Friday, 24 November 2017

John Harris isn't just a great science fiction illustrator - he's a great British artist, full stop.

I could look at John Harris's paintings for hours - I know, because that's what I've been doing since receiving...

... The Art of John Harris: Beyond the Horizon (2014) for my birthday earlier this week. Until I started using Pinterest last year, I hadn't heard of him - and now I'm convinced he's one of the greatest living British painters. London-born Harris has been producing works of "imaginative realism" in the English Romantic tradition since the mid-seventies.  His powerfully atmospheric, timeless paintings have graced numerous science fiction paperback covers, his work has been exhibited all over the world, and, in 1984, NASA invited him to witness the launch of the Space Shuttle and commissioned  a painting of the event.

I've tried to write something coherent about John Harris's art, but I've failed - so here, in amongst some illustrations, are a dozen disparate observations regarding the defining aspects of his work.
Deep Space becomes water - his spacecraft often resemble whales or sharks, while, around them, smaller spaceships swim like fish:
Entropy is a major theme - everything is damaged, decaying, fraying, fragmenting...
The fuzziness of his edges suggests the temporary nature of everything: objects in Harris's universe vibrate with movement, change, energy, constantly suggesting that the centre cannot hold...
Objects float, suspended in space, defying gravity - while pendulous ropes and cables hang from them, obeying gravity. The anomaly is deliberate and unnerving.
People tend to be tiny figures in vast, Lovecraftian landscapes, overwhelmed by the scale of structures created by others.
He does BIG brilliantly...
His use of colour is masterful and adventurous -  vibrant reds, deep oceanic blues, acidic yellows, delicate pastel shades, bold and shouty or vaporous and ghostly.

He loves seemingly pointless, unprotected walkways, worryingly poised over vast abysses.

When his man- or alien-made objects don't look like fish, they recall other animals - birds, insects, elephants etc.

While many SF illustrators create lovely, shiny spaceships and then plonk them proudly, statically in the middle of the frame, even when they're evidently in motion, Harris's craft are either definitely at rest or whizzing through space.
There are circles everywhere - huge afterburners, enormous pipes, planets, ringworlds, calderas etc.

Harris loves higgledy-piggledy towers which look as though they'd been constructed by careless children and are teetering on the verge of collapse.
When there's something violent happening, by God can you hear and feel it!
Harris is a proper painterly painter - apart from tweaking some of his work on a computer for an online project with the writer John Scalzi, he almost invariably uses oil on canvas.

One thing I've noticed about artists who are best-known for illustrating genre fiction book covers is that when they escape long enough from the day job to express themselves freely, the sort of art they choose to produce is often disappointingly mundane and unadventurous. In Harris's case, his main extracurricular activity has involved creating his own alien world in a series of 70 paintings known as The Right of the Hidden Sun, which has resulted in some of his most impressive work - including the vast lava-spewing outlet at the top of this page, the enormous red hoover-like object somewhere in the middle, and these three paintings, the last of which (a girl setting off on a rite of passage along a perilous  walkway) started the whole process off some 30 years ago:
One of the other things that sets John Harris apart from many of his fellow-artists is that he writes extremely well about his own work. The Art of John Harris is not only a beautifully produced and superbly illustrated book (the reproductions are breathtakingly detailed, revealing layers of meaning and a variety of techniques which online images only hint at) but the artist's own commentary is wonderfully illuminating. 

You can find John Harris's website here. If we have any money left after refurbishing our house next year, I would love to place an original John Harris painting on one of our freshly-plastered walls.

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