Beauty and mystery: An interview with John Jude Palencar

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Artist and illustrator John Jude Palencar is known throughout the world for his distinctive ethereal style and conceptualization. For more than 20 years, he has received honours for his contributions to the field of illustration, including gold and silver medals from the Society of Illustrators, two gold book awards from Spectrum, and best hardcover and two best paperback awards from the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy artists for three consecutive years. Besides being an active artist and illustrator, he has served on the juries of several international art competitions.

A fan of his for many years, I finally had the honour to interview him recently, and learned about his work and processes.  

When did you recognise the art that you create was something you sought to turn into a career?

I would say I was a child with a behavioural problem, or certainly classed as one. A left-hander, the Catholic school I attended would force me to use my right hand.

They gave me various art projects to do. Art would calm the beast within.

Attending fifth grade at a public school, I won my first art award with a three-colour block print for the Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper calendar contest. I later went on to professionally illustrate for their Sunday Magazine while attending college.

I won various awards in high school and built my reputation from there. I worked for the American Greetings Card Company for a short time.  Eventually, a scholarship took me to Paris, France. My work appeared in a number of juried exhibitions by various art directors from the publishing industry in New York City – one client soon became two and so forth.

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Who inspires you as an artist? 

My high school Art teacher Frederick C. Graff and the American artist Andrew Wyeth.

Salvador Dali is another inspiration to me. He is the only artist to give me an art headache. I once saw a private collection of his work on an intimate level before it shipped to the Salvador Dali Art Museum in St. Petersburg Florida.

There are many artists, too many to mention that inspire me. Art with layers inspires me – not only physical paint layers, but layered conceptual meanings.

What is it about fantasy, principally dark fantasy, that influences your work?

As a child, I loved being scared and frightening other kids too. I would dress up as an alien with a homemade custom latex mask with huge eyes and a long robe. I would chase the neighbourhood girls until they wet their pants. I do feel terrible about that now.

The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Night Gallery television shows were a constant influence. The movie Jason and the Argonauts fascinated me. The stop-action animated fight scene with the skeletons…I mean come on, how do you kill a skeleton?

What is the process you go through when creating a piece? 

Albert Einstein once said, ‘The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.’

I like my work to be free. Of course, I do make rough sketches and drawings. I begin by drawing on the panel or canvas directly, and then start by laying in the paint.

My early training was in watercolour, so most of my approach in all mediums starts with transparent layers. I gradually build the form through layers and thousands of small strokes to achieve the final forms.

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I like my creations to be thought-provoking and not have a narrative. Creating mystery and questions are key elements in my work.

What kind of research do you like to do for your work?

I don’t like to read all that much, unless it’s scary. I don’t like flowery stuff.

The internet is a wonderful research tool. I remember having to go to the library to find out the most basic information on a subject. Now at the touch of a button you get almost too much information.

I like to photograph things and visit museums. I have a personal collection of skulls and articulated skeletons that serve as inspiration and reference for many paintings.

I pull additional inspiration from artists like DaVinci and Rembrandt. My tastes are eclectic and always expanding.

My favourite piece by you is Common Mind. I have my own interpretation of it but could you tell me about it?

Common Mind was commissioned by Amazing Stories magazine for a short story about mind control. The story is essentially about the dissolving of one’s identity, and giving up control to other malevolent forces.

You can see this through the fragmentation of the distressed faces that appear in the painting. All of the faces I created from my imagination.

It’s strange that one of the faces looks like my father that passed away many years before. It’s bitter sweet how things come out like that.

Your work has led to cover art for many authors, including Stephen King. King also has your work in his private collection. Have you met him?

I haven’t met Stephen King. He has three pieces of my work for the Dark Tower series, which were purchased by the publisher.

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An Art Director once sent me a manuscript and it had bloodstains on it. It turned out that the Art Director had stapled his hand while gathering stuff together to send. I originally thought a blood sacrifice was required for one of Mr King’s novels!

I did the poster solutions for one of Stephen’s movies as well. The movie was horrible – not because it was scary, but because it was so bad. It won’t be mentioned here!

Later on in my career, I agreed to do Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series. In the first novel, Eragon, he named chapter three after me Palancar Valley. He changed the e in my last name to a just in case I didn’t approve. I later found out that he was a fan of my work. Although colour blind, Christopher Paolini could really key into the limited colour approach I employ in my painting. He was as surprized that I was selected to work on the covers of his epic and hugely successful novels. You see neither of us knew, nor did the art director know about the chapter name and Christopher’s knowledge of my work.

John Jude Palencar and Christopher Paolini at Joseph-Beth bookseller store, Cleveland, OH
John Jude Palencar and Christopher Paolini at Joseph-Beth bookseller store, Cleveland, OH

What can we look forward to you working on next?

More book covers and I am beginning to develop more fine art for the gallery market. I am working on personal stuff at the minute. I like to work at night – it is peaceful and I am the master of my own world.

My studio is at the edge of very quiet woods. It’s quite scary here at night, don’t you know…

To see more of Palencar’s work, visit johnjudepalencar.com.

About PS Ferns

Author of the YA Fantasy series 'The Element Order' Choreographer and Artistic director of dance company 'The House of Cards' Artistic Director and Principle of Akademix dance company and academy

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