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Cover Story: The Art of John Picacio
John Picacio
Monkeybrain Books, 200 pages

Cover Story: The Art of John Picacio
John Picacio
John Picacio was born in 1969 in San Antonio, Texas. In 1992, he earned a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Four years later, he illustrated his first book -- the 30th Anniversary Edition of Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man. In May 2001, he chose a career in illustration over a career in architecture and devoted himself full-time to the craft of illustration. He lives in San Antonio, along with his partner and fiancée, Traci.

John Picacio Website

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jayme Lynn Blaschke

I have see the future of speculative fiction art, and its name is John Picacio.

Except, if I'm being honest with myself and my readers, that's not true. It's a damn lie, in fact. You see, to be the future would imply that Picacio has yet to come into his own. Anyone who even casually thumbs through Cover Story: The Art of John Picacio knows full well that this young artist has arrived. The question isn't how good he is, it's how much better can he possibly get?

The immediate impulse is to compare Picacio to the genre greats who've come before him, giants with names like Don Maitz, Frank Kelly Freas, Michael Whelan, the Brothers Hildebrandt. That impulse is a mistake, though, doing a disservice to both Picacio and those other artists. Art isn't a measured quality that can be run as a horse race. Pitting the work of Richard M. Powers against Wayne Douglas Barlowe's in a steel cage match is the sport of fools. They're all obscenely talented, all distinctive and all were the hot new thing at some point in their careers. As is Picacio now.

What set Picacio's work apart from others on the bookshelf is his refusal to pigeonhole himself into one trademark style. That's not to say a Picacio cover isn't immediately recognizable -- it is, often startlingly so. But Picacio isn't one whose work is content with one basic calling card. He works digitally, yes, but his paintings are done with canvass and brush, not mouse clicks and Photoshop. He builds shadow boxes around paintings to complete the scene. Found objects take on new life when touched by his imagination. He has a particular affinity for earth tones, but can turn around and dazzle with the most spectacular use of luminous color. His seemingly effortless creative diversity is his distinctive edge, and it that primal foundation of his art that is instantly recognizable rather than any simple technical mode.

The thirtieth anniversary edition of Michael Moorcock's Behold the Man was Picacio's first book cover, and it is intriguing to examine today. The barren, windswept image is one of sepia and light, which manifests itself in his later work. But it is the mood that carries the cover more than any simple composition. There's a gravity in this image, a somber foreboding and contemplation that serves the Moorcock novella well. Tellingly, this is also the first -- and to my knowledge, only -- cover art that has avoided the obvious and not included crucifixion imagery in some manner. It's fitting, then, that the final cover presented in this book is Picacio's interpretation of A Canticle for Leibowitz, a landmark fusion of science fiction and religion every bit as influential as Behold the Man -- if not moreso. And Leibowitz is one genre book that has benefitted from some truly marvelous cover art down through the years. Picacio uses a palette of browns, yellows and reds to deliver a scene of intensity, with Saint Leibowitz in simple robes, clutching a cherished book. Around his head, dark carrion birds fly as if they were a mocking halo, turning into flaming books as they sweep under and around. This isn't a scene any reader will find in the book itself, but it effectively captures the spirit of the piece -- or, perhaps more accurately, a piece of the spirit.

That's another trait that repeatedly crops up in Picacio's art. He doesn't so much as illustrate as he evokes. His cover for the anthology Live Without A Net is powerful in its use of blues, whites and blacks to create an image of a man breaking free of his plugged-in existence that is every bit as symbolic in its own way as Apple Computer's iconic 1984 commercial from two decades past. Equally impressive is his stylish, flashy melding of myriad images for the colorful cover of Frederik Pohl's Gateway, a cosmically spectacular scene that is downright vibrant. Even the few non-genre commissions Picacio includes in the package are jaw-dropping. "The Second Hunt," done a Rick Bass hunting story, shows the viewer a hunter and his dog in silhouette, unknowingly scaling the front profile of an enormous deer -- a creature so vast its antlers form the forest the hunter is entering. It is at once atmospheric and mythic, bringing to mind elements of Hayao Miyazaki's ecological fable Princess Mononoke.

Picacio is an artist blessed with an obscene amount of talent -- more than any single human being has a right to. Fortunately for the rest of us mortals, he only uses his powers for good. Cover Story is undoubtedly only the first of many collections of Picacio's art. Those future volumes may well hold visual treasures even more wondrous than this one, but that concept's a hard one to fathom. Pick up a copy of Cover Story and you'll understand.

Copyright © 2006 Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Jayme Lynn Blaschke writes science fiction and fantasy as well as related non-fiction. A collection of his interviews, Voices of Vision: Creators of Science Fiction and Fantasy Speak, is now available from the University of Nebraska Press and he also serves as fiction editor for His web log can be found at

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