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Baker's Dozen with John Picacio
© Rick Klaw
July 03, 2006

In roughly ten years, John Picacio has emerged from obscurity to become the pre-eminent fantasy cover artist of his generation. His art adorns books by such literary heavyweights as Michael Moorcock, Joe R. Lansdale, Charles de Lint, Walter Miller, Jr., Harlan Ellison, Jeffery Ford, and many others. Picacio received the 2005 World Fantasy Award for Outstanding Artist and has twice been nominated for the prestigious Hugo Award.

Recently Monkeybrain Books published Cover Story, the first of what is sure to be many volumes collecting Picacio's work. You can see a preview gallery of art from that book here at RevolutionSF.

John took time out of his busy schedule to talk with us about engagements, comic books, and of course cover art.

When getting an assignment, how do you start?

It’s always good to read the book or the manuscript. So that’s first. I take notes and make sketches. Each book requires its own unique response, but it almost always starts with the reading.

What book would you most like to do a cover for? Author?

I’d love to do a cover for a Jorge Luis Borges book. I’d love to work with Stephen King at some point. I’ve gotten to work with some big-name authors and some big time books already, so I’ve been fortunate.

Is there a particular cover you are most proud of?

I guess I’m always hoping that the thing I’m working on at the moment will end up being the thing I’m most proud of. It’s hard to say. Of the recent covers, I’m really proud of the wraparound cover for Jeffrey Ford’s The Empire of Ice Cream (Golden Gryphon). I broke some fresh creative territory for myself on that one. I’m also very proud of the cover for Walter M. Miller, Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (HarperCollins/Eos). I’ve been associated with some pretty heavy books, but I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to be associated with any book than this one.

What was the most shocking/interesting phone call you received regarding your art?

I guess it was when Harlan Ellison phoned me on a Sunday morning back in 2002. I had met him five or six months earlier at DragonCon in Atlanta, and he remembered me when he was thinking of cover artists for the 35th Anniversary Edition of Dangerous Visions. I was honored to be a part of that one.

At what point did you realize you would have a career as a cover artist? Did you go "I can do this for a living"?

I knew I wanted to be a cover artist as soon as I did my first gig in 1996, which was the 30th Anniversary edition of Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man. That was pretty much it. I didn’t actually become a full-time cover artist until spring of 2001, when I resigned from my architecture career and went for illustration, full-speed ahead.

What changed in spring 2001 that enabled you to do this full time?

Back then I didn’t feel like I was cutting it anymore, splitting time in the architecture world full-time by day and trying to do my real career by night. I was fed up, and it was time to put up or shut up, so I resigned from my architecture career and went full-time toward illustration. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone to just dump their day gig and chase the illustration dream with very little financial cushion underneath them, but at the time it made sense, and looking back it was one of the best decisions of my entire life. I’ve never regretted it for a second. I liked architecture, but I loved illustration, and that was where I wanted to be, 24/7.

You began your career as a graphic novel artist with your comic Words & Pictures (with fellow artist and sometime RevSF contributor Fernando Ramirez). Are there plans to return to the form?

I’d like to, someday. I’m not necessarily interested in giving up covers to do that, but I think it’s very possible that I might do a graphic novel someday. The thing is, illustrating a comic book is such a huge time commitment, so it would have to be the right project at the right time.

In your book you mention how you became an artist because of superheroes. Is there a particular superhero that you would love to draw? A character in need of the Picacio approach?

Well, right now I’m working on an X-Men cover for Simon & Schuster/Pocket. It’s for an original novel called X-Men: The Return written by my good friend Chris Roberson. It’s a real joy because The Uncanny X-Men was one of my all-time favorite comics when I was a kid, and it’s even better because one of my best friends is writing the book. I’m having a great time. I’d love to have a shot at a Batman cover someday. He’s still my all-time favorite. That would be a dream come true. The Spectre and the Phantom Stranger are pretty high on the list as well.

What is perhaps the most unusual thing you've produced?

I did a 50-pound assemblage for the cover of an anthology called Shelf Life: Fantastic Stories Celebrating Bookstores. I built and painted everything, and then photographed the whole assemblage and that was the wraparound cover for the book. It was a book celebrating the 25th anniversary of Dreamhaven Books in Minneapolis, and it had stories by folks like Harlan Ellison, Gene Wolfe, Ramsey Campbell, and others. It was a neat project.

Will your artistic career move beyond book and comic books?

I’d be open to the possibility. I’ve done a few CD covers. For the right projects, I’d be interested in doing more of that. I’m interested in seeing a renaissance for the illustrated film poster, especially in America. Outside of Drew Struzan, you see very few illustrators regularly drawing and painting film posters anymore in the USA. I’d like to try my hand at that. At the same time, this book cover career continues to be quite good to me, and I’m having too much fun to leave it behind.

Congratulations on your recent engagement. Has this impacted your career or rather how you run your business?

Thank you. Not so much in the sense of how I do my work. I’m pretty private when I draw and paint a cover. I sometimes ask Traci’s opinion when I’m finished with something, but for the most part, I live in my own world when I’m creating a cover. I think the vast majority of my clients realize they’re paying me not just for how I draw, but how I think. So I rely on my own problem-solving skills when I’m working, and I don’t really rely on much outside opinion at all when I’m working.

Are there plans in the near future to offer John Picacio prints?

This is where Traci is really beginning to have an impact. She’s in the process of helping me start a Web-based business where we’ll sell prints of my artwork. We’re planning on selling open-edition and limited-edition prints. It’s long been something I’ve wanted to do, but the natural flow of meeting cover deadlines has made it really hard to take the time to set up this secondary business the right way. So Traci’s really driving that bus, and she’ll be a terrific administrator for that business, while I continue to produce cover illustrations. Stay tuned at www.johnpicacio.com.

For a young artist who'd like to become a book cover illustrator, what words of advice do you offer?

I think participating in the art shows at cons like World Fantasy and Worldcon has been invaluable. Art shows are a good way to get the word out to prospective clients. It’s a cumulative process. Even to this day I always carry samples of my work with me when I’m at a con, because you never know who you’ll meet at any given time.

As far as doing the actual work itself, figure out what you love to do the most, and make that your focus. It’s like I always say, “There’s Plan A. And when that fails, there’s Plan A. And when that fails, there’s Plan A. . . .” Just keep pushing.

RevSF Contributing Editor Rick Klaw is proud to have worked with John Picacio both as an editor and a writer.

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  • Illustration from Dangerous Visions: The 35th Anniversary Edition. © John Picacio.

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