The five Hugo-nominated professional artists are all outstanding, each in his own way, and we are blessed to have artistic talent like theirs in our field. I don't have the expertise to evaluate the artists' relative degrees of craft and technique, but I can say whose work most catches my attention and most rewards repeat examinations, whose cover art makes me want to read the book just so I can carry that gorgeous cover around.
The two artists who consistently draw that reaction from me are Stephan Martiniere and John Picacio. As much I love every Martiniere cover, I will have to rank Picacio #1 this year, because 2009 saw some of his most striking work yet. Let me call particular attention to his covers for Mark Chadbourn's Age of Misrule series, from Pyr Books (which never disappoints with its cover art). The covers are beautiful individually, but even more memorable for their progression through the series, from the torso of the immense mythical creature on the cover of World's End (dwarfing our heroes in the foreground) to the head on Darkest Hour to finally the Sauron-esque eye on Always Forever. Amazing stuff!
This should take nothing away from the other excellent nominees. Shaun Tan's Tales from Outer Suburbia is a terrific showcase of his work, even if it suffers a bit by unfair comparison to his wonderful book The Arrival from 2007. I hate to put Bob Eggleton all the way down at #4, as he has been one of the most reliable artists in the field for many years, but then again he already has nine Hugo Awards to show for that body of work. Daniel Dos Santos is also very good, although his style is slightly less to my tastes than the other nominees. Suffice to say that whoever wins the award will be a very worthy recipient.
Aaron's Ballot for Best Professional Artist
1. John Picacio
2. Stephan Martiniere
3. Shaun Tan
4. Bob Eggleton
5. Daniel Dos Santos