While most of us may run to the bookstore on the release day of a new book by our favorite SF/F author, we may not give enough thought to the artist who’s created the fantastic book cover. In this month’s artist spotlight, we’re privileged to speak with John Picacio, the award-winning illustrator of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. His artwork is noted for its diversity and range, often combining traditional drawing and painting with digital finishes, as well as exploring methods such as hand-made assemblages. Having illustrated the covers of books by Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, L.E. Modesitt, Jr., Dan Simmons, Joe R. Lansdale, Jeffrey Ford, and many more, he has also produced cover artwork for franchises such as Star Trek and X-Men. His clients include Ballantine/Del Rey, Bantam, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Tor Books, Pyr, among many. He’s won the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, four Chesley Awards, and two International Horror Guild Awards, all in the Artist category.
What was the inspiration behind “Live Without a Net”?
Two words: Lou Anders. Late one night at a convention in 2001, he told me he had an idea for an anthology that would be a counterpoint to all of the Internet-crazy science fiction that was consuming the marketplace. He saw a book with stories of alternate universes where the Internet variable either never existed or no longer exists, and he wanted to unplug from all of the cybermania and see if that produced new perspectives. He had a wish list of original stories from Michael Swanwick, Paul Di Filippo, David Brin, Stephen Baxter, Adam Roberts, Charles Stross, Chris Roberson, and more. It was a figment of his imagination, and a longshot idea.
Less than two years later, Penguin/Roc Books made that very book a published reality and I created this art for the cover.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? Is there always a story behind your art, or does that develop as the idea does?
Most of my art these days is inspired by the books and manuscripts that I’m hired to illustrate. I’ve always favored art that was evocative rather than literal. I think my art is a balance between the two, and that balance shifts depending on the nature of the assignment. Narrative thrust is vital, but I think the good stuff has an emotional connection with its audience. The more my work can have that, and allow the audience to fill in their own memories and associations, the better.
Many if not most of your works have been used as cover art for fantasy and science fiction books, by a variety of different publishers and editors. What’s that process like? How does a particular piece of art end up as a cover for a book published by Tor, for example?
It’s a constant, vicious, exhilarating cycle of inspiration, execution, and deadlines. I eat, sleep, and breathe the stuff. I get hired and consume the manuscript and/or briefs given by my art directors. Then I generate sketches and ideas based on what I see and what I think will visually connect the book with its audience. The art director and I will exchange and discuss, and then the sketches will be reviewed for approval by other departments within the publishing company. That part of the process is generally out of my hands, but once the verdict comes back, I then create a final illustration.
Every cover solution is unique. My works tend to be a combination of traditional and digital media. As far as tools and mediums, I use Faber Castell pencils, all kinds of brushes, acrylics, oils, Liquin, occasional colored pencils, pastels, charcoal, ink—whatever it takes to communicate. I usually work on either thick illustration board or masonite. I’m a Mac guy and as far as digital work, it’s Photoshop for me. The important thing to remember is that my digital work is basically the compositing of my traditionally-created drawings and paintings. All of the drawing and painting is done in the real world.
Personally, I’ll always like getting my hands dirty and making things in the physical world, whether it be drawing, painting, or building. I like using the best of both worlds though and I enjoy combining materials digitally in ways that I can’t in the real world. We live in the 21st-century, in a world very much driven by daily digital revolutions. I enjoy hybrid artists that are combining media in fresh ways and those are the artists that get me most excited these days. I’ve never perceived traditional media and digital media as exclusive of each other, although collectors and conservatives would like to make them so. For me, I really enjoy being a hybrid artist, working between the poles of traditional and digital media.
Can you share with us a few of your personal favorites, and why?
There are a few, but I generally see the problems in my previous work, rather than the victories, so that’s a hard one. I’ll pick three that come to mind.
The cover art for Fast Forward 2 is a favorite because I always enjoy working with Lou (Anders, the editor and art director of the book). FF2 is an anthology and therefore, the art is more about the spirit of the book rather than a particular story. I think that art was as much a snapshot inside my head as it was an image for the book. The two were very much in sync at that moment. That doesn’t happen all of the time. The artwork went on to win a Chesley Award, and Lou ended up winning the Chesley for Best Art Director the same year (2009).
I think the most recent Elric cover, Swords & Roses, makes me happy. It’s a very simple piece and honestly, I wasn’t sure if it was very good when I was doing it. I liked what I saw in my head but I wasn’t sure if my execution was holding up to it. What was interesting was the overwhelmingly positive reaction when it was finished and unveiled. That caught me off-guard. It really seems to be connecting with diehard Elric fans and new ones as well, and I’m grateful for that.
Finally, I would have to say my only rejected artwork of 2009 is one of my favorite recent pieces. I was commissioned to illustrate the cover art for a YA book called The 13th Reality: The Journal of Curious Letters by James Dashner. Because the cover was going to be printed on silver foil and was competing in a market (independent reader) where cover art is super-vibrant, I created a sepia-toned scheme with a single red spot color to take advantage of the foil and stand out on the shelf.
However, the sales/marketing department at Simon & Schuster rejected it. I strongly vouched that they reconsider, but in the end, I responded with a full-color solution instead, which was accepted. In the end, they didn’t even print it on silver foil and it was published in full-color. I thought the rejected, more restrained artwork was far more potent. I submitted the rejected artwork to Spectrum: the Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art and it was selected in this year’s annual in the Book category. I felt validated by that, and even more so, by the massive demand for prints of that rejected image in recent months, via email and at conventions. It’s the single, most-requested image of anything I did in 2009. Even people who don’t love fantasy seem to love that image. I like Simon & Schuster a lot, but I think they may have missed the boat on that one. That’s the way it goes sometimes.
What are you working on now?
I’m working hard on the 2012 George R.R. Martin calendar for Bantam. It’s my visions of the people and places in George’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. It’s an amazing gig and I’m having a blast with it.
As far as stuff currently releasing, I’ve been creating covers and interiors for a few of the new Del Rey editions of Michael Moorcock’s Elric for the last couple of years. The sixth book in that omnibus series releases December 2010 and it has the artwork I mentioned previously. The book’s called Elric: Swords and Roses. I did the cover and interior illustrations for that one. It was an honor working on those books because Elric is one of my favorite fantasy icons ever.
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