, everything just gets lost.

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