MIND MELD: The Appeal of SF&F Art
If you’re like us, there’s nothing quite like a really cool piece of science fiction or fantasy art. For this week’s Mind Meld we decided to ask the SF&F artist community about what they find appealing about science fiction, fantasy and art. (Special thanks to Lou Anders for his help in bringing this Mind Meld together. Thanks Lou!)
And now, our question:
Among my earliest memories are the dragon in Sleeping Beauty, as seen through the front windshield of the family car at a drive in, and of a giant eyeball chasing astronauts through a weird alien set on a black & white TV.
I was hooked early.
It was the era of the space race and television; Zorro and Batman and moonshot coverage competed with Gunsmoke and Wells Fargo for my love. One of my most treasured possessions was my G.I. Joe space capsule and astronaut. Lost in Space almost captured me in the third grade, though it became stupid pretty quickly. But Star Trek changed everything. Science, plus fiction, coupled with amazing visuals … and my first taste of social consciousness. Later, 2001: A Space Odyssey would push science fiction into philosophical terrain as yet undiscovered by me, and the first two Planet of the Apes movies would awaken my political awareness in a big way by killing my heroes, trashing our civilization, then destroying the planet. The movies drove me to the books, where Arthur C. Clark asked questions about life, the universe, and everything, and Isaac Asimov laid down the law for robots.
Everything I learned that I remembered best came from a science fiction movie or book. I learned about PH from The Andromeda Strain before I was old enough to have a chemistry class. Fantastic Voyage taught me more about the human body than any 5th grader had business knowing; most adults couldn’t tell you what a fistula was — but I knew. Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man introduced me to Psychology. Valley of Gwangi pushed me right over the edge with dinosaurs; I devoured every text about them I could find. The fiction made me hungry for the science.
When I discovered Tolkien (after rejecting it several times; who wants to read about elves and dwarves?) I realized that Fantasy could have something to say, too. Fantasy and its mythic roots led me to Joseph Campbell and a whole new understanding of religion and mythology and the fuzzy boundaries between the two.
Fantastic fiction speaks to our thirst for knowledge, our hunger for personal discovery, our desire to shape and understand our environment, by asking “what if?” and playing with the answers.
As a visually-oriented kid, the art of it all was key. Good writing in books evoked mental images that I had to explore; I learned to draw largely by creating my own science fiction and super-hero comic books. The ground-breaking and mind-bending special effects in Forbidden Planet, 2001, and Marooned taught me to look at the world with a more critical eye, and to make use of the sciences to inform my art. Geometry and Perspective go hand in hand, the physics of bodies in motion are essential to good art, as are understandings of color theory, geology (a mountain is not a pyramid), astronomy and astrology, history, even the psychology of perception … on and on.
Good art makes it all the more real. Art informs. Art, like writing and movie-making, is an exploration into the unknowns without and within. It ponders realms that cannot be photographed or described with words, because they are ineffable and timeless. It helps connect the emotional and visceral with the cognitive and philosophical, the unreal with the real. At its best, it teaches or amuses, shocks or disturbs; it makes you look again, and then again – only deeper.
It takes the question “what if?” and answers “perhaps this…”
I’ve always loved good gritty hard boiled sf movies… and that, probably more than anything is what sucked me over to this zany profession. Alien, Blade Runner, and Star Wars all played key roles… That made me want to CREATE fantastic imagery. I really didn’t begin to READ science fiction, until I began to do illustrations professionally. I think SF is most powerful, when it effectively transports us away from our lives, and takes on philosophical or political themes that our world is currently immersed in. Battlestar Galactica ROCKS for doing this so well. Philip K Dick was a master. Gibson is a favorite…and he weaves it all together with such visual prose that we can have that suspension of disbelief we need in order to experience ideas powerfully anew. Illustrating for the field has exactly that challenge. I want to push the visuals in a way that inspires the viewers’ imaginations, and ideally I want to contribute to the powerful themes of the story that my art is unveiling. It’s also important to HAVE FUN…because people will feel that in experiencing the art.
I still vividly remember my introduction to SF. (perhaps not my first, but the first I remember) It was sitting in the school library in first grade poring over the pictures in a book called Spacewreck: Ghostships and Derelicts of Space by Stewart Cowley. Before I’d read of bright shiny future ahead, I’d already seen it lying in rubble and decay. I don’t think I ever recovered.
Where does illustration/art sit in with S/F? Sometimes it’s redundant, like a cover meticulously rendering a scene from the book it’s on, but at its best it can capture in a glance that feeling of the vast and the numinous, that the written word may take pages to describe. Then it sings.
I guess the generic answer for what drew me to the field in the beginning would be comic books, films, and film posters that affected me as a kid…the sheer energy, bombast, and limitless possibilities. I think the visuals for all of those were a profound influence. If I were gonna give a more detailed, scatter-shot answer, it would look something like this…Blade Runner; the Star Wars trilogy (definitely a child of the Star Wars era, for better or worse); watching syndicated Star Trek shows every day after elementary school; watching classic 1930′s/40′s Universal Pictures horror films of the 30′s & 40′s with my mother on Saturday afternoons (again, elementary school…my favorite being the 1935 Bride of Frankenstein); illustrated movie posters (especially the work of Drew Struzan and John Alvin, even before I knew their names); comic books, comic books, and more comic books and especially the art of Neal Adams (his Batman work), Bill Sienkiewicz, Frank Miller, Dave McKean, George Pratt, Kent Williams, Jon Muth, and way too many more to count…
As far as illustration’s place in the sf/fantasy field, I think the good stuff visually transports its audience to a place (or state of mind) they might not normally go by themselves. I think that’s always been the case, and still is today. Look at the work of some of the great ones…Richard Powers, John Berkey, Vincent DiFate, Jeff Jones, Michael Whelan, and Bob Eggleton, for example….all major illustrators in the history of the field, but with very different approaches and I think the reason their images endure is each offers a personal vision, and that resonates with the audience. Personally, I’m interested in illustration that not only entertains but provokes questions. I think if you look at the latest Spectrum annual, it’s clear that the field is full of terrific, provocative art in comics, book covers, concept art, and the like. Speaking of book covers, I’m very curious to see how new sf/fantasy art is treated in the new age of ebook readers, and the new age of dodgy copyright legislation. I recently received an email from John Jude Palencar and it included the following link which is not good news for illustrators. I plan to speak up about this. I hope others do the same!
As early as I can recall, imaginary worlds have evolved through my drawings. At first these were derived from more contemporary content based upon dinosaurs, elements from the military and inspirations from children’s books. In the mid-seventies science fiction movies and comics quickly supplanted these sources; all those stories I had read about and watched were now taking place in a wonderfully new place, a world of unlimited imaginative potential. Reading science fiction and fantasy novels and role playing with such games as Traveler and Dungeons & Dragons represented the next evolution of this passion for the imaginary. Eventually this hobby turned into a professional passion through the schooling I received at Syracuse University. Within a year of acquiring my BFA in Painting, I found myself illustrating my first set of science fiction/fantasy novel covers: gracing the reissues of classic works of none other than Mark Twain, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells! I couldn’t ask for better authors for my first professional works. Those commissions opened the doors to hundreds more covers, game illustrations and other illustration venues over the course of my fifteen year career.
Without the visuals presented by artists working on Star Wars or the illustrations which accompanied my D&D modules or graced SF novel covers, I cannot imagine being as enthusiastic about this genre as I now am. I love literature, but find myself more passionately drawn to visual presentations. I would rather visit a museum than read a book. It is indeed a personal preference, but I see illustrations and art as a way to cut across barriers of language and culture to speak to us at a deeper, and even baser, level. I cannot speak a word of Ancient Greek, but I can stand speechless in front of the Laocoon and feel the emotions that sculptor wanted to transfer onto his audience. Love may last a lifetime, but great art is for eternity.
As an illustrator, I’d say I really aim a little more at a “pulp” target than a truly science fiction or fantasy field. Dramatic lighting, angles, cool poses and classic iconic imagery – then add the genre – science fiction, fantasy, detective, western, pirates, (or any combination of the above) plus a hero and beautiful heroine, let me step into the picture and I’m happy.
“What drew me into this field?” (pun intended)
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t watch every episode of Star Trek, Outer Limits, and Twilight Zone – I guess I always did gravitate towards the “fantastic ” but when I liked the characters, that’s when I was really hooked.
When I was 13, Star Wars came out (the true “Golden Age”, 13). I had to have anything related to the film. Along with adding the comics to my regular comic book habit, I joined the Science Fiction Book Club to get the free Star Wars and Splinter of the Minds-Eye books. What were the other six books I was going to buy-within-a-years-time-at-a-low-regular-price? Well, those John Carter of Mars books looked very cool (some guy named Frazetta or something did the art). Swash- buckling adventure on a low gravity planet, fighting Martians (excuse me, “Barsoomians”) & scantily-clad women, I was hooked (did I mention I was 13?). I did eventually move on to some truly great science fiction reading from Alfred Bester, Robert Heinlien, Ray Bradbury and such but, for me to illustrate , the silly, even sometimes corny pulp storytelling stuff is the most fun world to play in. Still haven’t grown up yet.
“The place of illustration in this field?”
This may be a little backwards version of your question but, as an illustrator, my question would more likely be: “In the ever shrinking opportunities to create finished illustrations (which will see print in, or on, books and magazines and such), where can I go?”. The two main reasons the answer would be science fiction and fantasy – 1: For an image which does not exist and needs to be envisioned / created (that is, you can’t (yet) hop a shuttle to Alpha Centauri during Grunion running season or whatever and get your photos back to the printer in time for next weeks’ issue of ” Astounding”). Even if you created this image in Photoshop, were still talking creating art. 2: The readers in these fields still have an affinity for the craft of a well executed illustration. They enjoy when artwork looks like the person who created it put some love into it. CGI and such, for the time being, is still one step removed, a little less personal. I don’t imagine that Romance book readers dislike artwork, but the fact that the majority of the covers out there these days are barely altered photos which hasn’t impacted on sales (or has it?) makes me wonder.
I was always fascinated with space, science and imagination. This was at a very early age – like 4 – I liked old monster movies (they were recent, then) and comics and stuff. We went to the 1964 World’s Fair and I saw dinosaurs at the Sinclair exhibit for the first time, ever. It was fairly mind blowing stuff for me. Then my Dad got me into Star Trek and I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey after that. And by that time I was drawing so all I did was draw cool, weird stuff. The fascination with dinos led me to Godzilla, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and so on, so it is all connected. And as I got into later school years, I got better with the art and the two sort of blended together. I went to my first SF Con, Boskone, in 1979, and I wanted to be part of this community…which I did. I think SF is a visual medium…it shows us imagery we can see nowhere else and conjures up visions of the future. The artists that work in this field can show this in visual form and it isn’t easy to visualize things that have not been invented. Granted, cover art is changing – it’s going very mainstream and in a few cases, very cheap looking thanks to the overuse of the computer in hands that are less-than-talented. Illustration has always shown in graphic form, SF’s rich and imaginative history. There are some who want to “divorce” themselves from the “pulp” past and I think that’s wrong, because that’s where it all really ignited. The romance of say, Chesley Bonestell’s epic space visions is something we can look up and say “this is what we thought the moon looked like” and really, don’t we wish it did?
Filed under: Mind Meld
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