Interview with Jim Burns 2004
I've been a bit lax in doing interviews recently - hopefully this situation will be rectified in the new year. In the meantime here's an old interview I did with brilliant sci-fi artist Jim Burns back in 2004. Jim's art has adorned the book covers of such futuristic authors as Robert Silverberg, JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, Ray Bradbury, Philip Jose Farmer, Harry Harrison and many others. I notice he has a website where you can actually buy original artworks of his and even commission stuff! Check it out.
Did you have an interest in sci-fi and art when you were a kid growing up in Cardiff?
Jim Burns: Certainly an interest in art way back as far as I can remember. As a child of 5 or 6 I recall my next door neighbour (with the unlikely name of Mr Pead or Peed!) furnishing me with vast heaps of paper he brought home from his workplace... Cardiff Docks I believe - the paper had a printed schematic on one side of a ship's hold or somesuch... something to do with cargo manifests or the like. Whatever they were - they had beautiful, white, blank reverses and provided me with what seemed to be an almost infinite resource and I was able to scribble and daub away to my heart's content! My children have enjoyed a similar benefit - the reverse sides of the countless manuscript copies I've received over the years.
My parents were always encouraging too, providing me with whatever I needed to keep me amused (and quietly out of my mum's way as she did the housework!)... and I think it was the fact they thought I may have had a 'precocious talent' that made them 'show off' my scrawls to neighbours etc - hence the Mr Pead connection!
I always - even at that age - loved drawing cars and aeroplanes. This fascination with the appearance of things mechanical and technological generally stayed with me and at some point subtly transformed itself into the love of science-fiction. I used to love making up fanciful designs for futuristic cars and aircraft - trying to improve on the real thing. My first memories of a particular interest in sf seem to be around the late 1950s when I was perhaps 8 or 9 - and started taking the Eagle comic (Dan Dare - Pilot of the Future!!!). I adored the storylines - but even more, the fabulous artwork of Frank Hampson, and later Frank Bellamy. I still see their influence in my depictions of hardware in particular.
You joined the RAF when you were 18. What specifically was your job - were you actually flying aeroplanes?
Jim Burns: Common sense dictated that I should have gone straight to art college. But my heart spoke louder than my brain! By my mid-teens I wasn't only interested in drawing aeroplanes (real or future evocations). The real things became a total obsession... military, high-speed, aggressively-purposed, fabulously exotic ones... not the commercial variety.
I joined the RAF as a trainee pilot aged 18 in 1966. I was only in for 18 months but during that time acquired 140 hours flying time including solo flying on De Havilland Chipmunk primary trainers and Hunting Jet Provost basic jet trainers.
Giving up a decent job in the services to go to art college is an unusual change of direction (it must have horrified your parents!) Can you remember why you took the leap?
Jim Burns: I didn't give up the RAF - it gave up on me!! I wasn't a very good pilot! Very high skills are required of RAF pilots, possibly the highest in the world - and whilst I could solo a jet I wasn't able to get through the later more advanced stuff within the alloted time frame of a flying training programme (flying jets is an expensive business!). I could perhaps have stayed on in a non-flying capacity - but that held no appeal for me - so 'voluntary suspension' - followed by application to Newport School of Art for the Foundation Course in Art and Design.
Do you regard yourself as an illustrator or an artist?
Jim Burns: I've argued the toss for thirty years about this one! And I'm left with the feeble fob-off I'm about to give you... I don't know! My instinct is to say 'illustrator'. I work almost 100% in a commercial milieu to briefs largely formulated by others, the images I create being born chiefly from the written words of others - not as 'expressions of my soul' or the 'heart-felt expression of deep, inner turmoil' or (etc. etc.)... I'm happy with the description 'illustrator'. If others want to call me an artist - that's fine as well... sorry to shilly-shally around this touchy area!!
Your work is renowned for being 'super-real' - how did your style evolve?
Jim Burns: It's where my 'personal muse' has always taken me. By the time I was at art college in the late 60s I had still only progressed to the less-than-ultra-sophisticated medium of coloured pencils! By the time I came out of art college I had at least progressed (partly) to water-colours and gouache. My first commercial book jacket job was however executed in coloured pencils! I realised eventually that if near-photographic rendering was where I wanted to go - then I had to experiment with other media. So over the years I went from coloured pencils, through water colour, gouache, an unsuccessful flirtation with acrylics, oil paints and then a serious engagement with acrylics - which has been my preferred medium since 1980.
However I've recently acquired some water-based oil paints - I feel that I've gone as far with acrylics as I can - and I feel like a change after all these years. The most useful single step I made in respect of 'photo realism' was the acquisition in 1974 of an airbrush - definitely part of the standard repertoire of a science fiction artist and a hugely useful tool once mastered for realistic rendering. If I say so myself, I have developed a fair measure of skill with the tool - though it's a frustrating love-hate relationship I must say!
How do you approach each commission? Do you try to capture a particular scene from the book you're illustrating or do you attempt to evoke mood, atmosphere, ambience?
Jim Burns: Both of these things in varying measure. Principally though my preferred way forward with a commission is to read the manuscript - which unfolds in my mind's eye rather like a film - and then to 'freeze frame' a moment - or perhaps combine elements of several freeze-frames - to carry some sense of the story line on to the cover art. I've been told that I have a knack of locating pivotally important moments for this process. I think one owes it to the writer and of course the reader to at least present some accurate narrative snapshot of the story on to the cover - though one is often stymied by other considerations handed on to one at the briefing stage by the art director. Design and marketing considerations sometimes get prioritised over accurate narrative illustration!
What tools and materials do you use... and to what extent have you embraced computer technology?
Jim Burns: See a couple of answers ago for most of that! And yes - 6 years ago I purchased a PowerMac - a cutting edge 8500 at the time - now incredibly slow and limited....but which gamely goes on coping with everything I can chuck at it. I'm a great fan of Macs and can't understand why anyone would want to mess about in the frustrating world of Windows! The Mac gets used at various points in the creation of artwork these days. Certainly the sketch and design stages heavily use the Mac. Some illustrations have a mixture of painted and digital elements and sometimes, though not often, an entire painting is created on the Mac. I actually paint on gessoed mdf. Hardly an artist's traditional material - but it suits me!
Do you use models for the figures in your paintings or is everything drawn from the imagination?
Jim Burns: If one is trying to create a photo-real impression of say, cities, planetary landscapes, aliens and spaceships etc - you can't drop stylised or cartoonish made-up figures into those worlds and expect them to work! So I've always relied on models. I don't have that enviable skill for spontaneously being able to generate convincing human forms. If I did then my work would have gone off in a completely different direction. I employ professional models, use my family and friends and also have amassed loads of useful reference material over the years from all sorts of places. I've become quite adept at manipulating found-material - and this is another area where the Mac proves useful.
Figures, landscape, futuristic hardware - you often combine all three in a particular painting but which do you enjoy depicting most?
Jim Burns: These days it's the combining of all those elements into convincing wholes what gives me most pleasure. Figures are easier now than they used to be. That was the bit I always left till last! Hardware is fun because it's easy and no-one can tell you it's wrong. If I decide that a Space battle-cruiser built by the mantis men of Betelgeuse looks like that - who's to tell me I'm wrong? But a nose that's slightly askew on a pretty girl's face is immediately obvious - and everyone has a legitimate excuse to bring it to my attention!
You've done covers for books by Asimov, Clarke, Ballard, Silverberg, Sladek, Moorcock, Barker, Wolfe, Bradbury etc and picked up numerous awards in the process. How do you keep the work fresh and yourself motivated?
Jim Burns: Motivation gets difficult sometimes. I do worry about becoming 'stale' and like any job one does for 30-odd years without a break - it can become a bit 'stuck-in-a-rut' at times. But I feel myself fortunate that I'm one of those lucky people who turned a childhood pastime and pleasure into the means to make a living, so I shouldn't gripe. I'll believe you if you say the work still looks fresh! I can only say that, on the whole I still enjoy the work. The day it becomes a chore - then no doubt the freshness will go out of it. I'm not the huge fan of sf reading I used to be - I tend to read other kinds of literature these days. But that doesn't seem to have impacted yet on my desire to create strange sf imagery. I love the challenges it offers still.
Ever get any feedback from the authors as to how succesfully they think you've interpreted their work?
Jim Burns: Occasionally yes. I've become associated with particular authors whose books I've become the 'default artist' for - so these days I have good working relationships with people like Peter Hamilton and John Meaney - all of whose output to date I've covered. I enjoyed a long and fruitful collaboration with Robert Silverberg who always seemed very happy with what I did for his books and has sent many letters, emails etc over the years to express his satisfaction. It's a nice 'icing on the cake' element of their work!
Do you sell the resultant artworks, and if so, how much does a Jim Burns fetch on the market?
Jim Burns: I'm a commercial artist - everything is for sale! I've sold originals for anything between £10 and £10,000. Not a lot of the second figure though (I wish!). And £10 will only get you the most abbreviated of sketches! Most of my paintings fall into the £1500 - £3000 bracket.
You did a bit of work on the Blade Runner film back in the Eighties. What did that entail exactly?
Jim Burns: Here's the story in brief. Ridley Scott got in touch via my agent. Early days in his film career, Alien under his belt and a new project gestating. That project was Dune. He saw my illustration for 'Colonel Kylling' in the joint book project Planet Story that I did with the sf writer, Harry Harrison - and thought that this depiction was perfect for the Baron Vladimir Von Harkonnen character in Dune. Shortly before I was supposed to fly out to Hollywood and participate in early concept work on Dune - that project was shelved and Ridley Scott found himself instead with a script based on the novel by Philip K. Dick called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. This of course became Blade Runner. The offer to go and work on early concept material for this new film was held open for me - and so I went over to Hollywood for ten weeks and found myself involved mostly on design work for the police spinner and the various city design details. The police spinner found it's earliest incarnation in a machine I painted for a book a few years earlier called Tour of the Universe - actually a 'flying ambulance' in that story. Ridley turned the image upside down and said "Hey Presto - there's the police spinner!" - or words to that effect. Eventually the hugely talented Syd Mead was taken on and he basically took on the look of the whole film - very successfully indeed. But I like to think that some germ of my original police spinner resides in the version you see on film!
There's an erotic element in a lot of your paintings, not just in the figures (Philip Jose Farmer books for instance) but in landscape (Dream Archipeligo by Christopher Priest springs to mind) and in the depiction of futuristic hardware. Without getting too Freudian Jim, is this intentional?
Jim Burns: No!! Though - as the question has been asked so many times I am more aware of the emergence of these motifs as a painting unfolds than I used to be. I think it's more that my paintings have an 'organic' quality that sometimes approximates recognisable forms - and that is as much in the eye of the beholder as in the mind of the creator.
Having said that - I am interested in the possibilities (and in the best possible taste of course!) of erotic symbolism and, what the hell, plain old erotica itself. Thinking of future directions - as sf work is tending to dry up out there somewhat as more and more publishers produce their covers 'in-house' - I suggest you 'watch this space'!!
When compiling your collections Lightship and Transluminal you must have, in a sense, reassessed your career - which particular works are you most proud of?
Jim Burns: Most artists will give variations on the same answer. None of them really! They always - in some measure - 'fail'. This acts as a great spur of course for the 'next one' which is always going to be 'the best one' and never is! It's kind of necessary to the whole creative process I think - this constant disatisfaction with what one produces. However, lets not get too mealy-mouthed and anal-retentive about this. I have some fond regard for the Bantam and Gollancz Silverberg covers I did during the 80s and early 90s.
The Planet Story project with Harry Harrison was a pivotally important venture for me and I have a lot of affection for some of the work I did for that collaboration. Individual pieces such as The Lovers, Artificial Things and Seasons of Plenty still stand up I think as good examples of a species of genre art from a particular moment in late 20th Century illustrative art - and I'm pleased to have painted them. Yes, even a little proud of them!
©Anthony Brockway/Jim Burns 2004