Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Interview: John Picacio

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

John Picacio is an award-winning illustrator who has created coers for works by Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg, Neil Gaiman, Joe R. Lansdale, Jeffrey Ford, Graham Joyce, Lucius Shepard, Charles de Lint, David Gemmell, L.E. Modesitt, Jr., Frederik Phl, Hal Clement, and many, many more. In 1992, he earned a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Four years later, he illustrated his first book--the 30th Anniversary Edition of Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man.

His illustrations have been selected numerous times for the Spectrum Annual and in 2002, he received the International Horror Guild Award for Best Artist. In 2005, he received a Chesley Award (for Best Paperback Cover) and he was a finalist for the Hugo Award (Best Professional Artist). Later the same year, he received the much-coveted World Fantasy Award (Artist).

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. I have tons of questions but let's start with something simple. How did you first get acquainted with science fiction/fantasy?

Comics were first. Most of my faves were the typical DC and Marvel superhero stuff like Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, and so on. When I was a kid, I devoured any superhero comics I got my hands on. I was seven when the first STAR WARS film released. I think late 70s/early 80s genre film influenced an early love of sf/fantasy as much as anything. STAR WARS, RAIDERS, the first two SUPERMAN films…..it was a good time to be a kid at the movie theatre. The first STAR TREK series was in syndication and on TV right after school. That was huge. The first BATTLESTAR GALACTICA series was all the rage at the time. On Friday nights in San Antonio, there’d be a TV program called PROJECT TERROR that would run cheesy b-movie horror stuff from the ’50 and ‘60s and I used to watch that with my grandma. And then on Saturday afternoons, there was something called SCREAMING MEEMIES that would run more classic horror films like the Universal flicks of the ‘30s all the way through the Hammer films of the ‘60s. My mother used to watch those while she was ironing and doing the laundry, and I was glued to the set when those were on. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is still probably my favorite vintage horror film. So yeah, I think as a kid, I was definitely in love with sf, fantasy, and horror via movies and TV, and didn’t get exposed to the purer literary material until much later.

Which came first, the die-hard fan (as opposed to the casual reader) or the budding artist (not necessarily cover illustrations)?

I’m not sure. My earliest memories are drawing, but I also have an early memory of sitting in a grocery shopping cart pushed by my mother and I’m trying to reach around her to grab a spinner rack full of comics as it zips by. I remember her pulling a copy of ACTION COMICS off the rack and handing it to me. I don’t remember the specific issue but I vividly remember Superman’s costume grabbing my attention. I can’t remember a time in my childhood when I didn’t love comics, sf, and fantasy, or wasn’t inspired to draw because of them.

In Jeff Vandermeer's interview with you, you mentioned that you originally thought that you were going to be a comics creator. What were the titles or artwork (not necessarily comics) that inspired you back then?

I guess that’s around my early to mid 20’s, so we’re talking about Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN, Dave McKean’s CAGES, Miller & Mazzuchelli’s BATMAN: YEAR ONE, graphic novels like VIOLENT CASES and SIGNAL TO NOISE, and anything with artwork by Bill Sienkiewicz, George Pratt, Kent Williams, Jon Muth or Barron Storey. At the time, Duncan Fegredo’s linework for a series called ENIGMA was an eye-opener. It was an eight-issue series and the way his drawing evolved from issue #1 to #8 really blew me away. Sherilyn Van Valkenburgh’s coloring was pretty amazing in that series too. Those are the ones that made me want to work in comics.

What ever happened to your comics work? Do you think you'll re-visit that aspect and try your hand at comics again in the future?

It’s funny how your life can turn in a blink. Back in ’95, I was working in architecture by day, and doing my self-published comics by night, experimenting and finding a voice. At the time, I would’ve been happy to just continue working toward a full-time career in comics, writing and drawing my own stories. Then Mojo Press came calling, and hired me to cover-illustrate the 30th Anniversary edition of Michael Moorcock’s BEHOLD THE MAN. That job changed my life. I ended up doing not only the cover, but interior illustrations and design too. The more I worked on that book, the more I fell in love with being a book illustrator. Just as importantly, I fell in love with genre literature and wanted to be immersed in it. The dream of being a professional illustrator bloomed in my head and it took root very deep, very quickly. Those seeds had already been planted via my childhood passion for comics and sf/fantasy film, but after BEHOLD THE MAN, I was much more interested in literature than film. I didn’t want to do anything else but learn how to be a great book illustrator, and try to eventually do it as a full-time living (which finally happened in 2001). My spare time was eating, drinking, and breathing drawing, painting, photography, illustration, art and genre literature. So my architecture days were numbered at that point, and effectively, my comics publishing days were over for the time being.

That said, it’s important to evolve, and now that I’ve had a full decade-plus of cover illustration and experience, it might be fun to try my hand again at comics someday. I never closed the door. I still love the medium of comics. Who knows?

Comics creation is not just about the artwork but crafting stories as well. Do you ever feel the need to tell such stories, such as in prose form, or are you content illustrating and preferring that medium to tell your stories?

Comics are a helluva lot of work to write and illustrate. Comics are like marathon running, whereas book cover illustration is like world-class sprinting. I think I’m more gratified running a great sprint and moving on to the next big sprint than I am running a marathon. I like the shifting challenges of moving from cover to cover, book to book, author to author, and back and forth between genre and media. That’s a thrill. I’ve always loved the responsibility of creating the cover image for a book. That hits home in a very profound way. I can’t explain it in words. However, I can definitely see me returning to illustrated storytelling someday, but hopefully alongside my cover work rather than at the expense of it. Will that be comics? Will that be an illustrated book? I’m not sure yet. Whichever it is, I hope I’m able to still continue doing book cover illustrations for sf, fantasy, and horror. I love this field, and love being a part of it.

I don't usually pay a lot of attention to cover artists. There are some exceptions of course such as Boris Vallejo, Larry Elmore, or Keith Parkinson. For me, John Picacio is starting to make that kind of impression (I'll be honest, I loved the Empire of Ice Cream cover but it's only now, researching for the interview, that I discovered you were the artist behind it!). Do you feel you've reached that point where you're as iconic as Vallejo? Was that ever a goal?

Hah! Very kind of you to say. Vallejo’s in a class by himself, and a real gentleman. As far as how iconic my work is, that’s for you and the audience to decide. If I start thinking about that stuff, it’s game over. LOL. I like that old quote by Jacob Riis: “When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” It’s a blue-collar mentality, and for me, that means coming to work every day to create, draw and paint. That said, it’s satisfying to know my work is doing its job and connecting with people, and I appreciate it when it happens. If you’re asking what my goal is, I want to be one of the best artists in the field, so I just hammer the rock every day, and let the rest take care of itself.

Similarly, is it just the public perception/promotion or was 2008 a very productive year for you? You certainly produced a lot of eye-catching covers from authors like Michael Moorcock and Jeffrey Ford. Is it simply getting your name out there and fans realizing who you are or was the past few years a "breakthrough" period for you?

Again, thanks for the kind words. Yeah, I learned a lot in 2008. From the standpoint of personal growth, I learned a lot about the nuances of being a better professional, and what I need to do to be a better draftsman and painter. I’ve got a long way to go. So from that standpoint, I’d say it was a productive year. From the outside looking in, as far as how the world’s perceived my work in the last five years or so – yeah, it’s definitely been a steady progression of breakthroughs. My pal Chris Roberson describes a career track as a series of plateaus. You achieve one and then you look up and start working toward the next, and so on.

This year, I’m a Hugo nominee for Best Professional Artist for the fifth consecutive year. That means a lot to me. So the last five years have been good ones. I’ve got a lot of room to get much better, but I’ve grown a lot as an illustrator the last few years. The main thing is I’m happy that my work seems to be connecting with more and more people and I’m grateful for that.

As an artist, do you pay attention to who does the art of other book covers or only the ones that impress you?

My eyes are always open, that’s for sure. However, time is so precious these days that I barely have enough time to pick up cover art that grabs my attention. It never fails though – if I’m in a bookstore, I’m always looking at covers, and not just in the sf/fantasy section. It’s always interesting to look at the ‘new fiction’ shelves in a bookstore, and it’s immediately obvious how infrequently illustration is used on those covers. In the last couple of decades, illustration has had the ill-conceived stigma that it narrows the audience for a book, which is a garbage idea. There’s a lot of room for striking, provocative illustration in non-genre venues, and when I see a great Gary Kelley illustration on a mainstream cover or James Jean art in a Prada ad, it’s not ‘dumbing down’ the product, or limiting the audience. Quite the opposite, actually. So I’m always paying attention to non-genre covers too and how they’re treating illustration and design, for good and bad.

Who would you say were your art influences when you started out? How about influences now or techniques you'd like to successfully explore?

Tough question. It would almost be easier to say what isn’t an influence because it seems like everything is! When I started out, the comic book influences I mentioned earlier were huge. Besides those, I’d have to say Gustav Klimt, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Cornell, Egon Schiele, Marshall Arisman, Gary Kelley, Brad Holland, N.C. Wyeth, and Salvador Dali, off the top of my head. As far as influences now, I look around me more than I did when I started out, and more and more, I draw inspiration from my own life rather than from the way other people see. As far as techniques, that’s a constant evolution. Someone asked me today whether I prefer oils or acrylics and the answer is both. The main thing I want is to become a better draftsman and painter and that’s regardless of what tool I’m using. Those are the most important things to me.

When I first started out, I was interested in the way artists like Dave McKean used photography as a final element in mixed-media work. I definitely explored that in my early cover work, but since 2003 or so, I’ve been focused on drawing and painting, and left the photography behind. I definitely shoot lots of photos for reference and for studies, but as a final illustration element, I’m not interested anymore.

I’ve never explored doing a completely digital drawing or painting before. Maybe someday I will, but for now, I’m more interested in getting better with traditional media and using digital media solely to composite my traditional elements. I think there’s still a lot of virgin territory in hybrid traditional/digital work, and I’d like to keep exploring that, in addition to improving my traditional skills.

Do you feel that in order to deliver the best cover art, you need to be a big fan of the author or editor whose book you're illustrating? Or have you ever done book covers wherein you haven't yet read the material because it's still unavailable or incomplete (i.e. they're still working on it)?

It’s pretty common these days to illustrate a book cover for a manuscript that’s still incomplete. Book solicitations go out so early for advance orders, and that’s long before the book goes to the printer. It’s not uncommon for authors to still be writing the book or the book’s still going through final edits. Incomplete or not, I read every bit of the manuscript that’s available before I do the cover. That’s part of the fun of the process.

As far as whether I have to be a fan of the book to do a good job? No, that’s not necessary. The way I look at it is I’ve got confidence I can find an intriguing visual angle toward just about any subject, and that’s where a lot of the fun is. Part of my job is to reveal the strengths of a book and convey those to the buying public, and when an illustrator finds the good in a book, the cover job is rarely boring or uninspiring.

As an aside, from one reader to another, what are some of your favorite books or who are some of your favorite authors (not necessarily in the genre)?

As far as authors, most of my current favorites are within the genre, since most of my reading is for manuscripts that I’ve illustrated. Off the top of my head, I’d say Jeff Ford, Michael Moorcock, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Joe Lansdale, Charles Stross, Graham Joyce, China Mieville, Dan Simmons, Jack Skillingstead, and Paolo Bacigalupi.

As far as favorite books, for me, that means not just traditional prose, but art books, comics, and graphic novels. I’d say SCULPTING IN TIME by Andrey Tarkovsky is way up there. It’s basically Tarkovsky’s philosophies on life and art, and even though he’s speaking as a filmmaker, I think the spirit of the ideas translates easily to illustration. More: VIOLENT CASES by Gaiman and McKean…. EINSTEIN’S DREAMS by Alan Lightman…. THE LOGIC OF IMAGES by Wim Wenders…. DREAMTIGERS by Jorge Luis Borges…. a Gustav Klimt art book by Gottfried Fliedl….a MOMA art book about Joseph Cornell….a book about N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle and the Brandywine School called VISIONS OF ADVENTURE. Again, a lot more besides those, but those are some all-time faves off the top of my head.

Which projects are most likely to excite you?

When I was first starting out, an art director called to hire me and said, “I have no idea what to tell you about this assignment. I like your work a lot. You figure it out. I trust you’ll come up with something terrific.” That’s music to my ears. Another favorite is when an art director says, “we’ve got an extraordinarily big budget, so we’re giving you an extra-gigantic fee.” I wish the latter happened more often (LOL). ;)

How does one become a professional illustrator?

I think there are a million paths to get there, but I’d say all are paved with hard work and hustle. My way was definitely a little unusual in that it didn’t involve traditional art school training. Like I mentioned before, I was 100% positive illustration was what I wanted to do when I did the BEHOLD THE MAN job, but that was after years of architecture school and professional architecture experience. I knew this was where I wanted to be, and I literally worked at it every single day. All of my spare time was consumed with drawing, poring through art books and magazines, building a potential client list, creating illustration samples, building a portfolio, mailing queries, reading interviews, researching…..all of it. I was in love with it all. When I finally quit the architecture dayjob in 2001, I didn’t have much money in the bank, and I definitely plunged off the cliff headfirst with very little financial cushion. I wouldn’t advise anyone else to do it the same way I did, but thankfully, it worked out. There were certainly some very lean months and lean times in the beginning, but once I quit architecture, I was dedicated 24-7 to becoming a pro illustrator and still am. I’ve never looked back.

What tools or mediums do you use? How do you decide whether to use mix media or simply stick to oils for example?

As far as tools and mediums – Faber Castell pencils, all kinds of brushes, acrylics, oils, Liquin, occasional colored pencils, pastels, charcoal, ink…..whatever it takes to communicate…..usually on either thick illustration board or masonite. I’m a Mac guy and as far as digital work, it’s Photoshop for me. However, the digital work is basically the compositing of my traditionally-created drawings and paintings. All the drawing and painting is done in the real world.

Because of constant deadlines, the key for me is to work thin when I paint. Time and deadline is a big factor in my media decisions. I love oils when they're used big, thick and sloppy, but they'd never dry if I did that. So I work thin and mix it with Liquin to speed up the drying. Generally I use acrylics to spot my blacks once I’ve got my underdrawing complete, and then build up a greyscale oil painting over that, usually working from dark to light. And then I'm building my colors on top of that. So I'm often combining oils on top of an acrylic underpainting to get what I want (although not always). Basically, I look at both as valid tools.

What were some of the hurdles you ran into before you established a reputation (and before producing a book!) in the field?

Well, living in San Antonio when most of my potential clients were based in New York, San Francisco, and London….that was a challenge, early on. The common myth was that it was tougher to get consistent work if you didn’t live near the major publishing hubs. Back then, I would scrape together enough money to travel to New York once a year and try to establish relationships with art directors. Attending shows like World Fantasy Con and Worldcon was huge too…..that helped me get acquainted with the various industry players, and vice versa. Now that everyone has email, websites, blogs, Facebook accounts, Twitter, FTP sites, etc., you can live anywhere, build connections, and most importantly, get the job done. The world has shrunk dramatically in the last ten years.

In your opinion, what challenges hinder new artists breaking into the field?

Supply and demand. There’s a helluva lot of great, great talent out there, and not a lot of gigs, especially in the book cover business. That said, having great craft and technical prowess isn’t the same as having insight and vision. The ones that have both are the ones that have the advantage.

In comics, artists get their names on the front cover but not so with novels unless it's an illustrated book. Do you think it's fair for illustrators to be credited only in the book's cover?

Yeah, I’m fine with illustrators’ credits being on the back cover of a book, or for a hardcover, on the inside back end flap. Those are my favorite spots for the credit because they’re prominent and easy to find. The next obvious is the indicia page, but that’s a little more difficult to find sometimes. For an illustrated book or comic book, the artist is integral to the storytelling and I’d expect the name to be more prominent and on the front cover. Regarding cover art on novels, the illustration’s primary function on the front of a novel is to help sell the book. As long as the illustrator’s cover art credit is easily found somewhere on the package, I’m fine with it. What bothers me is when illustrated cover credits are completely missing. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen as often these days.

In Maurizio's interview, you mentioned that starting out, you mailed postcards to books and magazines. In your opinion, how has self-promotion aided you in your career? Any other tips to promote yourself as an artist?

The cards helped when I was getting started. The best self-promotion is just doing good work, one job at a time. That’s really how it’s done. No magic bullet. Just one job at a time. Good work does the talking for you. And being prepared. I regularly attend cons like World Fantasy and Worldcon, and especially when I was first starting out, I’d always carry a small portfolio with me that contained examples of my best recent work. You never know when a crucial encounter can happen at those shows. It could be at 1pm at a panel, or at 1am in the hotel bar.

What's it like coming out with your own art book, Cover Story? How did such a book get published (i.e. a publisher approached you, you pitched it, etc.)?

MonkeyBrain Books was the publisher. I’d done a lot of covers for them so it seemed natural for them to publish the art book. They’d never done a book like that before, and since it was my first art book, they were kind enough to let me design it. I think that made it more personal. I learned a lot from the experience. It was really gratifying seeing the book get nominated for a Hugo for Best Related Book, and it was the reason I won an International Horror Guild Award for Best Artist in ’07.

How has your architecture training aided you? How has it hindered you?

It’s always given me confidence. Architecture is all about problem-solving and turning obstacle into opportunity. It’s also about working within a context, which is the reality of any commercial illustration assignment. Those things translate seamlessly to illustration, at least in my mind. I’ve never felt like it hindered me, other than the occasional question of ‘how would my life turned out if I had gone to art school rather than architecture school?’ I’ve never regretted architecture school. At that time I didn’t foresee that I’d be doing what I’m doing now, but those problem-solving skills are invaluable to my daily illustration work.

Do you ever feel the urge to tweak or modify an already completed artwork? Right now, what would you say is your most memorable piece?

For the most part, once I think something’s done, it’s done. I can think of a couple exceptions, but not many. However, in the flow of working on a piece, I’m constantly tweaking, sometimes all the way up until the final deadline. As far as my most memorable piece…..my stuff covers a pretty broad range of content and media, so it’s hard to say. That probably depends on the tastes of who you ask. The latest ones that have gotten a lot of chatter are my Pyr covers for Mark Chadbourn’s AGE OF MISRULE US releases. I’m working on the cover for the third MISRULE book right now. Before the first MISRULE cover went public, my covers for Jeff Ford’s WELL-BUILT CITY books got a lot of attention. When it’s all said and done, the audience’s answers to this question are more interesting to me than my own. I just do the work.

In your opinion, is it more valuable for an artist to specialize or to be versatile? (Or perhaps they're not mutually exclusive?)

When I was first starting out, the popular advice seemed to be to ‘make one thing your calling card’, presumably so art directors could know that one thing for which they can call on you. I don’t think that’s bad advice, but it’s not a piece of advice that meant much to me. I always enjoyed versatility over specialization. I don’t like doing the same thing over and over, and I like diversity in my work, so that’s what came naturally. Over the long haul, I suspect the versatile artist will adapt to changing times better than the one who stays in one place all the time. So I’ve always liked having different media approaches working on different problems simultaneously. One approach informs the other, and it really helps to keep things fresh and evolving. It’s never been a calculated decision, as much as an intuitive one. It’s as much about reacting to varying contexts as anything else, and just staying light on your feet. Overall, it seems to have worked out so far… knock on wood…

Any advice for aspiring artists?

Trust your instincts. Work hard. And when you get tired, work harder.

What are some of your upcoming projects?

More covers on the way. I’m signed on to do the second Mark Chadbourn AGE OF MISRULE trilogy with Pyr. I’m doing a cover for Golden Gryphon for a short story collection by Jack Skillingstead. It’s called ARE YOU THERE and it’s one of the best collections I’ve read in a long time. I’m proud to be associated with that one because it’s his first book, and I think he’s gonna be an important sf writer when it’s all said and done. I’m doing a ‘SALEM’S LOT illustration for a massive Stephen King art book called KNOWING DARKNESS from Centipede Press. More Elric work for Del Rey. Another Dan Simmons cover for Subterranean Press. A cover for the September issue of ASIMOV’S. Those are the ones off the top of my head…

Anything else you want to plug?

I think that covers it.

My blog: http://johnpicacio.com/blog.html

My 2008 body of work:


Tor.com / Hugo Nominee Spotlight (April 1, 2009): http://www.tor.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=blog&id=19188#comments

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