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[SFFWRTCHT] An Interview With Hugo-winning Best Artist John Picacio

John Picacio illustrates science fiction, fantasy and horror with diversity and range in his work, combining traditional drawing, painting  and digital art. His covers have appeared on books by Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, L.E. Modessit, Jr., Frederick Pohl, and more. He’s won four Chesley Awards, the Locus Award, two International Horror Guild Awards and has been nominated eight years consecutively for the Hugo, winning this year as Best Artist. His illustrations have appeared in Spectrum: The Best In Contemorary Fantastic Art and he illustrated the 2012 Game Of Thrones calendar. Active on Twitter as @johnpicacio, He can be found at his website, the associated blog, and Facebook. He and his wife live in San Antonio, TX.

SFFWRTCHT: John Picacio’s covers are quite distinctive. Some of the books he’s worked on include: Planesrunner and Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald, Robots & Magic edited by Steven Silver, Jump Gate Twist by Mark Van Name, Starship: Mercenary by Mike Resnick,  X-Men: The Return by Chris Roberson, Star Trek: Crucible — The Star To Every Wandering by David R. George III, and Son Of Man by Robert Silverberg. First things first, where’d your interest in science fiction and fantasy come from?

John Picacio: I was a child of cinema and comics before I moved to science fiction and fantasy novels and prose. So Star Wars, Blade Runner, and Star Trek would’ve been my first onramps.

SFFWRTCHT: Who are some of your artistic influences? How much do you borrow/copy/imitate the work of those who inspire? Who else influences you?

JP: Influences: Brad Holland. Gary Kelley. Gustav Klimt. Moebius. Richard Powers. Sergio Toppi. Sienkiewicz. McKean. Influences besides drawing/painting? Ridley Scott. Frank Gehry. Picasso. Dali. Tarkovsky. And lately, David Bowie. No creator comes out of a vacuum fully-formed. We’re all the sum of our influences. The trick is can you take the vocabulary of the artistic conversation that has preceded you and add something fresh and new?  Can you bring some insight or perspective that hasn’t been shared? Or bring a sense of wonder or surprise?  Honestly, I always figure if I can turn myself on, then I’ve got a good shot at doing the same for others.

SFFWRTCHT: How did you get started learning your craft? Was there a particular medium which drew you first? 

JP: Drawing — pencil on paper surface — is still what jazzes me every day, just like it did as a kid. Never goes away.  I wanted to create my own work since I could read. But I didn’t know I wanted to be an SFF cover artist until I met Moorcock. I give Moorcock, Rick Klaw and Ben Ostrander the credit for ‘discovering’ me, when I was self-publishing comics. My first cover was Mike Moorcock’s Behold The Man: The 30th Anniversary Edition. Never done a book cover or book illustration in my life. Mike had faith in me from the beginning and he’s been one of the best friends I could ever ask for in this business.

SFFWRTCHT: Materials? Ink or paint? Surface? Scale?

JP: Materials: anything goes. I’m definitely a hybrid of traditional and digital means. Every piece is trad. dwg. and painting. But I also tend to layer and sandwich my traditional dwgs and paintings in Photoshop and the final is a sandwich of those layers.

SFFWRTCHT: How much input do authors have on covers typically given when a publisher hires you?

JP: When you’re dealing with big houses, authors rarely have direct input to covers. It doesn’t happen often. However, with many publishers, it does, and I work well with authors because I treat their books like people. The best work happens when Art Directors and clients understand what comes out of my brain is as valuable as my right hand. And when you look at the great art directors they understand that, such as Irene Gallo (TOR) and Lou Anders (PYR), for example. Big houses really keep a tight grip on that. I tend to work closely with my ADs.

SFFWRTCHT: Have you ever had a personal artistic vision clash with an author’s?

JP: Yeah, that’s happened a few times, but not very many.  In a 15-year career, only a couple of times. That’s a pretty good batting average. And sometimes those clashes turn into some of the best covers.  Dan Simmons and I had some heavy discussions on my cover for Drood and that ended up being a favourite of both of ours in the end. I love Simmons. When he emails thoughts on a cover, they’re some of my favourites because he lays it out there. I can deal with that. But he also knows how to get out of my way so I can do my best stuff. And that’s why he and I work well together.

SFFWRTCHT: Are you given excerpts or arcs to draw ideas from, or just concepts and generalities?

JP: I read the books, if they’re available. Sometimes they’re still being written. But I read whatever is available. And my MO is I tend to generate my own ideas after listening to what the company is driving for. And then I research as needed. Almost always needed. Exchange notes with my AD. Listen to sales and editorial feedback. I try to take in all the info I can. But they’re hiring me for how I see the world just as much as my right hand. And that’s my constant advice to young artists — don’t just be a hired hand. Never lose sight of your own vision.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you work with independent publishers as well as big houses?

JP: I sure do. I work with independent publishers and big houses, both. My cover schedule is intense and I juggle a lot.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you do any larger scale pieces or all book folio sizes? And, do you get a say in typography?

JP: Sizes vary. But I tend to work way bigger than publication size. I’d say from 13×19 to 18×24? Depending?  And godforbid, if we’re talking a shadowbox assemblage cover, then the size can be much, much larger. A lot of say on type with some houses. But with others, I leave it to their designers. Depends on client’s needs.

SFFWRTCHT: So the AD hires you, then you look at the book, then they pitch ideas, you pitch ideas, then what?

JP: After I listen to the client — thumbnails. Then we decide on which direction from those. Then a comp. And then a final. As far as layout, I tend to indicate layout in my thumbnails. But that’s not intended to tell the designer what to do. It’s intended to let ‘em know what I’m thinking. I’m basically leaving space for them to work their magic. But it’s their call.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you like music when you do your work or prefer to stay in a quiet environment? 

JP: Depends on the art. Techno, classical, soundtracks, Blade Runner, Dark Knight, Miles Davis, anything goes.

SFFWRTCHT: I’m fascinated by the distinctive faces in your work (especially the Elric images). Do you work with models or…?

JP: Yeah, I use family and friends a lot as models to find shapes & forms. They’re references for my drawings and paintings.

SFFWRTCHT: Is the art you do on your own time different from the commissioned work?

JP: Really no difference so far. My personal work is my commercial work – because it’s all personal!  I’m about to do some of my first creator-owned, non-commissioned work. And actually I started it a few months ago.

SFFWRTCHT: You say you juggle a lot–how many covers do you do a year?

JP: Varies. But from 2001 to 2011, I had 1 major book cover published every month for that span. And I’m still going.

SFFWRTCHT: How did what you thought of Ice and Fire vary from what others did (TV show, other artists)?

JP: The beauty of the 2012 George RR Martin/A Song of Ice and Fire Calendar was I didn’t have to worry about HBO or Game Of Thrones. GRRM and Bantam said they wanted a John Picacio vision of GRRM’s books. HBO was only in production at that time. I just went and did my thing and did the characters as I read them in George’s books.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst artistic advice you’ve ever gotten?

JP: Best advice  came from Mike Moorcock: “You’re the artist. You’ll figure it out.” And I did. The first job. He believed. The rest is history.  Worst advice: That diversity is a bad thing. Never listened to that. Diversity of materials and approaches is a strength.

SFFWRTCHT: If you could change one thing about the current industry, what would it be?

JP: Wow, damn good question. <thinking> We’ve cornered ourselves into making price and convenience our first priority over content (ebooks). Fix that and you rule the world.

SFFWRTCHT:  What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?

JP: Look for Ian N. Mcdonald’s Be My Enemy soon. I’m working on a new Simmons cover right now as well and a cover for Scholastic. More soon.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press, headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.