Turner Spaceship (1991)

Sci-fi artist Chris Foss talks through his inspirations

Chris Foss is, for many, the artist who brought science fiction to life with his vivid illustrations for book covers and film.

Chris Foss has had a fundamental impact on the world of science fiction, bringing to life the works of luminaries such as Issac Asimov, Doc EE Smith, Harry Harrison and AE van Vogt and Philip K Dick. No mean achievement from an artist who proclaims that he had no love of science fiction as a child.

Many influences can be discerned from your paintings aside from your love of steam trains, particularly from your early years in a bombed-out Exeter and abandoned German defensive structures in Guernsey...

It was a phenomenal grounding. Funnily enough I was growing up straight after the war and the place was flooded with surplus machinery. I was at school in Dorset and the local airfield was pioneering flight re-fuelling so all the outbuildings were crammed with the exotic bits of kit. You could literally crawl all over army lorries and large artillery pieces. I suppose if you had an interest in machinery it was an absolutely fantastic time.

One of the reasons that engineers like your images can be summed up in a quote about your cathedral in space project for Games Workshop: "With all my ships I need to feel that you could imagine them working, you could imagine them landing and taking off." Is that element of realism important?

You must remember I have no formal engineering training whatsoever. I was having a conversation recently with a friend who looked at me very puzzled and asked if I had done physics at school. I had to reply honestly that I really couldn't remember.

But I grew up with Meccano; I was an avid fanatic and my dad used to help me build the most exciting things. I remember building a huge car complete with proper steering, which was quite something in those days. I think that was a pretty good basic grounding in the realities of life. It just seems such a shame that things like proper, metal Meccano no longer exist.

You like your ships to look well used - I think you called them "hard working industrial animals"?

As I was growing up the British railway was in decline and all the steam engines were grimy and stained. I just seemed to be totally engrossed in that. They weren't these shiny, new things. Funnily enough, some of my very earliest impressions are coming back. I remember a friend of mine coming round with his brand new, ultra-shiny car. It was a gleaming piece of machinery and when you are young things like that can make such big impressions. Then he opened the bonnet to this great big, grimy piece of cast iron and it was a genuine shock to a child that this was the engine. You would have thought it would be all shiny, glorious and stratospheric.

This brings us back to your passion for steam trains. Was this a big influence on your sci-fi work?

I inherited the passion for steam trains from my father. My mother would go out shopping and we would go off and ride on a train. That passion has definitely influenced the looks within my work. To this day I travel a lot. You ride on a railway and if it is a straight diesel engine it is nice, it makes a noise and is a bit smelly; but when they roll out a steam engine it was a different story. I have just come back from France and there was a wonderful railway with what appeared to be a massive rusty house steam pump. The engine was literally panting and, of course, I was mesmerised watching this pump prime everything, let off steam and then prime everything again. It was such an obvious beating heart.

If we talk about personal influences these seem to be varied and numerous - architecture from your mother, landscapes and infrastructure from your father, machinery and steam engines from Great Uncle Jack. All are evident in your work...

Apparently it is all part of family folklore. I went back to Guernsey recently to find the old house. Uncle Jack was one of the last of the great Victorian builders who never actually did anything. The stories of him are about him driving for miles just to buy a few pounds of nails. I remember in one of his drawings I could recognise the steam engine, even though I was only about four years old at the time.

In your youth it was westerns rather than science fiction that sparked your imagination. Was it this love of westerns that fuelled imagery of landscapes?

I grew up with the black and white images of the Lone Ranger and I was always fascinated as they rode through these landscapes. Years later, when I worked on 'Alien', we did actually ride out to some of the ranches where they used to shoot those films. There is something just very exciting about these rocks on a sandy landscape.

Your use of light and dark is said to be similar to Turner; do you feel this was influenced by the light native to Guernsey?

I think Guernsey has an awful lot to do with that because the light is very direct here and I spent a lot of my childhood there.

I have a theory that the weather is deteriorating because poor old Guernsey is some sort of intersection for continental traffic - I am sure that the vapour trails are excluding the sun and giving us the bad weather that we get now. But we used to have days of crystal clear blue skies and blindingly direct light. In fact, in my studio here about a year ago I moved some paintings and despite the fact that the light is oblique when coming into the studio, there were squares left on the walls underneath where the paintings had been.

Lots of your illustrations have stripes and very bright colours - any particular reason for this?

I very much like stripes on the spaceships, especially black and yellow diagonals. I cannot remember if the railways did it first or I did. I remember all the early diesel trains had those terrific black and yellow diagonal stripes on them.

Going back to your book jacket work, you say that you rarely or never read the books. Was the brief really as vague as 'let's make this one green'?

It is quite embarrassing when you have'been doing artwork for these authors and haven't read a single one of their'books.

I met Isaac Asimov and he said he was actually a very non-visual person and his were the worst to illustrate because he didn't have many visual descriptions. But then my favourite art jacket was for Asimov, where I asked what they wanted and they said that because the last one was a red one I should do a blue one. That would be it; I wouldn't even know what the title was.

I was interested in the jump-on-scooter you illustrated for the 'Flash Gordon' film. Apparently they made it exactly how you drew it - is that another indication of how practical your futuristic renderings can be?

They did. I was so flattered because I had worked of so many films and everything you do is open to liberal interpretation. I was called in to work on 'Flash Gordon' as a trouble-shooter by Danilo Danoti, who wasn't very happy with the designs he already had. I came up with some designs and to my utter amazement they made them almost exactly as I drew them.

You have experienced a great disparity in your collaborations with film-makers - ranging from almost indifference of some, such as 'Superman' and 'A.I.', to the immersive enthusiasm of Alejandro Jodorowsky on 'Dune'. How important is that relationship to the creative process?

Fortunately Jodorowsky came at the beginning, otherwise I wouldn't have realised just how priceless he was. He was genuinely inspiring and admiring of what I did. Of course, the contrast couldn't have been bigger against 'A.I.', where Stanley Kubrick was basically negative all the time... but then he was negative with everything around him. Quite frankly, I would have worked for a fraction of the money to have had a much more direct dialogue.

I can still remember spending hours on various paintings and he would ask me to paint out a few bits, almost as though he could sense the parts I really liked so I had to take them out.

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