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If you are at all familiar with science fiction art, then you definitely know the work of John Harris. Harris has been one of the leading artists of the genre since his start in '70s, producing amazing paintings for book covers for authors including Isaac Asimov, John Scalzi, Ben Bova, and Jack McDennit.
Going beyond the stereotypical "dark abyss speckled with stars" that most people see when they think of space, Harris builds worlds outside of our own, balancing familiar ideas with inconceivable landscapes and structures. In his new art book entitled The Art of John Harris: Beyond the Horizon published with Titan Books, the artist gives readers a glimpse into his imagination with hundreds of pictures of his work and stories about particular moments throughout his career, as well as in-depth narratives about the worlds that he has created. Harris provides details about these places as if they were his hometown, or a city that he has lived in for decades.
Intrigued by his ability to create and fill worlds with life through his art, we got the opportunity to ask John Harris a few questions about his life, his process, and the new book:
In the book you talk about being a child born just after World War II and how spending time “exploring the ruins of abandoned bunkers and the jetsam of an industrialized society” influenced your world. What are your earliest memories of creating art, and did those things appear in your pictures then, or did you draw and paint "typical" kid themes?
Like many kids, I spent a lot of my time living within my imagination, but I don't recall drawing 'things' consciously until I came into my teens. However, I do remember clearly, playing perceptual games with cracks in the ceiling of my bedroom and with marks on the walls, dreaming myself into spaces that were suggested by them.
There was this sense of illusions of depth which excited me, but I don't remember filling these voids with anything or any people. There's no doubt in my mind that this was a practice which honed my visual imagination, but it was a feeling I was after.
And I don't recall doing any drawings as such, though I'm sure I must have done. Watching clouds was a great past-time, not to look for forms but just to get that thrill of the immensity of space up there, filled with light. I wasn't aware of anything like 'art'. Then, in my mid-teens, I became aware of an ability to draw, quite easily, whatever came to my eyes. During those years, my attention was turned outward. I drew the mundane world and imagination had little part to play. That came much later.
How often do reference materials come into play in your work?
If by reference materials you mean sources of imagery, then very little. I used to look a lot at military hardware when I first started working as a sci-fi artist, and scavenge around garages for hunks of indefinable metal which could trigger my imagination.
Putting any artifact into a vast space causes an immediate translation, of course. The sense of scale is crucial, and learning how light works. With those two elements, anything seen in the ordinary world can become a reference.
Most of the pieces in the book look grand in scale and in ideas. Do you prefer to work big, or is size dictated by the piece?
Some images demand the scale of the canvas to be as big as is practical (which, in my mind, is usually not big enough!), but the commercial pressures of time and money don't always allow it.
Sometimes, the concept of the piece suggests a smaller scale, as with most of the pictures from The Hidden Sun. And, of course, the medium dictates the size quite often. The pastel studies are nearly always very small and intimate.
What are the three biggest changes that you’ve seen in the genre of science fiction art over the course of your career?
It seems to me that there have been quite distinct phases in the evolution of the sci-fi art during my lifetime. When I was a kid, the genre was dominated by the work of comic strip artists like Frank Bellamy, and those who painted the covers for Astounding periodicals.
Artists like Jim Burns and Sid Mead took that futuristic look to a whole new level in the mid seventies. I came in around that time, having been fed on Chesley Bonestall, who captured the spirit of exploration and a sense of wonder, that had a huge effect on me. And Chris Foss, an engineer by training, gave a realist twist to the technology. By this time, of course, NASA had flooded the world with the imagery of actual space travel.
Another game changer was H.R. Giger, who gave the genre an altogether darker tone, with his work on Alien, a direction that has rather dominated the genre for quite some time, aided and abetted by the digital revolution which has made it easier to produce very convincing realities, however bizarre (the explosion of knowledge of genetics has vastly added to our sense of possible futures).
My personal feelings on all of this is that, as artists, we merely reflect the dominant zeitgeist, possibly brought about by real scientific development.
Besides being a comprehensive and personal survey of your work, what do you want people to take away from The Art of John Harris: Beyond the Horizon and what advice do you have for young artists who find inspiration in its pages?
All any artist can ever do is try to express the heart's response to his or her world. Ever since I can remember, my awareness has been dominated by the sense of being on a world swimming through a vast unknown space. I don't know where this idea came from, or when it became a feature of my life. But the images that I have created have, I hope, been saturated by that sense, timeless and, dare I say it, without style or reference to culture. If anyone seeing my stuff gets a whiff of that, I'm happy.