Welcome to Illustrating Westeros, Bubug. To begin, tell us how you became an artist, and the influences that have shaped your style.
Hello, and thank you for inviting me.
First, I’m not an artist; more like a geek who prefers to spend time thinking about fictional characters with their fictional problems instead of finally getting down to some harder work. I mean, I threw my easels and oils into a corner and settled for simple pens, because I’m just that lazy. No tears and sweat of artists for me, therefore it would be totally wrong to usurp this title now, already in my opinion distributed around too lightly.
So how did I become a geek? Easily. A lot of reading from an early age, and later watching movies, with a particular passion for literature and cinematography of the genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Surrealism; a lot of appetite for legends, fairy tales, strange things, disturbing and generally creepy. And of course, tons of admiration for book illustrations, especially the works of Vilhelm Pedersen for Hans-Christian Andersen’s fables; very classic, black ink on yellowed pages, and to this day still most vivid in my memory and imagination.
Plenty of inspiration I found also in the artistic creativity of post-Impressionist Henri Rousseau, the pre-Raphaelites William Waterhouse and Edward Burne-Jones, illustrators John Bauer and Alan Lee, the fantastic realist Wojciech Siudmak, Surrealists Zdzisław Beksiński, Rafal Olbiński, Jacek Yerka; and the cinematographic works by Hayao Miyazaki, Tim Burton, Wes Anderson, Emir Kusturica and Jan Jakub Kolski.
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?
I think that, like many people in Poland, where Martin's saga was not as well-known as in the States for example, though still very popular among fans of the genre, I learned about it when HBO aired their TV adaptation. After that, everyone including me knew what it was, and I have to admit that initially the show completely absorbed my attention.
Then there was this scene at the end of the second season, where the Hound throws everything to the devil and I just have to know what will happen next, so the natural course of things was delving into the books. And it was the beginning of a total obsession, with the discovery that beneath the visual layer proposed by television, though very attractive and interesting, lies so much more—the vast expanse of history, images and rich, deep, colorful emotions, limited only by the imagination and the receptivity of the reader. So practically infinite. And it was a great journey, with nail-biting, laughing out loud and weeping on a pillow included.
After that nothing was the same, I still watch episodes when they are released, but rather apathetically and with an annoying tendency to point out inaccuracies and simplifications. Privately, to myself, because no one wants to watch it with me anymore.
Who are some of your favourite characters in the series, and is there a scene that is particularly memorable to you?
Martin’s characters are interesting in that they can be loved for some features while at the same time hated for others, there are no black-and-white divisions; and it’s easier for me to indicate my favorite features in each character than the characters that I could love for everything. Okay, there is One, that I like also for his flaws, but about that later. And thus, I appreciate Tywin for his charisma, visionary and strong will, but absolutely despise him for how he treats his children and all those he considers obstacles in his way to success. I love Tyrion for his wit, cynical humor and heart, for being wronged by fate, but detest his misogyny, et cetera.
But there is one group of characters that I like more and with whom I can more easily identify, and they are those who are like outside of this whole struggle for power, wealth, the throne; who are more observers than active participants in revolutions or authors of intrigues, who just live and let live. In this category are the Starks and their friends, the Night’s Watch, Jorah Mormont, Davos, Brienne, Bronn, Jaqen H'ghar, Jaime to a certain extent, and of course the master of indifference, the Hound. Ah, and my kindred spirit Dolorous Edd, who is not only a sharp observer, but also hilarious and a very accurate commentator on the Westerosi reality.
My favorite scene, which I always wanted to draw too, but for now lack the courage, is Arya’s dream (or not a dream) in which she as Nymeria finds Catelyn’s dead body in the river, and thus learns that she no longer has a mother. It’s so somber, but piercingly sorrowful, a disturbing and dark scene, especially when viewed through the eyes of a half-human half-direwolf with emotions divided between the abandoned, hurt and broken child and the mighty beast guided by its animal instinct. And her short, sedate answer to the Hound’s concern the next day: "It doesn’t matter. I know she’s dead. I saw her in a dream." The devastating disillusionment contained in that dry statement simply broke my heart.
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?
With me it was rather the opposite; since I saw HBO’s show before reading the books, the faces seen on the TV screen in many cases have been replaced by the more suitable to the original descriptions of the author. For example, in the books all the kids and a lot of adults are much younger. But, of course, those that match in my imagination remained the same, and now I just can’t see Davos without the honest face of Liam Cunningham; same with John Bradley’s Samwell, or Ben Crompton’s Edd.
Regarding the scenes and scenery, HBO did a great job. It showed a very colorful and rich world, but there’s no way it could compare to what a superbly written book can evoke in the reader’s imagination. This is a brand new, unlimited universe of sensations and impressions, in addition to actively created in our minds, and not just passively received. For me, nothing can beat that.
Sandor Clegane and Sansa Stark are a recurrent subject in your paintings, together and as individuals. What interested you in these characters and how do you view them?
As I said earlier, these are two characters standing by the sidelines of the main events, and if they take part in them, it’s more due to external factors than their internal will. Sansa is a prisoner of the men with power and Clegane works for them, but they both do not belong there. They do not belong anywhere in fact, they are both orphans, both do not want for themselves nothing more than just something that would make them a little less unhappy. In a world ruled by political games, lust for power and possessions, this attitude seems to me refreshingly innocent.
Individually, I like Sansa for her ordinariness and veracity, that she is just a girl who resists adversities with what Nature gave her. I like female characters that are strong precisely in their femininity, who do not have to imitate men to appear tough. I know that the show’s Sansa may seem boring, but for me in the books she is nothing like that. Of course, mainly because there we can get into her head, we know her thoughts, insights and opinions, which are often surprisingly penetrating and not without a certain amount of dry, slightly dark humor. It’s also interesting to observe the process of changing her perception of the world, the gradual disillusionment, the hardening of her character. Arya’s arc is perhaps more spectacular, but both sisters undergo a similar process of maturation; Sansa’s is perhaps even more difficult, because of not being allowed to express her negative emotions and sense of injustice.
Now, Sandor Clegane . . . How do I describe Sandor Clegane . . .? I could, but then this interview would have been three times longer and in several places probably demanding some serious censor work, so I will only say that I love this big boor, and yes, he’s that One. From an illustrator’s point of view, he’s just an awesome subject to study, a lot of intriguing contrasts and shades in one nicely built package .
From your gallery, two portraits stand out as representative of your style: Sansa Stark and In the Garden of Eyrie, which are distinguished by many symbolic elements. What insight can you share on the process of creating these paintings and how you go about selecting your symbolic details?
The symbolic coating in the case of drawing things based on Martin’s saga is not so difficult to obtain; his prose is densely interwoven with symbolism, visions and prophecies, families are represented by animals, fantastic creatures and objects, each has its own color, sign, everything that we know from the authentic history of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It’s a world that practically translates itself into an image, all that remains is to bring together the relevant elements.
I really like to operate in symbols, because you can get an intriguing and surreal composition, where the fish can exist in the same space as the bird, a vulnerable girl can safely sit in the vicinity of the beasts, and, in addition, beneath the external visual layer you can deduce the true meaning of the whole scene, whose discovery, I hope, is for the recipient just as interesting as for me to hide it.
Yours is a characteristic art technique that renders illustrations with the appearance of old-fashioned woodcut storybook pieces. Do you experiment with other techniques and styles or keep to your established ones?
Studying, I tried a number of techniques, including painting in oils and watercolors, creating traditional graphics, like linocut, copperplate, etc., but in the end I discovered that operating in simple black pen is the most effective way to obtain the effect I want to achieve. It’s also the least messy, and allows me to control every stage of drawing; in addition, the possibility of retouching it in graphics programs further eliminates the risk of unsuccessful strokes. I know it’s not a "clean" technique and I will be forever jealous of artists who are able to achieve the desired effect only through traditional media, but as I said, I’m not an artist and I like my comforts. So no, I don’t foresee changes in my technique in the near future, but do not rule them out further ahead, if some stray sprite of diligence found me.
Is there an ASOIAF artist whose work you admire? And/or a piece of ASOIAF art that you have as a personal favourite?
Yes, there are quite a lot, actually. I love the work of Nimbus2005, with her fantastic ability to compose a very complex scenery and a wonderful sense of color. "The Things I Do For Love" is my favorite of hers ⃰, I could look at it for hours. Then there is Ken Taylor and his magnificent technique for handling line, sharp contrast and meaningful color; Jian Guo with his very original, incredible works full of light in stained glass, Dejan Delic and his crazy, expressive lines and bold coloring; Kallielef, who with an extremely steady hand creates very dynamic, full of heart, beautiful sketches.
Please, give us a link or thumbnail from your gallery of:
a) An ASOIAF illustration you are most proud of?
I think it’d be my first Sansa; it started my affair with fan art, and probably still is the most popular piece of mine in the ASOIAF fandom.
b) An ASOIAF piece that was the hardest to draw?
I’m not sure whether it was the hardest to draw (as most of the works based on my own ideas, it practically drew itself), but it definitely took me the most time and required a lot of planning.
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?
Let’s face it, for Martin I’d draw anything, even Daenerys topless on the back of Drogon, but I would be particularly happy if I could illustrate my favorite scene, of which I spoke earlier, or maybe for "The Winds of Winter" a scene showing a certain gravedigger . . .? Just saying. It would be also interesting to face one of the prophecies or oneiric divinations; it could result in quite an intriguing, disturbing, surreal vision.
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?
Yes, I want to know the ultimate fates of the Cleganes, especially Sandor’s. I know that the vague circumstances surrounding the deaths of both brothers are more intriguing and romantic the way they’re now, but I want to know. I don’t want to read the next book and get palpitations every time someone mentions the Quiet Isle, or the graveyard, if it doesn’t lead to something satisfyingly substantial, preferably extending over several chapters titled "A Certain Gravedigger."
Then I would like to find out what will happen to Sansa and how long it will take her to outsmart some vile Mockingbird, who has it coming.
As for the rest, I’ll take whatever the author throws at us, with total conviction that again I'll cry, laugh and curse aloud. I cannot wait!
And lastly, can the fandom expect more ASOIAF art from you in the future?
Yes, I have a few new ideas in store. There are also a couple of projects to finish, some based on cooperation with other fans, which is always a blast. And several commissions waiting for their turn . . . Martin’s prose still keeps me under its spell, hopefully no leeches were burned during its casting.
Thank you for talking to us, Bubug! You can see more of her art at: