Vintage SF cover art is in a league of its own. Looking back at some of the paperback covers from the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies is to see the visual language of science fiction being worked out image by image. There’s an experimental feel to a lot of the artwork produced during this period that totally floats my boat and so today, for your viewing pleasure (possibly) and for my own delectation (definitely) I’m sharing a select few of my favourite artists.
Richard Powers 1921-1996
I first came across Richard Powers’ work only last year when I was looking for some older cover art for J G Ballard’s The Drowned World (one of my reads for 2020’s Vintage Science Fiction Month). He is, I’ve since learned, one of the best known American sci-fi cover artists of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, although he did covers for a much wider range of genres and produced well over a thousand during his career. His work for Ballantine Books set the tone for their new paperback editions and his work became so synonymous with science fiction that other artists imitated his style.
There’s an incredible site here that collects together a lot of his work. The site divides his cover art up into decades and it clearly shows the change in his style over time, from fairly typical 1950s pulpy kind of images to much more striking surrealist illustrations, (he was influenced by Pablo Picasso and Yves Tanguy). Most of the stuff I like is in the latter category.
I love his fabulous use of colour and find some of his images almost hypnotic. I’ve only included a few of my absolute favourite covers here for you to drool over with me, but if you dig what you see I really do recommend a visit to the site link to above. (Alternatively, you could just keep revisiting this post – I do so love the attention! *winks*).
Leo and Diane Dillon (1933-2012 and 1933- respectively)
The Dillons are primarily known as children’s book illustrators (for which they won two Caldecott Medals) and my first encounter with them was when I was perhaps eight or nine years old and reading Monica Furlong’s Wise Child for which they did the cover art. It was their cover that drew me to the book and a lot of their work illustrated my childhood. However, they also produced over one hundred speculative fiction covers early on in their career for the Ace Specials series and off the back of that they won a Hugo Award in 1971.
The two artists met at the Parsons School of Design, New York in 1953, graduated together in 1956 and married the following year. They described their collaboration beautifully in saying that by working together they did things that as individuals they would not have done and referred to a “third artist” to explain this relationship.
There are so many things I love about Leo and Diana Dillon’s artwork: I love the magic of their picture book illustrations and that they filled my childhood with a cultural diversity I would not otherwise have experienced until much later; and I love their range (something I can’t fully represent with my choices here as I’m focusing on work done pre-1979, but if you want to see what I mean I can’t recommend enough this unofficial site that shows a wide selection of their work – as well as providing links to a couple of great interviews they did).
Here are some of my favourites from their covers for Ace:
Bruce Pennington (1944-)
My love for Bruce Pennington’s work is a nostalgic love. My tastes may have changed, but I still feel a ton of affection for his covers when I see them. If Powers’ images are suggestive of new ideas and imaginative leaps, and the Dillons’ work grounded in the infinite variety of humanity, Pennington’s pictures capture, for me, some of the fun and adventure to be found within science fiction.
A British science fiction and fantasy artist, Pennington did over two hundred covers over the course of his career for some of the big names like Aldiss and Asimov, Heinlein and Herbert. A lot of his science fiction work was done for New English Library for whom he was a leading cover artist in the Sixties, before he moved into horror and fantasy in the Seventies and Eighties. His website is a good starting point if you want to learn more, or if you just want to admire a very fine moustache, which I always do).
He’s another artist whose use of colour really floats my boat and his covers for Frank Herbert’s first three novels were what prompted me to read Dune when I was a teenager. While I now have a 50th Anniversary edition of Dune with a striking sandworm flat design, I also still have my Pennington copy because I just can’t get rid of it.
So tell me, do you have any favourite vintage sci-fi cover art/artists? Anything particularly pulpy? Whacky? Surreal?