Painting the monkey: a guest post by Jake Murray


When picking up a copy of my novel, Ack-Ack Macaque, the thing most people comment on first (apart from the unusual title) is the artwork. And who couldn’t help but be drawn to a smoking monkey in a flying jacket, with a revolver big enough to shoot holes in the Moon?

Below, Jake Murray, the artist responsible, takes us through the process of creating that striking cover image, from commission to completion.

Take it away, Jake!


Hello readers! My name is Jake Murray and I am the illustrator responsible for the cover art of both Ack-Ack Macaque and its sequel, Hive Monkey. When Gareth invited me to write a guest post about the creative process behind the art for Ack-Ack Macaque, I was absolutely thrilled! As this is a literature blog, hopefully I’ll be able to shed some light on a subject that many of you may be interested in, or are at least unfamiliar with.

So let’s jump right in at the beginning!

The Commission

The first step in any book cover is being commissioned by the publisher’s Art Director or Editor. Jon Oliver of Solaris Books asked me if I’d be available to create a piece of cover art for a novel about a “videogame AI that becomes sentient and leads a rebellion.” Okay, that sounds cool. Oh, what’s that Jon? The AI in question is an ace WWII pilot who fights Nazi ninjas, smokes cigars like it’s his job, sports two massive revolvers….and is a monkey? Okay, that sounds AWESOME.

Naturally I said yes, please and thank you.

Jon introduced me to Gareth, and together they outlined a general idea of what they’d like to see on the cover. Obviously Ack-Ack Macaque would need to be front and center, perhaps flanked by a few of the other characters from the book. One of my initial concerns was that there might end up being too many characters jammed into it to be an effective, striking cover, so we narrowed it down to the three most important: Ack-Ack Macaque, Victoria Valois, and Prince Merovech.


Once I’ve got a general direction laid out, I hit the ground running with some character sketches. Especially when it comes to fantastical creature/characters like Ack-Ack Macaque, it’s important that I have a solid idea of how he should look and get this approved by the author and editor before I spend 30+ hours painting him up in the final art. I started out drawing macaques to get more familiar with their anatomy and facial expressions, etc.

macaque-research-sketch_1 macaque-research-sketch_2


Add some pants, big guns, a flight jacket, and cigar, and voila! We have a pretty bad ass monkey.



 I also did some initial sketching to figure out what the giant, multi-hulled zeppelins might look like.





Next I have to determine how the image will be laid out. We knew all of the details that needed to be shown, so it’s a matter of figuring out where to put what in order to make it look awesome. Even though the story is set in the future, I wanted the cover to have a sort of aged feel to it in terms of the color, so I leaned more towards an overall pale yellow/sepia tone. The design of the zeppelins I felt would be enough to let us know that we weren’t necessarily looking at something historical. Oh, and then there’s that monkey right up front with all the big guns. That would help too. I came up with two composition sketches I thought would be promising and sent them off to Gareth and the publisher to see which one they preferred (if any).


 They decided to go with the first composition, but I wasn’t completely satisfied with Ack-Ack Macaque’s pose, so I revised it a little bit and got that approved as well.



Gathering Reference Material

Most of my work is digitally created, but for this piece I decided to work in oil paints. I love painting in oils, but since there’s no “undo” button when working with traditional art materials, you have to be much more careful as there’s just much less room for error. Since I work in a realistic style, it’s also important that I gather solid photos and images to reference for the final artwork. In this case, I went so far as to sculpt a small “maquette” head of Ack-Ack Macaque, which I could then light any way I wanted and shoot good photos of to draw and paint from.





 [Photoshop can be a godsend when you need to create some wacky reference photos!]

Since the other characters were humans, it just came down to finding or shooting photos of people who I thought would make good “actors” for the roles. It’s all about making sure the lighting, poses, and costuming are as accurate as possible to the scene I’m trying to convey.

Final Art

Once I’ve gotten everything that I need, it’s just a matter of execution. I work out a detailed line drawing which I then show Gareth and Jon for approval before I start adding color.



Once it’s approved, the rest of the process is just 20-40 hours of painting……and painting……..and more painting……And then I’m done!

Oh, except that something doesn’t quite look right.

So I paint, paint, paint some more until it does look right.



Once I’ve gotten it to a place where I’m comfortable calling it done, I take a hi-resolution photo of the painting, do some clean-up and color correcting in Photoshop, email it to the publisher and hope that everyone likes it. If they do (and in this case they did), then my job is done!

Hopefully that gives you some insight into how a book cover illustration comes to be. Thanks to Gareth for letting me ramble on and on about my process, and thanks everyone who has enjoyed my work on the Ack-Ack Macaque series so far! It’s been a  real blast, and I hope for more opportunities to step into the world that Mr. Powell has created!

Images in this post are © Jake Murray 2013. All Rights Reserved.