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
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
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
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.