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State of the Art: John Picacio Talks About The George R.R. Martin ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ Calendar, Book Covers in an eBook World, and Art Conventions

John Picacio is one of Science Fiction and Fantasy Art’s more prolific and distinctive artists. Currently appearing in Masters of Science Fiction and Fantasy Art as both a featured artist and as the cover artist, he’s not stopping any time soon. He is also the artist for George R.R. Martin’s 2012 calendar, due out July 19th. He will be signing with Martin during San Diego Comic Con. We recently caught up with John to ask him about his new projects and his take on the industry and conventions.

SF SIGNAL: John, Masters of Science Fiction and Fantasy Art just came out, and you were one of the featured artists as well as the cover artist for the book. Can you tell us a little about the book, and how you come to be involved in it?

JOHN PICACIO: Karen Haber’s the editor of the book and she invited me to be one of the featured artists. Looking at the finished book, it’s an international collection, not just artists from the US and UK. That’s a great thing. Art is a world conversation. Maybe even more significant is that she divided the book into sections — ‘traditional’, ‘digital’ and ‘hybrids’ (combined traditional/digital). That’s a really smart call on her part because it recognizes the rich territory where traditional and digital media combine and make something new. It’s a misnomer to label hybrid artists as digital only. Her book may be the first one to recognize this, and plant that flag. Hopefully other journalists, curators, and historians will carry that nomenclature forward. As far as the artists included, it’s an amazing array — Donato Giancola, Todd Lockwood, Dave Seeley, Shaun Tan, Kinuko Craft, Brom, Greg Manchess, Charles Vess, Stephan Martiniere, James Gurney, Bob Eggleton, and many more. It’s beautiful.

SFS: Do you still do the shadow box art? I know that you don’t use photography in your art anymore, but do you still do much of the computer manipulated collages today?

JP: I’m a hybrid artist. I’m both traditional and digital. Drawing and painting with traditional pencils and paints is still at the heart of every artwork that I do. You’ll see me use traditional media to tell a story or make a point, but I don’t go the other way and just use digital only. I never have. I think the blending of both traditional and digital is what’s excited me in recent years and still does. There’s a lot of fertile ground to explore where those media collide and intersect.

SFS: The George R.R. Martin 2012 Calendar is being released at San Diego ComicCon, where you and GRRM will be signing it. How did you come to work on the calendar? What drew you to this particular project? Were you a fan of his work before the Project?

JP: George approached me at the Montreal Worldcon and literally made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I was booked solid with several major cover commitments as well as cover and interiors for the sixth Elric book for Random House. He asked if I would be interested in illustrating a calendar for his A Song of Ice and Fire series. Even though I was swamped, there was no way I could turn that down. I’d always wanted to work with him. Originally, we were targeting me to do the 2011 Calendar but the timeline was extremely tight with all of my other commitments already in-progress, so my work got nudged to the 2012 Calendar, which worked out great. When I got the gig, I devoured the books and now they’re amongst my all-time favorites because I feel like I lived in Westeros while doing the work. I’d love to return someday.

SFS: The HBO series, Game of Thrones, seems to be a significant hit and success for GRRM. Has the show had any influence on the art work for the calendar – or vice versa?

JP: One of the beautiful things about the calendar is that it’s its own entity. It’s not beholden to the TV show at all. When I was working on the art, the show was still in various stages of production. So I was fortunate to not have it in my head. Random House hired me to create a calendar based on my vision of George’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, and that’s what I did. Now that the show has finished its first season, it’s pretty clear that HBO is building their own licensing identity, apart from any other interpretations of the books. I think the show is terrific so far. HBO’s doing their own thing and happily, with this calendar, I got to do mine.

SFS: Cover art in general has been changing in the past several years. When browsing the sf/fantasy aisles of bookstores, we see photo covers and digital art. How much has this affected your job opportunities? How is doing a calendar different from book covers, and has it influenced your approach to your work?

JP: I think those kinds of stock image covers were prevalent in publishing before I entered the field. They obviously reduce the number of jobs for working pro artists. And yeah, I think you’re right — we’ve seen more of it in genre publishing in recent years. My stance has always been an artist has to offer more than just being a hired hand, and not just be a disciple of a certain style. I think the best artists offer a unique way of seeing the world, and a way of expressing an idea that’s resonant. And I think those are the ones that survive. I’ve been working full time now in this field for more than a decade. If my work didn’t resonate with audiences, I wouldn’t be here. No time to slack off though. I’ve got a long road ahead.

Illustrating the 2012 A Song of Ice and Fire Calendar was definitely unlike illustrating a book cover. Doing a project like the calendar is like running a marathon. Covers are more like sprints. The two require different mentalities, but the daily basics of art are still the same. It requires putting in the time every day. I wouldn’t say that the calendar has influenced my other work but it’s another evolution. Some artists are known for very literal approaches to art, and some are more conceptual and evocative. When you look at the calendar amongst my larger body of work, it shows I explore both.

SFS: Besides George R.R. Martin, you have worked on covers for some major writers in the SF/Fantasy field, such as Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison and Frederik Pohl. Are there any authors that you would particularly like to illustrate?

JP: The tough thing about working a rigorous cover schedule is almost the entirety of my reading time is for my jobs. In other words, if I do the cover, I read the book, but for the most part, I don’t get to read many novels beyond my jobs anymore because my schedule is so demanding.

As far as authors I’d like to illustrate — Neil Gaiman would be fun. Years ago, I illustrated the cover of a CD of his, but would love to illustrate a story or book someday. China Miéville would be a real pleasure. So would Bill Willingham. Carlos Ruiz Zafón is amazing. I met Joe Hill earlier this year and love his Locke & Key graphic novels. Reading those made me wish I could collaborate with him on something fresh and new. I’ve illustrated several Jeffrey Ford covers, but we’re working on a new illustrated book that we’ve talked about for years. Anytime I work on a Jeff Ford book, it’s a joy because he’s one of my favorite writers.

It may sound completely loony, but if Christopher Hitchens ever wrote a story, I would love to illustrate it. That’s totally NOT what he does, but I think I would enjoy illustrating what comes out of his head. Going back further, I’d say Jorge Luis Borges — especially doing illustrations for his Dreamtigers book — and Franz Kafka. Those are the ones off the top of my head.

SFS: E-books are definitely the growth area. Tor books commissioned all new cover art for the e-books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, but others don’t do covers at all. How important do you think cover art will be for e-books in the future?

JP: I think that’s a question that can only be answered by the audience. They have a window of opportunity right now to make their voices heard in the marketplace. The models for e-book publishing are still in flux but won’t be forever. Right now is the time for them to say ‘this is what we want in our e-book experiences and this is what we expect.’ If this were a negotiation, now’s the time when terms are being discussed. Once the negotiation time is over though, the audience is largely stuck with what it negotiated for because the economic models, budgets, and expectations are locked in place. So far all the audience has bargained for is cheap price and convenience of delivery. In my mind, that’s a pretty lowball demand.

If the e-book revolution is really a singularity event that pushes us forward as a culture, and not backward like it did for the music industry, then it’s gonna be up to the audience to vote for quality with their dollars. And by quality, I mean better formatting, more cover art, more illustration, and more content than what is currently experienced in the print world. Embrace the technology, but expect more from it, not less. Don’t just argue for cheaply-priced goods. Demand more quality than what you have now in the print world, not just a substitute for print, and certainly not less than what print offered! Right now, that’s all the audience is getting because frankly that’s all they’ve demanded. I love the technology and I believe it can be an amazing new conduit for art and communication, but it’s not living up to its potential so far. The audience will decide the future of cover art by saying ‘no’ to e-books that don’t offer cover art, ‘no’ to stock-image designs, and ‘no’ to generic symbols as book signifiers. If the audience demands quality experiences and demands that their e-book purchases offer them what they should rather than just obsessing on cheap-pricing, then cover art will be a vital part of the e-book experience.

SFS: You have posted that you think that this is a good year for artists to attend Renovation (WorldCon 2011). How is this different from previous WorldCons you have attended, and what can future WorldCons learn from this?

JP: The Reno Worldcon has poured huge effort into improving art-centric programming. I think they’ve been proactive and aggressive about making Worldcon an artist’s show just as much as it is a writer’s. I don’t think any Worldcon can completely accomplish that makeover in one year, but the Reno Worldcon has done a fabulous job in the planning stages. They’ve excited a lot of artists, including me. I think it’s up to future Worldcons to grab the baton from Reno and not only carry their measures forward but expand them.

Worldcon has been a regular destination of mine in recent years, but aside from Bob Eggleton and a few others, I can’t think of many pro artists that have done the same. There are now several other bigtime convention destinations where pro artists are better featured than at recent Worldcons, and I think the artists have understandably chosen to participate elsewhere. The Reno Worldcon is making a big effort to win back the art community, and I think they’ve built a really dynamic set of programming and events. I can’t wait to get there.

SFS: The past few years, and the coming year, have seen some high-profile science fiction and fantasy conventions start up. IlluXCon started in 2008 and next year Spectrum Fantastic Art Live! is happening. What is your impression of these conventions and why are they important to the current crop of artists, the up-and-comers, and collectors? Are there any other conventions you feel are helpful to an artist’s career?

JP: Worldcon and World Fantasy Con have been very good to me in helping to build and shape my illustration career. They’re not art-centric cons, but I’ve been able to learn from and observe the other parts of the publishing industry that affect and influence my job. I’ve met a lot of authors, non-artists, fen, and fans that are now good friends, and that’s certainly been great.

I think IlluXCon and the upcoming Spectrum Live! show are both terrific opportunities for artists and art fans. At most cons, the art shares the spotlight with other media but at those shows, the art IS the show, and it’s all about the art. The Wilshires do a great job with IlluXCon. They’ve purposely built an exclusive show with a very limited attendance that caters to a devoted art-buying crowd. I think that’s terrific. What I love about next year’s Spectrum show is there’s no cap on the attendance and it’s centrally located within the US. What I see is a show that welcomes all comers and celebrates the best of the best in the pro art scene across the realms of books, comics, film art, video game art, 3D and more. That kind of show has been a long time coming. The Fenners are running it. We’ll see how it goes, but so far, it’s shaping up as one of the must-attend shows of 2012. I’ll be there.

For more information on John Picacio’s art, check out his website at And for those of you lucky enough to be attending San Diego Comic Con, stop by John Picacio’s booth – #4600 – or Random House – #1514 – and get your copy of the 2012 A Song of Ice and Fire Calendar. Don’t miss the joint Picacio and Martin signing on Friday, July 22, 2011 from 3 p.m. – 5 p.m. in the Autographing Area (AA 21).

Interview written with Jimmy Simpson. Jimmy Simpson has been working at art shows for over 20 years. FenCon I did not have an art show, but when they were trying to recruit someone to run their art show, Jimmy was walking down the hall and was volunteered and has been running it ever since.

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