I was very excited to get an opportunity to have an interview with artist Paul Bielaczyc. Paul is well-known within the fandom for his Rand al'Thor cosplay, and as the co-directors of the JordanCon Art Show. He's an amazingly talented artist, in many mediums, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of his Wheel of Time artwork at JordanCon next year!
Q: Let's start with your artwork in general. How long have you considered yourself an artist?
A: I have been drawing and sketching for as long as I can remember, probably before I even started kindergarten. My mom used to enter us in all the coloring contests at local restaurants and stores. I still remember winning a gift certificate from Wal-Mart when I was 5 or so, which I used it to get a Stomper truck. I took quite a few art classes in high school, but never focused on it, as I was preoccupied with AP classes that would lead to scholarships for college. I even applied to the TN Governor's School for the Arts one summer and didn't get accepted, so I just didn't feel like I was an artist.
The first moment that I think it sunk in that I was an artist was the summer after high school. I was on summer vacation with my family, and my brother, Michael, whom I co-own Aradani Studios with, was showing his portfolio to my uncles. I remember thinking that I wish I could draw like he could. I pulled out a sketch book and played around with a charcoal pencil, trying to draw characters from a fantasy book I was reading. It looked awful. Charcoal is a very soft medium, so the tip of the pencil gets dull very, very fast. So the lines were very thick, and when you are trying to draw a figure that is maybe 6 inches tall, it just didn't work.
I pulled out my .5mm mechincal pencil, and started again. I was drawing a scene from The Scions of Shannara by Terry Brooks. It was the first time I had read such an expansive series, I think there was 9 books out at the time I was working on it. Well during the course of a week on vacation, I spent about 24 hours total, working on a single piece of art. I was drawing at night, next to the pool at a friend's house, pretty much all the time. I had never done that before. And when I finished, I finally felt, I am good at this. It was then that I realized that, for me, to truly make a memorable piece of art, it just took time.
Q: Your style tends to look amazing in black and white. Are you drawn more to that than color?
A: It isn't that I am necessarily drawn to black and white, it just sorta happened. In college I took a few drawing classes, and a few of the assignments were in charcoal (back to charcoal!). As I completed these assignments, I learned some techniques that solved some of the problems I had mentioned previously.
When I graduated college, I figured that I had to learn how to oil paint, since most fantasy artists paint in oils. However, the first piece that I worked on was Nightmare. Again, it was one of those times where I truly sat down and dedicated time to a piece. I have no idea how much time I spent on planning and taking photo references, but I know that the actual time spent drawing the finished piece was between 60 and 80 hours. When my brother came to my house when I was about 80% complete, I remember him just blinking, and saying, wow. He was utterly impressed with something I had made, and it made me think of the summer when I have been thinking the same thing about his art.
The first show that we did after I finished Nightmare was Chattacon in 2005. I ended up winning 2 art awards at the Con, and had a list of people that were upset that I hadn't made prints of that piece. And that was the moment when I decided I didn't need to be an oil painter. If I could work in my favorite medium, win awards, and sell prints of my work, then I just wanted to become the best charcoal artist that I could be.
Sometimes I have needed to work in color, and when I do, I use soft pastels. I had an amazing opportunity to apprentice with a master pastel artist in Kirby, Wyoming one summer, and I learned quite a bit in those 10 days while out there. Soft pastels work similar to charcoal so it wasn't a huge learning curve, but I still prefer to use charcoal when I can.
Q: Beside Wheel of Time, what other fandoms are you inspired by?
A: Over the years I have done a variety of costumes, mostly inspired by movies and video games that I really enjoy. The Legend of Zelda is probably one of the biggest influences. It was one of the first video games I ever owned, and I have pretty much owned each entry in the series. I am still purchasing them today in fact. It was my first real cosplay too. I hired a bunch of talented friends to help make it a reality, a seamstress since I can't sew, and an armorer to make my shield out of leather and wood.
Over the years I have also dressed up as the Ice King from Adventure Time, Ash from Army of Darkness, Jareth the Goblin King from Labyrinth. I have always wanted to make a Fiery costume from Labyrinth, but in order to make that, I would need to learn a lot of different skill sets in costuming that I currently don't have, and that mostly means I would need time, which is the one thing that I can't seem to find right now.
Q: Your artwork also encompasses cosplay. How did you get the idea of doing a ta'veren photo shoot, and how do you think it influenced the Wheel of Time fandom?
A: Years ago when I was finishing up my Master's degree at Vanderbilt, I decided to dress up as Rand al'Thor for Halloween. I think one person knew who I was. I was really into the books at that point, and thought it would be cool to draw the dragon tattoos on my arms.
At the time I didn't know the talented group of people that I do today, so most of the costume was found on eBay, or simple alterations to existing costumes and clothes that I found. But I finally got to use my Heron Mark blade for something other than hanging it on a wall.
Years later while selling my art at Dragon*Con, a man walked by the table dressed as an Aiel. When I complimented his cosplay, he bowed deeply, "Thank you, Car'a'carn." I looked at him confused. He then told me how he found my cosplay photos online, and that him and his friends all thought I was the perfect Rand, and said that they pictured me as they read the books. I was humbled. It was so cool to think that other people not only had seen my cosplay, but were that big of fans of such a simple costume. And I decided that was that, I should always dress as Rand al'Thor.
A few years later when Cliff Tunnell decided to do a photoshoot of his Matrim costume, he invited me down to Atlanta to be a part of it, along with John Strangeway as Perrin. When I heard that Dim Horizons would be taking the photos, I dropped everything to be a part of it. I had always loved their Bioshock photoshoot at the Atlanta Aquarium, and I wanted to be a part of something that memorable.
Honestly, I don't know how it has influenced the fandom. I know that Dragonmount and Tor put some of the shots up on their sites in the past, and I hope the fans thought we did a good job representing the characters. I was very excited when Brandon Sanderson signed my copy of A Memory of Light a few years back at JordanCon, he actually asked me, "Do I make this out to Paul, or to Rand?"
Q: In the past, your artwork has been featured on shirts from Ta'veren Tees. Are there plans to do more in the future?
A: I do have a few ideas in the works, both for new Ta'veren Tees designs as well as some personal pieces that are in a similar vein to "Padan Fain" and "The Last Battle." It is very difficult to put a fully rendered image on a shirt (and quite pricey), which is why my first few designs were all white silhouette imagery. I was trying to balance catching the iconic characters, but in a manner that was easier to reproduce on a shirt. I am not sure if I can discuss the future shirt designs, I am not sure if Ta'veren prefers them to be a surprise announcement, and there is the sadness to fans when you come up with a design that just doesn't get approved or end up working out.
Q: Your piece "The Creature That Had Once Been Padan Fain" will be in the Wheel of Time Companion. Since the image has already been shared with fans, can you tell us about it, how you captured one of the most evil villains in the series?
A: One of the first things that I do when I start on a new piece of art is go online. I find references for poses, faces, landscapes, clothing. And I use those as a jumping off point. It is hard to find the exact shot for figures, so I usually find something close to what I need, and then take photos myself for figures. But for backgrounds, it is helpful to be able to so easily find pictures of rivers, mountains, jungles, since most of those things don't exist in Nashville, Tennessee. Or at least don't exist like I want them to.
So the first thing that I did was to look at every single depiction of Padan Fain that had been done over the years. There were 3 that really jumped out at me. I was drawn to Seamus Gallagher's and Jeremy Saliba's renditions of his face and hair. I thought about what worked, and more importantly, what spoke to me, and included those aspects into my sketches.
I also was a big fan of the depiction of Fain in The Wheel of Time Roleplaying Game book. I liked the idea that he was wearing this fancy, lacy nobleman's coat, thinking of himself as more important than he really is. And I liked the idea of him not realizing that as he traveled all over the world, chasing after Rand and company, murdering Trollocs and Myrddraal, that his fine clothing would become more ragged and tattered, but he would still feel the same pretentiousness and arrogance, which in the end, lead to his demise... oops, spoilers.
From there it was all about taking good photo references. I posed for the picture myself, wearing my Asha'man style coat that I wore at my first JordanCon. I set a lamp on the floor underneath me to create some good under lighting, which usually makes anything look a little more off than it should otherwise. And then I had a friend take probably 100+ photos of me, subtly changing my pose for each shot. Once I have the photos that I need, I use a projector to transfer a simple line drawing to my canvas, and then begins the long process of working in charcoal and chalk to make the finished piece. So while a computer is involved for some of the early planning, my artwork is done traditionally, resulting in a single, unique one of a kind original at the end of the process. While I do wish sometimes that life had an undo button, or that I could work in layers, having that one of a kind at the end is well worth not having that undo button.
Q: Though you can't tell us specifics, can you hint about what other artwork you'll have in the Companion?
A: One of my other pieces in the Companion is The Last Battle, which was seen in an earlier, cropped version in the calendar for 2015. After the calendar was completed, Team Jordan approached me about including both pieces from the calendar into the Companion. In fact, I think Alan Romanczuk actually said, "Would you mind if we used these in the Companion?" Would I mind... it just made me laugh that he was asking permission. It is one of the reasons that I love working for Team Jordan. The freedom that I am granted to work within their universe is the opposite of most of my experiences working on illustration jobs. For most of my jobs, there are deadlines, forced changes, illustrating scenes that don't speak to you. But when working on The Wheel of Time art, I send an idea and a few sketches to Team Jordan, and they either say yes or no. So in the end, I choose what scenes to depict, and I feel that when an artist is granted that freedom, their heart can truly be felt in the finished product. At least for me it is.
Q: How long have you been reading The Wheel of Time Series?
A: I tried reading The Eye of the World in high school, and I got to what I call "the hump" and put it down. I feel that most people that start a new book series will read a few chapters to determine if it is worth the time investment to pick up such a monumental series of books. For me, that was the end of chapter 4. I got to the end of chapter 4, and just didn't feel that the book had spoken to me. A little while later during my freshman year of college, I saw the display at the school bookstore for The Path of Daggers which had just been released. A friend of mine said that he really loved the series, so I decided to pick it back up.
How was I to know that chapter 5 was the moment, the hook needed to catch me and never let go. So my journey with The Wheel of Time started in 1998, and I was with it for 15 years, waiting for each new book to be released, hoping that the character arcs that had me enthralled would come to a conclusion. I can't remember how many years I waited for Egwene to break free of her captivity, but when it finally happened in The Gathering Storm, I remember the chills, the goosebumps, and the tears in my eyes. It was a moment of frustration and joy. Frustration that it took so many years and so many books to happen, but joy that can't be felt when binge reading a series. If I hadn't had to wait so long, the emotional release would not have been as powerful.
Q: Who is your favorite character?
A: I always was a big fan of Rand, partly because I could cosplay as him. I remember as he started falling into darkness that I was a little sad because I was starting to not like him as a person. I didn't feel like I wanted to cosplay someone that I didn't respect or like. But then a few books later that was resolved and it was like a weight was lifted from my shoulders.
Q: Which character do you relate the most to?
A: I guess I would say Rand again, but I would like to stress that I don't talk to a voice in my head, or have a horrible, festering wound in my side, or three wives... I guess it is mostly because I have dressed as him for so long, that it really created a bond between what happened to him as I read the series.
I'd like to thank Paul for his time! To see more of Paul's artwork, you can check out his website!