Cover design process for Heartwood: a personal woodcarver’s reference


Heartwood: a personal woodcarver’s reference  is the first book in the Homeostasis Press catalog which was solely my responsibility. Our Dad, Ted Merrill, as patriarchal publisher, had a say in all the other books, even Lessons from Pond Scum, published after his death.

For me, this project represents  something monumental:  it’s been a time to take charge and bring to life a book we will be proud of for always. The interior took care of itself, its wonderful writing cared for in the hands of its editor and designer, my brother David Merrill, who worked with Dad for several years in this capacity.

I wanted something different for the cover, something both intimate and compelling which would evoke the essence of this lovely book, front and back. David first focused on this quote from the introduction to the book, which had struck me too, and we played with trying to capture its essence for some time.

“In a fanciful moment I see myself moving into my declining years, gradually disappearing under a pile of the world’s assorted woods; with them I decay slowly back into the earth, leaving nothing to mark the spot but some green shoots and a rusting pile of chisel blades.” – Ted Merrill, Heartwood: a personal woodcarver’s reference


I loved the layered nature of the forest in David’s first draft, but the overall layout wasn’t warm and appealing. The tools didn’t tell the story of that quote. Mostly, though, none of it said enough about the contents of the book. So how could we get the feeling that I wanted? We pondered some more.

During this process, I encountered the work of Claudia McGehee, an illustrator who uses a scratchboard technique evocative of woodcuts. I loved her vibrant, textural work, and in thinking about it in relation to the cover design, I was on the way toward an understanding of what I wanted.

I seriously considered contacting Claudia, but one person in particular came to mind when I thought of woodcuts, someone highly qualified to take on this piece of design work.

That’s how I came to involve artist brother Richard Merrill. Richard said, upon accepting the challenge of designing this cover, “I would do this as a woodcut to keep the flavor of Dad’s work and art ethic.” He began by playing with the concept from the quote above as well, but couldn’t pin it down into an image that satisfied, either.

In another shift of gears, not only did Richard create the design as an actual woodcut, he used one of Ted’s own carvings as his design source.


“The woodcut would be based on the attached sketch [below], which is for proportion and shading, not for woodcut-ish-ness.  My reasons were that it expressed the passionate tenderness between mother and child that seemed nearly identical to the passionate tenderness Dad felt for wood, that wood was like Dad’s sixth child, and that it being a woodcut of a wood sculpture firmly established the theme in an indirect way… I will carve from pine for visible grain structure, print in black and white, and combine digitally. The image would be on a background of woodgrain, probably woodcut rather than a processed photo, to provide unity.”


As it turned out, so much of technique and process went into the woodcut as it stands alone, before we even got to the cover design.


An initial design and one of  its tweaks:

Heartwood_Cover 2           Heartwood_Cover 1a

In the midst of our many (many, many) conversations,  there was a question  from David to Richard, which set the course for the final cover:

“Could you render your artwork digitally to appear as though it were a relief carving sort of like that? And could you create its background as though it was a large wooden board, with somewhat rough-hewn texture, that extends onto the back cover?”

cover_comp2  cover_comp3

Finally there was much discussion about where on the image the checks and cracks in the final design background should fall (and whether they belonged at all), about the nature and concept of heartwood from a carver’s perspective, and finally about sticking with  the warm colors we’d been working with. I love seeing the spread of front and back together  and watching as they changed, don’t you?

Final cover spread:

cover_comp4 (2)

And voila, a cover was born.

It’s a real book now. What a process of discovery, as we three discussed what worked and what didn’t in the various iterations of the design.

2015-06-23 16.01.45 2015-06-23 16.02.09 20150624_121521

I couldn’t work with any better design team than these guys.

For information about the book launch celebrating the release of Heartwood, or to pre-order the book, just drop a note to books@homeostasispress and we’ll send you all the latest.


About vst3in

I am a writer, avid reader, birder, food preserver, and retired school library lady. I love colors and textures looking for them in the world around me. I'm working on a historical novel and reading lots of books for young people. I'm working to stay strong into my senior years, and I sail with my husband. This blog contains thoughts about all these things.
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