If you have been paying attention, you already know how fond I am of pulp fiction cover art. So when I saw a chance to do one as an invitation for an annual chili party that my wife and I throw, I couldn't resist.
For an authentic look, there are a number of known parameters. I will comment on these as we come to them. First, on your illustration you leave the top quarter of the page clear of any important detail, and also preferably very dark, because that is where you know the magazine title and other publishing information will go. Seeing original pulp cover paintings is sometimes startling because without the masthead logo they look out of balance, but of course they were not meant to ever be seen in this way. And if you design your composition without bearing this typographic component in mind, you will come to grief.
For inspiration I referred to the very fine book Pulp Culture: the Art of Fiction Magazines, by Frank M. Robinson and Lawrence Davidson. The internet also offers a number of good dedicated websites with hundreds of cover scans among them.
I thought it would be fun to show a cult of people fatally enslaved to the chili I make, so my cover ostensibly illustrates a story called "Slaves of the Cauldron." Chains, people in hooded robes, a cavernous stone chamber, the cliché of the sinister green hand, and a look of mad ecstasy on the face of the man receiving his chili.
Here is the first rough sketch:
This includes a blocking in of the title logo, Chili Detective Magazine, (in faint blue line) and also a blocking of the mock story titles that always have to be included, because I want the final illustration to have the look of a cover as it might actually appear on a newsstand.
And since I will be having this printed by a copy service on standard letter size paper, I proportion it to just fit inside the printable area, with the idea of hand trimming the white border off with a paper cutter, giving the result its appropriate full-bleed effect. [That is, the printing would extend clear to the cut edge of the paper.]
To further prove the composition, now in Photoshop I paint in the full value range in black and white.
There is no need to get overly detailed at this stage, however.
Next, I add some color on a new layer to establish my palette, and I lay in placeholders for most of the typographic elements:
This typography was done in Photoshop, but the final will be done in Illustrator, where I have greater control and more options for effects.
Next: The Detailed Pencil Drawing