Pulped Fiction

philebusphilebus Posts: 221

0.00 Introduction

I’m really not sure if there is any interest in this and I’m not the best example of the style of post-work but as there doesn't’t seem to be anything else much on the internet about it, Here I am.

I’ve been meaning to sort out a tutorial for a long time and as I don’t think I’m going to get around to setting up a blog to post it on, I’ll just create a thread here and expand with new posts as I have time.

A good while ago, I started trying out ways to re-create the look and feel of old pulpy paperback books. My starting point was the work of the great Mike Fyles – and it was a tutorial of his (which no longer appears to be on the internet) that was the kernel of my own workflow. Fyles is a real pro and has produced covers for both Marvel and DC. You can also find a number of pulp re-prints and new pulp publications that feature his art, so please do check out his gallery (https://mikefyles.deviantart.com/). It’s not the same style but will better inspire you to try pulp illustration than anything I’m doing.

As I progressed, my little project has become more focussed in its goal.

I have a love of pulpy fiction and with the advent of print-on-demand and then digital books, there has been a new wave of this literature. Not all good, to be sure, but much of it welcome regardless. However, while contents certainly drew on old pulp novels, the covers fell short of selling that quality.

The modern pulp market is very different from that of old. It is dominated by self and Indie publishers who have to work with very limited budgets that simply can’t stretch to the cost of a traditional cover artist and designer. To meet the demand for a low cost alternative, a new market arose in pre-made book covers.

My goal then, is to produce a method of creating book covers that evoke the look a feel of old pulp novels (as found from the 40s through to the early 80s), at a speed that makes them a viable product in the low cost, pre-made book cover market. This inevitably means some compromise but I see that as part of the challenge.

As I’ve said, I don’t think that what I’m producing is up to standard yet but I hope that I might encourage others to try their hand at it. If you do, then by all means, feel free to post here.


  • philebusphilebus Posts: 221
    edited June 2018

    1.00 Resources

    1.10 Software

    1.11 First of all, obviously, you will need a 3D staging / content program, such as Poser, DAZ Sudio, or Carrara with a library of content. This limits the economics of this method to those who have already built up such a library, else the start up cost could take chunks out of any hope of profits. It doesn’t matter which software you go for, they all have different ways of working and somewhat different feature sets. I will be using Poser but I doubt that I will be doing much with it that you can’t do with other programs.

    1.12 I will be making use of two other programs. One is a photo editor – and for this you could conceivably use Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Gimp, Paint Shop Pro, or, in my case, Affinity Photo. If you are using a version of Photoshop, then you will have access to its excellent Cutout art filter. In the quest for an alternative to Cutout, I have found an excellent filter from Topaz, called Simplify and will be making use of this.

    The second of these programs is a paint program – and for this you could use Corel Painter, but I will be using ArtRage 5, which is much, much cheaper, and much, much easier to use.

    1.20 Graphic Resources

    1.21 I’ve already mentioned the need for a good library of 3D resources / content and I don’t want to get weighed down by an in depth discussion of it yet – I may expand this section in the future.

    That said, there are some things you should consider before starting.

    First of all, you may have a lot of free content – make sure that it is licensed for commercial use.

    If you have a large selection of content, make sure you are familiar with it and where to find it. If you mean to make pre-made book covers then time is money, so it won’t do to sit down to work and then spend three hours browsing your content for something you feel like using.

    Build a library of pre-made characters – and by this I mean, figure, morphs, texture, hair, and clothes. The whole kit. This will be a huge time-saver in the long run. When you have a few spare minutes, build a character and render a nice thumbnail.

    1.22 Brushes and Textures

    You won’t need much but when it comes to creating an old, worn looking cover, these can be very useful. I use quite a few of the Ron Deviney sets found it the DAZ store.

    However, there is one texture resource that you will have to create for yourself. You are going to need to find one or two old paperbacks with dark covers (which makes this job easier) and a lot of wear and tear at the edges. Scan these covers and open them in your photo editor. You will then need to use a selection tool to pick out the edge-wear (this can be a little tedious), then copy and paste to a new layer. This is what you will then add to your display template.

    1.23 Fonts

    Two things, above all others, really define pulp novels for me – the painted artwork and the typography. Choosing the right fonts is essential.

    My advice would be to source a small stable of fonts to work with and expand the collection gradually, else you will end up spending a fortune on a huge number of fonts, most of which you will probably not use. Don’t be too shy of purchasing fonts either – they aren’t that expensive when compared to the average character or dress for your 3D mannequins.

    You will need two types of font. Title/Display fonts, for primary and secondary text, and some text fonts for secondary and tertiary text and back matter (I’ll explain how I using those terms in the in part 2).

    It is easy to get carried away with fonts – it’s something I’ve been guilty of myself. Look through old paperbacks and you’ll find that a large number actually use very plain fonts, though they use them effectively. One of my favourite classic fonts, worth every penny just for the one member of the family, is Lydian Roman. It is gorgeous.

    Now, here is a selection of free fonts that can be found on the internet. None of them is really very fancy but they should all work well for this project – save the last: True Crimes. That is a little unfair. True Crimes is a good font and is exactly what most people instantly associate with pulpy detective stories. However, I don’t recommend it – partly because I can’t find where it comes from but mostly because it is such a cliché in faux pulp, while not actually something you find much in the real thing. It feels like the lazy option that everyone uses, leaving it with little real character beyond being that popular pulp font.

    This selection of my collection from the Scriptorium is a little more fancy in style and includes a number taken directly from pulp novels (Suspicion, Shayne, Ripley, Gods of Mars, and Nightmare), while others are taken from period posters, magazines, and comics (Drakulon is based on the original Vampirella title font, Cavegirl Gothic from One Million Years BC, Evil of Frankenstein from Hammer film posters).

    1.24 Logos

    Not quite an issue for the pre-made cover market but I like to use them and would encourage small publishers to do the same in order to help create and build their brand. For my covers, I created Yellow Jacket publishing, with a little wasp logo.

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  • philebusphilebus Posts: 221
    edited June 2018

    2.00 Templates

    You will need to build two templates in your photo editor. One for the printed paperbacks and one for the display cover with all its wear and tear.

    A note about text: depending upon your photo editor, you may have a couple of options for placing text – Art Text, and Text Frames. Art Text is free form and should be used for everything on the front cover. Text Frames are more formal arrangement, keeping text within the defined area – use this for the back matter.

    2.10 First you need to make a decision about the book size you will work with. I’ve used a 5x8 size and downloaded a template from Amazon as most of these books will be sold there and so it will also likely serve as their print-on-demand service (called Createspace). I’m using a template for, I think, 200 pages, though that doesn’t matter as it is something you can adjust for later.

    Open your template in your photo editor. You’ll need to start by dragging out guidelines to the start of the bleed, the safe areas, and the creases (ie, where the spine and back cover start).

    What I do know is start to add the various standard elements of the cover, putting them into three groups – Front, Spine, and Back – which are in turn grouped together, leaving only the cover template at the very bottom and a couple of optional layers at the top.

    2.11 The Front Group is the bottom group, above only the template.

    In here, I first place a block of grey to lieu of the cover art.

    Primary Text: This is usually going to be the book’s title but might, where the author is a big enough brand, then their name might be primary. In pulp though, it really should be the title. This should be a nice bold display font.

    Secondary Text: This usually the author’s name. This needs to be something stronger than an ordinary text font but it should not challenge the primary text and should be readable at smaller sizes. Two of my favourite choices for this are Ripley and Lydian Roman.

    Tertiary Text: This is going to be the book’s tag line or endorsement. For pulp, it should really be the tag line. The font should not challenge either the primary or the secondary and needs to be very clear. My favourites for this job are Stonehouse and Ascelon.

    Once placed, I like to have the front text layers in a single sub group.

    Publisher’s logo: I honestly don’t understand why more indie publishers don’t employ a publisher’s logo on their covers, but then there is seldom any brand recognition in their covers at all. This is a shame as they are mostly genre publishers for whom that kind of recognition would pay dividends. I have a couple of colour variations of my dummy logo but I don’t vary it much. Once it’s placed, I make a copy to reduce and add to the spine – you’ll also want it to appear on the back cover.

    Layout Elements: There are endless ways of laying out covers. You needn’t have any further elements beyond those I’ve mentioned but you may want to add some blocks of colour top and/or bottom, or perhaps a panel for the title. You might also want to add some text in a small sans serif font to the effect of “Complete and Unabridged” or “First Publication Anywhere”.

    2.12 The Spine is my top group. If you don’t have enough pages, then it may be that you have to leave the spine blank in the end. As mentioned, I like to put a reduced copy of the logo here, along with the title and author – though don’t use heavy display fonts, as they won’t look good or be very readable at a small size.

    2.13 The back is my middle group. As a rule, modern pulp is only going to be sold as digital, so the only people who are going to see the back and spine are people who have purchased a print-on-demand copy. Because of this, there is no point at all in extended wraparound artwork that would up the cost with no real return for the publisher, nor is there any point in putting endorsements on there.

    Back colour block: This is a single colour block covering both the back and the spine.

    Barcode block: There is a space on the template showing where the barcode needs to go. I use this to place a white block on the cover to work around.

    Back logo: I like to have a further logo on the back cover – I have a larger variant for this.

    Prices: We are used to a price on the back (though this was often on the front cover of many older novels) but these can be variable for print-on-demand, particularly the overseas prices, so don’t use them.

    Tag Text: Some bold tag text should be at the top.

    Blurb: The book’s blurb / sales pitch can go next, in a simple text font but keep it short.

    Promotion: If you’ve kept the blurb short then you can use the rest of the space to mention other books – which is actually useful to the publisher.

    2.14 I’ve been a bit lazy of late and have often missed out this stage – and some others that I’ll come to – but ideally you want a couple of layers on top to make the colour a little less even, and to add a little subtle wear.

    I have one layer of fine black grain on Overlay at an opacity of about 30%, and a second layer of grunge/wear on overlay at about 20%.

    2.20 In your photo editor, create a new document at your selected cover size – I’ve created one at 5”x8”. Make your base layer a simple grey fill. Now you need to add those worn edges you extracted for the old paperbacks I mentioned in 1.22, each on its own layer and resized with the handles to fit the document. You’ll now want some brushes to add creases and scratches in white. I created a bunch of layers, each with a different crease/scratch on that can be moved about or turned off for the book I’m working on. Finally, at the top, you’ll want a layer of spills in black.

    Group all the layers save for the grey fill which you can leave at the bottom. Now create copies of the groups and switching elements on and off, as well as moving them about and changing the opacities, create different wear and tear presents which you can collapse into merged layers to save you time later.

    You now have your templates and can turn to making a render.

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  • philebusphilebus Posts: 221
    edited June 2018

    3.10 One of the nice things about pulpy covers, is that they are in character, uncluttered by too many elements. We can keep things simple – and for the first cover, we’ll stick to a single figure and a single ‘feature’ prop. In this case, I’m going to select a pre-made character, give her a library pose, add a gun, and then, for a feature – and to served to suggest a story – an open safe.

    Before we take this further though, we need to keep in mind that we are not rendering for photorealism, we are rendering for a specific style of post-work. So, no need for Superfly or Iray, nor indirect lighting, and not even for pretty subsurface scattering.

    These are the render settings I will use for both test renders as I set up and for the final job.

    As for lighting, the chances are that you have some old lighting pre-sets in your library that will do the job just fine. If not, a couple of quickly placed spots will probably do the job.

    That’s what I’ll use here.

    We can play around with the lights and the camera till we’re happy – just don’t spend too long at it.

    Now I remove the ground prop, so that I’m rendering against empty space that will have a handy transparency. Then all that’s needed is to change the render size. I usually just set the height to 3500 pixels.

    As a final note, while having poses, expressions, and lights in your library is very handy, don’t lean to heavily on them or they will limit you. But don’t neglect them either – if nothing else, they can serve as good starting points to get where you want, saving you precious time.

    3.21 Now open up your exported render in your photo editor and unlock the layer. Move and even resize the image on the canvas as you wish, then create a duplicate and get to work on it.

    At this stage you will want to consider deepening shadows, brightening highlights, making colours a little more vivid, and perhaps sharpening it up. When you are happy with the result, copy the flattened image and paste into a new layer ready for applying filters.

    3.22 You ideally want to achieve two things with filters. The first is a rough blocking of colours and the second is a degree of paintwork that will let you leave faces well alone in the ‘painting’ stage. There are numerous filters out there and the results from all of them will be variable from image to image, so to some extent, you have to take what you get and work with it.

    If you are using a version of Photoshop, even Elements, then you have access to the Cutout filter, which will block out our colours (keep the layer style to normal and just reduce the opacity to around 50%, possibly deleting some areas where you want to preserve some detail). After that, you can use the Dry Brush filter.

    Affinity Photo does not yet have a range of art filters, though I gather they are part of Serif’s game plan. I have however, purchased the Topaz Simplify plug-in, which is doing a fair job for me.

    I’m going to copy the flattened image, then paste it to a new layer and run it through the filter using a black and white painting pre-set.

    I duplicate the layer, switch one off and then change the style to Luminosity.

    Where I want to get back a little detail (almost always the eyes, nostrils, and mouth), I just use the eraser at 40%.

    I’m not overly happy with the texture on the trousers but that’s just how it goes sometimes – I ran the eraser over them to get rid of some of it.

    Once you are happy with the image, export as a png for use as a tracing image in ArtRage.

    3.30 I’ve mentioned that there are various other art programs out their that will simulate natural media, for this, I’m going to be using ArtRage5.

    3.31 Create a new image and on the dialogue, import your image as a Trace Image, set the picture size to match this and the DPI to 300. You can play around with textures if you like but for now, I’m going to leave things as they are. There are other ways of importing images into ArtRage but, like most software, it has some little quirks – in this instance, using the Trace feature works best for us.

    3.32 Create a new layer and with it selected, using the Convert Trace Image to Paint option and make the trace invisible.

    3.33 Select the bottom layer and with the oil brush, slap on some colour. Nothing fancy.

    Once done, you can select the Palette Knife and work it over until your happy with the background. Now select the image layer and merge down (taking the knife to the image layer without merging it doesn’t tend to work out well – another quirk).

    3.34 Now I need to compensate for what the filters couldn’t manage. I’ve created two more layers. One I shall leave on top of all and will not merge – on this, I’ve used a pen to rough in some detail to the safe. Nothing fancy, keep this sort of thing loose and simple.

    On the other, I’ve used the oil brush where I want some fabric folds – this I merge down.

    3.35 Back to the knife. Attack. It’s much easier than you would think – just make liberal use of Undo and you’ll be fine. Work at it till you’re happy but keep in mind that you are not working to produce a painting – just the impression of one. This process is about selling an illusion (the real thing takes too much time and therefore too much money for this market).

    3.36 Once happy, export as a png ready to open up in your photo editor.

    3.41 Open your cover template and make a copy of the Cover group and name it, then select the grey layer and paste in your artwork to a new layer above it.

    Now it is simply a matter of selecting each of the elements and customising them to fit your creation.

    3.42 Now collapse the front cover text group and duplicate it. Switch off the original, right click on the duplicate group and rasterize it.

    This will leave you with a single pixel layer with all the text.

    Add a bit of Gaussian Blur and then reduce the opacity (usually 90% is fine).

    3.43 Collapse the cover group and select it. Copy flattened image and paste in as a new layer above cover (and below the grain and grunge layers). You now want to apply a colour halftone effect to this new layer and reduce the opacity to about 4%.

    3.44 You can now switch on the grain and grunge layers, adjusting them as needed, and you have your print cover. All that remains is for you to select the cover area, copy flattened image, and then open your cover display template.

    3.50 With the cover display template open, select your grey layer and paste in the cover image as a new layer above that.

    You can either work with the numerous layers to find exactly the right fit or you can use a pre-set layer. I’ve used the pre-set that I created earlier in the tutorial, erasing the odd scratch/crease that didn’t work for me.

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  • FirstBastionFirstBastion Posts: 4,560

    Excellent Tutroial.

  • Thank you so much! Very good tutorial.

    Will be happy to see more examples if you have time.

  • philebusphilebus Posts: 221
    edited June 2018

    It occured to me that I never thought to post the finished cover to this thread.


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  • philebusphilebus Posts: 221
    edited June 2018

    4.0 Underwater Scenes

    Sea faring adventure and underwater menace is apparently popular in the current wave of pulpy horror novels, so it was something I had to look at. Much of what I’m going to do has been outlined in the main tutorial, so I won’t repeat myself too much with this one.

    4.11 The render is very simple – I’ve used Red, my go-to underwater girl, along with some prehistoric beasties from Dinoraul. Nothing fancy with the lighting, though one trick you could use here is to render a depth map. I used to to this, applying it as a layer mask to fade more distant elements. However, life is short and time is money, so I’m going to get the job done the rough and ready way.

    4.12 I start by going through the same stages as the last tutorial, adjusting a little for colour, shadows, etc, before applying the Topaz Simplify filter.

    4.13 Now we could, perhaps even should, create a layer mask to get this effect but really, let's just quickly to make a duplicate layer for safety and then attack with an eraser at about 40%. Three quick passes will do the job, allowing total control over what get faded out.

    4.21 Use the result of your preparation as a trace layer in ArtRage – you can see how it will look.

    Do a little quick paintwork for the back ground before attacking it with a knife.

    4.22 Merge the layers and begin attacking the figures with the knife. Pay attention to blending the edges of the beasties as that will help the fade effect as they swim out from the blue.

    4.23 If you were thinking that the colours are too vivid, you’re right. There are other, probably better ways of doing this – but I like the quick way. Create a new layer, fill it with a buck of blue paint and reduce the opacity.

    4.31 Back to your photo editor and before you can import the ‘painting’ into your template, you want to make a selection of the main figure, then copy and paste into a new layer.

    4.32 Select both layers and paste them into your template and separate the layers so that your selection is above the display elements – in this case I’ve used a panel for my text.

    4.33 There may be some ‘jaggies’ around your overlapping selection – you can avoid this by feathering your selection but I prefer to use the blur tool, so I can restrict the effect to the area of overlap.

    4.34 I then rasterize the groups with the panels and text, applying a little blur to the result and reducing the opacity a tad.

    4.35 Now apply the Halftone effect and switch on the Grunge and Grain layers.

    4.36 Finally, you can make your display version.


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  • Just gotta say that this thread was a huge inspiration for the pulp fiction-y covers I'm doing for the re-launch of my book line this month. Thanks!

  • DiomedeDiomede Posts: 9,826

    Thank you for the tutorials.  Wonderful thread.

  • This a huge inspiration for making covers. 

    Thanks for your sharing. 

    It helps me more than what I learnt on Techgara last year. 

    Wonderful thread.

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