Over the years I have collected a few books on the art of science fiction and fantasy and as they are probably now out of print, I feel I need to share some of this lovely imagery from the days before computer-designed art.
My first featured sci-fi illustrator is from way back – Frank Kelly Freas (pronounced “freeze”), born in Hornell, New York, on August 27, 1922, died on January 2, 2005. He was sometimes known as “the Dean of Science Fiction Artists”.
I bought Frank Kelly Freas: The Art of Science Fiction (Donning 1977) at a bargain book shop for £1.95, which was not a lot of money for such a brilliant book.
Freas’ professional artistic life began in 1950, when he sold his first cover art for Weird Tales. At the time he was still at art school and tutor John Jellicoe had set him a project to paint something using just two colours.
A friend who was already a professional artist saw the picture of Pan and recognised its potential for the Weird Tales fantasy magazine. It wasn’t even finished when he sent it off to editor Dorothy McIlwraith. He had been planning to make that sleek pipe into a proper clarinet, but I like it the way it is.
Miss McIlwraith asked for just one change – that brilliant moon dust around Pan was added to edgelight the faun to bring it out from the rest of the picture, to make up for shortcomings in the colour printing processes of the time.
Over the next 50 years Freas created many covers for the Astounding Science Fiction and Mad magazines as well as cover art for novels from DAW, Signet, Ballantine Books, Avon, Laser Books and Ace.
Freas’ first cover for Astounding, and one of my favourites, was for The Gulf Between by Tom Goodwin in 1953. As the artist himself puts it: “The mechanical nature of the robot is reduced to the absolute visual minimum; his human, or his emotional, nature is emphasized to the limit. You KNOW this is no threatening automaton: this is a sentient, empathetic entity, his whole being concentrated into the one plea – ‘Fix it, Daddy…’”
Not all Freas’ works got into print. This rather lovely one (below), called Jewel Field, was commissioned as a cover but never used. As Freas says: “That Jupiter is recognisable is the only concession to astronomical accuracy here.”
This next image I would love to see as a Christmas card! Says Freas: “The idea of a starship turning itself into an arcology on an alien planet almost painted itself. Obviously it’s easier to colonise a world if your spaceship converts itself into a city as soon as it lands. If the climate seems especially severe, you might just stay in it.”
This girl was clearly one of those who moved out to escape that restrictive life. “Still, on a winter night, a girl can be forgiven if she looks a bit longingly toward the glowing warmth of The City Machine…”
He says “warmth”, but one aspect of Freas’ work I do find odd is how many of his paintings are in cold blues and greens. I’m sure I read somewhere once that cover art needs to be in colours from the hot, red end of the spectrum to stand out on the news stand…
In the 1970s, after initial reluctance, Freas created ALL 57 covers for the Laser Books, by publisher Harlequin. This was a project to showcase new sci-fi writers to a new young audience. That the plan eventually failed was a great loss to the genre.
This image (below) for Crash Landing on Iduna was commissioned before the Laser format was set, with its large head at the bottom right of the cover. Freas added this later on an acetate flap to avoid messing up the original painting.
The next picture won the International Science Fantasy Art Award in Toronto in 1973. Says Freas: “Observe that it does not violate my rule that abstraction has no place in science fiction illustration. The basic abstract shapes become the vitrified Ground Zero of an atomic strike, and the remains of some gigantic aerospace vehicle. A patrol from the underground city of the King of the World prowls the radioactive surface with well-justified caution”.
I just like the metallic textures – the abstracts remind me of lumps of iron slag and the guards’ suits of shiny black haematite jewellery.
This next one is Freas’ own all-time favourite, a portrait of his own car mechanic, who had “the greatest skull-bones in the world”! To me he looks a lot like Gary Cooper. Freas thought the slide-rule instead of a dagger in the pirate’s mouth was a really neat touch. I think it has now become hilarious. We used slide-rules at school, but not a lot of people would now recognise them. It’s funny how sci-fi writers/artists never saw pocket calculators coming…
Finally, Freas did much to campaign for the space programme. He was at Cape Canaveral for the launch of Apollo XIV and became addicted to such launches. He was dismayed at cuts in the programme and did his bit to save it by designing a series of posters, which were distributed through schools and by NASA itself. This one is my favourite…
Frank Kelly Freas married Pauline (Polly) Bussard in 1952 and they had two children, Jacqui and Jerry. Polly died of cancer in January 1987 and in the following year he married Dr Laura Brodian. Freas died in West Hills, Los Angeles, in 2005.
See more of Freas’ work on these sites: