Brandon Sanderson’s Art Director: Meet Isaac Stewart

When I read Brandon’s books, I feel optimistic about humanity, I feel more positive about myself, and I feel like I can make the world a better place. Thousands of people have read Brandon’s books and felt similar things.

Isaac Stewart is a well-established map and symbol illustrator for bestselling books such as the “Mistborn” and “Stormlight Archive” series by Brandon Sanderson.

Who is Isaac Stewart and how did he start working with Brandon Sanderson?

Good to be here! Thanks for reaching out to me for this. I’m the Art Director at Dragonsteel Entertainment, the company Brandon Sanderson formed for his storytelling ventures. I’ve also spent a fair amount of my life writing stories and making maps for them, so art and publishing have always been paired in my head.

I started my professional life after college as a 3D artist, working in the education video and video game markets. I worked with talented people whose work I held in very high esteem. But I needed to find myself. So I went back to school for another degree. This time for optometry.

You’re probably thinking, “Wut?” I should’ve been thinking that too, but I already had most of the prerequisite classes for optometry school, and I figured if I was going to be doing a job that wasn’t really fulfilling to me, I might as well be making an optometrist’s salary at it. So I went back to school.

Second semester back, I took a break from science classes to take the science fiction and fantasy writing class. I’d taken it a few times back in my undergrad days when Dave Wolverton taught it, but this time around it was being taught by some Sanderson guy who had a novel coming out later that year. I wondered if he could write, so I became the first person to check out his honors thesis from the BYU library. Indeed, Brandon Sanderson could write, so I took his class, where we realized we were only a couple of years apart in age, and became friends. One night after class, we went to Macaroni Grill, where they let you color with crayons on paper tablecloths. He saw me doodling and asked if I’d like to do the map for his next book, Mistborn.

A map of Luthadel for Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn” by Isaac Stewart. Image provided by Isaac Stewart.

I’d been doodling for a very long time. In the margins of notes in science classes, on my daily planners when I was a missionary in the Philippines, in sketchbooks, etc, but I never expected that doodling on a tablecloth would ever lead me anywhere. It was a diversion. The real work was always the paperwork I’d doodled on, never the doodles themselves.

After that semester, I did odd design jobs, worked at a hotel as a night clerk, and eventually wound up again as a 3D artist and animator at video game companies. During this time, I did freelance work for Brandon on the side from 2005 to 2013, when he hired both me and my wife Kara to work for him full time. Optometry didn’t pan out, but doodling did.

Describe Brandon Sanderson to people who don’t know him.

I don’t have the time to read every new fantasy novel that comes out each year, but the trend seems to have been toward grittier and darker fantasy. That’s not to say there’s not a place for fantasy like that, but I do find Brandon’s hopeful outlook on the world refreshing. Even during the darkest parts of his books, there’s usually a light in the darkness that the character can cling to.

When I read his books, I feel optimistic about humanity, I feel more positive about myself, and I feel like I can make the world a better place. Thousands of people have read Brandon’s books and felt similar things.

There’s a familiar proverb ‘round these parts that goes, “light cleaveth unto light.” Brandon’s work shines a light, and the light that’s within his readers responds to that light and is drawn to it.

How does Isaac Stewart think Sanderson will be viewed by the fantasy community in 50 years?

This is a hard question to answer because I seem to have misplaced my crystal ball, but I can tell you how I hope Brandon and his work will be thought of 50 years from now.

Even though there were fantasy writers before Tolkien, he’s the one we look to as sort of the Grand-daddy of the genre. If Tolkien was sort of the Shakespeare of fantasy, I hope that someday Brandon Sanderson is regarded as the Victor Hugo or Charles Dickens. For me, some of Brandon’s works are already as powerful as say Les Miserables, A Christmas Carol, or Nicholas Nickleby.Who’s to say we have to stick to the fantasy community alone?

I hope readers outside of the fantasy community will also find the value in his stories and feel their lives are better for having read them.

Has Brandon Sanderson remained relatable as his fame has grown?

Rather than answer this directly, I’ll tell you a story. Last December (2017), Brandon and I found ourselves at a book signing that hadn’t been widely publicized. We were done after about forty minutes of signing, which really isn’t the norm anymore. Instead of packing up and calling it a day, Brandon stayed to answer questions, and then he invited the eight or ten people who were still around to come play Magic the Gathering with him at the local game store.

So we played Magic for a few hours with people we’d just met, and we had a blast.

What does Isaac Stewart wish fans knew about Brandon Sanderson?

When I was growing up, kids hung posters of their heroes in their rooms. Sports stars, rock stars, boy bands, etc. I don’t know if kids still do this or if following their heroes on Instagram is the equivalent. But back then—and today—not all of these “heroes” are the sorts of people parents want their kids emulating.

If I could tell fans one thing about Brandon Sanderson, it’s this: He’s the real deal. He’s the kind of person you want your kids emulating. He is one of the best people I have ever known. Period.

What nostalgic experiences come to mind when Isaac Stewart reflects on either reading or assisting Brandon Sanderson with the first “Mistborn” trilogy?

I doodle a lot in church. I don’t really consider it work because it keeps my hands busy so my ears are focused on listening. I’m usually drawing what’s on my mind, and in 2005 I was thinking about the maps and symbols for Mistborn. For a while, Brandon and I thought we might add little drawings of Inquisitors in the book somewhere.

If you haven’t read Mistborn, Steel Inquisitors are basically warrior martial arts priests who get their magical powers from steel spikes that have been driven through their eyes. Creepy, right?

So there I am in church, drawing creepy-looking guys who have spikes through their eyes and tattoos covering their faces. I remember one woman sitting next to me and clearly wondering what on earth I was drawing, especially considering the location.

I eventually introduced that woman, Emily, to Brandon, and they later were married. See, doodling can get you a job and can help your friends get married to each other!

Describe the mechanics of creating a map. What are the major steps and in what order do you typically approach them? To what extent do you coordinate with the author?

A few years ago, ran an article about how I approach my maps:

But in a nutshell, usually I work with the designer at the publisher more than I work with the author. The author sends a rough map to the designer who then sends it on to me. I figure out what the final size of the map will be and work to fit the author’s vision into those specs, keeping in mind the design of the book and how the map should integrate into and support the author’s worldbuilding.

Isaac Stewart paints a map of Rosahar in this Youtube timelapse video.

I dive in with sketches, showing how the map will fit on the page, and once that’s approved, I usually ink the map on an iPad pro. That usually gets me 75% of the way to the finish, at which point I’ll export to Photoshop and add lettering and textures.

I get to work more closely with Brandon Sanderson, Brian McClellan, and Tad Williams and his team than when I do  freelance maps for other authors. In Brandon’s case, I work for him directly, so I get feedback every step of the way.

Brian and I have known each other for a long time, so even when I’m working with a publisher for his maps, he and I communicate a lot to make sure he gets exactly what he needs for his books. Tad’s publisher has been very open about letting me communicate directly with the author and his team so I get the details as correct as possible, but at the same time, his publisher has been quite good at making suggestions to make the maps better as well. In all three cases, I enjoy the process quite a bit.

What is the role of a book map in helping the reader feel a sense of progression? Which of Isaac Stewarts maps is he most proud of in this regard?

I think it’s rare for a book map to show story progression. Otherwise the map would contain blatant spoilers for the story. Even without an Indiana Jones-style dotted line to show where the characters will go in the story, fantasy maps still have a reputation sometimes for only showing cities that the characters will visit in the book, which is similar to drawing a dotted line anyway. These days, I think most fantasy maps try to include enough places to keep the plot a mystery without overwhelming the reader with a wall of text. The map still needs to be usable, after all, so that’s a bit of a balancing act.

In certain instances, having a map that shows where the story ends can be a helpful marker to how close a reader is to the end of the book. If the goal is to take the magic ring and destroy it at Mount Doom in Mordor, then a reader can take a look at the map and see how close to Mordor the characters are. Brandon Sanderson sometimes mentions the map for Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. The map helps the story by showing the main characters progressing toward their goal.

I don’t know if this map helps readers feel a sense of progression or not, but my favorite map of mine is probably the one I created of Roshar for the back of the dust jacket of Oathbringer. I’m just really satisfied with how it turned out.

A map of Roshar in Brandon Sanderson’s “Oathbringer,” by Isaac Stewart. Image provided by Isaac Stewart.

What is the most time consuming mistake Isaac Stewart has ever made?

Not following my passions early enough in life.  But I gained experience. Brandon Sanderson and I kind of almost crossed paths once or twice before we met in his class in 2005, but if I hadn’t returned to school to become an optometrist, who’s to say I’d be where I am right now?

“Journey before destination,” folks. It’s a real thing.

Does Isaac Stewart ever hope people associate his name with a good map—or does he hope to be invisible and focus on the story and the author?

Is “both” an acceptable answer to this question? I love it when people recognize my maps. Sure, it’s a bit of an ego boost, but sometimes when you’re creating art all alone, the occasional ego boost is helpful in keeping the fire alive.

Growing up, my favorite artist was Michael Whelan—he still is, actually—and I would buy just about any book so long as it had one of his cover illustrations on it. Recently I’ve met people who have bought books just because my maps were in them. That makes me smile. I’m glad there are people who enjoy my work.

Isaac Stewart working at his kitchen table. Photo provided by Isaac Stewart.

All that said, I want my maps to be immersive to the world the author has created. The author works very hard to keep readers in the story and to not add things that will throw the reader out. I’ve started doing that more with my maps.

For example, I’ve stopped signing the printed map with my real signature followed by the date the map was made. It looks too modern. It spoils some of the immersion. I’ve started using a small unobtrusive glyph as my signature instead.

What details would Isaac Stewart add if technology advances enable new technologies like holographic book maps?

That sounds really cool! But having worked in video games and map creation, I know how much work can go into that sort of project. We could spend more time creating a holographic map for a book than it took to write the book in the first place!

That said, wouldn’t it be cool to have the globe of Roshar, for example, rotating in front of you? You could zoom in ala Google maps and find places as grand as Kholinar and Urithiru or as quaint and humble as Hearthstone. Over here you might click the icon of a famous battle and see it recreated in front of you. Zoom into the window of the Kholinar palace and watch Szeth on his way to assassinate the king. (Or maybe you don’t want to watch that!) Find the distances (and driving directions!) between Azimir and Yeddaw. Surf the sea on the back of a Santhid. Track a Chasmfiend across the Shattered Planes … but we’ve veered back into video game territory.

Honestly, the Luddite in me feels like if a holographic map was included with a book—while super cool!—it would detract from the actual reading experience rather than enhance it. I’m way more excited for self-driving cars than I am holographic maps. Then I can experience the world I already live in without having to drive myself places. 🙂

Further reading

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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