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The Art of Becoming: A Conversation with John Picacio
Part 1 of an interview with Rick Klaw
April 2003

All illustrations © John Picacio
Behold the Man
John Picacio
Born September 3, 1969, in San Antonio, Texas, John Picacio is a freelance illustrator who uses painting and the collage and assemblage of mixed media to communicate about the world around him. A graduate of The University of Texas at Austin's School of Architecture, his illustration work graces the covers and interiors of major books, magazines, and other media. Clients include Random House/Del Rey, Penguin Putnam/Roc, Tor Books, Viking Children's Books, Golden Gryphon Press, iBooks, MonkeyBrain Books, Realms of Fantasy Magazine, Night Shade Books, Subterranean Press, Cemetery Dance Publications, Earthling Publications, and The Empire Theatre Company of Chicago. In 2002, he received the International Horror Guild Award for Best Artist and is a three-time winner in the book division of Spectrum: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art. He lives and works in San Antonio, Texas.

John Picacio Website

Live Without a Net
Lies & Ugliness
Heroes & Monsters: The Unofficial Companion To The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen

SF Site Interview: | Part 1 | Part 2 |

Your career started in a seemingly different direction -- you started as a comic book artist. You're now a book designer/cover illustrator. Is this where you thought you'd be when you started?
No, not at all. I graduated from UT Austin with a Bachelor of Architecture degree and all the while, I had a strong desire to work in the comics medium. The idea when I got out of architecture school was just to be a comics illustrator and work in both fields at the same time. My dream at that time was just to be able to do my own comics, to do my own graphic novels, to tell my own stories. It was really the comic book covers that I was doing at that time that led to me becoming a cover illustrator. I was doing the covers for the Words & Pictures comic that I was self-publishing along with Fernando Ramirez. Those covers are what led to... well, actually... you were one of the people who discovered me through those comics and because of those covers, you asked me to do a cover for a book called Behold the Man. That was the first cover that I did. It was published by Mojo Press. My career as a cover illustrator was not something that I intended to get into; the opportunity came to me, really. A lot of it was because of yourself and Mojo Press.

Do you miss doing comics?
I want to go back and re-evaluate that medium now that I have this illustration background underneath me. However, I don't miss comics. I'm thrilled to do covers in the genres I'm doing right now -- science-fiction, fantasy, horror. I never get tired of doing of them. But when I look at comics, I still think that there's a lot of unexplored territory. That's exciting to me. Comics are still very much something that I want to go back to, but I don't miss them right now. I just know that there will be a time when I will go back to them, but on my own terms. However, my hope is that I can always be pushing myself as a cover illustrator, regardless of any future comics work.

At what point did you go, "I need to put aside the comics for a while and pursue a career as a cover artist or a book designer. This is what I need to do?"
It was Behold the Man. It was totally Behold the Man. I like to think that there's a three-headed monster that's responsible for me going in this direction, and it was really just because of the timing and the level of encouragement that those three people gave to me at that time. It was Michael Moorcock, the author of Behold the Man; it was Rick Klaw, who was the editor at the time; and it was Ben Ostrander, who was the publisher of Mojo Press. It was those three people who just sort of literally handed me the ball and said, "Run with it." The implicit faith that those three people had in me made me look at my own skills -- and the way I saw the world -- in a whole new way, and it all of a sudden opened up doors that I would have never realized at that time by myself. Maybe later I would have, but at the time, it was like a whole new world had been opened up to me. I knew as soon as I started thinking about the entire book as an object, thinking about it as a whole, not just as a cover but as a unit, that I had found my niche.

Do you think your architecture experience played a role in how you think about book covers?
Yeah, totally. It's very much about design process for me, the architectural design process; how I think through a problem, how I solve problems, that's a lot of where the architectural education and background plays into every single illustration that I do. That background affected my way of looking at the world and looking at a problem, how I hold it, turn it around, and try to look at all the different issues related to the problem from as many sides as possible and evaluate things. But in the end, it's still a very organic thing. I don't mean to make it sound as if it's a very structured formula, 'cause it's absolutely not, but the architectural education definitely has influenced the way I solve problems in illustration. There was an instructor in architecture school, Marcos Novak, and he was a big pioneer in cyberspace architecture. I took a studio with him in my third year of school. This was the semester after I got back from Europe, which was also a big influence, by the way. The way Marcos opened me up to just thinking about problems in such a fluid way, where literally problems became opportunities, and it was like that scene in The Matrix where that little bald kid has the spoon and says, "There is no spoon." Marcos was that way for me and again it was like the Mojo Press influence, where it was the right people saying the right things at the right time to me. He was a big influence and his attitude to problem-solving remains a big influence on me.

Are you still in contact with him?
No. I'd love to someday reconnect with him. I think what he's already given me is enough to carry me through, but if I could ever reconnect with that guy, I think it would be tremendous.

When you first receive an assignment what happens? What do you go through before we actually see any art?
Let's put aside all the business end of it, and talk about process. The first thing is the most obvious: you read the book. You know the book backwards and forwards, you understand it on your own terms, which you're being paid to do. The client (publisher) is not just paying you for what you do with your hands, they're paying you for how you see the world, and that's the most important thing that you can give to the publisher, to the author, to the book, and to your audience. Your continual re-evaluation of how you see the world is what you're offering to them, so I read the book and I filter it through my own brain, and I make decisions about what I think is important in the book. What is the book about? What's the spirit of the book? I think a big thing for me is that I don't ever pick something that's in the book and say, "I'm going to illustrate that," because you steal the reader's right to imagine; you pigeonhole things, and I've always told myself that I don't want to be that kind of illustrator. Whenever I approach a manuscript, it's not with the intention of taking a single scene and using that as the cover; I've actually only done that once, and that was for a book called The Fantasy Writer's Assistant by Jeffrey Ford, and that was because there was a unique opportunity to enhance the whole if I did that.

In Tales from the Texas Woods you did it, too. The scene with the Apaches coming over the mountain?
Oh yeah! I've so obliterated that cover from my memory that I don't even think about that cover anymore. That's just one of those early covers where I'm kind of like, "that never happened."

Actually, going back to that previous point though, it's okay to see something in a story and use it in a cover illustration. That's fine. What I'm saying is that I'm opposed to the literal depiction of a whole scene verbatim on a cover, just as an author has already described it word-for-word in the manuscript. When an illustrator does that, I think it robs the reader of the right to imagine for themselves and to connect with the author's words in their own personal way.

What's the most unusual project you've ever been involved in?
I like the strange ones. There's been a theatre poster for an Edgar Allen Poe play in Chicago, there's been... Actually, I think the strangest so far, if I look at everything all together since I started doing this, is Tales from the Texas Woods, which was a Michael Moorcock book published by Mojo Press, and it was one of those types of projects where I really had to do something that was not what I would normally do, graphically. It was a book of stories and essays that were inspired by 30s movie serials. Michael had filtered those things through his childhood and written these bits that were inspired by his memories of those old serials. I looked at movie posters of that era for inspiration for that book cover, and looking back on it, I think the cover idea was great, but the physical execution of the idea just absolutely nauseates me now.

(laughing) I have a note to ask: "If you could go back and change any piece of art, which one would you choose?" Is that it?
Honestly, I'm one of those people that once I've decided that I'm done with an illustration, I'm done with it. While I'm working on an illustration, I'll definitely re-work the piece until it's right, but I'm not one of those that obsessively has to go back and keep trying to change something years after it's finished. I'm very mission-driven. I'm given an assignment and I'm trying to see it to its ultimate goal. Going back and reworking things years after the fact is not something I really have a great interest in.

Is there a story you have that you would like to illustrate? Is there a dream John Picacio project?
Yeah. I have a very, very strong affinity for the work of Jorge Luis Borges. I've always thought it would be absolutely a dream to be able to do a cover for Dreamtigers. That's one particular volume that had a big influence on me. My alma mater, the University of Texas has the rights to that book. Four or five years ago, I put a proposal together and sent it to UT in hopes of getting them to hire me as a cover artist for an anniversary [edition of the book]; I think at that time it was the 30th anniversary that was rearing its head and I was hoping that I could be the cover artist. They never got back to me. But still, Jorge Luis Borges, would be a total playground for me.

Is there a piece of artwork that you're most proud?
I'm very typical of a lot of creators, I think; they always feel like their next piece is going to be their greatest piece. I hear that a lot. I think I'm no different. I've always got this sort of idealistic hope that whatever piece I'm working on, is going to be the best one that I've done so far. This is really only my second year doing this full time as a professional illustrator. April of 2003 will be the completion of my second full year as a full time professional. I've been at this craft since 1996 when I was offered Behold the Man, but it wasn't until April, 2001 that I took the plunge and put architecture behind me for good and just plunged straight into doing illustration full time. So everything is still fresh, still new. There are a couple right now that I feel very, very proud of that I've done in recent months. One was a cover that I did for Shelf Life, which was commissioned by Greg Ketter and was published by Dreamhaven Books. It debuted at this year's World Fantasy Convention [2002] with stories by Harlan Ellison, Charles de Lint, Gene Wolfe. It's a great collection and I got to art direct myself. I'm very proud of that cover. Another one I'm really proud of is the cover for Live Without a Net, which is edited by Lou Anders. It's sort of an alternate history collection of the world evolving without the internet and without AI's. It's a fabulous collection. The cover I did for that sort of does what I always hope to do with a cover, which is to evoke the spirit of the book without pigeonholing it, and really grab the reader's attention -- but at the same time still have a strong sense of integrity to the book's intentions.
Shelf Life

Did you design the Live Without a Net cover?
I didn't do the typography for that cover. I always try to encourage publishers to allow me to design things as well as illustrate them. Especially when I'm offered jobs by smaller publishers Again, it goes back to that seminal experience with the Behold the Man project, and really going further back, it goes back to the architectural background. Hell, going back even further than that, it probably goes back to me just being somewhat of an obsessive designer, even as a child, just always enjoying taking something and looking at it from all sides and trying to continually rework it until I've reached something that does what I want, or better yet, surprises me. Once I feel like I've gotten to that solution, and the mission is done, then I'm able to put it away. But while I'm in that time that I've been allotted by the publisher or the client, I'm very obsessive about working something over. Even if I'm not doing the typography, I still think about where the type might work best. It's there in my sketches and in my brain from the very first time the pencil touches the paper; I'm always thinking about where the type might be. I can't approach these things without thinking about that. If it's being created for a medium where those elements are going to counter the illustration, then it only makes sense that I would think about those things from the beginning.

You started out in the smaller presses, with Mojo, Nightshade, Subterranean, Golden Gryphon and several other small presses. In the last couple of years, you've really moved up to what we'd call the Big Boys, you know Del Rey, Penguin, iBooks, Tor. What's the difference in working between the two? Do you approach the work differently; is your relationship with them different?:
In terms of energy and attitude, I approach it the same way across the board. I don't expend any less energy or have any less or greater an attitude between the two types. Of course one of the big differences between the two is the amount of money that you are being paid by a small publisher versus a larger publisher. The way I look at that is that I will consciously spend more time working on something that pays me more money; it only makes sense as a business person. That is, I'll allot myself X amount of time for something that pays me a lesser amount, and I'll expend proportionately more time for something that pays me more. I mean, that's the intention anyway. So, if there's any difference based on the vagaries of money, it's all in the amount of time I will spend on something, and that gets reflected in things like sketches. For someone who's paying me more money, of course, I'm very willing to really give them as many sketches as we need to get to the final product. But with something where I'm getting less money, it just doesn't make sense to do that. I still think through the problems in the same way, though, but whether I need to go through the politics with the client to go back and forth and back and forth with sketches and the like, I don't allow as much with someone who is paying me significantly less money. It's tradeoffs like that, really.

What about freedom? Do you find with small presses you have more freedom to do whatever you'd like as opposed to larger presses?
I'm very lucky. A lot of that may lie in this fact: I don't look at myself as a hired hand, but instead I look at myself as someone who's being hired to filter something through his brain and give it back to a large audience. It's implicit in the job for me to be a co-contributor in the process. That's just the way I approach the job. I'm not someone who's coming in after the fact just to make a pretty picture. My attitude from the beginning has always been that the manuscript is the guiding light, and when I come in with that attitude, all the doors are open; no doors are closed. I never have felt caged.

SF Site Interview: | Part 1 | Part 2 |

Copyright © 2003 Rick Klaw

Rick Klaw is not just a regular columnist for SF Site with the popular Geeks With Books, but also a reviewer, commentator, and interviewer for a variety of places including the Austin Chronicle, RevolutionSF, SF Weekly, and other venues. His Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century, collecting his columns, essays, reviews, and other things Klaw, will be available in September 2003 from Monkey Brains, Inc). As a freelance editor, former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experience with most aspects of the book business. He thinks John Picacio is the snazziest dresser in all of fandom.

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