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Interview with Isaac Stewart ()
#1 Copy

Trevor Green

I know some of us have heard the story of how you came up with the symbols for Mistborn, but tell those of us who haven't how they came about.

Isaac Stewart

I'd drawn about a half dozen pages of symbols inspired by my first reading of the book. Pages with dozens and dozens of tiny, intricate symbols—maybe someday I'll write a post about the process: Failed Allomantic Symbol Designs. But nothing was really working for me or Brandon.

I'd collected a lot of reference material for the steel inquisitors—nails, railroad spikes, those sorts of things—and one day when I was looking at a picture of a rusty pile of bent up nails, I saw the symbol for iron. It was a Beautiful Mind experience. The symbol just jumped out at me. Glowing and everything.

After that initial experience with the symbol for iron, it was easy to come up with the others. The bent nail part eventually became the crescent shapes used in the final book.

Ben McSweeney AMA ()
#2 Copy


One of the drawings in The Rithmatist contains a spoiler for the chapter that follows. How do you all normally ensure that doesn't happen? Do you read the whole book or is it more of relying on the art request telling you what to avoid?

Ben McSweeney

That's something that falls at the feet of editing and layout, at the publisher. I produce illustrations to spec, but I don't get a lot of input on where they're ultimately placed on the page or in the book.

That being said, someone really should have caught that. [Peter], do you know if this is something that was fixed in later editions.

Peter Ahlstorm

The illustrations are all the way Brandon designed them. Some of them contain information that comes up in the text of that chapter.

Ben McSweeney

That's about as definitive an answer as an answer can be. :)

Ben McSweeney AMA ()
#3 Copy


How does the process work?

Does he give you his ideas, have you draw something up and get back to him when you're finished, or do you both work on it together (like in the same room, with him watching you draw.)

How many rough drafts and back and forths do you usually go through with a particular piece of work before it's called complete.

Ben McSweeney

Usually I get a rough draft of the novel, which lets me start looking for seeds (here is a neat thing) and direct subjects (here is a neat thing that Shallan is specifically described as drawing), and from that we build a list for what we'll actually produce.

Unfortunately, geography prevents me from working in the same room with Brandon very often, but we live in the age of email and Skype so it's mostly just an inconvenience that we work around. Generally what I'll do is start drafting rough sketches, submit them for feedback, and begin a cycle where we spitball ideas and work back and forth until the subject's design is settled. Then I lay out the actual Shallan page itself, putting the subject into place and deciding what else we can include. Once the page layout is approved, I'll render the final illustration.

During the entire process I'm in a regular email loop with Brandon, Peter and Isaac. We make loooong email threads. Some designs take many iterations before we get it right (the axehound was particularly difficult), some designs are nailed down almost instantly (Brandon and I got on the same page with Shardplate pretty early). There's no way to predict how it will go until it gets going.

Ben McSweeney AMA ()
#5 Copy


I just finished reading the 10th anniversary edition of Elantris. I'm... still a LITTLE fuzzy on how the Chasm Line looks, added to the city. Is there any chance you might post a picture of Rao with the chasm line added?

Ben McSweeney

I wish I could, but Elantris artwork is all Isaac's space. I haven't read the 10-year edition yet, but I was hearing it had all-new maps... they're not clearing it up? I'll have to take a look and see what you're seeing.

Interview with Isaac Stewart ()
#6 Copy

Trevor Green

You've been involved with some pretty big projects over the last few years. Tell us what it's been like working on the art for novels such as the Mistborn trilogy and The Way of Kings.

Isaac Stewart

Writing, art, and book publishing have always been my biggest interests, so working on these great books has been very fulfilling.

I get the manuscript early on in the process, print it out, and go through the whole thing with a pencil, marking it up with notes about artistic details and tiny maps marking places in relationship to each other. Then comes my favorite part of the process: working with Brandon and his assistant Peter to make sure that my vision melds with Brandon's vision for the book. We usually do a lot of revisions and emails to get to the point where we're all happy with the results. I cannot say enough good about Brandon and Peter; they are both gentlemen to the core.

Ben McSweeney AMA ()
#7 Copy


I loved the illustrations in WoR, and the broadsheet in Shadows of Self.

I'm wondering if it's possible to put more art in the books in the future. Are there limits in terms of printing costs to putting more art in things like the Stormlight books? Do you guys think the amount of art you have in the books now is perfect?

Something like an image for every chapter seems like it would be wonderful in my opinion. For example, a picture of how the bridges were held/carried during the first scene involving them in WoK (because I found that confusing).

Ben McSweeney

We actually did bump up the number of illustrations between book I and book II, but as you may know we also ran right up against the actual page-count maximum in Words of Radiance. The printer literally could not manufacture a book with more pages, we maxed 'em out.

We're never going to cut Brandon's text in favor of the art, 'cause we're not crazy, but we want to put as much in there as we can. We're probably not going to reach the point of an illustration for every chapter, but I don't think we'll be cutting back soon either.

Oathbringer London signing ()
#8 Copy

Overlord Jebus [PENDING REVIEW]

This map,

*Hands Brandon the Part Four Sea of Lost Lights Map*

How much of a hand did you have in this map or did you kind of let Isaac go crazy?

Brandon Sanderson [PENDING REVIEW]

So this one is half and half, I went to Isaac and said put this and this and this and then he added some craziness. One of Isaac's voices in the cosmere is Nazh and almost everything that is written by Nazh is Isaac and he named a bunch of this stuff, he ran it all by me. I actually vetoed a few. He came up with some, I'm like "Ehh" and then I renamed them to things that actually fit.

Overlord Jebus [PENDING REVIEW]

Okay, why is spren fishing banned here, is that you or Isaac?

Brandon Sanderson [PENDING REVIEW]

That was Isaac...

Ben McSweeney AMA ()
#9 Copy


What's your average schedule while you are working on a novel?

Ben McSweeney

I usually get an early draft right alongside Isaac and Peter, which allows me to start thinking and thumbnailing and asking all Brandon all sorts of annoying detail-questions as much as a year before publishing. But the real, down-n-dirty work-work of producing the final art usually takes place in the last 3-6 months before delivery.

Ben McSweeney AMA ()
#10 Copy


Do you think it ruins some of the mystique to include Shallan's sketches in the novels since her skill level is not left up to the imagination? It's kind of like the recently announced Kingkiller television show that's being developed. No matter how good of a musician they get to represent Kvothe, they will never match the skill level that I imagine him having from reading the books. Do you get what I'm trying to say?

Ben McSweeney

I totally get what you're saying.

The meta-function of Shallan's pages are to help illustrate the more alien aspects of the world around her... we focus largely on the wildlife and fauna of Roshar, with the occasional diversion into something like Shardplate. The idea is to supplement the descriptions, not to supplant them. We try to avoid illustrating characters (even though Shallan often draws portraits) in order to leave them to reader's imagination as much as possible... it's the only perfect tool for interpretation.

Unfortunately, the more popular something becomes, the greater the demand rises for visual interpretations. As such, I think it's much better to have a dedicated team directly working with the author on the subject. Because the alternative is the standard, in which artists will interpret the work at the direction of a third party (usually an Editor or Art Director), without direct, unfiltered authorial input... and possibly without even reading the book itself. I may not match Shallan's skills, but I know that I'm matching what Brandon wants to see, to the best of my ability.

Warbreaker Annotations ()
#11 Copy

Brandon Sanderson


The map for this book was done by the awesome Shawn Boyles.

For this book, I wanted something with an illustrated feel to it. The Mistborn maps were supposed to look realistic and gritty—like maps from London during the nineteenth century. I wanted twisting, cramped streets and a sense of overcrowding.

For Warbreaker I wanted a very different feel. I wanted a picture that looked hand drawn, something a little exaggerated and intentionally less accurate. Like a picture you might see hanging on someone's wall, vaguely showing the size, shape, and relative locations of important things in the city.

I picked Shawn because of his style. He has a very colorful, very round and smooth style, and I thought that would translate very well to a map of the city. Ironically, the first map he gave me looked very detailed and intricate, much like the Mistborn maps. He was trying way too hard, I feel—imitating the style of the previous books.

I asked him for something that was more natural to his style, something that was a profile view rather than an overhead view and had stylized houses. The second draft came back nearly perfect; I was very excited. The only problem with that one was that it wasn't big enough. (It was about half the size of the final product and didn't have the upper portion of the map where the city curves around the bay.)

One more draft, however, and we were finished. He did the artwork by hand on a large piece of cardstock, then scanned it and filled in details on the computer. I love the finished product. I wish we could have done colored end pages using it.

Ben McSweeney AMA ()
#12 Copy


I could never tell, and I've got nothing better to ask, so: which drawings from the Stormlight books were you responsible for? Just the "Shallan's Sketchbook" ones, and nothing else?

Brandon Sanderson

All of Shallan's pages, and a few of the chapter icons in WoR. And I assisted Michael on the Shallan endpage illustration, although the final painting is all him.

Mostly what I do is help conceptualize animals and plants, and to a lesser degree Plate and Blade designs.

Ben McSweeney AMA ()
#14 Copy


Which of your illustrations would you say was the most enjoyable to create?

Ben McSweeney

Shardplate and Blades, hands down. It was also kinda the easiest, because I'd been doodling different types of Plate since the first pitch to Tor back in 2008. Brandon basically gave me a big ol' present with that one. :)

Discounting that, probably the Chasmfiend, just because it was one of those designs that was awful and failing and then suddenly I figured out a solution, and ultimately I loved the results. That nosedive is the worst on the way down, but man it feels good when you pull out of it.


Chasmfiends are some of the most badass and terrifying creatures in fantasy, I think. So in that regard, you did an amazing job! Whitespines are pretty awesome too.

Ben McSweeney

Thank you! The whitespine design was particularly challenging, we almost went with a different creature up until just a few weeks before the deadline, when I scrapped it and redrew it all again. It really was a bad design, anatomically, and while I could have let it pass I would have hated it forever. The end result isn't perfect, but it's much better.

I think there's a blog post about it on Brandon's website, somewhere. Isaac did a whole interview with me, including pictures of the previous designs.


Interesting story! Thanks for replying. I can't wait to see what you have next for Stormlight Archive! And great job on Shadows of Self too, I just finished it yesterday. I love the dude's super long and pointy mustache.

Ben McSweeney

Haha, I think Isaac came up with the description of the moustache, so he deserves much of the credit. They are dangerous-looking, aren't they?

Interview with Isaac Stewart ()
#15 Copy

Trevor Green

On a similar note, The Way of Kings has a lot of symbols associated with different aspects of the book. Were you involved with creating those, and if so, how did you design them?

Isaac Stewart

I created forty-plus symbols for The Way of Kings. Many of these are found in the color charts in the hardcover version of the book (link here). My absolute favorites are used at the beginning of each Part (one of them is debossed on the book's hardcase beneath the dust jacket). I used Arabic word art and the shard blades as inspiration for these. Many of the originals were drawn on an iPod Touch and later brought into Photoshop for clean up.

Daily Dragon interview ()
#17 Copy

Daily Dragon

Shallan's sketches in The Way of Kings are terrific additions that enhance the epic feel of the novel. What inspired you to push for these illustrations?

Brandon Sanderson

I wanted to use the form of this novel to try and enhance what epic fantasy can do, and downplay the things that are tough about it. One of the tough things about epic fantasy is the learning curve—how much you have to learn and pay attention to, how many things there are to just know. I felt that occasional illustrations could really help with that. For instance, how Shallan's sketchbook, or uses of multiple maps, could give us a visual component to the book. Pictures really are worth a thousand words. You can have on that page something that shows a creature much better than I can describe it. And so I felt that that would help deemphasize the problem of the learning curve, while at the same time helping to make this world real. Epic fantasy is about immersion, and I wanted to make this world real since that's one of the great things we can do with epic fantasy. We've got the space and the room to just build a completely real world, and I felt that the art would allow me to do that, which is why I decided to do "in world" art.

I didn't want to take this toward a graphic novel. I like graphic novels, but it wasn't appropriate here to do illustrations of the scenes and characters from the books because I don't want to tell you what they look like. I want that to be up to your own imagination. And so we wanted that in-world ephemera feel to it, as though it were some piece of art that you found in the world and included.

I think it goes back to Tolkien. There's a map in The Hobbit, and that map isn't just a random map, which has become almost a cliché of fantasy books and of epic fantasy. "Oh, of course there's a random map in the front!" Well, Tolkien wanted you to think this map was the actual map the characters carried around, and that's why he included it. He wrote his books as if he were the archivist putting them together and translating them and bringing them to you, this wonderful story from another world, and he included the map because the map was there with the notes. That's what I wanted the feel for this ephemera to be. As though whoever has put this book together—done the translation and included pieces of art and maps and things that they found in the world that had been collected during these events—that's what you're getting.

Arcanum Unbounded Seattle signing ()
#18 Copy


What was your design process for designing all of the star systems for each of the worlds?

Brandon Sanderson

I am lucky enough to have on staff one of my good friends, Isaac. He actually introduced me to my wife. He sent me on a blind date with Emily. He was one of my students, my second year teaching the class. He's a really good friend. At the time, he was an illustrator for a video game company who was just interested in fantasy books. And he saw that there was a class at BYU and he was like, "I'm gonna take that."

He now works for me full-time. Though, fun story on this. You know how some people joke that in their marriage there's one person they could cheat with, like a celebrity? When I hired Isaac, he was like, "I will come and do things for you full time. But if Tad Williams ever asks me, I'm doing something for Tad Williams," his favorite book series. This summer, Tad Williams needed a map for the new Osten Ard books. Isaac is like, "So, I do maps for Sanderson." He's like, "Sure, do one for me. Great!" So Isaac's been working on that and it has been a dream come true for him.

Isaac and I, we sit down and we do brainstorming sessions for the art. He's done almost all of the symbols and maps in my books, except the ones that he commissions someone else to do because he wanted to get a different style for it or the first book, Elantris, I did the symbols. That's why the Elantris symbols are not quite as visually interesting as some of Isaac's. They fit the world but I drew those and my artistic chops are... So Isaac and I sit down, we brainstorm and we say, "What do we want this to look like? What's the feel of it?" So I'll outline what the planets and the world are and then he will bring up historical- like he went and got Renaissance star charts and said, "Do any of these work? What do you like?" We kind of narrowed it down to ones that have the right feel but I said, "I want it more like this, more like this." He took that and ran with it and gave me iterations. He's like, "Here's four different versions of a map for Scadrial. Which one do you like?" And then I'll give him that and he'll then do four iterations on that, saying, "Here are different designs of this. Which one of these do you like?" Anyone who's an artist knows that illustrators, that's what they do. So we come up with it and then I say, "This style, go," and then he does all the maps.

Firefight Chicago signing ()
#20 Copy


I'm a graphic designer and I want to know how you visually communicate-- You have such great visuals in your books...

Brandon Sanderson

Lots of practice. It really is just practice.


Do you draw them all? Or do you just tell someone what you need.

Brandon Sanderson

So I have artists. I commission concept art for my descriptions and then... That doesn't always end up in the book. In fact usually it doesn't. For the things that end up in the book I'll often do like a quick sketch and say "make this awesome" or I'll do a paragraph or two of description.

Words of Radiance Omaha signing ()
#21 Copy


Do you get to work with illustrators?

Brandon Sanderson

I do.  In fact, the interior artists I hire myself, just to make sure that they look the way I want them to. The cover illustrator, normally author's don't have much control over that.  I'm kind of a special case, and so I've been able to pick my cover illustrator for the last few books, and so I have a lot of influence over these sorts of things.  It's not standard.  I think the artistic design of these books is very important.  

Ben McSweeney AMA ()
#22 Copy


I'm currently working on a novel myself. I'm having some issues visualizing the characters I can write descriptions all day long. How often does an author come to you and give you a relatively vague description of what they are seeking, is there an extra cost for dreaming that stuff up?

Ben McSweeney

Well, generally speaking there's always going to be a cost if you're commissioning someone to illustrate your descriptions. Before you go to the expense, one suggestion I might put forward is to cast a few actors in the roles. Don't tell anyone who you choose, but if there's someone out there who would perfectly fit the role, cast them in your notes and then use Google Image and IMDB to collect reference and let that lead you. Also, don't overdo the descriptions when you do get down to the actual words-on-the-page... Pick a few notable features, be consistent, and allow the rest to be inferred.

Brandon is actually not very interested in portraiture for the published art in the novels... you may notice that we very rarely show anyone's full face in our illustrations. Part of this is because Brandon doesn't want to force the reader into imagining the characters looking just one way... the image you create in your mind when you read a description is yours, it's the part of your reading experience that you create and it should be as valid as anyone's.

That being said, I got to help Michael with Shallan's portrait in the Words endpages, and that was great fun for me as well as leading to a better, more accurate Shallan.

Ben McSweeney AMA ()
#23 Copy


Do you think illustrations in books are going to become more common in the future? Sanderson seems to be enjoying exploring the idea of using them as part of his writing process and as another way for the reader to interact with the work (particularly with Elantris and Rithmatist).

Ben McSweeney

Gosh, I sure hope so. I'm a huge fan of illustration, and I think when it's done well that it really adds value.

I just picked up the George Martin collection of his Hedge Knight shorts, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, which has 160 beautiful pen illustrations by Gary Gianni. And I love the huge, hardbound Kaluta-illustrated of A Princess of Mars that came out last year.

Beyond that, I'm a huge fan of what Brandon's been doing with specifically illustrating in-world documents. We don't really do "scene illustrations" in Stormlight, and we only do spot illustrations in terms of the chapter icons. Some of those are more contextually descriptive, like Lift's pile of food (which is doing double-duty by being both thematic of her power and hinting a little at Rosharan food typs. Lots of gourds, shelled meats, berries and seed-breads) or the straightforward picture of Adolin's Plate, but for the most part we're pretty careful about making every illustration also serve as an artifact.

A page of Shallan's represents a page in her collection. A map of a location is a map on someone's table. An image of Alethi fashions is part of a regular delivery of correspondence that Adolin recieves because that's how damn rich he is.

Not every book would benefit from that sort of supporting content, but some might. I'm reading Jim Butcher's magical airship adventure The Aeronaut's Windlass and enjoying it, but I could really go for a series of illustrations on just how these ships are meant to look. He gives a pretty good description of one of the main vessels... 190-some pages into the novel, after a couple action scenes involving that ship, and I'm still kinda unsure of what the other ships look like.

Lastly, given that there's plenty of precedent for books that are well-suited to be adapted for other media, it's not a bad idea to establish aspects of the property as the author intends while he's still got some input. Once it gets licensed, that opportunity is often reduced or lost.

Ben McSweeney AMA ()
#24 Copy


I got my wife hooked on Sanderson's works recently, especially the Stormlight novels. She absolutely loves Shallan as a character and fell deeper in love with her when she saw your illustration of her... which is now saved as her current desktop wallpaper. So kudos there!

My question to you is this: how much reading into the novels do you do before coming up with an idea of a setting or character to paint? What is your process when deciding the best scene to depict?

Ben McSweeney

The Shallan endpage is mostly Michael Whelan, I assisted some in the layout and design but he's responsible for the finished painting.

I read the full text of the novel while it's still in the draft stages, which is a rare privilege and part of what makes our production a little different than usual. When deciding what subjects to choose for Shallan's pages, I first look for seed that Brandon plants in the text, usually moments where Shallan specifically mentions drawing something. Or I look for subjects that are suitable for her to draw and which she's reasonably likely to see (and have time for) during her travels. Based on that and the conversations I have with Brandon and Isaac, we come up with a list of 6-8 subjects which we then develop further.

Even though Shallan does draw portraits of people, we avoid trying to reproduce those so as to not define the features of various characters too strictly. Instead we focus on plants and animals and hints of the world around her.

Ben McSweeney AMA ()
#25 Copy


How much input does the author have into the illustration?

Do you read his work then draw and show it to him? Do you sometimes draw something and he incorporates it in the novel?

Ben McSweeney

Brandon actually has direct input into the illustrations we do, especially those for Stormlight.

For the most part, I get an early (often partial) draft about the same time as Peter and Isaac. On occasion, something I draw gets incorporated into the text, either as a later edit or even in another part of the book. That's always awesome for me, but it's really rare and only we know when that happens.