The first (and so far, only) two book covers I designed were done with GIMP. I got great help from Joleene Naylor on the first cover, and managed to flounder my way to solo completion with the second, but along the way I noticed some recurrent problems, particularly with regard to text, curves and anti-aliasing.
What I have learned over the past year or so is that all graphics software breaks down along two main lines: vector graphics and raster graphics. GIMP is commonly and accurately categorized as photo-editing software, but also belongs on the raster side of the graphics software divide. While photo-editing software can be incredibly powerful in its own right, because raster graphics are based on pixels, resizing raster graphics can also get you into serious trouble.
That’s not true for vector graphics, which are defined by mathematical relationships. Put together a snazzy logo in a vector program and you can scale that logo down to a business card or up to a billboard with no loss of detail. Yes, it is a miracle.
I have a few covers to design in the coming months — or years, at my current pace — and I plan on doing so, at least in part, using a vector graphics program called Inkscape. Like GIMP, Inkscape is open-source freeware and incredibly powerful. Also like GIMP, Inkscape is incredibly obtuse and difficult to learn, even if you’re otherwise comfortable with all things computer.
For example, suppose you want to combine two simple shapes as follows, using Inkscape:
After reading up on the program, following tutorials and learning about the power of nodes and paths, and playing with snazzy features like combine and union, to say nothing of delete segment, you might think the proper solution would be to overlap the two shapes, join them at nodes, then remove the line across the middle of the circle:
And you would be one hundred percent wrong.
Or at least I think you will be wrong, because I couldn’t figure out how to perform that simple edit after several hours of dedicated research. Worse, when I finally did manage to bash a few helpful keywords together, they brought me this little nugget of buried information: “You can’t branch a node.” Wait — what?!?
As it turns out, a lot of what Inkscape seems to be suggesting with words and features is not what it’s actually doing. When you overlap two shapes and join them, that simply means those shapes can then be selected and moved as one. The shapes don’t weld themselves together and they certainly don’t create new nodes where they cross. And that’s probably the most important lesson I can pass on about Inkscape. Do not think like you think the program wants you to think.
Once I stopped thinking about nodes and paths I realized there was a quick and dirty solution, which was to fill the circle with white, blocking the line behind it. And that worked, but only because — as you can see in the first image above — this web page also displays the transparent areas of that image as white. In another viewer, that same exact image might look like this —
— or, if opened in GIMP, which supports transparency, like this:
One alternative would be to color all the alpha/transparent areas white as well, but that creates a lot of unnecessary work which may also get in the way later. A better solution, which is still a kludge but does make use of Inkscape’s paths and nodes, is to hack the intrusive segment out of the side of the square by first adding new nodes at the exact right locations, as so:
As you can see, with some effort you can get by, though there will be days when you wish you had just hired someone to solve all of your problems. Worst-case scenario, you may only be able to mock up your ideas before bringing in a professional — or your graphically inclined niece — but that’s still better than trying to use feeble words to communicate what you see in your head , or trying to sketch, scan and email your ideas to someone far away.
If you’re used to GIMP you’ll be seduced by the ease with which you can both scale and sprawl across a wide Inkscape canvas, versus the need to constantly work in fussy layers. Unfortunately, that’s another way of saying it’s really easy to get lost in Inkscape. Fortunately, Inkscape does support layers, and I think that’s probably the best way to transition while you’re learning. Figure out what you want, build the elements one by one, learn as you go, overlay as appropriate, and voila — if you’re lucky you’ll have something that’s not totally awful. Or at least that’s my own current measure of success.
If you’ve been using GIMP or another raster-based program you should give a vector-based program like Inkscape a serious look, if only to compare strengths and weaknesses. (Because you can import/export various file formats between the two you can have the best of both worlds.) A simple tutorial on cover design using Inkscape can be found here. If you want to learn Inkscape as painlessly as possible, start here. (Because Inkscape keeps evolving some menu settings/locations in those videos may have changed, but the advice is still spot on.) A solid companion series on working with text can be found here.
— Mark Barrett
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