Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Unveiled: here's my front cover illustration for Jack Skillingstead's collection ARE YOU THERE AND OTHER STORIES, an October hardcover release from Golden Gryphon Press. I'd like to say a few words about Skillingstead and this book, especially for those who have never heard of him. At the end of the year, all of the hip sf critics and pundits will rack up their "Top 10 Books of 2009." I suspect ARE YOU THERE will be on some of their lists, or at the very least, the ones who spot great writers when they first encounter them. Why? Well, this is Skillingstead's debut book, which makes it doubly amazing that this collection of stories is so potent, emotional, and provocative. It blew me away. This is a book for sf readers who savor great questions as much as (if not more than) firm answers. I'm really proud to be the cover illustrator for this one.

A couple of process notes about the art: this illustration was directly inspired by Jack's stories, but it's not a literal translation of any of them. Although it's a very simple graphic solution, it took me a while to gather the courage to go this way. If you click on Amazon (for a limited time until it gets replaced with the final cover), you'll see my aborted original solution where a man is literally trying to hug a phantom, which was inspired by the stories, but perhaps was just as much me trying to capture a collection that isn't easily pegged. It's an interesting idea, and a work-in-progress (it even includes something I borrowed from a previous cover as a stand-in design element for the time being), but I thought that original picture was failing to communicate. It was a gut feeling, and I couldn't shake it. So I ditched it.

Huge credit must be given to Gary Turner, publisher of GGP, and Jack himself for allowing me to veto the picture. They had already approved the cover art, and the distributor had approved it as well for catalog purposes, but after much soul-searching, I just felt it was lacking. It's highly unusual to start over at this stage, but because the client had the catalog image as a safety net, I started over and revisited a different idea from my initial sketches. Originally, I'd abandoned this idea because I couldn't think of a way to turn it into a wraparound composition, which is a prerequisite of all GGP cover art. It could be an amazing front cover image though, and most importantly, it was utterly resonant with the tone of Jack's book. So I went for broke and did it. All the while, I wasn't sure if the piece was too simple and too spare, but stayed the course. And this is how the full wraparound composition turned out:

I printed up a scale mockup of how the art might wrap around a GGP book, and looked at the abstract cloud forms on the back cover (left half of the picture below). The full wraparound makes me a bit twitchy because the left half is so spare, compared to past work. However, seeing my little mockup was a great reminder of design context and that the back cover art works beautifully when the art finds its destination wrapping around a book. And that's what matters, in this case.

GGP gives its authors more cover art input than normally afforded by most publishers. So when Jack said that I "nailed" the art and that he couldn't stop staring at it, it was all worth it. Thanks again to both he and Gary, for keeping the faith. Thanks to Matt Fulcher and Sanford Allen for being partners-in-crime as I figured this out. I love this book and can't wait for it to be published.


Blogger Jamie said...

Really fascinating to hear the insight behind the art, John. For all that it's worth, I can see your though process and I think the final art is even better - the limiting the detail to the figure works really well and I think this one will be very eye-catching to those browsing bricks and mortar bookshops. Must also be very exciting to be one of the first to be involved with a new talent...

One question, is photography involved with the face? It's incredibly realistic.


11:53 AM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Thanks, Jamie. Very kind of you.

The illustration is all drawing and painting composited together in Photoshop. No photography in the final result. However, I shot photos of a friend (hi, Matt!) for reference. So most of the details of the figure, including the face, were drawn and painted based on that reference. I changed some of the details here and there, as I normally do when I use reference, but I definitely referenced those photos while drawing and painting.

12:01 PM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

One other note -- when I say "drawing and painting composited together in Photoshop", the drawing and painting was done in pencils and paints in the real world, and then scanned in and finished in Photoshop for the final.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Daryl said...

John, this is an amazing piece of work. Just riveting. Jack is such a lucky man to have this for his first cover.

3:30 PM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Thanks, Daryl. I appreciate it. After reading this manuscript, I'm definitely a Jack Skillingstead fan and I'm really eager to see where this book takes him. I feel like I'm the lucky one to be along for the ride....

4:08 PM  
Anonymous Sanford Allen said...

Excellent work. I'm love how this turned out. There's a certain fragility to the image that seems to capture Jack's work.

Thanks for allowing me a glipse of the creative process. I enjoyed seeing at least part of how this magic happens.

-- Sanford

6:08 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

Awesome. I also love what Gary's doing with Golden Gryphon, and he does pay attention to the art!

7:59 PM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Thanks, Sanford. Thanks, Charles. Yeah, GGP has had some terrific cover art over the years.....Gary does a great job.

6:59 AM  
Blogger ces said...

I remember asking youat your NWCon slide show what you do when you look at a book cover and say "this isn't working" - now I know! You start over.

This is an absolutely amazing, beautiful, & nailed cover! The blues are just gorgeous! And the thought process you used to get to it was most interesting. And the clouds for the "back" work wonderfully. This cover would definitely catch my eye in the bookstore, convincing me to buy a book (hardcover?) by a brand-new author.


10:11 AM  
Blogger John Picacio said...

Really appreciate it, Christine! Thanks so much. :)

4:20 PM  

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