How I Brought Game of Thrones' Ned Stark to Life

John Picacio is a super-talented cover artist whose art has graced many of your favorite novels — but many people now know him best as the creator of the 2012 Song of Ice and Fire calendar. Picacio's iconic art has helped to capture the splendor and squalor of Westeros for many readers. Here, in the first of a series of articles, he gives us a step by step tutorial on how he created the calendar's version of Eddard Stark, lord of Winterfell.

Oh, and you'll really want to click the images below, to enlarge them and see all the amazing detail and progression from image to image.

In 2008, I spotted George R.R. Martin on one of the party floors at Worldcon. We chatted briefly, and I mentioned that I'd love to work with him someday. He said he'd definitely keep it in mind. One year later, we ran into each other again at the Montreal Worldcon. This time around, he asked me to go the bar where we could talk at length. He asked if I'd ever read his A Song of Ice and Fire books. Unfortunately, I had not at that point. The truth is that I spend most of my reading time consuming manuscripts when I'm assigned cover jobs, and pleasure reading of novels (especially giant ones) is rare. Since I'd never worked on ASoIaF properties, I hadn't had a chance to read these books that many of my friends described as 'literary crack'.

George asked if I'd be interested in working on a calendar based on his A Song of Ice and Fire series. "Which month?", I replied. "Well. All of them," said George. At the time, I was slammed with the most cover gigs I'd ever juggled in my entire career, plus finishing Elric artwork for the same parent company that was going to publish the calendar (Random House). The sensible thing was to pass on the opportunity. My answer was of course: "Let's do this."

Eddard Stark was the third artwork I worked on of the twelve calendar works, and he turned out to be one of my very favorites. And of course, he was eventually chosen by Bantam to be the cover of the calendar.

How I Brought Game of Thrones' Ned Stark to Life

He began as most artworks do — as a series of thumbnails and quickly-sketched ideas. This one was the sketch chosen as most intriguing by George, editor Anne Groell, and art director Dave Stevenson. I agreed. As crude as this little drawing was, I could see this piece eventually being a soulful portrait of one of the most iconic characters in the series. At least I hoped it might be.

How I Brought Game of Thrones' Ned Stark to Life

To get there, I did a better-realized sketch of the idea. I thought about my friend Khalil as a possible springboard for my version of Ned. I'd worked with him previously on other jobs, and his face and manner was familiar and evocative when thinking about this particular job.

How I Brought Game of Thrones' Ned Stark to Life

I asked Khalil to do a bit of modeling for me, and shot some photographs of him. These were to help me figure out the shapes and light. As you can see from my down-and-dirty reference shot of Khalil, the road to a drawing is not a simple "copying" of an original photograph. As cool as Khalil is, he was the springboard from which I could build my vision of Ned, but he was far from an exact blueprint to follow.

How I Brought Game of Thrones' Ned Stark to Life

For instance, it took me six drafts of drawing to get that face right because I had a particular vision in my head of what I wanted, and Khalil's facial likeness wasn't the answer. It took time to get there. Possibly six drafts just for that face? I worked out the entire composition via a rendered drawing. I think drawing is still the aspect of artistic creation that gives me the most pleasure. I never get tired of it.

How I Brought Game of Thrones' Ned Stark to Life

The figure was looking good, but that background featuring a Weirwood tree? Nice start, but lacked depth, I thought.

How I Brought Game of Thrones' Ned Stark to Life

I did several more bits of drawing revisions — additions and subtractions — that I overlaid onto the original drawing via Photoshop. The drawings and paintings were all elements and pieces I created in the real world — pencil and/or paint on illustration board — and then scanned in (or photographed), imported to my Mac, and composited via Photoshop. You can see how the background needed more depth and scale. The piece improved greatly once I found the right balance and mood.

How I Brought Game of Thrones' Ned Stark to Life

I'll talk more about how I build up color in subsequent A Song of Ice and Fire Calendar posts. For now, have a look at those red leaves. Obviously, they weren't a part of the composition originally. They were in fact an addition that came at the end of the process when I realized that the portrait was good but lacked movement. It wasn't kinetic enough. Winterfell's red Weirwood leaves were the answer under my nose all along. I think they really helped to tie the whole composition together and move the eye through the piece.

I'm happy to say that this artwork of Eddard Stark is not only the cover image for a 2012 calendar that has been hugely popular, but this particular artwork was selected by the jury of the 19th Spectrum Annual for inclusion in the next annual.

John Picacio is a 2012 Hugo Award finalist for Best Professional Artist. Check out his work at www.johnpicacio.com and follow him on Twitter at @JohnPicacio. He's appearing this weekend in Kansas City at the Spectrum Live show, and will have some cool surprise art goodies for George R. R. Martin / A Song of Ice and Fire fans in attendance. His next io9 post about the process of creating the 2012 calendar artwork will feature Bran Stark.