John Picacio is one of the biggest names in science fiction and fantasy art, and has depicted some of the most iconic names in SF/F fiction. Today, I spoke with Picacio about his work on the 2012 A Song of Ice and Fire calendar.
You’re at the point now in this industry where you’ve become the go-to fantasy artist for a lot of big, big names. Did you ever imagine that this would happen when you were beginning your formal art career?
Sure. There’s no shame in dreaming big. At the same time, I don’t think I had a clue things would play out the way they have. It’s like the old saying goes, ‘Life is 10% about what happens to you and 90% what you do with it.’ I’ve worked hard for opportunities. And one by one, I’ve tried to do my best with them. The 2012 A Song of Ice and Fire Calendar was definitely one of the biggest ones of my career so far — no question about it.
ASOIAF has a very devoted fan base, and I wonder if you had any stage fright when it came to working on this project. Did you?
There wasn’t time for that. The only time I can remember feeling that pressure was when I first got the gig to do artwork for Del Rey’s Elric books. That was intimidating at first. I got over that in the first two days, and it was over. There wasn’t any of that on ASOIAF though. If anything, I was doing so many cover jobs at the time that it was more a question of how to work a massive job like this calendar into my job flow. That was one of the biggest challenges. I was up for it in every way though. That’s why George picked me. That’s why Bantam hired me.
Have you heard back from fans about specific characters and how you depicted them? Are there any fan favorites?
The first visible reactions happened at San Diego Comic Con. The calendar launched that week. It was really gratifying to see the emotions of the fans when they were holding the calendar for the first time. The best thing was I expected maybe one, two or three pieces to receive the lion’s share of fan love, but it was clear from the beginning that all twelve images were resonating with different communities.
When I was doing the artwork, Bantam and George were clear that they wanted my vision of George’s books. My job had nothing to do with the HBO TV show that was in production at the time. So while I was working, I purposely ignored all of the publicity shots and casting news that was trickling out. HBO did their thing, and I did mine, and the two visions were independent of each other all the way. The first show aired well after I turned in my last piece of artwork.
When the calendar released at SDCC, it was great to see so many fans that only knew the HBO show and then saw my depictions and bought into what I had done. And then for the legions of fans that had first fallen in love with the books, it was awesome to hear them say “that’s the way I always pictured Jon Snow” or “that’s the Ned I’ve always seen in my head”. I think Ned Stark, Jon Snow, Arya, Bran, Daenerys, the Hound and the Others are the ones that draw the most raves. I say that because when fans pop open the calendar, those are the ones that seem to be most requested for autographs.
How do you approach depicting fantasy characters? Do you work with input from the authors or just pull details from the text?
The books are God. Simple as that. My ASOIAF paperbacks are well-worn and dog-eared. I took copious notes while while weeding down my lists of art choices. George saw everything along the way and gave his approvals as I turned in my sketches and did my final artworks. During that time, he was super-busy with finishing A Dance With Dragons and doing onsite visits for the HBO production. George, editor Anne Groell, and art director Dave Stevenson let me make a lot of the decisions for what went in and what didn’t, and how I approached the artwork. We bounced ideas amongst each other and even though I was given so much creative freedom, I see the end result as a collaborative effort amongst the four of us. The books were the central beacon throughout the process, but as with all of my artwork, my ideas and the way I see something are as important as my execution.
What is your favorite piece from the calendar?
Tough question. I still feel emotionally attached to the whole set because the journey is still fresh in my memory. Sansa and the Hound is one of the most iconic pieces of art I’ve done in my career. It’s simple and resonant, especially when you know the emotions and tensions between those two. Arya Stark is dedicated to my daughter so I have a special affection for that one. But overall, I think that the Ned Stark artwork is amongst my favorite pieces of art that I’ve done in the last couple of years because I took a growth step as a draftsman on that one. I think the fact that Bantam chose that one as the calendar cover doesn’t hurt either.