There are only a handful of artists who paint nearly all of the science fiction book covers we see. At the forefront of this insular industry is Chris Foss, who has painted covers for hundreds of books, and sketched conceptual drawings for many films.
Hardware: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss provides a visual history of this career, with some of the images in the book released to the public for the first time.
A number of of the images are incredibly fanciful and it’s fun just to imagine the stories they may have accompanied, like the illustration for Circumpolar, which is in a whole section of prop planes, some of even in space.
This one depicts a yellow fixed-wing prop marked as the Spirit of SanDiego. It's flying through a giant ring of ice in space, being followed by a bunch of large yellow ships that look like futuristic cargo vessles. The Ice-ring has bits of old battleships and frigates sticking out of it at odd angles, and earth can be seen small in the distance.
The book is loosely organized by subject, rather than chronology or alphabetic. This gives one an almost eerie sense of the similarity of themes running through SF over the years. For example, there is one point in the book where three images across a two-page spread all depict giant mechanical claws rising from the ocean, painted across a span of almost two decades for three different projects.
The wrap-around paintings are interesting to see because of the way they all focus to the right, while the left of the painting is usually nearly featureless. The style looks natural wrapped around a paperback, but seeing them flat out on the page looks a bit off balance, and I can’t help but think how challenging it must be for an artist to work against typical rules of visual focus like that.
It’s impressive to discover (from the text in the introduction) that Foss almost never worked from a guide or sketch, he placed the paint on the brush and got to work without knowing where he might end up. This, I guess is what made him such a great concept artist. He couldn’t work from other people’s sketches and paintings because he was the one making the sketches and paintings for others to work off of.
I had the most fun searching through the book for covers I recognize, and I found quite a few, but the images themselves are so compelling that I also ended up adding a few books to my ‘need to read’ list, just based on these covers (unfortunately, some of them are difficult to find at this point, as they’ve been out of print for some time).
Overall it’s a beautiful - and huge - book, which would go well on the coffee table of any science fiction fan. I know it will be sitting on mine for a while.
Hardware: The definitive SF Works of Chris Foss is now available from Titan Books, and can be picked up on Amazon. More of Chris Foss’s work can be seen on his website.
Images © Chris Foss, courtesy ChrisFossArt.com