When considering the artists whose work influenced me the most in the early days of my creative development, Chris Foss shines bright. Named the “dean of science fiction illustration,” his work became one of the dominating styles of book jacket illustration in the 1970s and later, and remains one of the great franchises of the genre.
I can’t remember my first exposure to his work, but I knew the name and the style when Science Fiction Monthly began in 1974. It may have been his cover for E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Galactic Patrol, which was the first golden-era SF novel I bought and read for its own sake – I remember the newsagent where I used to stare of those fabulous Panther editions, and the cover price was 95c – the year must have been around 1973. I still have it, indeed I’m looking at all the Panther/Grenada ‘Doc’ Smith volumes as I write this. I used to study the painting under a magnifying glass, puzzling endlessly over how Foss “managed to paint out of focus.” This was of course airbrush art, but I had only vaguely heard the term, and it would be six more years before I bought one.
Foss, born in Guernsey, the Channel Islands, in1946, brought to science fiction illustration more than imagination, he brought a grounding in architecture from Cambridge, naturally flowing into technical illustration – much as the American great Syd Mead brought sound technical knowledge to his concept work for US Steel and later movie applications. Foss’s work is characterised by a number of cardinal qualities – such as asymmetry, an artistic rebellion against the symmetrical design often necessitated by “form following function,” but sometimes by mere human preference: Foss’s work proposes that this need not always be so, either by choice, or by form-to-achieve function proceeding from laws of physics with which we are not yet conversant. This alone offers a wildly futuristic implication, so that when viewing a Foss painting one is imbued with a very convincing feeling of looking into another time and place.
It is also a future embodied in dynamism, brilliant colour and a minute attention to mechanical detail. It was said (by the venerable Brian Aldiss in his introduction to Science Fiction Art, Hart Davis MacGibbon, London, 1976) that the machine dominates in Foss’s art, and that any human being which may be glimpsed is invariably a tiny figure, hurried and occupied with his concerns, all of which are subservient to the technical grandeur of the machines of his creation. “When you catch sight of a human being in one of his paintings, he is a tiny, soft creature, generally in overalls, vulnerable, hurried, among the abrasive landscapes of a technological tomorrow.” (This may be ironically counterpointed with his black and white interior art for The Joy of Sex…)
During my younger days Foss represented the summit of the pyramid. I was well aware of the output of many other excellent artists, such as David Hardy, Eddie Jones, Kelly Freas (who also has been called the dean of SF art!) and others, but as a devotee of the machine in science fiction, Foss’s worlds captured my imagination like no other. His strange, almost organic machines, defying the laws of aerodynamics at every turn, implying as they do the unquestioned control of gravity, seemed to represent the ultimate ideal of the human triumph, embodied in the conquest of space. But his work also reflects the price at which these things come – his vessels belching pollution in the form of thick, black engine efflux, titanic explosions as things go very wrong, wrecked spacecraft marooned on exotic worlds, craft in collision, robots the size of mountains treading the natural world beneath their city-block sized feet – and humans minute as insects amongst it all, if they are glimpsed at all.
It was heady stuff for a kid, and I have to wonder to what extent these mega-machines helped shape my thinking. I have never forgotten the feelings those paintings inspired, the exotic and the alien made tangible, reachable, with the promise of technology overcoming the barriers of mundanity to free humans to explore the universe. And of course, the mechanical minutia, the intakes and exhausts, antennas and lights, every structural support and shock-absorber, represented with loving attention to detail and rendered with the brilliance of a very fine artist indeed.
When I think of the artists who have brought science fiction to visual life, Foss is invariably top of the list. I could rattle off dozens of names, each of whom has something special to bring to the table, a uniqueness of style or approach, visual tricks that stamp their work – but Foss is king. Perhaps it is the impact of his studied airbrush work, counterpointing traditional brushwork and the exquisite application of oils – a fineness of technique I have never yet been able to fathom. (How does one paint a perfectly straight, hair-thin line in oils?) Maybe it’s the outrageous vision, which marries artistic abstraction to hard machine technology; perhaps it’s the expansiveness of scope, the wide open spaces of the universe, made real. Whatever, “Foss-esque” has become a word in my vocabulary (yes, I tried his sort of fine detail, his strange not-quite-English lettering styles and plethora of antennae in watercolours as a kid), and there are times I’m more than tempted to visualise story material through the eyes of such imagination. After all, while one might never be able to afford to commission concept art from the maestro, one can always imagine it!
Now 71, Chris Foss is still working. After more than a thousand book covers, he has become his own industry, in a sense, not exactly cornering his own market but certainly preserving his own niche, distinct from the great many other brilliant artists in the field. There was a time when a Foss painting on the cover was almost guaranteed to sell an otherwise indifferent book, and art directors called for other artists to emulate him – which justifiably rankles the artist as it cost him work. The first major collection of his art, 21st Century Foss from Dragon’s Dream (1978), is a hard-to-find classic now, and the binding was less than flash when new – beautifully printed but the pages disengaged quickly from the sort of perfect-binding adhesive in use. Hardware, from Titan Books is a 240-page all-colour opus dating from 2011, and well worth adding to any connoisseur’s library.
Find Chris’s official website here.
What can I say? Foss helped shape my outlook on the universe, and his imagery remains both an inspiration and a standard.
Cheers, Mike Adamson