The wonderful sci-fi art of John Berkey

Posted by David Konow

I've loved poster art all my life, and when I wrote a story years ago about poster artists, I went on a long search to discover who drew my favorite works of all time.

It was wonderful to look up all the incredible portraits of Drew Struzan (Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Thing, Goonies), and another artist whose work I've always loved, John Berkey.

I had the opportunity to speak to Berkey several years before he passed away, and not only did he create the incredible artwork for the 1976 King Kong, The Towering Inferno and Orca (dreadful movie, but great artwork), but he also did a number of sci-fi paperback covers, which often have great illustrations. 

In designing movie posters and illustrating spaceships, Berkey gave ships and buildings all the great little minute details I love much like you see in the spaceships in Star Wars and Close Encounters.
Berkey started out at Brown Bigelow, a major catalog and calendar company, which taught him how to research his subjects, and create his paintings quickly. He also learned what he designed had to be pleasant to the eye, and Berkey told me, "I couldn't paint anything that was disturbing to anybody. I had to make pictures that people would want to look at for a while."

Back in Berkey's time, there was tons of work doing paperback covers, and many illustrators kept painting them to put bread on the table. Berkey also designed the Star Wars novelization illustration we often post here on TG, and Berkey told me he went over the illustration with George Lucas over the phone when he was in the hospital for stress. (It was the pivotal moment where Lucas decided he didn't want to direct anymore).
I also found it wonderfully ironic that Berkey could draw city skylines with great depth and scope, as well as the infinity of space, but he was afraid of heights. For The Towering Inferno, he told me he worked off photographs, and just looking at photos of tall buildings made his hands sweaty with nerves.

Berkey came from a different era of illustration when there was a lot of work for artists everywhere, and movie posters were hand drawn and designed. No computers, no photoshop, and it's an era we'll never have again. 

Berkey did the art for about forty movies, and as he told me, "The nicest part was always seeing the finished product. I enjoyed being a poster artist; it was fun to be a part of that time. I didn't know it then, but it was the end of illustrators working on films. I think the field of illustration in general has kind of collapsed."