Picture in your mind the cover of Ender’s Game. You’ve got a perfectly clear image, don’t you? Now think of your favorite Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov works, or even the newer covers of books like Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. The common denominator in this science fiction landscape is a name you may not have heard but whose art you’re already familiar with: John Harris. His absorbing vistas, immense in scale, have graced book covers aplenty, but now they’re getting their own spotlight in The Art of John Harris: Beyond the Horizon. In honor of its release last month, the man himself took a few moments to discuss his work — and how he probably would not want to be an astronaut.
As the introduction to the book notes, much of the awe in your artwork comes from the sense of scale and atmosphere. What was the biggest influence on your style and how do you achieve that look?
As a youngster, I was steeped in the tradition of English landscape painters of the 19th century, Turner and John Martin being the obvious ones. Both of these artists used the scale and atmosphere of architecture to bring out the Romantic spirit. I just put it into a futuristic context. Looking at the superstructure of modern warships at sea, for example, with that blueing of aerial perspective, was one of the many cues surrounding us, that helped me figure out how to do that.
What is it about science fiction that captures your imagination, and when did you fall in love with it?
The scale of Time and Space, above all the perspective that scale provides, injects a thrill into my sense of being here now. It’s been that way ever since I was an adolescent.
You’ve done the book covers for a number of authors, including Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Orson Scott Card. Without sparking cosmic warfare, do you have a favorite? Is there someone whose work you find particularly fun or challenging to render?
The writers of the ’50s and ’60s have to be my favorites. Even their visions of dystopia had a luminous quality to them. But I think Arthur C. Clarke’s affirmative view of things scores very highly for me. By contrast, Ray Bradbury’s poetic and subversive style is also a huge favorite.
Finally, you’ve spoken of how taken you were by NASA’s images of Earth after you were commissioned to paint a space shuttle launch in 1985. So, important question: Would you rather be an astronaut or an artist?
If I wasn’t an artist in my soul, I might not want to be an astronaut. But if I was an astronaut, I would certainly want to be an artist as well.
The Art of John Harris is on sale now!