The classic sci-fi artist reveals how meditation took his work to new heights
Was there ever a particularly important painting that changed everything for you?
I can’t remember any one epiphany regarding a particular painting until long after I left art college. I just grew into being an artist really. And that was inseparable from another thing: a contemplative life. These two things merged together in my 20s and have remained that way. One sustains the other. Part of that was a love of space science and inevitably I came across Chesley Bonestell and his wonderfully atmospheric landscapes. What’s the appeal of depicting space, and humans in relation to it? That’s a question that goes to the heart of why I’m an artist. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t physically and mentally stirred by ‘the vast’. I always felt it as a sensation in the body. Mentally, I associated it with the future. It filled me with electricity. This energy sparked off imagery in my mind, which I wanted to share.
Did meditation influence your art? I can‘t overstate the effect the practice of meditation had on the art. Before I started the practice, in 1970, I had been unable to formulate the feelings of the vast into any coherent expression, but after about five years of living and breathing that practice, it quite suddenly became clear as to how to proceed. It’s now second nature to translate those feelings into imagery. What was your first paid commission, what’s the last piece that you finished, and what’s the main difference technically and thematically? My first paid commission of any consequence was the trio of paintings in Alien Landscapes, published by Pierrot Publishing in 1979. My latest commission was from Berkley Books, for Jack McDevitt, called Coming Home (see above). Technically, it differs in medium, being in oils on canvas instead of shellac inks on paper. Broader, more painterly maybe, but not much different from the first, and thematically calling on the same perceptions I’ve always had – of atmosphere, scale and space.
Have you any painting rituals?
I have no painting rituals to speak of,
I cannot overstate the effect that the practice of meditation had on my art
except chucking the cat out of the studio. I love her really, but her hairs do manage to get everywhere. Where's the coolest place that your job has taken you? Without doubt, a commission that took me to watch a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral has to be a high. How did the invite by NASA to paint the launch come about? In 1984 I went to the States for the first time. That spring I’d had the privilege of meeting Arthur C Clarke in Sri Lanka, and there I met a friend of his, Freddie Durant III. It was he who suggested I contact NASA and show my work to them. So while I was living in Colorado, I took a trip south and visited the NASA headquarters in Houston. I left some slides with them and when I returned home to the UK there was an invitation waiting for me. How has the industry of fantasy and sci-fi art changed over the years? The state of sci-fi and fantasy art is a contentious issue. It’s a hugely varied industry, but more and more now, I see the level of technical ability going through the roof. If I do have a gripe, it’s that the influence of the comic strip tends to dominate the industry, particularly in film. However, this realm of art also offers the maximum freedom, with the discipline of remaining accessible to its public.
coming home John Harris’s cover for Jack McDevitt’ novel Coming Home, due out in November 2014.
Spindizzy John’s painting of Spindizzy (an anti-gravity device), from James Blish’s Cities in Flight omnibus.
Eclipse over a Crystal Plain “Pastel rough. This shows how a sketch can have a vitality the finished piece may never attain.”