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Artist: John Picacio by Gayle Surrette
SFRevu.com Interview  ISBN/ITEM#: JPICACIO
Date: January 2007 / Show Official Info /

I met John a year ago and asked about doing an interview with him. Things kind of got put on a back burner but with his book coming out, I managed to get in touch and John was gracious enough to lend his time to answer some questions.

In his own words:
John Picacio has illustrated covers for books by Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg, Frederik Pohl, Jeffrey Ford, Joe R. Lansdale, Robert Heinlein, Graham Joyce, and many, many more. In 2002, he received the International Horror Guild Award for Best Artist. In 2005, he received a Chesley Award (for Best Paperback Cover) and the much-coveted World Fantasy Award (Artist). In 2006, he received the Chesley Award for Artistic Achievement (the most prestigious honor given by the Association of Science Fiction & Fantasy Artists (ASFA)). In addition, he's been a Hugo Award finalist (Best Professional Artist) for the last two years and a Locus Award finalist in 2006.

His work has been featured in many annuals and art compendiums, including Spectrum: The Best In Contemporary Fantastic Art; Aphrodisia; and Renderosity.

Cover Story: The Art of John Picacio, a 200-page major hardcover of the best of his cover work, is available in bookstores everywhere, courtesy of MonkeyBrain Books. He and his fiancee, Traci, live in San Antonio, Texas. For more info and images, please visit www.johnpicacio.com, and his blog.

For more info regarding Cover Story: The Art of John Picacio visit: Barnes & Noble or Amazon US.

SFRevu: I found your reference to writing briefs before beginning a work to be very interesting. Are there other ways that you think your training in architecture has helped in with your work? How you feel it's helped with technique, perspective, or subject matter?

John Picacio: I think the architectural training runs so deeply in me that it's completely second-nature when I'm working out a problem. I mean that more in terms of how I see, as opposed to how I draw. When I was in school at UT Austin, and then when I got out into the working world, it was really all about problem-solving. That's a pretty key element of illustration as well, and really it's central to any creative endeavor, conscious or not. So I think that goes even deeper than just the specifics of drawing. It's a great foundation to do what I do now, and I'm grateful for it. From a business standpoint, I think I learned a lot about dealing with clients in the architectural working world, and some of that experience certainly translates to my relationships with my illustration clients. One of my ex-bosses once said, "When a client hires us to build a house for them, they're not hiring us to just nod our heads and agree with them; they're hiring us to take them to places they can't go by themselves." I like that, and I remember that when I do my covers.

SFRevu: To me it seems that all artwork that isn't representational is fantasy in some manner since it's from the imagination of the artist, but that's just me. How did you get into Science Fiction and Fantasy Art? Did you start off in that direction or was it just a natural fit with your developing body of work?

John: I think SF/fantasy found me, maybe just as much as I found it. When I finished architecture school, I began self-publishing my own comics and those comics led a company called Mojo Press to come calling. They were publishing the 30th Anniversary Edition of Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man and they asked me to do the cover and interior illustrations. I had never done a cover for a book before, but I did that one, and I fell in love with not only the book, but just the whole process and responsibility of making pictures and doing covers. I found my calling, really. As far as representational vs. non-representational artwork, I think I'm most jazzed by pictures that leave my imagination room to roam. So when I'm drawing and painting, I try to leave that room for the audience's imagination to roam through my own work.

SFRevu: What's your favorite piece of art that you've done? Is it your most recent or something older?

John: Well, I'm always hoping that my next piece will be my favorite, but I think there are a few that really stand out for me from the last couple of years. I like the cover for Chris Roberson's anthology, Adventure, Vol. 1, a whole lot. I like the iconic quality of the cover illustration for L.E. Modesitt Jr.'s Ghost of Columbia, and I'm pretty happy that it was selected for the 13th edition of Spectrum: The Best In Contemporary Fantastic Art. I'm really proud to be associated with a classic like Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and that cover's pretty special to me. I think that I made a few artistic breakthroughs for myself on the cover for Jeffrey Ford's The Empire of Ice Cream, and I like the abstraction that's happening on the wraparound cover for Lou Anders' forthcoming Pyr anthology Fast Forward 1: Future Fiction From the Cutting Edge. Those are the ones that come to mind at the moment...

TOP ROW: Cover for Chris Roberson's anthology Adventure, Vol. 1; Cover for L.E. Modesitt Jr.'s Ghost of Columbia; Cover for Walter M. Miller Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz
BOTTOM ROW: Cover for Jeffrey Ford's The Empire of Ice Cream and Cover for Lou Anders' anthology Fast Forward 1
Click on image for a larger view of the work.

SFRevu: Do you work only on assignments or do you also work on things just because you want to do it or try it?

John: These days, I mostly only have time for my assignments, unfortunately. I doubt this will always be the case, but for the moment, it is what it is. I keep a sketchbook with me all the time, but most of the thinking in there is dedicated to the covers of the moment. The nice thing is my assignments are pretty diverse, and I'm not afraid to try different approaches, depending on the needs of the cover. For instance, right now I'm working on a triptych for Jeffrey Ford's Well-Built City trilogy and it's a big, experimental mixed-media/shadowbox assemblage. At the same time that I'm working on that, I'm doing simple greyscale oil paintings for the interiors of a forthcoming Elric book and then I'm also doing mixed media/digital work for a cover for a forthcoming Bruce McAllister collection. So it's liberating to be interchanging between these different media approaches simultaneously. It keeps things fresh.

SFRevu: In Cover Story: The Art Of John Picacio, you mention that often reading the short story or book gives you the 'hook' you need for the artwork. I know that sometimes you're also given direction from the publisher. Do you have a preference -- reading the material you'll be illustrating; getting direction; just being given a title and going for it?

John: Well, I think bringing my own ideas to the table is part of my job. From the client's standpoint, they get the most value out of me that way. If the art director or the editorial departments have something to say, I listen. Sometimes a client will say, "I've got this idea" and I'm always willing to listen to that, but I don't automatically assume that their idea is the best idea. Sometimes it is, but I think critical thinking is a big part of my job. So yeah, I definitely believe in reading the manuscripts and making my own decisions from there.

SFRevu: What's your preferred method of working to develop a book cover or illustration?

John: It's hard to say. I would say that all of my illustration work is based in traditional drawing and painting. So that's number one. Much of my recent work has been a method of making traditional drawings and paintings, and then scanning them and digitally compositing them together for the final image. I've used a lot of mixed-media and found objects with shadowbox assemblages for other images. I've used photo-montages for some of my earlier covers. As my career has gone along, I would say that I've definitely found that I enjoy the basics of traditional drawing and painting more and more, and just trying to get better at those skills.

SFRevu: What's your favorite subject(s) to work on? People? Landscapes? Starscapes? Whatever?

John: All of the above. And I don't mean that to be sly or elusive, in any way. The truth is that I think I can find an angle on just about any visual subject matter, genre or otherwise. I'm not concerned about whether I'm being given interesting subject matter. My concern is finding a fresh visual approach to that subject matter and treating it in a compelling way. That's the most important thing to me. I've got a pretty deep love for genre and illustration, so that helps a lot. When I'm doing book covers or editorial assignments, I don't control whether the manuscript is interesting to me, but I do control how I can make that manuscript visually compelling to other people. Again, that goes back to problem-solving. I think my favorite covers are the few where I found a unique visual solution. Lately, I've been wanting to incorporate more abstraction in my work, and when I get to work on covers dealing with that, it's a real joy.

SFRevu: Do you have a favorite medium/technique you like to work with? Digital, acrylics, oils, collage? When you get an assignment, is there a technique or medium you turn to without really thinking about it because that's your preferred method?

John: In the last two or three years, I've been doing a lot of traditional mixed-media/digital combinations. All the elements of the illustration will be traditional drawing and painting on illustration board, and then I'll scan in all of those elements and combine them digitally (in Photoshop). It allows me a lot of flexibility and I can enjoy doing traditional good drawings and paintings while still trying to meet tight illustration deadlines. That's been a pretty solid method for a while now. I used photography in some of my earlier work, but I've moved away from that, and just about everything in the last 3 or 4 years has been based in drawing and painting. I think anything I do from here forward will be based in those skills and supplemented by everything else, if need be. As I've gone along, I realize that I enjoy the tactile acts of drawing and painting the most, so those are the skills I want to keep refining.

SFRevu: Whose art inspires you? Old masters or new -- just what artists do you find inspiration with?

John: Geez. Where do I even start...well, at the moment, I'd say that I appreciate Picasso more than ever. It sure took me a long time to appreciate what he was trying to do and why it's so important, but now that I see it, it's a very luminous guiding light. More like a blinding sun, really. Dali's another one, but his influence has always been there, so that's not new. I feel the same way about Richard Powers (the artist, not the author) that I do about Picasso, in that I wish I would've appreciated his work sooner, but now that I'm on frequency with it, it's incredibly enlightening to me. I've been looking at a lot of Alphonse Mucha lately. Not so much the lush, illustrative stuff with the floral decorations (which I love also), but the pure painted stuff he was doing in the 1910s and the 1920s, with big, sweeping epic scenes. Amazing. As far as more modern guys that I'm paying attention to, at the moment....Gary Kelley, Gregory Manchess, John Berkey, Phil Hale, and James Bama. There are lots of others, but those are the first ones that sprang to mind.

SFRevu: Do you think artists in this field (SF/F) get enough recognition? Why or why not?

John: As far as the last 5 or 6 years, I think the situation is steadily improving. I think most reputable publishers and print publications are pretty consistent about crediting illustrators when they commission artwork and publish artwork from them. It's pretty standard practice through the industry to credit the illustrators on the back covers, or back end flaps, of books. Only good things can come of that. In fact, with some of the bigger name artists, a publisher might sell more units just because of the cover, and having that cover credit in a convenient place, helps.

I think where the artists sometimes get short-changed is on the Internet. I see very few online venues where cover art is credited. Amazon doesn't do it. Very few websites do – literary, review, fan, media, retail or what-have-you. It's not criminal, but I think they're missing a big opportunity. I think the folks at Locus Magazine do a very consistent job of including artist credits with their cover usages – both in print and online. I give Mark A. Kelly (Locus Online's administrator) big kudos for not only noting artist credits whenever he monitors the new books for the site, but he also compiles an ongoing database of cover art for the field where you can see the covers listed by artist. It's a fabulous service to the field.

More online venues should take a cue from Locus. If they do, everybody wins. The artist gets due credit for their work. The audience is better informed. The publisher has an opportunity to sell more units. What's not to love?

SFRevu: What are your hobbies, or pursuits other than your work?

John: Daytrading; long walks on the beach; and my annual Ironman hike in Tibet. Yeah, whatever. Not so much. Gee whiz -- it's hard to say right now. There really isn't anything that I do that doesn't somehow come back to my work. Pretty boring, but true. Right now, I'm in a pretty tight run of covers and between that and getting married in March, there really isn't much room for too much else. I guess that's the trade off of doing what you love most for a living. I'll take it.

SFRevu: What's the last 5 books you read? Movies? How do you spend your down time to re-energize to work again?

John: The last 5 books....Charles Stross' The Atrocity Archives; Michael Moorcock's Stormbringer; Michael Moorcock's Multiverse (Vertigo graphic novel); Jeffrey Ford's The Beyond; and Sheri S. Tepper's The Margarets. I'm doing a new cover for the Stross book (for a forthcoming Science Fiction Book Club edition that will collect this novel, along with The Jennifer Morgue, and the novella, "The Concrete Jungle"). I read the two Moorcock books in preparation for two big Moorcock cover assignments I'm currently working on. I'm doing three interlocking Jeffrey Ford covers for Golden Gryphon for an upcoming re-release of his Well-Built City trilogy and I did the cover for The Margarets, which will be released from HarperCollins/Eos in June. So as you might imagine, at the moment, I really only have time to read books related to my cover assignments.

As far as films, my last five are: The Fountain; The Prestige; Casino Royale; Underworld; and Mirrormask. I want to see Pan's Labyrinth.

I'm pretty immersed in this business right now, and I enjoy the hell out of it. It's what I love to do most. I'm fortunate in that my illustration jobs have a nice range and diversity. I'm not just clamped to my chair doing spaceships or dinosaurs all day long. I have a lot of latitude to bring my own visions to the table, and I'm fortunate that my clients and the audience find value in that. It doesn't get much better than that, really.

SFRevu: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.

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