In this first edition, we talk with Mathia Arkoniel, a veteran illustrator that is amongst the first fan artists to grace the ASOIAF fandom back in the days when the pool was smaller and the variety in styles and interpretations more reduced. She is an artist whose paintings capture the dynamic and sensual world that George R. R. Martin has crafted in his fantasy series. Her pieces are distinguished by a bold use of colour and polished rendering, and each one reveals an expressive emotional quality that highlights not only Mathia’s talent but a perceptive grasp of the source material, which we hope will be enlightening for artists and readers alike.
Welcome to the first edition of Illustrating Westeros, Mathia. To begin, tell us how you became an artist, and the influences that have shaped your style.
Thank you very much for the honour of inviting me to participate in Illustrating Westeros.
How I became an artist is a rather long story, but I’ll try to keep it as short as possible. I've been drawing since I can remember, but I seriously decided to BE an artist in 5th grade, after watching Sailor Moon on a German TV channel. I began drawing ceaselessly. Later, I attended a school of Fine Arts, but during that time I’d been using only traditional tools. I have a strong dislike of traditional tools in art for several reasons, one of which would be that they are messy and they smell, particularly oils. So I started looking for a better, cleaner way of painting.
That’s how I stumbled on Digital Art, or Digital Painting in my case. I loved it! I have spent most of the past decade teaching myself skills in Photoshop, Manga Studio, Illustrator, etc. I slowly got to know the online world and been inspired by the artwork of some amazing artists like Linda Bergkvist, Pete Amachree, Xiao Bing, Bobby Chiu, and the one man who, to this day, is my absolute favourite digital painter, Michael Komarck.
I was greatly inspired by Michael Komarck’s fantastic paintings. The mood, the lighting, the realism, the textures, all of it simply mind-blowing. My great dream is to be one day good enough to paint as amazingly as he does.
You are an outstanding illustrator of George R. R. Martin's works. When did you read the A Song of Ice and Fire books for the first time, and what was your initial impression?
To be honest, I can’t recall the exact year when I read A Song of Ice and Fire for the first time, but I think it was around 2005-2007. I remember reading A Game of Thrones, and around the chapter where Tyrion is attacked by Ghost at Winterfell and Jon calls him off, I was thinking, “This is not a ‘bad’ book, but I am not sure I will like this in the long run. Still, let’s read it till the end and decide then.” To me, the beginning wasn’t too captivating, but I think this happens with most books, until one starts to truly be familiar with the characters and feel invested in wanting to know their fate.
Needless to say, I never regretted reading A Game of Thrones till the end. By the end of the book, I couldn’t imagine not reading the rest in a marathon. The writing style, the dialogue, the world, the plot, but especially the characters were beyond anything I’ve ever read before. They were so real, so three-dimensional! From the most despicable to the most lovable characters, I loved them all, because they were SO real. I also loved something else in the books that I did not see before A Song of Ice and Fire in fantasy books: the author was not afraid to write about the ugly stuff. I can’t read novels that are all fluff, as I like to call it. Novels that flinch away from the violence in battle to the mundane need to ‘take a leak’ aren’t novels that I could ever enjoy.
George R. R. Martin’s works don’t flinch away from describing anything. It’s all there.
Who are some of your favourite characters in the series, and is there a scene that is particularly memorable to you?
Hmmm, I have a lot of favourite characters . . . even a lot of most favourite characters, but they are all in different 'categories' of favourite. Let’s see, I am most fascinated by Euron Greyjoy, I am most curious about Darkstar (Ser Gerold Dayne), I most love Arya, and root most for Jaime Lannister to live. I think these would be the characters that I most look forward to reading about. But I also love for various reasons Tyrion Lannister, Sandor Clegane, Sansa Stark, Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Catelyn Stark, Oberyn Martell, Doran Martell, Victarion Greyjoy, Asha Greyjoy, Bran Stark, etc. Truly, there are so many characters I love that there’s no point listing them all, for I’d end up listing all of the characters from the books.
One of the most memorable scenes for me from the novels was the part with Sam and the Night’s Watch when they were beyond the Wall, hearing the horn blast once, twice and then, for a third time, announcing the attack of the White Walkers. I’ve never forgotten that scene. I could almost feel the fear of the characters when the third blast of the horn sounded.
There are, of course, countless other scenes that I loved with Jaime and Brienne, Arya, Victarion, a lot of Daenerys’ scenes, and many more, but the one with the White Walkers was for some reason special. It just stuck with me.
After HBO’s Game of Thrones came out, many readers’ inner pictures of characters and scenes have been replaced by actors and settings from the show. Can you tell us about your own mental images of the characters, and if this has been influenced by the show?
I have watched the show and liked it a lot, of course, but no. The show did not influence my view of the characters whatsoever. I still see them as described in the books, which differs from how they are represented in the show. I’d say the one thing the TV show really helped me with, is visualizing Westeros. I am usually very good with imagining humans or humanoid characters, but I am not so good with imaging environments.
Couples seem to be a recurrent subject in your paintings, from Eddard/Catelyn and Jaime/Cersei to Sandor/Sansa and Rhaegar/Lyanna. What interested you in these pairings and how do you view them?
I love studying, imagining, and painting the interactions between humans, particularly romantic relationships. Hence I am always drawn mostly to painting couples. Each of the above mentioned pairings has something special in it that fascinates me.
Eddard and Catelyn to me are beautiful, because they are the perfect mother and father figures in harmony with each other.
Rhaegar and Lyanna, on the other hand, are the wild passionate kind of love, forbidden, dangerous, impulsive and pretty much doomed to failure/tragedy. Of this pairing, I also enjoyed the fact that Lyanna was not afraid to stand up for what she wanted; something that in a patriarchal world and time like Westeros was difficult for a woman to do.
Jaime and Cersei are fascinating because the author does not flinch at all from representing—very openly—incest. A highly taboo subject. And what’s even more shocking—ignoring Cersei’s stupidity and Jaime’s early vileness—is that he manages to represent this couple in a 'natural' and even romantic/beautiful light. I’ve never EVER seen this done in any book to this day.
Lastly, the most popular of all, I think, Sandor and Sansa. In this, I love the contrast between the two. The large, broody killing machine and the slender, genteel songbird. Or simply put, Beauty and the Beast.
Each pairing carries for me something special, some element that fascinates me, and each in its own way is beautiful to me. Hence I love painting them.
From your gallery, Lannister Gold is literally the gold standard in quality, and we were thoroughly impressed by the piece with respect to composition and mood. What insight can you share on the behind the scenes development of this painting?
I am a nitpicky perfectionist, and this means that in my eyes that painting is full of mistakes, since it’s so old. It’s way outdated for my style, and I think I could paint it a million times better now, but I must admit I am always very happy to hear that people enjoy the way I represented something from the books—be that one of my old or new paintings.
I will, however, have to disappoint you, for there’s really not much to say about the 'behind the scenes' of this piece. The idea behind the painting was born from the simple desire to represent the characters and their relationship, as close to the description of the books as my imagination allowed. The title “Lannister Gold” came to my mind whilst I was contemplating this project, long before actually painting it, and so the title ended up setting the colour scheme for it.
Compulsions to have old paintings revised notwithstanding, this piece does remain current in terms of a keen erotic quality. How do you capture the eroticism and sexiness in your couple pieces?
As for sexiness in my paintings; the process is very simple. I do my best to imagine what I would find sexy! What I would love to see in couples . . . or in some cases, what I’d like to happen to me, like in a kissing scene, how the man touches the woman, etc. I imagine the scenario, I imagine the feelings, and then I pick a scene/moment/pose which I find the prettiest. Or full of meaning/love. It’s a really anti-climactic process. But I am really, really happy that the poses and expressions of the characters in the paintings have meaning to others as well, not just myself. That’s the greatest reward.
Do you have a favourite art technique? And do you have a preference for experimenting with new techniques and styles or for keeping to your established ones?
If you mean Digital Painting as an art technique, then yes, my favourite art technique is digital painting in Photoshop.
I am always experimenting with new styles, though. I always try to learn something new, to improve what I already know and can do. So yes, I am definitely looking for learning new and better ways of painting something, or achieving some new effect in my paintings. Sticking to just one thing makes me feel as if I am stagnating, so the quest for improvement never ends
Is there an ASOIAF artist whose work you admire? And/or a piece of ASOIAF art that you have as a personal favourite?
If “official” ASOIAF artists are also included here, then yes: Michael Komarck. He is my absolutely favourite ASOIAF artist. My favourite ASOIAF artwork from Michael Komarck is the one of Jaime sitting on the Iron Throne. It’s PERFECT! I could never have imagined it better than how he represented that scene from the novels. Naturally, there are countless other amazing artists’ works that I love, but Michael Komarck is always in the first place for me.
The Jaime portrayal can be seen here.
Please, give us a link or thumbnail from your gallery of:
a) An ASOIAF illustration you are most proud of?
b) A piece that was the hardest to draw or paint?
The hardest ASOIAF piece I worked on was this painting, commissioned in 2010:
The number of characters! They almost did me in. I did not have strong enough skills back then to paint so many characters at once.
Martin is known for being supportive of fan art, and has been personally involved in the creative decisions of the official ASOIAF art for calendars, books and comics, even supplying descriptions to artists and choosing scenes himself. If you could do one official ASOIAF artwork, what would you like to depict?
Without a doubt, it would have to be the attack of the White Walker on Sam, when he stabbed the White Walker with the dragonglass. Again, that fear, almost terror, Sam’s bravery, the cold, the undead horse with its intestines hanging out—all of it a shocking contrast to the peaceful beauty of the snowy landscape. I would love to paint all of this, but I did not get a clear enough 'image' in my mind of the White Walkers. I’d love to ask Mr. Martin for an exact description of how he imagined the White Walkers, down to the smallest detail.
Is there a plotline, whether in the North, the Vale, King’s Landing or Essos that you're anxious to see resolved in the next book?
I want to know all the plotlines, but on the very first place would be the White Walkers against the Lord of Light. I want to know how the great war between the two gods will go, why they fight the war, who will be instrumental—from the mortals—in defeating the White Walkers. The entire books to me are about this god of Fire and the god of Ice. What is happening with the humans is the 'detail'. But the big picture is about these two. So, the next book is only a 'bridge' book in my mind. I am looking forward to seeing beloved characters, and I’ll be very happy if any of the plotlines get resolved in the next book, but it’s not what I am looking forward to. Sadly, to satisfy my need in this case, the final book would have to be released . . .
And lastly, can the fandom expect more ASOIAF art from you in the future?
I will definitely paint more ASOIAF art in the future, whether I am commissioned to do so or in my free time, though in the case of the latter I cannot promise anything anytime soon, because I am sadly not currently inspired by the world of ASOIAF. However, inspiration is fickle and unpredictable. It often returns when I least expect it, or when a new book is released. So more illustrations will definitely be forthcoming in the not so distant future.
Thank you for talking to us, Mathia! You can see more of her art at: