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Louis Ocepek - From Conventional Design to Digital and Back: The Puerto del Sol Covers

20 years of Puerto del Sol cover designs: 1988-2008

As mentioned yesterday, the work I am going to focus on is the result of a twenty year relationship with the highly regarded, semi-annual international literary journal, Puerto del Sol. I first came to the project in 1988, when the Editor in Chief, Kevin McIlvoy, was looking for someone to do a special cover for Puerto’s 25th anniversary.  I was relatively unknown to him, but he was adventurous, the price was right, and I saw enormous potential. What more creative project could you hope for? A dream job. The covers are “small posters,” meant to be “artful” and to reflect the creativity within. They were meant to be deliberately different from other books on the shelf.

Prior to 1988, Puerto was a one or maybe two-color job. There was no budget for full color art. The interior was never designed, it was simply typeset. There was no logotype for the cover, nor consistency of design. There was really no graphic design consciousness in the local community. In my mind, those “limits” were positives, to me it meant the doors were wide open for exploration. The book was distributed to bookstores everywhere, the  market was national and international; the covers should somehow reflect that breadth.

Cover ideas were either suggested by the particular content of an issue, such as Cuban poetry, or by a literary reference, such as a quotation from a significant writer such as R.W. Emerson (my favorite), or by a suggestion from the Editor. I had an interesting relationship with McIlvoy; he would suggest an idea that he felt would produce a provocative cover design. I would either play off that idea, or spin it around in an unexpected direction, which he invariably found to be quite humorous and usually satisfactory. His generosity was a key to our long relationship and to the journals success.

Camera-ready Covers

Here is how my first cover, the 25th anniversary issue, came about. The first design idea came from the editor, who said “do something about male and female” (I have no recollection why). Secondly, being new to southern New Mexico, I was enamored with the pottery designs of the areas 12th century Mimbres culture, and that became a stylistic inspiration.

My thinking was simple; include the male/female idea, do something indicative of the area, emphasizing what was unique about where we lived, and create an image that played with the idea of a portal (or entry way) and a sun (Puerto del Sol). I see the book-form itself as a portal; open the book (book as doorway) and enter into a world of creativity.  Similarly, I saw the sun, of course, as symbolic of creativity, which related to the content of the book, creative writing, an easy connection. The pitfall, of course, is that I soon realized that everyone loved the Mimbres designs, and they were starting to appear on everything from greeting cards to aprons. I had to be influenced but not imitative. 

Puerto 25th Anniversary Cover

Keep in mind, I started working for Puerto at the very beginning of the graphic computer age (we did have Amigas, but they were mainly curiosities), so my early covers, including this one, were done the conventional way, by hand. After doing the usual reference work regarding Mimbres design, I started working on drawings, graphite on tracing paper.  Because I was going to draw and ink the design using traditional drafting tools, I chose to work at a very large scale, making the inking much easier. The artwork is “camera ready,” which means it was black and white, high contrast, and would need no screening for halftones.

 copy camera

I did a couple line tests on a copy camera to determine the relative line weights, so they would hold up at the final, smaller, reproduction size, and still look esthetically correct. The final size was about a 55 percent reduction of the original artwork (the cover is 9 inches by 6 inches, so a front and back spread is about 13 x 9 inches). Doing the Mimbres style wasn’t difficult because it fit in with the graphic stylization concepts I had already been working with, influenced not only by graphic designers, but by artists such as Léger and Kandinsky. The sun and the portal ideas fit nicely into the architectonic style of my work, so that didn’t seem to be too much of a problem. The male/female thing, however, was a challenge. Since it involved two units, one male, one female, I decided to use the structure of the book itself as an organizing device. There is a front and a back, so the male and the female appear on the front and the back. You’ll have to decide which is which, as I decided to be slightly ambiguous about the gender. You can see the sun(s) front and back, and on the front a recessed portal. This made for a wrap-around cover. Together with the bleed design and three colors, this cover was slightly more expensive to produce, justified by being the anniversary issue. The cover was limited to two colors, but I pushed for a third color, an off white, which was hard to sell as it’s quite subtle.

The printing was done out of state, so I had to produce a traditional mechanical; PMT’s of the artwork and logotype, with rubylith overlays for the spot colors. The original inking had to be done in two parts, because the artwork was too large for the copy camera (the artwork was 23 inches wide).  After transferring the tracing to bristol board, I used ruling pens, French curves, technical pens and brushes for the inking.

Puerto Inking Detail

Puerto Inking

You can see how I created an area where I could splice the art together seamlessly. On the right is an area where I made an error, and simply pasted on a patch and redrew. The display type at that time was set on a Photo Typositor, letter by letter on a strip of photo paper, and then pasted up. Hard to believe this is how we worked back then, but it was a good way to learn letter spacing and the finer points of typography (although this type isn’t very handsomely done).

Photo Typositor

We also did a t-shirt using this design. I learned something the hard way about doing t-shirts; if the design covers too much area, the shirt is tough to wear in hot weather. People liked the design, but the shirt stuck to their chest! The problem wasn’t in the design, it was in the rectangle of off-white that was printed under the black design so it would show up crisply on the various colored shirts.


The cover was accepted into the XIII Biennale of Graphic Design in Brno, Czechoslovakia, so we were off to a good start.

Jumping ahead two years, is another three color cover, again the main artwork is camera ready. This time the design is based solely on a concept suggested by the editor, “Why don’t you design some Puertoplasms? You know, some biomorphic, protoplasmic critters called Puertoplasms.” (Those writers!) I show this cover in part because I have pretty much all the elements of the project. I made the artwork as described previously, and also produced a rather tight “comp” (comprehensive layout) of the complete design.

The comp was made using LetraFilm or Cellotak,  sheets of self adhesive films that were available in PMS colors (used famously by Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast). PMT’s, produced on the copy camera, were used for the art, and a film positive overlay for the type. The comp was used for approval, but also went with the mechanical, so the printer could see the appearance of the final product.

Puerto Comp

The mechanical is in classic mechanical form; first a protective cover flap, then a tissue overlay with a hand drawn, diagonal color break, which cuts through the important areas of the design. The break is labled with the PMS numbers and percentages. Under that are two amberlith overlays, one for each of two separate colors, again labeled with PMS numbers and percentages. These are registered to one another and to the underlying artwork using cross-hair register marks. The overlays are carefully hand cut to provide trapping. Finally, on the base board itself, are repros of the artwork to size, the text, and matching register marks.

Puerto Mechanical

As a part of the printing contract, we paid for a color proof, in early days a 3M Color Key, which used transparent PMS color overlays, and later a DuPont Chromalin, in which all the colors were fused onto one base sheet. Below is a Chromalin proof from a different project.


Before the printer would proceed, the color proof had to be signed off on, notating any necessary changes. For this project we did another shirt, as well as a limited edition screenprint, both for sale.

Puerto Screenprint

Full Color Covers

After doing several camera-ready covers, some with photography, and some with quite elaborate overlays, the budget was increased to accommodate full color printing. Of course, this meant I could produce full color artwork and either have it shot and color separated directly on a copy camera (exactly the way I had been doing projects since the 60’s), or I could have the illustration photographed using a studio camera, providing the printer with a 4 x 5 inch positive transparency. Because the printing wasn’t done locally, it proved to be easier to send a transparency together with a mechanical for the text material and any tint colors.

Positive Transparency

Eventually I no longer needed to make a mechanical, as the layout could be produced in Quark or InDesign, and proofs could be sent to take the place of comps. Fonts and image files may be collected using the software’s Package function or an application such as Art Files, or files can be sent as PDFs, preserving the integrity of your design and protecting your fonts.

About this time, I initiated another idea for the covers, I started to use a literary quotation as a basis for the content of the illustration. This was sometimes connected to the content of the book, but usually not. It was usually something that either triggered visual ideas, or was inspirational. The quotation appeared somewhere on the front or back cover, and obviously it was something writers and readers could relate to.

Here are a some examples of the conventional full color approach, with some of the preparatory material. The first example is the cover for the 30th anniversary issue, which is a visual reprise of the 25th anniversary cover, souped up and reorganized. When I describe how I made the artwork, keep in mind this was before high resolution ink jet printers were available. Because I had a nice studio and was already set up to screen print, I simply made a couple stencils of the black and white original artwork, and then printed it in a variety of colors. Then I cut the prints into strips and pasted them up with some other images.

Puerto Thirtieth Anniversary Cover

Again, I made a simple mechanical for the type and the black mat around the art. Not a very deep concept, mostly esthetic playfulness. The strips are reminiscent of volumes on a shelf, with their spines forming the design, which also reflects the volumes created in the previous five years.

For this next cover, the editor gave me a quotation from Italo Calvino’s book, Six Memos for the Next Milennium, lectures written for the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University. The abbreviated quote, from the lecture Exactitude: “Crystal and flame: two forms of beauty that we cannot tear our eyes from……two absolutes, two categories for classifying facts and ideas, styles and feelings.” What I would call a  “loaded” quotation, rich in imagery and poetic ambiguity, perfect for exploration. I painted this illustration in gouache on cold-press board. My intention was to create atmosphere and emotion, with a bit of mystery. I started with the individual images, flame, crystal, imaginary vegetation, in a dark landscape setting. Here you can see the preliminary tracings and how I used the traditional grid method of enlargement.

Calvino Scaling Tracing

Sometimes I use traditional methods such as this simply because I enjoy the process. I’m not in a hurry to go back to “real life!” As I do successive tracings, I refine the drawing until I reach the right level of stylization. I tape up the fragments, and then do one last, complete drawing. The final tracing is transferred with graphite paper to the board, which has been prepared with gesso. When the illustration was completed, the transparency was shot and sent to the printer with the mechanical.

Calvino Final Tracing

Calvino Final Illustration

A last cover demonstrating purely painted artwork illustrates a quote from Love Sonnet LIV by Pablo Neruda, so passionate and flooded with emotion. Here I was hoping to describe the lines:

“……here we are at last……far from the delirium of the savage city”

and

“……you and I shall exalt this heavenly outcome
Mind and Love live naked in this house.”

Other potent words and phrases, such as “pure line,” “furious dreams,” “rivers of bitter certainty,” “double glass,” “two wings,” and “transparency,” gave me further images to draw upon. Heady stuff. The lush and provocative imagery gave me a framework upon which to include the sun and moon, a doorway into deep, blue space, architectural forms symbolizing the “savage city,” and vine-like flowers alluding to the intertwined lovers. This illustration is watercolor on prepared board, with a bit of acrylic in the background.

Neruda Love Sonnet

Digital “Plus” Covers

I rarely produce my work entirely on the computer, but obviously the creative potential and conveniences of digital techniques became evident as computers became more powerful and software became more truly functional. My main impetus has always been to produce good work by whatever means necessary. Following this philosophy has led me to learn new processes that allow me to fulfill a particular vision. The vision comes first, and then learning the appropriate process. For me, this is how growth occurs. I love process, so learning the computer was a great challenge; I intended to figure out how to bend it to my needs.

This led me to combine production techniques, playing with the advantages, similarities, and contrasts offered by different methods or media.


This design, for example, started out as a cross hatched illustration in ink


which was then merged with extensive work in illustrator.


The scanner is today's version of the copy camera, so, rather than facing a completely new way of working, I can rather easily transition between conventional and digital methods. Personally, I like being in the studio, so “shortcuts” have never interested me. I’ve found that digital and conventional design takes about the same amount of time, they both take a long time! So, I do what I feel is the best solution to the problem, and having drawing skills gives me more options.

Another advantage of the computer and scanner is that the artist can more easily integrate photography with digital art. For this cover, titled Summer Reading, I photographed wood type from my type collection


processed it in Photoshop, and layered it with a sun drawn in Illustrator


The background was created in Illustrator, colored in Photoshop, and again layered with the other elements. The final design of the front and back was composited using InDesign or Quark, (like a digital mechanical), Preflight or Collect for Output was employed (to collect all the required files), and a CD or Zip Disk (early days) sent to the printer.

Puerto Summer Reading Cover

I was interested in making a window (portal) into the interior of the book, which, of course, is all type (text). Part of the fun of doing these covers was playing with variations of the same theme, over and over, trying to be fresh each time.

The cover, In the Goutte d’Or, was composited in a similar manner. This issue featured a photographic essay and interview by Mary Ellen Wolf about an important and controversial immigrant neighborhood in Paris, populated mainly by North Africans. This design is almost all photographic; I duo-toned two of her photographs and placed them in portals, backed with greatly processed Arabic script (originally photographed in a shop window), and rimmed with tinted maps of the neighborhood. There are a lot of pieces to this design, created on layers, and then composited.  The maps were tinted (painted) in the software program Painter, which I’ll talk about next. The cover is intended to show the Goutte d’Or as an area circumscribed by the city, an oasis; a “different,” perhaps exotic place, as is implied by the viewer having to peer at the inhabitants through the “windows.”

Goutte d’Or Cover

A cover from 1998, another Summer Reading,  marked my first completely digital cover. I deliberately set out to exploit the program Painter. Doing it on a deadline I had to learn quickly, and yet be sure it was printable. A detailed description of how I made this illustration can be found in Painter 6, a book by Cher Threinen-Pendarvis. Just as with my conventional work, I started with a pencil drawing in outline, which I scanned, and then developed in Painter. Other than the initial drawing, the art is entirely digital. The drawing of course, is pivotal to the final piece. It would be a different cover if I had started the drawing on the computer. A subtle but critical distinction. One of the delightful things about Painter, which is marketed as “natural media,” is the ability to make custom brushes, pencils, and papers. A graphics tablet is pretty much required with Painter; I use a Wacom.The interface of the early versions of Painter was rather cumbersome, and computers weren’t powerful enough to keep up with the brushes, so it was slow going. Today's version is easier to navigate and speed is no longer a problem if you have the right computer. I made a dozen or so variations of paper textures for this illustration, so that each little segment of the drawing is a different texture. Interestingly, these paper textures are an emulation of the old style Bristol boards that had dot textures embossed in their surface, so you could easily draw camera-ready illustrations. Painter is a very organic, more “human” graphics program, with a nice relationship to traditional media. The question remains, if it looks just like traditional media, why not use traditional media? OK, you don’t have the painting background or a studio, those are good reasons (but which can be overcome if you so desire). Better reasons are that you can make umpteen changes to your work, create shapes and textures unique to the computer, easily integrate photo imagery and text, and when you’re finished, easily upload it or print it. However, the fact remains, if you like traditional methods, you should do it. And, you can easily cross over to digital media whenever you like.

The design concept for Summer Reading is simple: one dreams of reading under a tree on a hot summer day. The chair is empty because it isn’t summer yet, so one can only fantasize. Intermingled in the tree and sky are figurative elements, kind of like imagining creatures in the clouds.

Summer Reading

Summer Reading Detail

Here’s another Painter cover that is described in the Painter 6 book; Puertoplasms Primavera, a Spring issue, which is based on a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his essay, Nature, published in 1836.

“Given the planet, it is still necessary to add the impulse; so, to every creature nature added a little violence of direction in its proper path, a shove to put it on its way; in every instance, a slight generosity, a drop too much.” I interpreted this as being about creative exaggeration. Here’s an example of the Painter interface to give an idea of the complexity and really great options for custom-made papers and brushes. I made the individual plasms first, layered them, painted with custom brushes and papers, and then collaged them together.

Painter Interface

Shell Plasm

Puertoplasms Primavera

Puertoplasms Primavera Detail

I made two images for the cover of a special issue on Cuban poetry, and I couldn’t decide on which to use, so we chose one for the cover, and used the other inside the book and for a trade show poster.

Puerto Cuba Cover

Cuba Poster

The cover design shows Cuba as a Caribbean island hot spot, and the imagery was intended to look political; a heroic image of a young person, captured inside an exclamation mark, is screened with oversized halftone dots, and the word Cuba is boldly marching, sporting a folkish letter ‘C.’ The original inked drawing of the letter ‘c’ is only about 2 inches tall. I like the graphic roughness of the enlarged strokes against the mechanical color fills (similar to the old way of inking and filling with LetraFilm adhesive colors). The 17 x 11 poster image was finished in Photoshop, and, because we only needed a hundred copies, it was printed digitally. I had never had a poster printed by this process, so I decided to make full use of gradients to see how they would reproduce. I was very impressed by the color fidelity and the smooth gradient transitions in the final pieces.

Here are a few more “hybrid” covers, along with some details showing how elements were fabricated and processed.

This cover is titled When Sleeping Birds Dream.

Puerto Sleeping Bird Cover

Sleeping Bird Detail

Sleeping Bird Detail Two

Sleeping Bird Icon

I illustrated Lullaby of Wordland for a Summer issue, thus the play on nesting birds and a secondary play on the familiar song title, Lullaby of Birdland. (Wordland being where creative writers hang out.) In the background is a lengthy quotation by Emerson from his essay Nature. The central rose was photographed and painted, the birds were inked and then photo-manipulated, the woodsy sticks are coarsely halftoned and tinted. The last detail shows an earlier stage of the layout.

Puerto Cover Lullaby of Wordland

Lullaby Birds

Lullaby - Early Layout

War was happening in 2003, so this cover reflects a current event on everyones mind, including writers and artists. The spiky, aggressive sun, the acid greens, and the two snake-like adversaries were designed to embody violence, evil and conflict.

Puerto Cover - War

In 2005 we celebrated the 40th anniversary of Puerto del Sol with a gallery exhibition of all the covers to date. The special anniversary issue again has an Emerson quote, this one from his Journal of 1847:

“Only life prevails, not the having lived. Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to a new aim.”

I read this quote as a positive reminder of change, flux, and new aims, much as the 40th anniversary could be seen not as an ending, but as a transition to the next decade. The cover is designed from back to front, in physical layers of paper (real paper!), culminating with a colorful, expressive sun on the top layer

Puerto Fortieth Anniversary Cover

We did a double issue for the year 2007, so the design, titled Natures Double Issue, features a very stylized double ’S,’ one for Spring and a mirrored one for Summer. We had to abide by a new printing contract starting with this issue (which was very irritating as we were very pleased with the printer we had been using), so, being a bit mischievous, I decided to test the printers capabilities by using a full color spectrum on the cover. They did a great job.

Natures Double Issue

The Spring/Summer issue of 2008 was my final cover design. The editor was leaving, and it was a good time to give it up. By that time we had finally designed the inside of the book, and most of what we could do was done. The last cover is sort of a baroque memorial to the1988 cover art. The title, A Long, Dry Season, refers to an extended time of political and economic distress, symbolized by the parched earth (photographed in the street in front of my house). But in the patch of blue sky, there is a glimmer of hope.

A Long, Dry Season Cover

A Long, Dry Season Back Cover

In 2010 I made a large screenprint with design students at New Mexico State University, titled Graphic Ephemera: Collected Pleasures. In order to push the envelope of screenprinting and challenge our abilities, I used a broad catalog of my artwork from various design projects, including some from the Puerto covers. Over a three-day period, we processed the images to make them screen-printable, and produced a 13 color print in a limited edition.

Graphic Ephemera: Collected Pleasures

More of my work, design as well as fine-art, can be seen at louisocepek.com
All work copyright protected, Louis Ocepek
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Lou Simeone and Illustration Pages thanks Louis Ocepek for taking us through this wonderful journey of his work. It was both thrilling and informative. Please be sure to visit Louis Ocepek's website to see more of his art.

Books authored by Louis Ocepek:
Graphic Design: Vision, Process Product
Basic Design Theory & Methods

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