June is almost over, and when you flip your 2012 A Song of Ice and Fire Calendar to July, you'll find Melisandre. My artwork for her is the focus of today's exclusive process feature here at io9. How did the flame-loving sorceress from Asshai become the icon for the hottest month of the year? Read on, and find out.

In recent weeks, they've unveiled process posts on my art for Bran Stark, Eddard Stark, Sansa Stark and the Hound, and Jon Snow and Ghost.

I've noticed that a lot of fans have wondered how much of my calendar art was influenced by HBO's Game of Thrones TV show. The answer is zero. One key to remember is that the HBO show debuted in April 2011, and my art was all turned in before the first episode had aired. Also, much of my artwork was either finished or in-progress before many of the casting decisions were even made.

When Random House/Bantam hired me to illustrate the calendar, they wanted my vision of the characters from George's books, and they wanted a vision completely independent of what HBO was doing. Those two streams never crossed. I love what HBO has done with the show, but I'm grateful that I was permitted by George and Bantam to create my own vision.

On to Melisandre.

She was on my initial list of characters I wanted to illustrate, but George suggested that it might be interesting if she was birthing a shadow. If you've read the books — think about that request for a moment. The birthing scene, as George describes it, is memorable, gory and disturbing. It's terrific. But as an illustrator you have to ask yourself — how many people in your audience are going to enjoy seeing a woman give birth, while that picture hangs on their refrigerator for 30 days?


So personally, I thought it was a fun idea, but for my client's sake, I didn't want this calendar shelved behind the counter with Penthouse Magazine when sold in stores either.

Melisandre is mysterious and mystical, and this first sketch treats the shadow as a smoky tendril that swirls around her. I wondered if there might be a hand or claw suggested. Here, I'm purposely trying to be careful about being overly-graphic on the birthing angle, and instead focusing more on her ability to manipulate and conjure energies.

This next sketch has a better composition and introduces a core of fire, and the shadow swirls around it, as she's conjuring it. Maybe an improvement over the first, but it has a snake charmer aspect that's a bit too overt.

A third sketch seems to be more effective. This time, the face in the smoke (did you notice the one above?) has become more obvious. I'm not sure if it's distracting though, and neither is my art director, Dave Stevenson. I'm given the greenlight to continue, though.

Next, I work out all of my greyscale values in pencil on Strathmore 500 illustration board. I decide to just concentrate on working out Melisandre and the background, and figure out the foreground elements separately.

I continue refining and tightening the drawing to a finished level.

I scan and import that greyscale drawing into Photoshop and overlay abstract acrylics over the top to build my colour layers, which in this case are pretty simple and straight-forward.

I've always loved the work of Gustav Klimt, and his lost work "Medicine" is one of my all-time favorites. This is the only remaining image of that masterwork as it was destroyed by SS forces as they evacuated the University of Vienna. My art for Melisandre is inspired a bit by this one.

That influence becomes a bit more apparent as I render the shadow in the lower left quadrant of the composition. I've toned down its shape and prominence because my sketches seemed to indicate that less is more. The face in the smoke was overpowering, and derailed the way your eyes moved through the composition.

And then for the final stage, I created a wave of embers that reinforced how I wanted eyes to move through the picture.


Addition by subtraction is one of the tough lessons of creative work. It's easy to fall in love with one aspect, and sometimes tough to leave that element behind, and allow the rest of the piece to succeed. I think that was a key to solving Melisandre — less turned out to be more, as it often does.

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.