As a part of his Brandon Sanderson special, Alexander Páez is interviewing today three of the artists that have illustrated Sanderson's works. He has been so kind as to letting me reproduce the English version of the interviews (check out the other two later today) and you can read the translation into Spanish at Alexander's blog, Donde acaba el infinito. Hope you enjoy!
Alexander Páez: Hello Ben, welcome to Donde acaba el infinito. We are very pleased to have you here and we are very grateful that you agreed to give us some of your time to answer a few questions.
Ben McSweeney: Hello, and thank you for having me!
AP: How is your workplace? Any technique that you prefer to use or you feel more comfortable?
BM: When I work for Brandon, I usually work from home. My personal studio space changes every few years, but usually consists of a desk, a chair, many bookshelves full of books, and my desktop computer and drawing rig. It's about as comfortable as I can make it. I enjoy listening to music or podcasts while I work.
AP: How does the digital illustration technique affect your work?
BM: Specifically, it makes our process of feedback and revision much more effective than it might be otherwise. Some of Shallan's pages go through a dozen revisions or more as we circle around an idea, and by working digitally it's easy to make corrections and preserve iterations.
Unfortunately, it means that very little physical artwork exists for my part... only rough drafts and sketches, usually penciled into random sketchbooks, and nothing for the final pages. This eliminates lucrative secondary markets for me, and that's difficult, but I feel the advantages inherent in a digital workspace help offset this. I'm able to work very quickly because of digital techniques, but I may incorporate more physical media in the future. I never throw any of the sketchbooks out.
AP: You worked twice with Brandon Sanderson’s novels, on the Mistborn role playing game and the illustrations inside the books of The Stormlight Archive. About the Mistborn Illustrations, did you discussed with the author how they should be or did you have creation freedom?
BM: I've actually worked on three different Sanderson series: The Stormlight Archive, The Rithmatist, and the Mistborn series (starting with The Alloy of Law), in addition to my work on The Mistborn Adventure Game.
In each of these series, I try to work as closely with Brandon as his schedule allows. He's always been very good about letting me try different ideas and giving me the chance to "take the lead", so to speak. But when I work on Brandon's ideas, I consider his word to be final... I can always keep my rejected ideas in a folder marked "apocrypha" and maybe they'll be useful later.
With The Mistborn Adventure Game, both Crafty Games and I wanted to keep Brandon informed and get his feedback whenever possible. It was a happy coincidence that Crafty had been clients of mine before I met Brandon. We had a moment of actual synergy, and thanks to my existing connections with Brandon and his assistants Isaac and Peter, I was able to go to the source for references.
It wasn't as close a process as we follow for his novels, because it was a completely separate team and studio developing the game, but Brandon certainly had an influence throughout the project. Our first point of reference was always the books, I tried to make sure I never directly contradicted anything in the text of the novels.
AP: How was the process about creating illustrations for a role playing game instead for a novel?
BM: Normally they're very similar, but Brandon's books are special.
From the beginning, Brandon's had a vision of how he wants illustrations to work in the Cosmere novels. Each illustration should represent an in-world document, much in the way Tolkien's original map for The Hobbit represented the map in the hands of Thorin. In addition, we're very careful about showing "official" portraits of any character's face, so that we're not trying to force the readers to conform their imaginations. We're more concerned with defining the world, and we let Brandon and the readers define the characters in their minds.
As such, it's very different from illustration for games, or even other novels. We don't create the traditional storybook pictures of events as you're reading them in the text. Instead we try to find ways to illustrate the world the way characters in the novels would; Shallan's pages are meant to be taken from her collections of drawings that she makes of the world around her, Navani's notes (illustrated by Isaac Stewart) are examinations of the tools people use. In Words of Radiance, Dan Dos Santos illustrated pages from catalogs that circulate amongst the nobility, showing the latest fashions from around the continent. Every map is a map that hangs on a wall, or rests in the hands of someone, somewhere in the world of The Archive.
For The Mistborn Adventure Game, I get to do much more traditional illustrations (standing vignettes of characters, narrative scenes from the novels or the flavor text). We do some of that same concept work for Stormlight, but it won't be seen by the public in the context of the novels.
I still work to ensure that I'm getting the details right, and not drawing Vin with long flowing hair, or wearing clothes with metal buckles and buttons. It's part of what I enjoy about drawing content from novels; working within the confines of the text while exploring what the narrative leaves open to interpretation.
AP: How was your experience with The Stormlight Archive? Did you read the novels?
BM: I'm privileged to be on the alpha team, and so I get to read the early drafts and follow along as it's updated. I was eating in a restaurant, reading an early draft of Words when I got to the part about Adolin's Embarrassing Secrets of Shardplate, and I nearly spit a noodle out my nose. Getting to read the novels early is one of my favorite parts of the job.
It's also very unusual for illustrators to have such early access. Normally artists don't work directly with authors (not every writer wants to work directly with an artist, and not every artist is good at working directly with writers... it's different than working with an editor or art director), and we usually don't get to read any more than a bit of loose copy regarding the subjects we illustrate. This is especially true of first-edition covers, where the artist almost never gets to read the book because the book is still being completed.
AP: We would like to know about the process on the Stormlight illustrations. How do you get inspired? Do you do them first on paper, or digital? How do you know when they are finished? How many schedules are left unfinished? How long does it take to finish one work?
BM: Usually it starts when Brandon sends out the early draft to the team. I'll read the book like everyone else, but I specifically look for moments in Shallan's chapters that seem suitable subjects for her sketchbook. Most of these are planted by Brandon into the narrative already... for instance, Shallan's illustration of the lait (an area of wilderness sheltered from the storms where vegetation thrives) was written into the first draft I received, and when I read that scene I knew we would need a drawing to go with it. Most of Shallan's pages are born this way, from seeds Brandon plants in her story, but he often plants more than we need, so that we still have options.
Once we determine the subjects, I begin drafting rough sketches. It might take many designs before he likes where I'm taking it, or I might get it right the first time. In either case, we usually go through a drafting phase, and once the design is approved I'll start to lay out and then illustrate the final image, providing regular updates until it's approved by Brandon. The actual process of creating each page takes only a few days, when you compress all the hours into one block, but the total time is expanded by discussion and waiting for feedback or approval (Brandon is often very busy, especially when touring or attending events that force him to travel), and I often do this work alongside other jobs.
According to my records, I received my first draft for Words of Radiance in May-July of 2013. We finished all eight Shallan pages in December of that same year, with a quick revision in early January just before Tor went to press. So overall, about six months, with about half that time spent in reading and sketching, and the last few months focusing on production.
I believe we have yet to discard a draft entirely. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes concept work that hasn't been publicly released, and more is made with every novel. But we haven't needed to skip a piece because we missed a deadline, or because it just wasn't going to work at all.
AP: Did you know about the Cosmere? Does that have any influence on the illustrations?
BM: I know about as much as most of the fans, perhaps a little more because I get to hear things. The Cosmere hasn't come into play for me yet, because each world is still mostly separate, but we have many novels still to go. The Rithmatist is not a Cosmere novel, and the worlds of Scadrial and Roshar have only begun to touch.
AP: Did you find any work for Sanderson novels especially complicated?
BM: Hmm... the work we have planned for the second Rithmatist novel will be an interesting challenge, as it requires ancient South American iconography that I'm only just learning about now.
I don't find my work for Stormlight or Mistborn to be especially complicated, exactly, but I do feel a strong pressure to do the job well. I hope to be working on Brandon's books for many years to come, and knowing that these projects are meant to span more than a decade, it's important to me that I give it everything I can.
AP: What image (scene) or character of a Sanderson’s novel would you like to illustrate?
BM: I get most of what I want from Shallan, but there are some things we either won't get to for a while, or subjects which aren't suitable for the novels because they don't meet the design criteria of being "in-world". I look forward to seeing what Thunderclast looks like. There's some amazing fights that I'd love to work on as an animator.
I'm also conscious that if I illustrate a scene showing a major moment from the novel, I'm potentially spoiling that moment for anyone who hasn't read the books. If I illustrate Kaladin leaping across the chasm into the teeth of the Parshendi army, glowing with stormlight, then anyone who sees that image will spend the entire novel looking for that moment.
So I try to be careful about what I choose to illustrate, both officially and not. That being said, I have been drawing more "unofficial" work in my spare time. If it's not for a specific book, I'm just another fan making fan-art... and making fan-art is how I met Brandon in the first place.
AP: Do you think that we can judge a book by its cover?
BM: Haha, only sometimes! What I think you can judge by a cover is how much the publisher wishes to invest in the book, and in that sense you can get a little idea of how confident they are about the book. When I buy a book, I usually see the cover and title, and then I read the back copy, and then if it still sounds good I flip to a random point about halfway through and try reading a little to get a sense of the author's voice. I'll buy a book with a bad cover if I like the sound of the author or the subject, but a bad cover is not a good way to get me to pick up the book in the first place.
AP: Do you think that Sanderson’s novels are specially good for a graphic work?
BM: Very much so! One of the reasons I sought out Brandon as a client was that I found his work particularly inspiring in a visual sense. When I read Mistborn: The Final EmpireI for the first time, I was immediately struck by his descriptions of the Steel Inquisitors, and the way he writes action scenes. Brandon writes things that I want to draw.
AP: Are you going to illustrate White Sand?
BM: Oh, I wish I was! I would very much like to adapt some of Brandon's work into graphic novel form. Comics are a full-time job however, and in addition to working on Brandon's novels I also storyboard and animate for different studios around the world, as well as working on illustrations for other publishers. If I could give all that up to illustrate Mistborn or The Way of Kings in graphic novel form... well, I might.
Thanks again, and I hope the fans enjoy the insight into how we produce some of the illustrations for Brandon's novels!
If there's anything else I can do to assist, I'm always happy to help. I look forward to seeing the interview in context!
- Ben McSweeney