The Art Worlds of John Bierce

Commissioned Art


In Celebration

r/MageErrant hits 1000 members

To celebrate r/MageErrant hitting 1000 members, I commissioned isometric voxel art of Imperial Ithos, before and after its destruction!

It’s even got the bioluminescent algae in the canals during the nighttime/before destruction shot!

See more on Reddit

Into the

In January 2022, I commissioned a cover redesign for Into the Labyrinth, Book 1 of Mage Errant.

Here’s a description of how it all came together.

Click thumbnails for the bigger picture.

Original cover of John Bierce's fantasy novel, Into the Labyrinth.

The orginal cover

The original cover.

It’s…fine. Definitely solid for what I paid for it (can’t recall exactly, little over $100?), no complaints on my part. It’s great for pre-made art, and fits the book really well.

I’m just so, so much happier with the new one, though. (I won’t say how much the new one cost, but… a lot more than $100.)

Sketch of redesigned cover of John Bierce's fantasy novel, Into the Labyrinth.

Aaron's initial sketch

The pencils were done by a friend of mine, comic book artist Aaron McConnell, who remains one of the most versatile artists I’ve ever known.

Of the three covers we’ve done so far, this one was by far the easiest. I started off with a long, multi-paragraph description of Skyhold’s Grand Library, revolving around instilling a sense of vertigo into things; along with some reference art, like this crazy bookstore in China that Aaron found, a declaration that we should have a strong MC Escher/ Giovanni Piranesi vibe, and Érik Desmazières’ original art for Borges’ The Library of Babel. (I basically ALWAYS want an Escher/Piranesi vibe in everything.)

Aaron’s initial sketch, well…

It’s less of a sketch than a full work on its own, right? (You can check it out in higher resolution here. Zoom in and explore a bit; it’s nuts how much detail Aaron went into.) He intended it as just a quick pencil sketch, then started adding detail with mechanical pencil (Aaron has a really neat physical/digital hybrid workflow), and, well…things kinda got out of hand in a good way.

It’s really not a surprise. Aaron’s a badass overachiever.

Sketch of the cover mockup of John Bierce's fantasy novel, Into the Labyrinth.

Aaron's cover mockup

Then Aaron went ahead and turned it into a cover mockup.

Again, the larger resolution is well worth a look.

Sketch of the cover mockup of John Bierce's fantasy novel, Into the Labyrinth.

Lee's proposed changes

Next came a series of smaller fixes — mostly compositional changes suggested by the excellent Lee Moyer, who’s an old hand at covers.

At one point, something was bugging me about the image, and I couldn’t quite parse what it was. All I had to do was mention the spot to Aaron, and he immediately spotted and fixed the issue. Trust your artists, people, they know what they’re doing. (I thought about trying to explain what Lee’s reasoning was, but, honestly? Reading back on the email chain now, I’m pretty sure those two were discussing dark magic beyond mortal ken. That, and how to guide reader eyes around and convey a sense of vertigo.)

Working with Lee and Aaron together as a team is a genuine pleasure. They really bring out the best in each other.

Aaron's final pencil art

Aaron's final pencil art

Then, of course, we get to the Aaron’s final pencil art, all the changes added in.

Here’s the high-resolution version. Take the time to explore all the ridiculous and amazing detail Aaron included.

Lee's first (1) draft

Lee's first (!) draft

Then it was Lee’s turn up to bat, and, well… I honestly am running out of superlatives.

This is where I want to pause for a second and talk about canon.

This is where I want to pause for a second and talk about canon. This new cover for Into the Labyrinth? It’s the first one to try and replicate an actual scene from the books. (If you’ve read Into the Labyrinth, I’m sure you recognized it.) The original four covers were all pre-made or licensed art, so they obviously weren’t canon. (Though…well, I’ll talk about it more when it comes time for Book 4, but I paid for the licensed art on it before writing it, and it actually inspired a couple of fun worldbuilding details.) The cover for Mage Errant Book 5, The Siege of Skyhold? It’s definitely not a specific scene from the book, it’s just the protagonist standing in front of the titular location.

Even on Book 5’s cover, I had to worry about canon. It was the first representation of Skyhold, and of the protagonist, and as such it was going to carry a lot of weight for some readers. But…I dunno. I’ve always believed that the image a story summons in the reader’s mind is more important, more canon, than that of authorial dictat. I’m absolutely convinced that readers are active participants in novels, not passive consumers, that to put a story out in the world is to cede control to reader imagination. I loved commissioning these covers, but at the same time I don’t want people to think that these covers are the one true visual canon. There IS no one true visual canon — at least not for my novels. If you imagine something different than this? You’re right. (I’m sure there are other authors out there who will disagree with me on this. We’re a quarrelsome bunch.)

(To be clear, Aaron and Lee’s art actually looks BETTER than my imagination.)

But for this one, I had some new challenges commissioning it, since it was a specific scene. I had to worry about specific details more strongly, and had to make some decisions about where I was willing to compromise my vision for the sake of a better cover.

At several points, I offered Lee and Aaron choices in how we should proceed, because I trust their judgement over mine on art issues. All of those points were canon ones, where I was willing to sacrifice specific story details for the sake of the art. One, for instance, was the origami golem Hugh is following into the depths of the library. It’s an origami hot air balloon in the book, but I wasn’t sure whether to keep that, or to just have an origami bird or dragon golem instead. After we looked at some photos of origami, Aaron decided to stick with the hot air balloon.

There were a few other canon decision points here as well, though mostly minor ones.

Likewise, Lee’s initial colors looked fantastic, but the glow coming from the depths of the library is blue in the books, which is a significantly more important canon detail than what form an origami golem takes or any of the others. Still, I adored the way the pale glow looked, so I asked Lee for his opinion there, and was absolutely prepared to sacrifice that one detail for the sake of the cover.

Lee's first (1) draft

Lee's final draft

Lee went ahead and sent me this.

I need to reiterate a previous point: Trust your artists, they know what they’re doing. Lee made the blue glow look great. Then it was just a matter of adding the text, which you’ve already seen.

When it’s time to show off Book 2’s new cover, I’ll have more to say about canon decisions — there, we chose the integrity of the art over the written canon in more places.

Of the four covers Aaron and Lee have worked on for Mage Errant (three of which are done, only two of which have been seen by the public), this one definitely went the smoothest. This whole process, start to finish, was so much fun for me. I love commissioning art for my books — not just for covers; sometimes for fun, as well. Honestly, it’s one of the biggest reasons I’d be hesitant about switching from indie to traditional publishing, even if I had the opportunity. I love being involved in the art to this degree, which isn’t something traditional authors generally get to do.