Ben McSweeney AMA

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Name Ben McSweeney AMA
Date Oct. 6, 2015
Entries 76
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#1 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.

#2 Copy


What's the general cost when commissioning an illustration?

Ben McSweeney

Industry standards vary wildy depending on where you're sourcing your talent, and through whom. Unless you have someone like an Art Director or Editor doing the legwork and brokering the deal, you'll have to negotiate specifics with each artist privately. Their rates will be informed by their current availability, industry experience, and self-confidence.

Newer artists will often work for a few hundred per image, sometimes less. For a more experienced illustrator who's in-demand, you can probably expect a total budget of several thousand, and if they're really popular and you're looking for, say, a cover painting, it's going to hit five figures easily. It's earned through the experience and reliability that they bring, when you commission Michael Whelan he might cost you a chunk of money, but you know you're getting one of the very best.

That being said, the rise of digital painting combined with a growing entertainment industry has given birth to a flood of new, hungry commercial artists... you still have to sort for the diamonds, but if you're willing to do the legwork there are more options for you now than, I'm quite certain, ever before in history.

It's an interesting time for the field, but it really brings that Chinese curse aspect to the front. :)

#3 Copy


I enjoy your covers quite a bit. You also do a lot of animation work, one of which was Post Human, which was in 2012, I think? Incredible work!

I've looked around, and I can't see many of your sketches posted online. Those that can be found look incredibly clean! Do you keep a running sketchbook for ideas, and if so, are they all that pretty looking?

Ben McSweeney

I don't do very many covers (none for Brandon so far), but I love when the opportunity presents itself. :)

Yep, Post Human was produced in 2011-2012, it was the last project I worked on at Studio Fates. Crazy stuff.

I do have a couple physical sketchbooks that I doodle in, but a large portion of my work today is digital. I keep a Manga Studio story file for a digital sketchbook, though I'm just as likely to doodle something up in Photoshop.

Most of the work I do now is for clients, either studios or individuals, and that doesn't allow me to share as much as I used to. It's unfortunate that one of the results of doing more paid, professional work is that it cuts into your time for personal work that you can share freely.

#4 Copy


Have any aspects of your style changed as a result of working in the publishing industry? If so what were the changes and why were they necessary?

Ben McSweeney

Oh gosh, yes... for one thing, I'm constantly having to push harder just to keep up, younger artists have a great advantage in learning to work digitally from the start. I picked it up over a decade into my career, and had to learn it on the fly.

The switch to digital media is probably the largest, most sweeping change to happen to Commercial Art in hundreds of years, and if you can't make the switch you had better be damn good. Art Directors and Editors have come to appreciate the mutability of digital media, and it has massive advantages that physical media can't replicate. It lacks the tangible nature, but for most commercial purposes an original piece of physical art is just an artifact with a separate value, it's not relevant to the needs of the client.

I was dragged kicking and screaming into learning to use a tablet. 8 years later, and I never want to give it up.

#5 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.

#6 Copy


Would you like to continue your collaboration with Brandon Sanderson on a comic Book for example ?

Ben McSweeney

Brandon and I have discussed working on a comic together on multiple occasions. We both love the form, it's something I've done in the past, and I think together we'd make some amazing pages. But it also requires a lot of resources up front to cover overhead costs, and finding a way to make that happen has been tricky. I'm thinking we'll figure something out, but it's going to take a while. Crowdsourcing has opened up some very viable options, but it still requires a seed of core content that has yet to be created.

#7 Copy


Are there any creature sketches of Shallan that didn't get included in the Stormlight Archive books?

... because I would pay for a copy Shallan's sketchbook, especially the wildlife detail. take note Brandon

Ben McSweeney

There's a few. We hope to collect all the ancillary material into it's own book at some point, but not for a while... the novels are the main focus for the immediate future. The more novels Brandon writes, the more ancillary material we can create and collect. It'll pay off in the long run.

#8 Copy


First off, I want to say thank you for the great illustrations.

I was wondering, what is your favorite scene that you have, or wish, to draw?

Ben McSweeney

Thank you for the compliment! We do 'em 'cause we love 'em, and we love when you love 'em too. :)

All my favorite scenes are so spoileriffic. The Second Ideal, the chasmfiend appearances, the final battles of WoR, "Stretch forth thy hand!"

If I draw my favorite scenes and they're seen by people who haven't read the books, it'd be like seeing all the best parts of the movie in the trailer.

#9 Copy


Since you do this as a career, do you still draw and illustrate for fun as a hobby, or does it begin to just feel like working overtime, no matter how much you love it?

Ben McSweeney

I do, but not nearly as much as I would if I wasn't doing it all day, every day. I'm not sure what my hobby is, these days... reading, I suppose? Games sometimes. Redditing too often. :)

#10 Copy


I know a lot of people get tattoos with work from Mr. Sanderson's books. How do you feel knowing people have your work etched painfully into their flesh?

Ben McSweeney

It's a little weird, only in the sense that it's so intensely, overwhelmingly flattering that it's difficult to figure out the right response. What do you say to someone who appreciates your work that much, other than a wholly inadequate "thank you"? Though I guess as it goes on, I'm getting used to it.

I'm quite certain Isaac has me way beat in the tattoo-inspiration department, as he does most all of the icons and symbols associated with Brandon's novels. But every Pattern tattoo is another tally for me. :)

#11 Copy


Is there a book out that there that you're just dying to illustrate? Something that caught your imagination and you would die of excitement if offered the chance to bring your drawings to print?

Ben McSweeney

Ohhh... gosh, if I wasn't drawing it already, I'd probably be all over Stormlight, but that's a crap answer. Let's see...

I reserve the right to come back to this later, but right now I've been enjoying the hell out of the Malazan series, and I wish I had solid illustrations of the various races... still, I'm only up to book 4.

I just started Jim Butcher's super-steampunky The Aeronaut's Windlass, and I'm kinda wishing for a guide to ship types and some of the House heraldry. I really loved what Keith Thompson did for similar content in Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan novels, though that was much more traditional illustration rather than visual development.

Not every novel really needs an illustrator... for instance, I don't think it's needed for Glen Cook's novels, even though I love the Black Company, The Instrumentalities of the Night and the Garrett P.I. series (I do wish the cover artists would stop illustrating Garrett as if he were Sam Spade, it's worse than putting a hat on Harry Dresden).

I'll think about this some more.

#12 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?

#13 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.

#14 Copy


Are there any plans to create and release a collection of drawings as a separate book? While some of your gorgeous gorgeous arts makes its way into Brandon's novels, the focus is naturally not on them - but I am sure some of us would like to get our grubby grabby hands on a book that's only, for example, Shallan's drawings. One of her in-world sketchbooks, in a way.

If there are no such plans, is this something you would consider?

Ben McSweeney

There's plans, but they are waaay down the road. With Stormlight we're looking at a ten-book series, and we're only now on book 3.

That being said, we create and collect a lot of ancillary material during production. Failed ideas, wrong turns, and even just construction material. I don't see us leaving all that in a drawer forever. :)

#15 Copy


Love your work, it must be so amazing to work alongside Brandon Sanderson and the rest of the team :)

As someone who wants nothing more from life than to be a full-time illustrator, I'd love to know what you think one should focus on to get into this type of work. Basically, what would your advice be to a young illustrator?

Ben McSweeney

Hm. To keep it short, I think you want to get a solid foundation in classical technique... the really boring stuff like perspective, anatomy, composition, life-drawing and portraiture. I know it might not seem like it relates to the sort of work you want to do, like you're being forced to conform to these rigid schools of thought that aren't relevant, and your teachers might mock your ambitions (if you have bad teachers), but please believe me... if you can master that cranky old-guy stuff, the possibilities are endless.

You're probably going to need to master digital tools, but most of the software we use to paint and draw in the computer is based on real-world toosl and techniques, so the more you know about the real stuff the easier you'll find it to manipulate and master the virtual. That being said, it's hard to survive as a commercial artist in the modern industry if you're not willing to work on a tablet.

It's a really competitive world out there. I worked for over ten years before I was able to make drawing-for-money into my sole source of income, and even then it was another five before I started to feel like maybe I wasn't going to grow old in the same world I grew up in. Lots of people make it happen faster. Even more people never make it happen at all. It's a great career, but you gotta be strong and well-suited and maybe just a little lucky.

The sooner you start, the longer you'll have to travel as far as you can go. :)

#16 Copy


What is the best and worst part about working with Sanderson?

Ben McSweeney

Hmmm... best part is working with someone who genuinely loves what they do, and they're really, really good at it, and even better he's got a plan to keep doing it. It makes him a very inspirational partner.

Worst part... well, with the touring and so forth, sometimes it's really hard to get time where we can actually talk, even by phone. Unlike the rest of the team I don't live in the same city as Brandon, so aside from those few occasions when we're attending a con or his tour comes nearby, almost all our communication is by email. And that's a little frustrating, 'cause I genuinely like the guy on a personal level.

Brandon and I talk pretty steadily during production, but that's business and only takes place for a few months of the year. Most of the time I talk to Isaac, he has the patience of a saint.

#17 Copy


What medium do you usually favor and about what dimensions do you use for a standard book cover piece? Are they the actual book size or scaled down?

Also, do you have any clever signatures or symbols you like to hide in your work that you wouldn't mind sharing?

Ben McSweeney

I work almost exclusively in digital media these days, usually Photoshop or Manga Studio. Before I made the switch, I was primarily a pencil and ink artist. Hence the "Inkthinker" name, which I've been using for... well as long as I can remember being active on the internet. It was my first email!

Interesting you should ask about clever logos, are you already familiar with my other work? I do have a signature symbol, variations of which I will often use in illustrations. It's an icon of a lightbulb over a pen-nib, and you can find it all over my stuff on DeviantArt. Here's a good example of the logo game..

I don't think I've ever used it in Stormlight, because it would seem... inappropriate, I guess? Shallan's pages represent in-world artifacts, the lightbulb-logo meta-game has no place hiding there. I have used it a couple times for Mistborn illustrations in the MAG, and I did sneak it into an ad in the first broadsheet, but only because it seemed thematically appropriate at the time (it was an ad for lightbulbs).

Of course, the problem with a "hide the logo in places" game is that I often forget when and where I've done it at all.


I won't lie, I'm not overly familiar with your work but what I've seen, I'm a fan of for sure.

Do you enjoy the digital medium or do you miss the old days?

Ben McSweeney

I miss the secondary revenue stream that original art represents once your profile reaches a certain state. I still work with physical media from time to time, but I'm completely consumed by the variability of digital drawing. It's given me the freedom to do a lot of things I could never do before, but that option for secondary sales is greatly reduced.

If you like playing hunt-the-logo, I recommend my older work from 2007-2012, especially the game stuff. I was playing it all through my work with Fantasy Craft. Those guys give me lots of freedom to play around, and the meta-game seemed most suited to a game book. :)

#18 Copy


How awesome an anime do you think Stormlight would make?

Ben McSweeney


I am biased, as an animator, of course. But I think the world of Roshar is too fantastic and unique to be anything other than fully animated. If you do it with actors, they're gonna do it in the big green rooms, and that so rarely works out well.

I'd be content with a CG animated series (Shardplate kinda begs it), but it'd be a lot trickier to do well. That being said, I've seen some really great CG, so it could be done.


I'm so happy you agree. I've been a pretty huge fan of Knights of Sidonia on Netflix. That's a perfect style for Plate in my opinion.

Ben McSweeney

KoS is pretty great (awesome manga, too), but the cines for Guilty Gear Xrd are just sick.

Game cinematics offer the best examples of quality, but it's not easy to get a studio in the range of Plastic Wax or Blur to dedicate the resources required for a full feature or a 22x12/24 series. Well, mostly it's just crazy expensive. But costs are always adjusting, the field is expanding, and we've got a lot of books left to publish before anyone's adapting it for animation or film.


I think some of the 2.5d CG animation they do could work well for Stormlight- you know, where it's mostly illustrated but some action scenes use cell-shaded 3d models as a reference for the perspective and animation so it's really spot-on? That would be really cool.

Ben McSweeney

Oh, it's entirely feasible. Just a matter of the right budget with the right people at the right time. 'Course, that's a tricky triumvirate. :)


Definitely. I'm hoping White Sand does well as a start to prove that drawing Brandon's work is a good idea.

Ben McSweeney

I think it might. And if nothing else, it's one more branch on the tree. Reaching out to new audiences is almost always a good strategy. :)

#19 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.

#20 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.

#21 Copy


What is your favourite drawing so far? What is your next project?

Ben McSweeney

I think Shardplate is my favorite page. My favorite drawing... I think I'll have to think on that.

My next Brandon project is, unless something breaks, Stormlight III. Of course, Shadows of Self just came out, and Bands of Mourning will hit the shelves early next year, so those are the next things to see print.


Nice! Are there any other artists that inspire you in particular?

Ben McSweeney

Oh gosh, lots and far too many to list!

If I was hoping to emulate anyone in my Stormlight work, it'd be artists like Alan Lee and John Howe for Peter Jackson, or Ralph McQuarrie and Johnston for George Lucas, or Ron Cobb and Chris Foss or Syd Meade for Ridley Scott.

I think Brandon's got the legs. But we've got a long way to go. :)

#22 Copy


I've seen you comment on other Cosmere-based conceptual discussions and fan art around reddit. How much does fandom influence your ideas of how things should look?

Ben McSweeney

When a fan really nails it, I think it can most certainly have an influence.

That being said, I firmly believe that the text comes first and foremost... I can't illustrate something that conflicts with Brandon's descriptions and expect it to be taken as canon, and a fan can render the most beautiful art imaginable but it won't stick in my head if they contradict the text.

#23 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.

#24 Copy


You've mentioned in the past that you'd really like to do an art book of all the unused and supplementary art done for the Stormlight Archive that doesn't make it into the books. Are there any other projects that you'd love to do, if not now than at some point in the future?

Ben McSweeney

Well, as an animator/storyboard artist by day, it's no surprise that if Stormlight were to be optioned for animation I'd want to be all over that in as great a capacity as allowed. But that's kind of a cheat answer... I'd like to do more comics work, if I could find a way to make it balance. I've been enjoying the hell out of Gary Gianni's work in George R.R. Martin's new collection of the Dunk & Egg novels, a project like that could be fun. Honestly, right now I'm in a nice place with a lot of fun stuff on my lap, so as long as I can keep that rolling I'm feeling good.

#25 Copy


Brandon is pretty good at including people as cameos (such as much of Bridge Four being his friends). Has he given you a cameo in the cosmere, or one of his other books, or do you know if he has any plans for one (because you totally should have one).

Ben McSweeney

You know, I don't think he has... if he did, nobody's told me and I haven't caught it. Of course, I already get name-checked in every book both in the acknowledgements and in the credits. And in a certain sense, I suppose I'm there every time my work is on the page.

#26 Copy


I'm going to be cheeky and ask another question.

Is there a defense you think you'd favor as a Rithmatist? Either in a duel, the Melee, or at Nebrask? Do you think you'd be more offensive, or defensive? Would you favor chalklings or Lines of Vigor for attacks?

What style chalklings do you think you'd have? Melody made fantasy creatures, Fitch tended towards people, Nalizar made monsters. Do you think you'd tend towards a type?

Ben McSweeney

OOooo, nobody ever asks me Rithmatist questions.

I think I'm reasonably good at eyeballing dimensions, but I got a bend towards symmetry, so I'd probably not be fast with a 9-point. The Eskridge and Matson defenses are 8-pointers though, with the Eskridge being more suited to a melee and the Matson for a duel. I'd probably favor the Matson in a pinch 'cause it's fast to draw.

I think I'd create a lot of fat octopus chalklings for defense, 'cause there's a strategic mobility advantage in those long tentacles, even if the body is anchored to a point. Not sure what I'd use for attack... probably something I can draw a lot of, very quickly, so I can try to Zerg Rush my opponent while using my octochalklings and Vigor lines to hold back their attacks. Millipedes, maybe, with lots of fast legs and pincers.

I've just realized my side of the field is all bugs and tentacles. I think I might be a thematic bad guy. Or worse, the bad guy's henchman.


Now I wanna see you and Isaac Stewart in a Rithmatic duel... or maybe fighting with Aons.

Really? No one asks you Rithmatist questions? I just finished a re-read. I love that book. Did you have to learn a lot of math to draw it all? Or did you know the math already? Or did you just draw it with the explanation and forget all the math?

I'm pretty sure I've deduced that the Line of Silencing is based on the involute of a circle, the way a Line of Warding is based on a circle marked by the significant points of a triangle...

Ben McSweeney

I think the Rithmatist will be a lot more popular when we've got another book in the basket. Brandon has a very good idea for the second novel, but it involves getting into imaginary revisions of actual history and cultures with living descendants, and he's looking to be careful as he does that.

I'm actually not responsible for any of the mathy bits of the novel, Brandon designed every defense and wrote all the rules and descriptions himself. My job was to take his diagrams and drawings from MS Paint to finished renders.

Because I rendered the illustrations in Photoshop, it helped to ensure that the geometry was perfect. Flawless circles, razor-straight lines, symmetry and point-placement clocked and locked. I could have done the same thing with compass and ruler, but it was significantly easier to build geometric shapes in-system and then texture and revise.

I got to be nice and creative with chalklings, but that's my place on the team. When it comes to the rules and the math, that's 100% Brandon.

#27 Copy


Do you have a shardpen, or what? Does it change to a shardbrush or a shardpencil when you have to use those tools? And can a spren change into a shardPhotoShop, or what?

Ben McSweeney

Funny thing is, working digitally is kinda magical. I mean, you can turn back time. You can stack a hundred invisible sheets of paper and draw on each one separately, with the result being no thicker than a single page. You can cut and paste and warp and blur and save a perfect copy trapped in time just in case your next experiment goes horribly awry.

And if you do it right and well, nobody will never know the difference.

It ain't a shard, exactly, but it'll do. :)

#28 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.

#29 Copy


Have you ever drawn a illustration of a character that is raising his/her eyebrow?

Ben McSweeney

You better believe it. I've caught myself drawing Dreamworks Face on a number of occasions. It's a very versatile expression that exaggerates easily, but I'll admit it's pretty beat to death.

#30 Copy


How did you first make it in the illustration industry? What steps would you recommend to artists looking to start working professionally?

Ben McSweeney

Short version:

I started drawing cheap quarter-pages and character vignettes for RPG companies at bargain-basement prices, and I slowly networked that into better and better jobs through a general policy of "be nice, don't drop the ball". It took a loooong time and a lot of low-rent work.

I hooked up with Brandon in 2008, when I read Mistborn and drew up some fan-art, posted that to his forums at what turned out to be the perfect time (which I had no way of knowing, so that's my lottery ticket story :)

Longer Version for Aspiring Artists who want to hear some Real TalkTM :

I've been "working professionally" (getting paid to draw) a lot longer than I've been "making it" (getting paid enough to live on just by drawing)... and I've done most of it without mentoring, so my traditional learning process has been something along the lines of "get it horribly wrong, and then fix it, rinse-repeat".

All this is to say I may not be a good role model. But I started out pretty low and I'm doing all right today, so maybe I can contribute something useful.

More than anything, I think it's more important to love doing it than to love being it... If I never make it in The Big Time, I still do it. It's the activity itself you're enjoying, not the status or the rewards. When I do succeed, I often find those rewards and the status are nice, but they're fleeting and the only thing that keeps 'em coming is more work.

You do good work, you get more work. It's an never-ending cycle, but that's a fine thing so long as you love working.

I recommend learning the fundamental basics put forth by classical illustrators like Andrew Loomis. Sometimes all that formal stuff feels boring and static and it's hard to relate it to what you really want to do, like you're being stuffed into a conformity box. But believe me, if you can master that stuff and learn to use it, you can do anything in any style you like and it will always look solid. Look around at the best of the best, see the fundamentals in play in their work, recognize that you can take that stodgy mathy rules-laden stuff and make anything with it.

Persevere. I started getting paid to draw when I was 18. I stopped working at "real jobs" when I was 28. I started getting the work I'm most proud of today when I was 32.

That's a long time, I pretty much went through my entire youth without ever knowing if I'd succeed. But I've been drawing all my life, and I really don't know what else I would do. So even if it meant that I worked a 32 week shift at Sunglass Hut while I drew shitty T-shirt designs for anyone who'd pay me $50, I never stopped working or saw myself as anything other than a craftsman.

Lots of people make it happen faster. Even more people never make it happen at all. But you can't lose the game if you keep on playing.

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How much time do you spend from concept to the final design? And do you do many side projects or commission work?

Ben McSweeney

It varies a lot depending on the design... we have a reasonably long development period for Stormlight, 3-6 months, but we also do a lot of communication via email and that's slow.

I always have a couple side projects, things I'd like to develop if I can ever assemble a conjumbleration of loose parts into a single machine.

As a freelancer (part-time now, as I have a studio job during the day) I'm always looking for new opportunities, but for the last couple years I've been keeping a pretty full dance card. It's hard to catch me when I'm not already booked, and I don't usually schedule commitments too far in advance.

#32 Copy


How many folders/piles of fan art do you have that have never been seen?

Ben McSweeney

There's not so much fan-art buried in the stack, because I usually publish it online as soon as it's done (if you can't share fan-art, what's the point?), unless I judge it to be awful in which case I bury it with the bodies and nobody will ever know.

But there's a lot of jobs that generate ancillary material which is never seen by the public. When it's client work, it's not mine to freely share. With Stormlight in particular, we'll hopefully be able to collect it all into a book at some point, so there's value in keeping it archived.

#33 Copy


Ever drawn a Thunderclast ? ;)

Ben McSweeney

I have not! Now that the Chasmfiend is settled, Thunderclasts are high on my list. I have some ideas, but Brandon and I have yet to jam on the subject and we probably won't until they make an appearance in the novels. We'll get there though, never fear... it's a Chekov thing, you don't throw a name like "Thunderclast" out there and never come back to it. :)


Didn't a Thunderclast appear during one of Dalinar's flashbacks early in Words of Radiance? (The one in the Purelake.) There was a little bit of physical description of the beastie too... something like a giant stone skeleton with glowing red eyes.

Ben McSweeney

You're right! I just went and checked the WoR text, there is a brief description of a fight between full Knights Radiant and a thunderclast, early in the book, and with enough descriptors to start with. It's been so long since I read it, and it's not a Shallan scene so I couldn't work a page out of it, that I must have forgotten.

Well, now I have to do something sometime, don't I? :)

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I have to say, I really like seeing art done in a variety of in-universe styles. Particularly the old-time newspaper comics - I get a bit of an Out Our Way feel from those.

Is there some character or art style that's particularly fun to imitate?

Ben McSweeney

I grew up (luckily) with access to some great classic newspaper artists like Winsor McKay and George Herriman and R.F. Outcault, and that's been invaluable when it comes to the broadsheets. I don't think I'm hitting anywhere near their marks, but I try to let that background influence the output.

Thank you for the link, I'll have a lot of fun looking through those!

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I would like to know what makes Brandon's books so well-suited to visual adaptation.


Ben McSweeney

He describes dramatic events and characters with clarity while including creative action, which makes it easy to visualize but also stimulating to imagine. He's also gotten quite good at giving you enough information to draw conclusions, without giving you so much that you don't need to bother drawing anything... that took some time, his early books are a lot less descriptive, but even with the first Mistborn novel he had some very strong visual concepts.

In addition, he's often combining something familiar with something fantastic (literally). The familiar elements give an artist a basis upon which to map the fantastic. So we have something like Shardplate, which is plate armor (familiar) but it's made *only * of plates, no cloth or chain (fantastic), and that's where it gets interesting to design. Or we have the Chasmfiends, which were described by Brandon to me as "crayfish-dragons" (familiar/fantastic). Or we have the Inquisitors, tall scary men (familiar) with shiny steel spikes through their eyes that emerge from their skulls like horns (WTF).

Thanks to his descriptive clarity and the familiar/fantastic mix, a properly-trained illustrator has the right elements to produce content with enough basis to set a firm foundation, but enough freedom to add their own creativity to the mix.

Plus, his stuff is just fun. Fun goes a long way. :)

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Do you have any other Cosmere related art you are allowed to share? Sketches, drafts, or stuff you did for fun? I love your art style

Ben McSweeney

Thank you! :)

There's a lot of development and draft material that goes into the production, but it's all archived... we're only getting started on the third book, so we'll want to collect a lot more before we try doing anything with it.

There's a few things I've done that weren't directly commissioned, which is basically the core of fan-art (un-commissioned illustration), but I've kept it in the same archives... I should maybe see if I can't dig up something to share.

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I assume there are decisions you have to make on the fly while doing the art, so I was wondering: are there any of those that have made it into the lore, and maybe actually made changes to some of the plot elements? If so, what is your favorite thing you added to the story through the illustrations?

Ben McSweeney

Actually, most everything that makes it into the book has been reviewed and discussed and approved, so even the decisions I make on the fly are subject to change.

There's a series of character illustrations that were done early on, for the initial book pitch before the first novel was fully written. When Brandon eventually wrote descriptions for those characters in the text, the illustrations I'd provided played a part in what he wrote, which was wildly gratifying.

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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.

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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.

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I love your work and have been wanting to get Stormlight related tattoos. Is there any way one can commission you into doing an original Shardbearer drawing for tattooing purposes? I love the ones in WoR, and want to get something very similar on my left leg!

Ben McSweeney

Thank you so much!

I'm not sure if I can accept a commission to do something based on the stuff I do officially... maybe if /u/mistborn is down with it?

Most folks just take one of the existing illustrations and have that reproduced. Doing something unique would be a different matter.

Brandon Sanderson

I'm more than okay with this, Ben.

#41 Copy


Hi, Mr Sweeney!

I'm sorry if my question might be complicated and/or badly articulated.

When you are reading something and are trying to picture that world and those characters in your mind to later draw them, more often do you do your final work based on your first impression or the first picture you imagine, or do you try to imagine what you read in the most diferent ways you can?

Thank you for the AMA!

Ben McSweeney

Often times I'll try and imagine a couple variations, just to be certain I've explored the idea. Sometimes my first idea turns out to be the best one, but not often! It helps to go ahead and articulate that first idea just to get it out in the air, and then look for ways to do something new with it, or think of an alternative altogether.

#42 Copy


Did you draw this?

I was out of town for the WoR signing but my dad went and picked up a copy for me and one of the people signing that night drew this in the front pages. It's super cool and I have been trying to figure out who did it.

Ben McSweeney

I did! I draw a lot of really quick sketches at signings. I can't do it for everyone because sometimes we're trying to move quickly (Brandon draws long lines), but I try to do it whenever I can. On the plus side, no two are ever quite alike!

#43 Copy


How much of the novel to you have to/get to read before producing the art?

Ben McSweeney

As much as I can get! I receive an early draft along with the rest of the team, and it's really useful to read the whole book. It's a privilege not often made available to illustrators on first draft novels.

#44 Copy


Didn't you do the RoosterTeeth logo and work on RvB animated ?

Can you talk a little about those two ?

Ben McSweeney

I did!

The RT logo came about back in 2003, I think? I was a fan of the first season of RvB and I hung out in their forums. When they sent out the call to redesign their old clip-art logo, I was there. When other artists were offering mascot-style cartoons, I saw there wasn't anything wrong with the icons in their existing logo, they just needed a fully original representation. It's been one of the longest-reaching and most enduring illustrations of my career, and paid off quite well for what amounted to an afternoon's doodle of a rooster silhouette and some cartoon chatterteeth. I wish I'd drawn the key better, it's all asymmetrical and it never stops driving me nuts.

RvB Animated came around in 2008. By that time I was a Lead Animator at Humoring the Fates, a studio down in Florida. Burnieb asked if we could take on some original RvB animated content, and we gave it our best shot. I did the character designs, boarded it, keyed out the animation and put in most of the gunfire/blaster VFX, but the team at Studio Fates did the lion's share of the real work. We produced the whole thing in-house, and with a core team of less than a dozen.

This was before Monty and his team really revolutionized what Rooster Teeth could do with a blend of machinema and original 3D animation, which ultimately was the perfect solution for what they wanted to do. But it was a good early experiment and a rare opportunity that I'm proud to have taken part in.

I'm pretty sure we were the first production to adapt Halo for 2D traditional, we were certainly a year ahead of the overseas work on Legends. If you dig around in the archives of the studio's production blog, you can find all sorts of early design docs and pencil tests.

#45 Copy


Who, in your opinion, writes the best fantasy today?

Ben McSweeney

Until recently, I would have said Terry Pratchett, without hesitation. People mistake his books for mere comic fantasy, but that man had as sharp a wit as any Algonquin and more heart than a Care Bear Stare. He knew how to turn a phrase like a tango turns the hips. On more that one occasion, no exaggeration, that goofy old bearded bastard actually made me cry.

To reach out and touch another human through time and space and make them actually feel something... that's good writing.

But he's moved on, and there's plenty of great authors at their height today, so let's stick to the contemporary.

For pure liquid prose, probably Rothfuss.

For interesting concepts, I'm digging Guy Gavriel Kay. China Mieville is great as well.

For action, I'm pretty into my man Brandon. Butcher does a good job with that also. Larry Corriea knows how to write a rocking fight.

Joe Abercrombie is the first author I've read who took those boring battle maps with the arrows and blocks and made them into a gripping, visceral saga of honor and commitment and betrayal and vindication.

Dan Abraham is the man who made a story about a rogue banker into one of the best epics since Ice met Fire. That right there is a Copperfield-level trick.

#46 Copy


Were you at the Shadows of Self release last night? And what was the hardest drawing to get right?

Ben McSweeney

I was not, it wasn't in the cards for me to travel this time. Hopefully I'll make it out for Stormlight 3. :)

I wasn't, and it blows 'cause Isaac sent me a very awesome photo of a Cryptic Pattern costume and I wish I could've seen it in person. Plus, I like signing and sketching in books :)

The Axehound was an early challenge to design... it's not easy to make a six-foot dog-lobster look affectionate! The antennae do a lot of the work.

The Whitespine was an interesting case because I took a design all the way to near-completion before I scrapped it entirely and started again to get the one in the book. I think I like the current one, but I know I hated the one I did the first time.


The Pattern costume was pretty sweet. And your illustrations in Stormlight really helped me visualize many of the... Interesting aspects of Roshar. They are amazing.

Ben McSweeney

Thank you! That is, ideally, why we do 'em. :)

#47 Copy


I love your work. It really inspires me to improve my drawing. Do you have any rough sketches of Marsh's/Inquisitor/Obligator tattoos? I want to be Marsh for Halloween.

Ben McSweeney

I don't, the best image is probably the standing illustration of Marsh in the Adventure Game. In all honesty, they were freehanded on the page, so it was more about a general approximation of shapes than a planned composition of glyphs.

#49 Copy


What tips would you have for a beginner sketch artist/free hand drawer? How can I improve my illustrations? (I'm left handed, don't know if that'll make a difference or not.) I'm not horrible, I just tend to make large mistakes and since I prefer pen and pencil drawings (in a LOT of colors of ink) I can't really fix it.

Ben McSweeney

Being a lefty shouldn't hold you back, I've known plenty of excellent animators and illustrators who work sinister. Biggest hassle I know of is setting up your desktop workspace with hotkeys and all, everything is biased for dexters.

Gosh, tips... well, practice is the big one, but I know that sounds glib. I think it's true, though, that in order to be successful as an illustrator you need to love the process more than the project or the results... it's as much about doing the thing as seeing and being the thing. Rewards and results are fleeting, but the job is forever. So, you know, it's part of the process to review your work, identify your weaknesses, and seek active solutions.

I can't emphasize the value of rough layout and structural sketch lines enough... I never go straight to the finish lines, I need those buildup sketches in order to know where the finish inks will go. Even more so when working with real media, where you can't Undo your way out. If you're not applying the classic rules of structural composition, that might go a long way towards helping improve your stuff. My go-to was red pencil, but you can do a lot with a 4H or even an HB with a light hand.

If you're already doing that, then I'm not sure what to suggest... keep practicing, I guess?

#50 Copy


Hey, thanks for doing this!

My question is how developed are your ideas of what Spren look like and how they behave? I would love to see some illustrations of them in the future.

Ben McSweeney

There's some early illustrations of them in the original pitch package, where they look very Miyazaki if I say so myself, but my understanding of them has widened considerably in the time since then.

I usually envision (and illustrate) them as ghostly, glowing shapes of infinite variety, a lot like the classical interpretation of a hologram. To the best of my understanding, spren appear to be made of stormlight when they're made apparent at all. Some have more detailed features than others, but I don't think any appear solid unless they actually manifest in the Physical Realm, and the only manifestations we know of are Shardblades (living blades have freedom to reshape though, so who knows what that could mean).

As to their details, if you take the few descriptors that Brandon gives and let your imagination run, you probably can't go wrong... even among the spren, two of the same type might look very different in detail. And an awakened spren has a lot of mutability, Syl is changing shape all the time.

As with all concepts, the text rules. So angerspren is gonna look like blood-red pools boiling up from the ground, and gloryspren will look like tiny translucent globes of golden light. Brandon wrote it, so that's what it is.

But you can translate "blood-red pools [of light] boiling up from the ground" in a few creative ways, and any of them might be equally valid. As the Interlude suggests, the appearance of spren is kinda quantum... fluid until/unless observed. I have a lot of fun seeing how creative I can get with the description while making sure I'm staying true to the text.

#51 Copy


Do you have any drawings of the Cognitive or Spiritual realm that we haven't seen that you can share?

Ben McSweeney

Not yet... there's a few doodles somewhere of a black sun against a sea of beads, but they're not even close to comprehensive... a circle over scribbles hardly counts.

#52 Copy


Have you made like a map of the whole Cosmere? Like a star chart or something?

Ben McSweeney

Nope! That's not something that's been relevant to my tasks up to now. If Brandon wanted something like that, he'd probably go to Isaac first, he's the man with the maps.

#53 Copy


Did you have any hand making Aons for the first Elantris book, or preparing some for the second book?

Ben McSweeney

No, that's all Isaac Stewart. He's been working with Brandon much longer than I have, and he's responsible for all the maps and icons and symbols and most of the chapter heading illustrations, with the exception of The Rithmatist where I got to do it all.

#54 Copy


If you have read The Emperor's Soul, what do you think of Forgery as an art form? Is it one that you wish you could use?

Ben McSweeney

It's pretty cool, I especially like the stamps... I think they'd be fun to design, just as visual props.

I'm not sure I'd be a Forger at heart... maybe. I think Brandon's playing around with some concepts regarding reproduction and the essence of content that are highly relevant to modern creative concerns, but that's another conversation altogether.

#55 Copy


Do you have any favourites out of the work you've done?

Ben McSweeney

I like the Plate and Blades we've designed. The Axehound was a milestone challenge, and the Chasmfiend was one of those where it seemed to be going badly until it started going well... passing through those is always satisfying after the fact.

#56 Copy


Are you getting to work on White Sand?

Ben McSweeney

Sadly, no. I'm not involved with White Sand, but Isaac speaks very highly of the artwork. He keeps promising to show me some of it through internal channels, but I haven't seen it yet.

I know they're certainly taking their time to do it well, and I'm as excited as anyone to see how it comes out!

#57 Copy


What is it like to be famous really only because someone else famous hired you? That sounds impersonal, but it kind of feels like that's what happened to me.

Ben McSweeney

Nope, I know what you mean. It's a weird place, being on the coattails.

I try not to give it a lot of thought, really... I trust that I'm the right person for this job, because I bring a unique combination of skills and interests to the table beyond just my ability to render.

It also helps that Brandon and I started working together before he became the Fantasy Superstar... when I first started drawing for him back in 2008, he had only a handful of novels out, and his part in The Wheel of Time had not yet been the rousing success it eventually was.

Lastly, I do a lot of work for other clients aside from Brandon, and some of those clients also represent high-profile property like LEGO and Gears of War. If I'm good enough for them, and good enough that they keep coming back and asking me to do more work, I must be doing something right.

So I try to not fall victim to a sense of Imposter Syndrome. I think I might maybe be good at this stuff, or at least good enough. :)

#58 Copy


Which order of the Knights Radiant would/are you be in?

Ben McSweeney

Lightweavers is the easy, obvious answer, but we're still learning a lot about each Order so I think it's still pretty early to say.

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How is the illustrating process for Stormlight 3 going? Is there any new guest artist? Will we see more new species/fashion pages/character depictions? I remember a WoB saying that there's a plan for Unkalaki outfit design. Is it still possible?

Ben McSweeney

We're still in the early draft process. Almost certainly, but it's not for me to say. Almost definitely/possibly/no idea. If there's an Unkalaki design, it might be slated for Dan.

#63 Copy


Could you give us some clues about how the two lines of buttons on Vorin havah actually look like? I find it hard to imagine correctly. (When designing this costume, has Brandon got some in-world reference?)

Ben McSweeney

The cut of a havah is similar to a cheongsam through the torso, with full sleeves and skirts falling from the hips. Beneath the slitted outer skirt are many thin layers like fine silk which interweave to create a sort of accordion effect. This would (I think?) allow the dress to fall at a sharp angle from the hip when still, while expanding to allow a full range of leg movement. The buttons run from the throat down to the waist, following a line from the jaw down to the collarbone, curving out to follow the bust and then down the line of the torso. I don't think there's a rule for the number of buttons, but when in doubt remember that "10" is significant to the culture. Frog buttons are legit, I think.

#64 Copy


Do you know the general skin tone and hair color of the Thaylen people? Because there seems to be few descriptions in the books. And how exactly long are their eyebrows? (Fan art problems, sorry.)

Ben McSweeney

No idea about Thaylen skin tones, if the text doesn't state it clearly then I guess it's open to discussion. With the eyebrows, I'd think the length varies depending on age and care. The Thaylen riding the chull in the first book has brow-fans that look to be near a foot long. I'm not sure if that's above average, but I'd think there's probably some upper range determined by sheer practicality. Though I don't think they have to fan out, they could be braided or beaded... really, this is a /u/mistborn question.

#66 Copy


What is your conception of how spren would appear to the average person? Do they have a solid physicality of some kind or are they more ethereal/ghostlike?

Ben McSweeney

Back during the pitch I did illustrate a few spren ideas for Brandon, but my understanding of them has expanded greatly since then. There's a lot I don't know, but I think I've got the basic idea down.

I see them as looking like they're made of Stormlight, sorta like many common sci-fi "holograms". I don't think any spren have physically solid forms unless the manifest fully, and the only examples we've seen of that so far are Blades.

In terms of their appearance, the text descriptions are always the first place I look. Never contradict the text, it's the common basis for all our interpretations.

#67 Copy


Thinking of all the interior art from The Rithmatest leads me to an important question...

Can you draw a perfect circle freehand? With chalk?

Ben McSweeney

Hahaaaa, not a chance. But even a Rithmatist spends much of their young life learning that skill. Some have it easier than others, but it's not something that just comes to people with Rithmatic ability. It's very much a skill.

That being said, I do think the best way to draw a circle would be to lock your arm out and then spin on one foot, effectively turning yourself into a compass.

#68 Copy


Have you seen the Deep Forger?

It seems like once the processing time comes down a bit, it'll be a pretty powerful tool for doing concept art and rough outlines, but I'm not really into the illustrating business. What are your thoughts on it?

Ben McSweeney

It's pretty neat, but it's worth noting that what Deep Forger does is create an approximation based on certain distinct styles of painting, and then applies that effect to a photograph. It's not doing anything particularly creative, it can't produce a Monet or a Picasso from scratch, without input. And from looking at the samples, it seems that most of the time the photographic source origins are still pretty clear. Sorta the same way rotoscoping rarely fools anyone into thinking it's hand-keyed animation.

That being said, I'm often impressed by what I see people doing with Zbrush and other 3D sculpting software and then applying the right lighting and render techniques to create some very illustrated results. The trick is that it often takes as long (or longer) to produce content that way as opposed to illustrating it traditionally. The advantage is that you can often do a LOT more with a well-sculpted 3D model, even when it's a static object.

I don't feel that traditional illustration as a craft is particularly at threat, because the real value in an illustrator isn't in the skills their hands produce but in the brains that come up with ideas and new applications and twists, and that's some next-level AI stuff.

Digital painting has totally changed the landscape in which we work, but it hasn't changed the heart of the illustrator... just the tools. As such, we'll always be using the most effective and efficient tools that we can, but the fundamentals that lie beyond tools and techniques haven't changed much.


Yeah, I guess my real question is more along the lines of 'does this seem like it'll be a useful tool, and where would that fit in your normal workflow?'

Ben McSweeney

I don't think it'd fit in the workflow of what I do... I could perhaps see some potential for it to serve as a method for creating photobash assets that would more easily merge with a larger painting (like serving as a method for creating backgrounds, if you have the right location or can dress a set), but part of the weakness of something like Deep Forger is that it requires an existing image to manipulate.

A huge part of what I do is visualize and illustrate things that don't exist, and often can't exist in the physical world. I can source reference and I do, pulling ideas from here and there to flesh out the kernel of a concept, but ultimately I don't have anything more than description and design mandates to build from... and that's something a computer can't quite do yet. Someday... maybe.

#69 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. :)

#70 Copy


Who's your favorite Cosmere character to draw?

Ben McSweeney

Mmmm... lately, Adolin. But I don't get to draw the characters "officially" very often.


Does it mean you have drawn Adolin? Any chances were are going to see those sketches someday? As a die-hard fan of him, I am dying to see a proper representation.

Ben McSweeney

There's a peek at Adolin's face on the Shardplate page, but just a peek. His armor does appear twice, both on the same Plate page and as Adolin's chapter icon, and those are Brandon-approved designs for both Plate and Blade... we might modify them as time goes on, but for now they're a good starting point.

Brandon's always been pretty cagey about releasing official illustrations of characters... Michael Whelan gets a pass because he's Michael flipping Whelan and because covers need faces, but we try to limit it within the pages of the book (covers change around the world, but the interiors go everywhere). This is because Brandon doesn't want to force one interpretation of a character's likeness down the reader's throat. He describes them, but the face you see in your mind is your own creation, and that should remain as valid as possible for as long as possible.

Someday we might collect those background works into a book, but not for a while. :)


Oh that's a shame. I really hoped to see a more detailed facial within the next book. The miniature was amazing. You did a great job: I especially loved the little bangs of hair. I wished we could see what hid under the helmet though or just Adolin without his armor.

Ben McSweeney

I might do some unofficial version at some point. I like doing fan-art as much as anyone, it's how I got this job to start with. :)

#71 Copy


If I remember correctly, you did several fanart pieces of Brandon's novels, specifically Mistborn, before he ever commissioned you to do anything for him, right? What was your first introduction into all things Sanderson? And what's the story of him commissioning you to illustrate for him?

Ben McSweeney

SO! Storytime.

The first time I heard the name Brandon Sanderson was around 2007. I was listening to Mennege and Stackpole's old Dragonpage Cover to Cover podcast (283A), where they used to talk craft and industry of genre novels and interview authors.

Brandon was there to talk about The Well of Ascension. I heard his elevator pitch (fantasy heist novel, superpowers, dark lord ruling for 1000 years, etc), and then he talked a bit about his thoughts on creativity and writing and I heard a kindred spirit. He and I have very similar views on creative production and craftsmanship, and I liked what I heard so much I went out and bought the first Mistborn novel, then the next, then the third in hardback when it came out.

I was especially hooked by his visually arresting concepts; men with steel spikes through their eyes, flat heads catching the light like Gendo specs, gleaming points emerging from the back of their skulls like horns? Giant raging blue hulks with their too-tight skin tearing off their muscles, carrying Big Damn Swords of pitted, jagged iron? Cloaked figures soaring over misty spired rooftops on invisible threads of force, flinging coins like bullets and slamming each other around with super-strength?

Yeah, I can work with that. :)

I figured what the heck, it'd be fun to draw new fan-art even if nothing came of it. I sketched up some Vin and Inquisitor and Koloss pieces, really basic stuff, and began posting to his fan-forums on the old Time-Waster's Guide (now long gone).

Unbeknownst to me, at that same time Brandon was looking into the market for a concept artist. Suddenly here I was on his doorstep, reasonably competent and already showing what I could do with his descriptions. He got in touch and let me know that he wanted someone to help him with a new project, a pitch for a series of epic novels that would require a strong visual component. And he was going to pay me.

Didn't even try to lowball.

So there's my "lucky break" story. Right place, right time, right work, right guy, right on.

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If you burned gold allomantically, who do you think you would see?

Ben McSweeney

Hmmm... well, there'd certainly be a version of myself that joined the US Navy at 19, 'cause that was a thing that very nearly happened. A classified ad and one phone call made the difference that day.

It's hard to imagine a version of myself that isn't an animator, but it's easily feasible to imagine that I could have stayed in illustration and never split the XP to go dual-class. I have no idea what I'd be doing now or if I'd even still be drawing at all, but it'd certainly be different.

Somewhere down a leg of the Time Trousers is a version of me that never discovered Brandon's work, or decided to draw up some fan-art, or posted it to his fan-forums... or tried doing any of those things at a different time in life, because I happened to cross Sanderson's path at just the right time.

The thing about gold shadows is that they show you "a version of who you could have been", but there's a near-infinite set of possibilities for that.


Yeah, the default seems to be pivotal moments in your life, but life isn't exactly short on near-pivotal moments. It's sorta a rorschach test; when you think about gold, what are the moments in your life that you think are pivotal?

What do you think the Sailor would think of you if you met him via gold? From our limited sample (Vin and Miles) goldshadows haven't shown a tendency to get along very well...

Ben McSweeney

Hard to guess. If military discipline took hold, he might be a different kind of person not just in terms of life history, but also personality and views. If he saw combat, he'd definitely be a very different Ben.

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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.

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In his chapter annotations, Brandon specifically pointed out the scene in Well of Ascension where Vin and the Koloss walk out of the mists, and said that- well, let me just find the quote... Ah, here it is.

"The scene where Vin walks away with the koloss in the mists, sword over her shoulder, all of them making silhouettes. . .well, that’s one I wish someone would do an artistic rendering of sometime."

As far as I can tell, nobody has ever done a rendering of that scene (though you have done one that was similar, with just Vin in the mists- that image now adorns my mousepad. :) thanks!)- have you ever thought about doing it? I'd love it if you did. ;)

Brandon Sanderson

The illustration of Vin you mention was, in fact, an aborted start to illustrating that very scene. One day I might get back to it. :)

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Any sweet secrets you can share about Stormlight 3?? :)

Ben McSweeney

Nope. I like my job, and I wanna keep it. :)

I only know a few secrets about Stormlight anyway, and I have no idea when or if Brandon will ever reveal 'em. I don't pry too deeply, because I enjoy reading the novels as much as anyone and I don't want too many spoilers (unless they're related to Shallan subjects).

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Do you find Time to work on your personal projects and as an Artist how to you reconcile the two ?

Ben McSweeney


I'm afraid I've largely set aside my personal work, I find little bits of time for it here and there but when I have to balance it against time with my family or time spent working for pay, it gets the short end. It doesn't hurt, I suppose, that I'm happy as a hired gun. Mostly what I like is working, I like to create and produce, and what I'm producing (or for whom) isn't always that important, so long as it's fun. :)

Event details
Name Ben McSweeney AMA
Date Oct. 6, 2015
Entries 76
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