Sci-Fi-O-Rama proudly present a very special feature on Chris Foss, as profiled by Jeff Love, owner and admin of the sublime Sci-Fi art blog Ski-ffy.
Born in 1946 in Guernsey, Channel Islands, Chris Foss is a British illustrator and a powerhouse of science fiction design and invention. His work is a celebration of future machinery, impossibly sized constructions exist on a planetary scale; a showcase of hardware so large that the human figure is dwarfed by comparison.
Arriving in the SF illustration field in the early 1970s, he is a cult figure, influential and universally admired. For British SF and SF art, his work can be seen as a catalyst; his prolific output was used abundantly in the UK paperback market, particularly by publishing houses like Panther, Coronet (Hodder & Stoughton) and Granada. Foss’ iconic paintings adorned the covers of American classics; E. E. Smith’s Lensman and Family d’Alembert series, reprints of the works of Asimov, James Blish and Philip K. Dick. These colourful scenes of gargantuan spacecraft, space-scenes and enormous robots not only influenced an entire school of imitators, but instilled a love of future-tech amongst several generations of science fiction fans.
His early life encouraged an interest in art, his endeavours with pencil won him a scholarship to a public school in Dorset. Exploration of the surrounding area yielded numerous influences; elements of post-war, semi-derelict, bombed-out buildings and shipyards can be seen in numerous examples of later work.
As a young man during the 1960s – by way of compromise – he found himself studying architecture at Cambridge University. His parents (both teachers) disapproved of his wishes to become a commercial artist. Finding architecture too drab a subject, Foss was reportedly something of an absentee student and by his second year he found himself providing strips of erotic artwork to Bob Guccione’s (later to publish OMNI) Penthouse magazine. The former being so impressed with the young artist that he put him on retainer to illustrate a Barbarella style strip.
Though he found steady work working for an architectural sculptor, the following years were not easy. After a few false starts whilst working various jobs to support himself, Foss career finally began to grow following an introduction to a design agency. Though he produced cover art for miscellaneous non-SF titles at first, this also included interior illustrations; careful line drawings for Alex Comfort’s The Joy Of Sex (1972) that showcased his talent as a varied and capable draughtsman. Meanwhile his reputation for skilfully depicting starships and future themes become so, that authors such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke would specifically ask for his work to be used on the covers of their novels.
As Foss’ name and portfolio grew, Hollywood called. Conceptual work followed for the planet Krypton (Richard Donner’s Superman – 1978) and early designs of the Leviathan and Nostromo spacecraft (Ridley Scott’s Alien – 1978) but perhaps most famous are his contributions to Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unrealised 1975 film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Science Fiction classic Dune.
It is as a cover artist, however, that Foss is best-known. His arrival and rise in popularity initiated something of a renaissance amongst publishing houses and art editors. Previously (particularly in the UK), paperback covers – more often than not – were one of two ways: utilizing (or re-using) artwork previously found on the covers of American novels, nebulous, bland patterns or photography that suggested space as a theme, but depicted very little. There were exceptions of course, but Foss’ creations surely motivated on two fronts: in the eyes of the book buying public, as well as that of the publishers and art editors who had on their hands a skilful demonstration of the importance of jacket design, proof – if any were needed – that books can sell solely on the merit of the cover.
A new wave of artists soon followed in his footsteps as publishers sought artwork similar in tone and execution, similarly talented, wielding airbrushes. Not to diminish their talents: Tim White, Chris Moore, Peter Jones and Angus McKie’s early works often bear more than a passing resemblance, each frequently mistaken for the other, though each developed into their own, individual and recognizable artists in their own right. However, unlike the majority of his contemporaries, Foss is not a fan of SF, and as such did not read the books his was commissioned to illustrate jackets for. Scenes are rendered entirely from the imagination and as such do not illustrate scenes found inside novels. In this sense they can be seen as vague, or meaningless abstraction – but serve the purpose of creating interest in the books they appear on very well. The attraction is the technology; art for art’s sake.
Foss’ legacy is a body of work that informs us that in regards to fantastical spacecraft, elegance in appearance is not strictly necessary. Spacefaring vehicles could be as floating cathedrals, organic, asymmetrical leviathans as large as the imagination might allow. His visualisations of space hardware show incredible attention to detail: behemoths with scale reinforced by scatterings of pinpricks of light. Rejecting the needle-pointed, aerodynamic and militaristic rocket shapes established by pulp heroes, he opted instead for enormous and colourful industrial vessels, floating relics rendered with a weight of authenticity; free from the restrictions of mass in a vacuum.
Foss’ vessels may be enormous, but space is always bigger.
Many, many Thanks to Jeff Love for this bloody brilliant article! be sure to check out his blog http://ski-ffy.blogspot.co.uk
To read up more about Foss please check the following articles:
And finally If your interested in the very latest from Chris Foss himself check his site: chrisfossart.com