Today, I want to share with you guys a really special interview for me. Back in 2006, shortly before Brandon published in Spain and before I discovered him. I had a personal blog and spent a lot of time playing something called MUD and World of Warcraft. I’ve always been fascinated by illustrations for fantasy and science fiction works, and my blog had a space dedicated to listing my favorite artists. I had two separate lists: one for established artists, and one for younger artists who I thought showed great promise. One of the artists on my second list was someone called “Breathing2004”, who I discovered thanks to a Blizzard fanart contest. He was an impressive artist, and I was in love with his art from the first fanart I saw.
It’s a small world, and 14 years later, Jian Guo did the covers for the Chinese editions of Brandon Sanderson’s books (among other popular authors) and now he’s working with Dragonsteel on the tenth anniversary editions.
Top left: Elantris Chinese cover, by Jian Guo. Top right: The Emperor's Soul Chinese cover, by Jian Guo. Bottom: The Way of Kings Chinese cover, by Jian Guo.
Just like we all enjoyed the illustrations he did for the capital letters at the start of each Warbreaker chapter last year, this year we get to see his interpretation of the chapter arches in each chapter of the 10th anniversary edition of The Way of Kings which is funded by a Kickstarter. [Editor's note: the Kickstarter ends Friday! -Eric] Big thanks to Isaac Stewart who gave us the chapter arches images from the Prologue which you can see below when we talk more about Jian Guo’s work with Dragonsteel.
We want to give a special thanks to Javier Altayó. This interview would not be possible without the help of this marvelous translator. Altayó was born in 1978 in Sabadell and received his degree in Mandarin translation from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He also studied Chinese language and culture at the University of Peking (Beijing, China) and has lived in Taipei, Taiwan for more than a decade where he works as a teacher and a translator. We want to thank him again, from the bottom of our hearts, for making this interview possible.
If you like science fiction, you’ll surely know his work (though you might not have noticed) because he translated the majority of Cixin Liu’s work to Spanish for Nova including The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest, Ball Lightning, and The Wandering Earth, and we can’t wait for his next translation of The Supernova Era which comes out October 15th.
We also want to send a heartfelt thank you to Jian Guo for not only giving us his time, but also sharing with us some exclusive sketches that you can enjoy while reading along.
Now, please join me in getting to know Jian Guo. I hope you’re left as fascinated by his art as we have been! You’ll discover his art ranges from the faceted style that resembles stained glass to art inspired by contemporary painters such as Picasso. If you like his work, please make sure to check out his DeviantArt and ArtStation accounts, because they’re impressive.
Celestial Palace, by Jian Guo
Interview with Jian Guo, artist for the 19th anniversary editions of Warbreaker and The Way of Kings
Translated into Spanish by Xavier Altayó. Translated to English by Bea.
To start, I wanted to say thank you for giving us your time. I’ve been in love with your work since 2006 or 2007 when I found you in the World of Warcraft forums. I had a blog (which I still have) where I put my favorite professional illustrators and promising artists. You were among the promising artists, and it’s an honor to have the opportunity to interview you, not only because of your work for the Chinese covers of Sanderson’s books, but because of what your art means to me.
Even though we don’t know Madarin, Sasori and I have several Chinese editions of Sanderson’s books at home just to admire the covers. Of the ones we have, I have to say Elantris, Warbreaker, and The Way of Kings are our favorites. Botanica Xu signed our copy of Elantris and also sent us one of your autographs because they knew how much we liked your art!
Ysondra’s collection of Chinese books! From left to right, Chinese editions illustrated by Jian Guo: The Way of Kings, Warbreaker, Elantris, The Emperor’s Soul, and Infinity Blade
Cosmere.es: Before we came to know you as Jian Guo, many of us knew you as Breathing2004, but we didn’t know much else about you. Could you tell us a little about yourself? Where did you get the nickname Breathing2004?
In 2004 I was trying to upload things to a website called GFXartist and I realized I didn’t have a username. My intention with my paintings is that looking at them is as easy as breathing, so from there I took “Breathing” and since I had to use letters and numbers, I ended up calling myself “Breathing2004.”
Cosmere.es: The first illustration of yours I saw was a fanart for World of Warcraft in 2006 or 2007. This, along with the rest of your portfolio, makes me ask: what influence have video games, fantasy literature, and science fiction had on you? What are your favorite books and video games?
I guess my first contact with quality science fiction was through a Chinese magazine called Science Fiction World. Video games came later, when I had a computer. I think my first online video game had to be World of Warcraft. I loved it from the first moment and even still, it holds a special place with me. Because I loved it, I would do art related to it from time to time. I didn’t know this was called fanart until later. As for science fiction, I like Asimov novels (for example The Caves of Steel, The Last Question), Tales of Earthsea by Ursula K. Leguin, and the Dark Elf Trilogy by R. A. Salvatore; as for video games, I have a weakness for the games by Black Isle Studios and Blizzard.
Sci-Fi World Magazine covers, by Jian Guo. From left to right: ABdiel, Hercules, Pegasus, The Fallen Angel.
Cosmere.es: When would you say your career started? When you started doing fanart for World of Warcraft? Or were you known before then?
I’ve liked to draw since I was a kid. At the beginning I was limited to coloring or coping, of course. I didn’t start learning digital drawing until I graduated university and started to work. I bought my first Wacom drawing tablet with my paycheck and started taking my first steps following tutorials in magazines. The first place I uploaded work to was a Chinese website called huoshen.com. Later, I went to foreign sites like “cgtalk” or “gfxartist”. At the time, everything I did was original work. I didn’t start with fan art until I became a fan of World of Warcraft.
The story of Pandaria, Emperor Shaohao, by Jian Guo
Cosmere.es: Could you tell us about your creative process from the inspiration to the sketches to sitting down to start working and finally the finished product?
At first I conceived and matured all my drawings in my mind before I sat at my computer. I didn’t take any time in between. So basically, I did it all in a row which left the concept and composition of the work very simplistic. Over time, I developed a habit of sketching on the computer and drawing in layers. The commercial commissions I’ve taken in the last few years have been especially helpful with integrating my own ideas into what the commissioner has requested in their reference material or textual descriptions.
Oni Tensei, by Jian Guo
Cosmere.es: How would you describe your style’s evolution? How did you start making these spectacular illustrations that look like stained glass?
When I first started digital illustration, I set out to imitate the expressive techniques popular at the time: thick, realistic strokes. Later, when I found myself stuck, I I took advantage of my studies in university and my previous work experience in architectural design which had centered on flat, geometric shapes. I tried to use the techniques I already knew to evolve my style. At the same time, I looked for inspiration in the polychrome stained glass common in European churches, in art nouveau, in art deco, and in the ornamental motifs from traditional Chinese painting so bit by bit I could find a direction that, combined with the requirements of narrative expression, led me to my current style.
Some work inspired by Tolkien, by Jian Guo
Cosmere.es: How did you come into contact with Brandon Sanderson’s work? Do you have a favorite?
The publisher of The Way of Kings offered me the chance to draw its cover while they were working on its publication. At the time, I had done very few covers. It all went really fast: I didn’t have time to read the whole text and I had to get an idea from the key fragments they gave me. But by the end, it didn’t seem to be a bad method. This was my first contact with Sanderson’s work. After I received a copy of the book and sat down to read the whole novel, I was completely fascinated. In the following years, they translated several more of his books and I did the covers of some of them. My favorites are The Emperor’s Soul and Warbreaker. The former I like because of its Asian influence and due its cute and strong protagonist. The latter captivated me with its chromatic magic and the contrast of the two main protagonists. It’s also very well written.
Jian Guo work in the Tenth Anniversary leatherbound for The Way of Kings. Image from Dragonsteel Entertainment. Left to right: Chapter arch, Chinese Way of Kings cover which will be in the gallery of artists, and a second chapter arch.
Image credit: Dragonsteel. Prologue chapter arch for The Way of Kings leatherbound. Final design may be different and is subject to change.
Knights Radiant Poster by Jian Guo. Progress shot is to the left, final is to the right. You can buy this poster here. It's pretty great!
Infinity Blade cover, by Jian Guo. Left is the progress shot, the right is the final version.
Cosmere.es: We are in love with the covers you’ve done, not just for the Cosmere, but also for Infinity Blade. But, the work you’ve done for the 10th anniversary edition of Warbreaker with the capital letters is impressive. How was working with Isaac Stewart and the Dragonsteel team?
I’m very grateful to Sanderson and Isaac for entrusting me with the design of several important motifs. Isaac in particular is extremely patient and also very precise in asking for what he wants. He’s there to guide me during each commission so by the end of the piece, the final product is the fruit of our joint effort. He’s been a huge help.
Jian Guo's Warbreaker cover. Left is a progress shot, right is the final version.
Drop cap for E for the Warbreaker leatherbound, by Jian Guo. Different letters appear at the beginning of each chapter. by Jian Guo. Left is an in-progress shot, the right is the final.
Cosmere.es: What is the situation with fantasy and science fiction literature in China? Are they heavily edited genres? How many people read them? Are they considered part of the general literature? How are they received by the public?
They published a ton of science fiction and fantasy books at the beginning of the year from both Chinese and foreign authors. Any book related to big cinematic releases or that has received an important award in the specialized worlds for literature also makes its way here. Since the success of Cixin Liu’s Three Body Problem Trilogy translation on the global level, various other Chinese works have been translated and met success on the international market. In regards to the Chinese market, despite the limitation of prices and the lack of robust alternatives, I can’t say reading physical books is very popular. Instead, excellent fantasy titles are accessed through online reading platforms or other internet platforms. They often gain public recognition and then are adapted to series, movies, or games. Specific Chinese sub-genres have also emerged: xiuxian stories (stories where the hero trains to reach immortality) chuanyue stories (stories where the hero suddenly finds themself transported to another time or world), and zhongtian stories (stories about everyday agricultural life or farmers) all of which are interesting. Fantasy and science fiction have slowly been gaining ground and have become important genres however fantasy is seen as more serious and science fiction is considered pure escapism and is popular with young people.
The Three Body Problem cover by Jian Guo
Cosmere.es: Which other authors, Chinese or worldwide, would you like to work with?
Of the forgein works that get to China, the majority of them are from authors who write in English, but I’d like to work with writers from all over the world. I don’t want to limit myself to English language authors. I want to draw beautiful and interesting covers and illustrations for authors who write in whichever language. But, to do that, you have to recognize the huge amount of work for translators, who open the door to these opportunities to see other worlds of fantasy.
Arthur C. Clarke covers by Jian Guo
Cosmere.es: We’re getting more and more books from Chinese, or Chinese-origin people in Europe and the US, which has been cool because reading books from diverse sources gives us an enriching point of view. We’ve seen your illustrations inspired by Cixin Liu’s work. Will you do the official covers for his new novels?
Cixin Liu’s work usually has several editions in China. I would love to have the opportunity to illustrate one of his magnificent books. And I would also, humbly, like to enrich the works of other excellent writers as much as I can.
Cosmere.es: Which other Chinese authors who are unknown in the West do you suggest?
I usually read forgein literature, but not too long ago I read Tales of Tarsylia by Wu Miao and Sishige, the new compilation of stories by Qitongren, both of which I liked a lot. For about a year I’ve followed the podcast series Desert Wolf by Kennedy Xu, Lord of the Mysteries by Yuan Ye, and the series Ghost Blows out the Light by Zhang Muye. And all of Liu’s work is amazing, without having to say.
Cosmere.es: Thank you so much for your time and sharing your impressions with us. We sincerely hope to continue enjoying your art and that you continue to give life to the Cosmere. Aside from everything we’ve said and before we say goodbye, is there anything else you’d like to mention?
I wish to continue having the chance to contribute my particular style of illustration to more amazing work and to thereby bring the cultures of the East and West closer together by portraying the beauty of the world. Sanderson’s work is outstanding, as we all know, so I look forward to working with him in the future.
That’s been our interview with Jian Guo! We hope you all have enjoyed it. I have to say it was a challenge to decide which images to include between the hundreds he’s published in his galleries over the years. Even though we couldn’t include more, he’s done a lot more covers for other writers and other, beautiful original work which you can see on his DeviantArt (don’t miss it! You’ll love it!) where he’s the most active.
Having the chance to talk with Jian Guo after so many years as a fan of his art, thanks to the generosity of Javier Altayó, has been a little dream come true. So, if you liked this interview, don’t forget to say thank you to him for making this all possible. Thank you, Xavier, we love you!
And thank you Cosmere.es and Ysondra for letting us post this in English, and Bea for translating! -Eric
Edited by Chaos