Sgt Peppers-Email

I’ve been married for almost a year now and for the past couple of months I have been building out a website to feature all the pictures and paraphernalia from the wedding. Looking at it now I’m surprised at how comprehensive a branding project it became. Logos, Tattoos, Guitar picks, Invitations, Save The Dates, Album Covers and a Website. Not to mention planning and coordinating a wedding as well as pictures from said wedding and the honeymoon in Japan. A lot of work went into it and I’m happy with the results. Click on Sgt. Pepper to check it out. Enjoy!





I few years ago I started up a relationship with a company called The Editorial Department. At the time they did manuscript editing, but with all the changes in publishing in the last few years they decided it would be a good idea to offer book cover design and layout services as well. TED now has a fantastic roster of 10 or so designers and illustrators. Of which I am privileged to be one.

Last year a client named Jesse Cope came to them with a manuscript called “Countryside”.  “Countryside” is a Young Adult story that reads a lot like Harry Potter set in Texas Hill Country. After reading the manuscript and chatting with Jesse we came to the conclusions that we didn’t want to do a cover that featured a specific moment in the story. Nor did we want the cover to be a simple icon-like image that just gave an over all impression of the story’s mood. What Jesse really wanted was something that touched on the story, but didn’t actually tell the story. Something that had a lot of elements from the story to to be discovered the longer you looked at it. There was a lot of fertile ground to pull from so I went about sketching possible ideas. Not only was I going to illustrate the cover, I was going to design it too. So I had to consider fonts, layouts and the title as well.

CoverFrontBackThe strongest sketch I had was the one above. It features the young lead clasping the “Book of the Wise” and standing in front of a portal that leads to the magical land of Countryside. Framed behind the hero is a dark cowboy figure that adds some mystery and menace to the visual story. My first attempt a the title sits above the boy hero’s head. Since the story takes place in two worlds I though it would be a good idea to make the title type look like two different fonts with the letter ‘Y’ serving as the portal between the two.

Coutnryside Title DesignWe decided that the “two font title” idea was too confusing so I went for something more traditional. The diamonds and lines in the larger letters are inspired by the embellishments on a leather saddle I once saw. A red comet also figures into the story, so I added that at the tittle of the “i”.

Countryside Cover SketchIt was important that the art have a distinctly southern feel, so I set about looking for, and creating, reference that would help me build the the world. I have never been to Texas Hill Country, so I had to rely on the author for some guidance. I found suitable shots for the buildings from a street in Austin TX. The old Daisy Theater in Memphis, TN is the building with the rounded shell opening. I shot reference of myself as the boy and used my wife Casey as the tree nymph on the far right. The runes are based on an ancient Hebrew writing. The finished drawing above is the complete of wraparound cover.


Then it was on to painting. I knew I wanted the art to be warm and colorful so I painted the scene at sunset. The final cover art is above with the title and author placement.

Wedding Album Covers


It’s no secret that I both my wife and I are music fans. We go to concerts together all the time. So when it came to shooting our wedding photos we thought it would be fun to try to recreate some quintessential album covers. Maybe not exact reproductions, more like “in the spirit of”. Here are three homages; One for Bob Dylan’s “Freewheelin”, one for Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” and one for Crosby, Stills & Nash. We had loads of fun putting them together an could not have done it without our stellar wedding photographer Jeff Kaleta.

RUMORS-EmailCrosby Stills and Nash-emailCover Samples

Significant Others

SO Logo Tee

Now to the “B Sides”. After all the important announcements were made the time came to create favors for the party. I wanted guests to walk away feeling like they went to a concert. With that in mind I had a few staple items custom made to really drive it home.


Temporary Tattoos – One of my most memorable music experiences as a kid was getting Kiss Alive II for Christmas and finding a sheet of temporary Kiss tattoos in the sleeve. I knew I wanted to share that experience so I used both the logos I made for the event as well as Elvis’s iconic TCB lightening bolt. A handful of each tattoo were set out in bowls on each table for guests to play with. Included in those bowls were….


Guitar Picks – Most every wedding I have ever been to has some sort of parting gift with the couples name on it and the date of the wedding. Like a mini champagne bottle, chocolate candy bar or match book. For our wedding we thought custom guitar pics would fit the bill. One side of the pick features the Lovefest13 logo and the other side had our names and date of the wedding. It was a small token guests could take home with them to remember the event.


T-Shirts – Finally, I made iron-on t-shirts. Continuing with the idea that guests were attending a concert festival instead of a wedding Casey and I thought it would be a great if we could give out “Tour Shirts” at the end. It was important to me that these t-shirts be comfortable and functional. I wanted guests to want to wear them, rather than just commemorate the event. I chose some quality tee’s in a unique color and redesigned the Significant Others logo to feature a modified Voyager with a speaker over the dish.

The wedding itself was spectacular, and I couldn’t be happier with the way everything turned out. A fun time was had by all and now I want to get married again so I can throw another party like that all over again. I want to thank everyone, especially my mother and father-in-law Steve and Peggy Copen, for indulging me on this once in a lifetime project. Thanks also to Shane Visbal for keeping the ticket, Patrick Arrasmith for photographing the cd cover and, Marc Gurreri, Marci Ackerhalt-Price and Dan Cunitz for their Facebook photos.

Next up, some wedding photos.


This past Labor Day weekend I went to the best wedding I have ever been to. My own! It was in Memphis TN, and if you have never been you should know that it is considered the birthplace of Rock and Roll. The first Rock and Roll song in history was recorded there (Rocket 88 by Jackie Brentson and the Delta Cats), but its probably best known for it’s most famous resident, Elvis Presley.

Logo 3

Since the early 1950’s Memphis has been considered the Mecca for both Rock and Roll and Soul music. The city is lousy with recording studios and it’s safe to say that just about every band has recorded an album there. With a city steeped so deeply in musical history it was important to my wife (I love saying that) and I when planning the event that some of that mojo be reflected in our ceremony (we even had an Elvis impersonator). So when I undertook the creation of our wedding paraphernalia I made sure to use music as the main theme. We decided to call it Lovefest13 and it became a comprehensive creative project that everyone enjoyed in the end.


Save The Date – For starters I designed a Save the Date card to look like a concert ticket. Not just any ticket though. I started with a scan of the ticket from the first concert my wife an I attended that brought us together. We also decided to name our wedding event “Lovefest13”, the idea being to give guests a concert festival-like experience. This ticket based Save the Date was a perfect set up. I designed a logo to go along with it that could be used on anything important. We went to a local craft store for the envelopes and embossing stamps and spent a Saturday in front of the TV putting it all together. Thankfully a friend of mine kept the original ticket so I could make the scan.


Invitation – Next up was the invitation. My wife and I wanted to do something unique, so rather than a traditional embossed invitation we had an audio cd produced. We had a lot of fun coming up with a music mix and a fictitious band name. We finally settled on Significant Others and our album title was going to be Domestic Bliss. I put the playlist together in Garage Band and mixed in some audio clips from famous movies and TV shows with weddings in them.

When it came to designing a cover my wife and I knew that we wanted to mimic a studio shot from the 70’s. Earlier in the year we traveled to New Orleans and found outfits at some thrift stores, then visited a friend in Brooklyn a few months later to shoot the pictures. I devised a band logo and laid it all out in Photoshop, then sent it all to the printer/presser. The house in the background is Graceland and the interior is Elvis’s peacock room. The image on the cd itself is the gold record that is on the Voyager spacecraft, “Sounds from Earth”. Not only is it an homage to what could possibly be the most important recording in human history, but Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan met while working on that project and the story of their first encounter was going to fit into our wedding ceremony.


Website – Before we could send out the Save the Date or the Invitation we had to put together a website. Something that would be a repository for all the information regarding the event and also serve as a introductory guide to Memphis. It would include the event details and schedule, map, hotel and restaurant recommendations, things to do, RSVP and registry. I built it in WordPress and used pictures from my previous visits to Memphis. You can visit the site at

More designs to come in the next entry of “B Sides”.

Still a Student

For a generous part of the 2000’s I was lucky enough to work at the Society of Illustrators in New York City. While there I wore many hats, but my official title was both Membership Coordinator and Exhibition Coordinator. This duel position allowed me to rub elbows with a distinguished pantheon of professional illustrators, designers and art directors.

I was first exposed the the Society in high school by way of their annuals and had developed quite a list of influential names I would one day get an opportunity to meet. One name in particular that was high on my list was Fred Woodward. Fred was the Art Director of Rolling Stone magazine for almost 15 years and much of the illustration work I most admired came from that magazine. Illustrators like Chris Payne, Anita Kunz, John Collier, and Philip Burke regularly graced the pages with stunningly well crafting portraits of the days most influential rock icons. Bringing these heroes to life in a way no photograph ever could.


In 2000 the Society played host to an exhibition of illustrated portraits from Rolling Stone magazine (of which there was a companion book). Of all the magazines I wanted to work for RS was at the top of the list. Music was a big part of my identity growing up. It was leafing though album covers at a local record store that inspired me to make pictures in the first place. In high school I started a business painting album covers on the back of denim jackets ($20 for something simple like Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon $60 for something complex like Judas Priest Sad Wings of Destiny). That’s how I learned to paint. You can imagine how excited I was to be working somewhere that would grant me access to the magazine and some of my all time favorite paintings.

The day the exhibit was hung Fred happened to be in the gallery and took an active interest in getting the art up on the walls. There were three or four pieces delivered to the show without frames and this gave me an opportunity to help. Prior to working at the Society I had many years of experience at custom frame shops in the area. As a matter of fact Terry Brown, then Director of the Society, hired me because of it and even allowed me to set up a small independent frame shop at the Society. I managed to scavenge a few frames for Fred and before the day was over he was able to hang the pieces. At the end to the day Fred thanked me for my help, and terrified, I asked him “What does an illustrator have to do to get an interview and show you their portfolio”? “Just ask” he said. So I did. He put me in touch with his assistant and I set up an appointment.

In those days Rolling Stone had a designated portfolio drop off day where hundreds of illustrators would dump their book off at their basement mail room. Hopefulls could drop off their book on Tuesday, looking past the annoyed mail room guy, to multiple stacks of identical portfolios piled five or six feet high. Two days later one could return to pick it up. I’d swear on the return visits the same annoyed mail room guy pulled my book from the exact same spot he placed it in two days before. To have Fred’s number, and a way to circumvent those stacks, would be a tremendous leg up.

A week or so later I found myself in the lobby of Rolling Stone magazine. Next to DC Comics and Henson Studios, Rolling Stone had the best reception area with an authentic Pete Townshend guitar smashed to bits and encased in lucite. Fred brought me into his office and we chatted for a minute. As I began to show him my book, Jann Wenner (RS Co-founder and Publisher) barged into the office saying something about finding a blue dress. Jann was referring to the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal and this was breaking news that would come out the following day. I don’t recall any other chit-chat between us, but after Fred finished leafing through my book he turned to me, looked into my soul and said, “You’re still a student”. I didn’t know how to respond to that. I certainly didn’t feel like a student and thought that by virtue of standing in Fred’s office I was not one. I was a professional, wasn’t I? I’d been doing freelance illustration work for 5 years by then. I left shortly after that with a whirlwind of thoughts in my head. Still a student? What did that mean?

More than 10 years have passed and I never worked with Fred Woodward or for Rolling Stone. However, in the last few years I have come to understand what Fred was talking about.

It’s the goal of a student to absorb, learn, and take in. To react and process. Then produce something that proves an application of the recently acquired knowledge. But, as I had forgotten, the ultimate goal of being student is not to be a student anymore. That doesn’t mean that one should not try to learn anything new. What it means is one should be in command of themselves. A student is always being told what to do or how to do it. As a result students become comfortable in a passive, subordinate role and in most situations expect others to tell them what to do. As opposed to understanding their own personal needs, or the needs of a given situation, and doing for themselves. Students are like passengers and a teacher like a driver, steering the student to particular bits of knowledge and wisdom that are relevant to a given subject. But what should happen, what needs to happen, is the student must lean to drive themselves.

When I was in Fred’s office I put him in the position of driving. I didn’t realize it then, but I do now. What Fred really needed was someone to drive. That’s what makes someone a professional. That’s what makes a job like Fred’s easier. Chris Payne, Anita Kunz, John Collier, Philip Burke, they are drivers. And the way they drive is what got them in the pages of Rolling Stone.

It took me 10 years and a couple big life experiences to get what Fred was talking about. But I’m glad I got there and consider myself lucky. Some folks never do.

Epilogue: When the show at the Society ended I had to return some of the art to the rightful owners. One of the pieces happened to be owned by Yoko Ono. I had to hand deliver the art personally to Yoko’s office in The Dakota, which was originally John and Yoko’s apartment. When I arrived sections of the block around the Dakota were closed off and I had to access Yoko’s place from a side entrance. As it turns out the street was closed for a movie shoot. The movie in question was Vanilla Sky staring Tom Cruise who’s character runs a music magazine and is based on Jann Wenner.

Green to Go


I love to read, so I consider creating a book cover a distinct privilege. I sometimes fantasize about creating a cover for every book I have ever read and imagine what kind of life long project that would look like. Maybe in another lifetime.

Not long ago I got involved with an online manuscript editing company called The Editorial Department. They were expanding their repetoire and looking to offer design services as well as manuscript editing. After a bit of back and forth I signed on as one the the designers in their roster. The first project I worked on for them was the second book in a series of swashbuckling adventures from author John H. Cunningham. John’s stories feature a main character named Buck Reilly. Buck is a bit of an Indiana Jones type who lives in the Florida Keys, flies a Grummon sea plane and looks for sunken treasure.


The title of this new book was “Green to Go” and John wanted some continuity between this cover and the previous one. The first book, “Red Right Return” features Buck’s seaplane in a a circular logo design. John felt strongly about keeping the plane and the logo look. He also wanted to incorporate the idea of color since both book titles make mention of one.

This is all well and good, but for me to get hold of an idea I need to explore what comes to my own mind first. To that end I do loads of thumbnails. Each one an embodiment of a particular concept. Sometimes these concepts are good. Sometimes bad. Sometimes they are rip offs of something I have seen before. The intention is to spill out on to a page all the junk that is spinning around my head regarding the subject. Below are a few pages from my sketchbook that show some of this exploration process.


From here I took four or five of these ideas, blew up the the thumbnail and added color to them just to get an idea of what they might look like. The ones that stuck out the most for me were those that were modeled from cigar or rum labels. For all intents and purposes a label is a logo and if I stuck with that concept it would afford the continuity John was after. As an added benefit it would also speak to the more colorful aspects of the lead characters swashbuckling personality.


With the help of Chris Fisher, the Creative Director at The Editorial Department, I moved though the design, adding the coin, missile, tobacco and Cuban flag to the layout. The final touch was selecting a sun bleached weather beaten green background for the label to sit on. And with a few more tweeks and changes we arrived at the final cover.

Green to Go Cover1Finally, I would like to give thanks to illustrator Tristan Elwell. At the same time he happened to be working on an image of a plane and talked about how he made the propellers look like they were spinning. I used his technique in the final cover.

Forgotten in a Closet

For the past couple of years I have been working on a personal project that has taken up most of my time and proved to be more of an inspiration that I could ever have imagined. It started modestly, as a little bit of family research, and has grown into something much much bigger.


After my grandmother passed away a few years back my mother found some items that belonged to my great great grandfather hidden away in a closet. A pocket telegraph key, a relay, and an ambrotype all dating from the Civil War. I decide to find out what I could about these items and ended up uncovering a story that goes beyond my family, deep into the workings of the Civil War and the profound influence of the invention of the telegraph.

I have begun to chronicle the journey of my research in a blog called “73: What Hath God Wrought”. But more importantly I have discovered the story of two brothers thrown into the unique roll as telegraph operators on the front lines during the Civil War. Brothers Richard and John O’Brien, who were 19 and 13 years of age respectively at the time they were called into service. Both of whom were friends with a young Andrew Carnegie; met Lincoln, Grant, Sherman, Butler and Wool; were eyewitnesses to the Battle of the Ironclads; and saw first hand the contraband camps and ramifications of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Richard-John Sketch

With a story full of such drama, coupled with my professional experience, it seems only natural to pull all this research together into a graphic novel. Which, I am happy to say, I have begun scripting and illustrating. It’s too early to tell where or how it will all end up, but it is, without a doubt, the most ambitious project I have ever undertaken and an adventure beyond anything I could ever have dreamed up myself.