One of the UK’s most acclaimed sci-fi artists, Jim Burns is the winner of the prestigious Hugo award for art and has more British Science Fiction Awards than any other writer or artist. His erotically charged work is lauded across the universe.
Jim was very gracious in answering a few of my questions about his new collection, Hyperluminal (Titan), his influences, and much more!
Kristin Centorcelli: Will you tell us a bit about your new collection, Hyperluminal?
Jim Burns: I seem to produce a collection of one sort or another about once a decade…so the time was ripe! My agent, Alison Eldred felt one was overdue also – and proposed the book – along with ‘companion volumes’ by Ian Miller, John Harris and Fred Gambino to Titan – who eventually decided to go with the idea. Thank you Titan!
The book is essentially an overview of my 42 years in the business of producing science fiction and fantasy art, mostly for the book jacket market – but also some small ventures into the movies – which I touch on briefly – and also the world of private commissions – something that has become much more important to me in the last few years and is slowly replacing my commercial work. There are a number of personal pieces represented also…again something I’m finding more time for these days.
I also wrote all the text for the book (apart from the foreword graciously contributed by Joe Haldeman) – aiming at a sort of anecdotal style which I hope shines a light on the kind of life a science fiction artist lives!
KC: What are a few of your favorite pieces from this collection?
JB: I tend to prefer recent pieces over the very old ones – although I view some of the old jobs quite fondly – particularly if they have some kind of pleasurable memory attached to their genesis and execution. Of the recent material I’m very pleased with ‘THE ICENI GIRL’, ‘WANDERERS’, ‘THE DRYAD OF THE OAKS’ and ‘HATCHLING’. I employed two of my daughters in another pair — which I do tend to think of as companion pieces…’HOMUNCULARIUM’ and ‘TERTIARY NODE’. HOMUNCULARIUM in particular is one I’m quite proud of. It’s had a terrific reception since I completed it…I’ve managed to sell a steady stream of prints. In a way it was the piece which marked a new resolve in me to follow my own muse a little more in future. As such, it and TERTIARY NODE are part of an occasional series I call ‘Lost Narratives’. Older pieces such as ‘SEASONS OF PLENTY’, ‘HEARTS, HANDS AND VOICES’, ‘THE LOVERS’ and some of the Peter Hamiltons…in particular ‘PANDORA’S STAR’ still stand up pretty well.
But I’m MUCH more interested in the paintings still to come!
KC: You’ve not only worked on cover art, but have also worked on films such as Blade Runner. What are the challenges with each type of project?
JB: My involvement with film work was pretty minimal really! But it doesn’t matter how much I tell the real story of – in particular – my work on ‘Blade Runner’ – people will insist on believing what they want to believe!! Many artists find themselves working on very early concept ideas for movies and when the thing finally makes it to the big screen whatever influence one might imagine oneself to have had on the look of the film it’s become so diluted that it’s hard to spot! At least that was the case in my own experience. I did a lot more concept work on The ‘Chronicles of Riddick’ than I did for ‘Blade Runner’ (I decided to exclude that material from Hyperluminal as getting permission is a path strewn with obstacles and I decided to avoid the heartache!). One film I always felt that was becoming ‘my own’ in terms of how it was beginning to look was the remake of ‘Forbidden Planet’ back in the 80s. I was given a lot of freedom to come up with ideas for that and I developed a great working relationship with the director, Irv Kershner and Production Designer, Richard Sylbert. Drawings were faxed across the Atlantic to Hollywood (essentially pre-digital times still!) and things were starting to look pretty ‘cool’ if I may say so. However – clearly the film never got made…fell apart in a mess of litigation.
Challenges are similar to cover art in terms of ‘the expression of the imagination’…..but one is engaged in longer timelines obviously and usually a closer working relationship with one or more people – usually the director or production designer – Who are calling the shots more clearly than with cover work – where I’ve been lucky over the years to have been largely trusted to just ‘do the job’. And cover art results in finished paintings. Film concept work is usually much more abbreviated – sketchy, quickfire ideas.
Things are probably much changed since I did any movie work. It’s been many years…..
KC: Your career has spanned almost 40 years, and you’ve undoubtedly influenced many artists with your work, but which artists have influenced you the most over the years?
JB: Pre-eminently the artists of Dan Dare from the Eagle comic of my childhood! Frank Hampson and Frank Bellamy in particular I think. I still find little Hampsonian references popping up unbidden in my designs. One reason I suppose why people often say my stuff has a ‘retro’ look to it..
Chris Foss was an important influence in that it was when I first saw his work I realised that this silly business of drawing spaceships and alien scenarios which I found such an amusing diversion might actually provide something resembling paid employment attached to it! So from an early age it was definitely the ‘UK’ scene rather than the US which caught my eye. I love the kind of detail and dense narrative sense you find in 19th Century art..such as the Pre-Raphaelites and the various associated groupings around them. I think my desire to convey the notion of ‘so what’s the story’…. a real sense of narrative and the idea that something was going on before and after that moment and that there is a world of possibilities beyond the edge of the image…is very much part of what drives me.
KC: You’ve worked in many mediums, but do you have a favorite?
JB: Well, I got used to acrylics and they’ve served me well.It was a struggle to get to learn how to handle them well but the technology of acrylic paint manufacture has improved hugely over the years. Just recently I’ve been using Golden Open acrylics…a formulation that gives one longer drying times so that the paint remains workable in an oil-like fashion for a day or so. I love using these. I’m considering a move back to oils – which I did use back in the late 70s and early 80s. I suspect if you were to ask me this question a year from now I might well say ‘oils’.
There is a place too for digital work. I find it a nice occasional escape from the physically quite hard work of painting on board or canvas. Non painters will laugh at this. Painters will understand!
KC: Are there any authors or books that have been particularly influential for you?
JB: Well, writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov were influential in terms of ‘getting heavily into the genre’ – but that’s probably true of many lovers of science fiction. I never did very much cover work for books by those guys though. By far the single writer for whom I’ve done the most cover work is Robert Silverberg…somewhere around 45 I think! I’ve found myself particularly closely involved with a small handful of other artists too….Peter Hamilton for one. I put the covers on all his books up until the 3rd volume of the Void Trilogy, when his publisher decided a new look was maybe a good idea…no issue with that I should add. In terms of ‘influence’ maybe my 2 year collaboration with Harry Harrison in the late 70s – working together on Planet Story was hugely important to me. My style and working methods advanced by leaps and bounds during that period.
I don’t know if I can pluck particular volumes from the hundreds (thousands?) of SF novels I’ve read as being particularly influential. But I know that I get a singular buzz of recognition of where I want to be art-wise when I read things such as the moment in Joe Haldeman’s ‘The Forever War’..when our group of human soldiers first see the Tauran threat in the form of a very weird goggle-eyed alien riding something resembling a witches broomstick across the sky..or Cordwainer Smith’s description of an alien ship as looking like two fried eggs fused together (I think that was Cordwainer Smith!). The sense of extreme ‘otherness’ hugely appeals to me…
KC: What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?
JB: Think twice!! No – that’s trite…but laced with a streak of common sense maybe!! It’s harder now than it was when I was starting out. The word ‘artist’ is somewhat loaded. I’ve always thought of myself primarily as an ‘illustrator’…and a commercial illustrator at that. And there is no question that the commercial arena…in particular ‘the worlds of the fantastical’ is populated hugely these days…mostly I think… by practitioners of digital illustration. Hundreds…thousands of them!! The competition is incredible and I suspect that the ‘shelf life’ of artists working in this way is limited. Those who prefer to work in paint will find it harder to make a living these days as fees are tiny in comparison to a decade or two ago…so making a living at this game is extremely precarious. I feel it’s presumptious of me to offer advice really. It’s a different world from 1972 when I started out. Everything then was paint..and in the U.K. and U.S. I would guess that the total number of artists/illustrators making a living out of it back then was a very few dozen at most. I was lucky to be counted amongst their number and have been able to build a career and a reputation of sorts over 40 odd years. I don’t see how that state of affairs can exist nowadays. At least not in the world of cover artists.
The one bit of advice I don’t feel unsure about is that if you are enjoying exploring your creativity in pencil and paint…then never stop pursuing it as it will provide a dimension to your life that is not open to everyone. To be creative in any way is an enormously rewarding gift…but don’t expect it to necessarily pay the bills! Always have a Plan B!
KC: What other interests do you have besides art? How do you most enjoy spending your free time?
JB: Lazily! I wish I could claim the sort of fascinating life outside my ‘art’ that would impress people. I like to read, to listen to music, to cook (a lot!). I enjoy collecting eggs from my chickens!!! I enjoy the company of friends down the pub of a Friday night. My wife and I would like to travel more than we do …and maybe we’ll get round to that more in the future. Truly – a very ordinary life!
KC: What’s next for you?
JB: More and better paintings!!! I have dozens of ideas for paintings in my head and a number of them are sort of underway..a lot of them mythologically-orientated. The work is definitely heading in some new directions…larger, more ambitious, darker in theme sometimes..I’m supposedly past that rather arbitrary retirement age. But that’s never going to happen. To stop painting would be completely pointless for me. I really don’t know how I’d fill my hours and days…