What makes good artwork? A study

The band have created a piece of art and music that creates a whole new world – the pink sky, the colourful planet and bright plants. This could be an over emphasised version of New Zealand’s stunning landscapes, or how the band view New Zealand through their eyes, or the world the band want you to escape to when listening to their music.  
After the music, your cover art is the next most important thing to think about when releasing your music and putting it out there in the world to see. But what makes good cover art?

In this post I wanted to:

• show some practical examples of great cover art from Spinnup artists
• outline techniques, colours or symbols used that make it good artwork
• and include some handy links and info (down the bottom!)

Professor David Machin stated in his book Analysing Popular Music: 

“Artists need to tell us about themselves, about who they are, their meaning as an act and how to understand their music, not just through the kinds of sounds they make, but also through the way they look and move, through the photographs in which we see them and the artwork they use on record sleeves. We are generally able to hazard a guess at what a band will sound like, through a record sleeve or a publicity shot.” (Machin, 2010) 

Our first interaction with an artist or band is through their cover art, which gives us a hint of what the music is going to sound like. Like it or not, many of us do judge a book by its cover and having attractive cover art can be an important selling point. 

 “Album artwork is a statement by the musician on how they want themselves or the music to be perceived.”   

It helps fans to build a visual representation of the artist and the aesthetic that they will be recognised for in years to come. As Samuel Burgess-Johnson (2016), creative director for massive British band The 1975 states, album artwork is “a statement by the musician on how they want themselves or the music to be perceived.”   

In the age of streaming and downloading, album art has turned into more of a formality but that also means developing a strong visual identity is more important than ever.  

Good album art is so important from a marketing sense. Like a website, it needs to get the viewer’s attention within seconds, and it’s also about catching the eye of important industry personnel, such as press and A&R. 

Certain colours, text, objects and settings etc, serve potential meanings and give certain ideas and values. In this post I will analyse cover art from three different Spinnup artists, one that’s more minimal, one photo based, and one illustration. I will show examples of how each of them use certain aesthetics to communicate the music and lyrics. 

PLEASE NOTE: This analysis will pick out ‘potential meanings’, they aren’t fixed but are my own interpretation.  

Cortes – ‘She’s A Machine’ 

The first example is by London based rock band Cortes (you can read our introducing post about them here. 

The cover for ‘She’s A Machine’ denotes a large hand drawn skull with long and the title of the single written centre bottom. 

Shes A Machine FINAL

Let’s firstly look at the colours used – it is a minimal colour palette of black and white. Black is a colour often used in rock artwork and is usually associated with death, darkness and evil. In the context of the album cover, black is used to represent the music’s genre but it goes a lot further than this.  

Black suggests themes of power and in this context, the power that the woman has. In the song, lead singer Andy Cortes sings: “wrapped around her fingertips”, “got me tripping thinking money is power.”  

The colour black often has negative connotations and in relation to the song, the woman also carries toxic connotations, she’s evil and rebellious, as Cortes sings: “here comes trouble”, and says negative thing’s about her: “she’s stealing all of my time”, it’s when he sings: “And I still can’t quit”, it suggests that the woman is like a drug that drains you of your time and energy, and one that you can’t quit.

Being that it’s not a pure black (it has a bit of a grungy texture), could suggest that the music is similarly grungy and not clean sounding – which is true. Black is also a mysterious colour – which links to the mysteriousness of the woman in the song. She is never named, but is visualised by a skull and described as a ‘machine’.  

Let’s also talk about the only other colour used here – white. The opposite to black in tone and meaning, represents purity and innocence, it makes the drawing and text stands out from the background in order to be seen and signify its importance.

‘She’s A Machine’, is a song about a woman who is trouble, which is not only presented through the lyrics and music, but the imagery. Skulls often used on covers in the rock and metal genre, for example Avenged Sevenfold’s and Steppenwolf’s covers all use skulls. See images below. 

Skulls are most commonly linked to death. In the figure of a skull the woman holds some sort of power over him, as Cortes sings: “made a fool out of me”. In this context, the skull is hand drawn with long hair of a woman, which gives it elegance and characterises it making it less intimidating. Cortes is making light out of something dark and suggesting the idea that the woman can’t make a fool out of him forever.  

A skull is a natural thing, which contrasts to a machine. But could mean that although Cortes refers her as a machine, she is still human underneath.  

It’s interesting to point out that there is no band name on the artwork, which is often the case when a band is very established (see Foo Fighters Concrete and Gold and Bowie’s Blackstar). This is a bold move by the band, although this cover in particular comes as a set of three with all the same visual theme, displaying the band’s own emerging aesthetic.  

Cortes have successfully illustrated their music through their artwork, conforming to the colour black associated with rock music and certain imagery to portray a character. 


Eif  – Bridges 

For this next one I have decided to analyse Danish artist Eif’s ‘Bridges’ which is a photography based image (again, you can read our introducing post about her here) 

This album cover combines photography with graphic art to create and interesting image. Eif herself has a very unique look, with her pink pixie cut and striking blue eyes. The wavy painted strokes around her draws you into her face, which enhances her importance. 

 eif cover bridges

The colours here are quite pastel but the overall colour is blue – more specifically Copenhagen blue, which is a greyish hue. This colour was suitably chosen because Copenhagen is Eif’s hometown and what the song was inspired by. We can also makes links between the song’s inspiration of Copenhagen’s harbours to the colour blue. 

Album art with a photograph of the artist can carry a lot of meaning. From the way their gaze is, to their body language. In this image, Eif is posing for the camera, her body language is confident and she makes eye contact with the viewer. This is often the case in cover art for big female pop artists such as Beyonce. The gaze that Eif has is intimate, not really smiling, she actually looks somewhat disapproving, with a strength and attitude. The layers of paint around her could represent her thick skin and that to get to know her you have to listen to her music, getting through the layers of blue to a more colourful world where her stunning vocals lie. 

There is no name on the cover art, like Cortes, but there is also no single title either. Again, this is a bold move because having no text on an album cover is usually the case for very established bands such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon. Even when we look at Beyonce’s album cover for there is text but it is obstructed, implying that we already know who she is and don’t need to be able to read her name. Eif is presenting a strong image in order to get away with using no text. 

Mako Road – The Green Superintendent   

Finally I will analysing New Zealand band Mako Road’s fantastic imagery for The Green Superintendent. This super colourful and whacky cover got my attention straight away; they are one of Spinnup’s most colourful visual artists I have come across. Their artwork and music caught my eye so much I wrote about them in this Introducing piece.

It’s not just the bright colours, but the striking text and cartoon-like qualities that make it really stand out. The colours are unnatural, which gives it an otherworldly feeling. Bright colours are often used in pop music, and artists such as Mika, Maroon 5 and Major Lazer have all used cartoon imagery in their covers (just a coincidence they all begin with the letter ‘M’?!).  

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Mako Road have developed a sound that combines acoustic guitar music, with ska and reggae. The band has communicated their interesting sound through their artwork effectively, mainly by the use of colour and settings. Bands within this genre such as The Shamblés have taken a similar approach in their cartoon style artwork with bright colours. And traditionally reggae music is always associated with bright colours. 

To analyse even further, this art could be how the character views the world whilst high, as he is the green superintendent after all, this is also illustrated by the green colour that is used in his hat, beer bottle and binoculars. The reggae element to their music also links in with the use of marijuana.  

The fact that he is referred to as a ‘superintendent’ is ironic in a way, as by smoking and drinking he is creating negative connotations to his character rather than someone who is a manager, but alternatively he is the manager of his own antics. 

Mako Road’s The Green Superintendent will certainly catch the attention of both fans and industry personnel. It is fun and is a perfect illustration to the fantastic music it holds.  

Now for some practical tips…

With free stock image sites (Pexels & Unsplash are my favourites) or tools like Canva, it is so easy to create your own artwork nowadays.  

We also have a deal with a site called Cover Art Factory where artists can get a discount on their service. Just login to your account and head to the Offers page to check it out.

Once you’ve got your amazing artwork, we have some practical info on how to format your cover art and make sure it meets all the necessary requirements for the stores. Remember to ask permission to use any imagery or logos that aren’t yours!

If you need a bit more help, check out these articles on how to make your artwork and ultimately, your release, look as good as it absolutely can!

Package Your Release Better

The 12 Best Free Promotional Tools 

A Complete Guide To Branding Yourself As A Musical Artist