John Berkey
EXPOSÉ 5 Grand Master Award

John has had a long and distinguished career during which he has avoided computers. However, John’s futuristic space images have almost single-handedly defined the look of modern, hi-tech space craft. Whether you know it or not John Berkey was the pioneer who has defined a lot of what we now accept as modern space design. So although John is not a digital artist there was no question in the minds of the jury when they voted unanimously for John to be this year’s EXPOSÉ Grand Master. Digital artists creating science fiction works owe a huge debt of thanks to the inspiring art of John Berkey.

Another Quiet Day in the Country
Personal work, 1999 Casein and acrylic.
“A landscape that could be almost anywhere. Depicts an inventor who had some success trying to take off in his spaceship.”

John Berkey’s stellar career included book covers, magazines, movie posters for ‘Star Wars’ and many others. His work is seen in international galleries, and has won many awards, including the Grand Master award from ‘Spectrum’. In 2004 Berkey was inducted into The Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame (NY). By his own admission, Berkey is a guy who just happens to have painted space ships for the past 40 years. Berkey is generous to allow a look at his other varied works, but what stands out is his spaceships because he does them so well. In his work, he uses no physical models, no photographic references. No historic or prehistorical artifacts existed to enable him to imbue the most speculative of futuristic scenes with a sense of familiarity.

The fact is, John can render the exemplar of the American farmhouse replete with small garden and silo, with the same ease with which he lured readers into wanting to read speculative articles dealing with unknown futures in ‘Science Fiction Age’ magazine. But there’s a good reason for his being able to produce paintings of such immense variety, yet high quality. He had tremendous talent, he started early, and he painted hard.

Into the storm
Personal work, 2004 Casein and acrylic.
“Approaching a dangerous bit of space weather.”

John worked at Brown & Bigelow—then the world’s largest publisher of commercial calendars—for nine years, after getting out of a local art school. It was an easy commute; the company was based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Few opportunities of the like exist today, for artists ‘coming up’—even if today’s artists were willing to produce art on such a back-bending schedule, “for hire” (the artist does not own the copyright). And, Berkey was in good company working for Brown & Bigelow; to their credit so had Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell before him. In his tenure there, he estimates he produced hundreds of paintings, over 100 paintings a year. That would be, on average, two per week—and of a kind and quality rarely seen today.

He also shares with other artists of his stature, historically, the absolute conviction that he has always done what he was meant to do. And a career as a commercial illustrator was a perfectly acceptable part of that picture.

Leaving the city
Personal work, 2001 Casein and acrylic.
“I wanted to show the power, scale and force of such a vehicle.”

Like Norman Rockwell, who called himself an ‘illustrator’, Berkey has always enjoyed being a working professional, and never concerned himself very much with what galleries or critics might think of his work. Indeed, his few and rare forays into that parallel universe we call Fine Art convinced him that it was a world as much, if not more, based on client-dictates for subject matter and style as commercial illustration. A quote from him reported in a past feature article rather neatly sums his straightforward view on the topic “In the music world, there are ‘pianists’ and ‘piano-players,’ all of whom play the piano.” (American Artist, December 1985)

John began his painting career in the mid 1950s, at a turning point in history—a time separating what we consider the rough beginnings of science fiction, inspired by dreams of far-reaching technological progress, and the true flowering of the genre. While Berkey was tackling assignments that compelled him to polish his skills through a wide variety of scenes of known American life, both contemporary and historical, feature articles in major American magazines such as ‘Life’ and ‘Colliers’ were pushing the envelope, illustrating the unknown.

Chronicles of the Lensman, Vol. 2
Personal work, 1995.
“A series about a captain of a particular ship. He just flew around looking for fights.”

“In truth, fear is an element of every picture I have ever painted,” says Berkey. “Being fearful of failure or having little confidence just becomes something to climb over.”

Soon, technological advances were providing the impetus for ‘new futures’ in science fictional literature, much as early flight in the beginning of the 19th century provided an experimental framework for jet and supersonic flight. “There are hazards in knowing too much about engineering or technology,” Berkey says. “They can limit the imagination.”

The Display
Personal work, 1995 Casein and acrylic.
“This took a long time to say it’s done. Nothing more than an exercise on what a spaceship would look like.”

Berkey’s long-time commissioning agent in New York responded to the siren song of a burgeoning marketplace for ‘futuristic’ imagery with an artist who was very much up to the task. To fans weary of static depictions of rockets and saucers, John’s impressionist renderings seemed more real than any photograph, and more romantic and mysterious than any airbrush could make them.

Science fiction writers have long been in the vanguard of predicting the future. Their speculative musings, always based on an extension of scientific knowledge, bridges the gap between what is known about the world and what might be possible. The appeal of being able to participate in that—for a long-time electronics 
buff like John Berkey—was compelling.
More intense than real life, literary forecasts of major advances in science, aviation, and computer and biological technologies allowed Berkey an aesthetic freedom unlike that found in other illustration genres. He carried these concepts to their ultimate glory in his futuristic space paintings.

Personal work, Casein and acrylic.
“The ships could transform from space vehicles to planes, to landing craft, and back.”

“The few artists I see succeed these days,” says Berkey, “are simply the ones who can draw and mentally
picture where they’re going. I don’t know what it would take to succeed today, but drawing would be somewhere at the beginning.”

Part of his longevity is undeniably his unique impressionistic style that makes things ‘real-er than real’. So it’s no surprise that Leo Summers, writing in 1978, would call Berkey’s machines more impressive, more interesting, more “alive” than any so-called life forms (Masterpieces of Science Fiction Art: Tomorrow and Beyond). His impressionistic style is his trademark; wholly original and idiosyncratic. He applies it to whatever subject matter is at hand, making his depictions of hardware—whether Otis Elevators, satellites or starships—as they say, “second to none”.

John Berkey has been creating some of America’s greatest illustrative art, and some of science fiction’s greatest cover art, for the past 35 years. He has weathered severe personal health setbacks and the loss of a daughter, yet he continues to produce art of a quality to which other artists can only aspire.
Of this artist, DiFate writes “he is one of the most innovative and influential of science fiction artists (whose) wonderfully facile style is the perfect balance between painterly impressionism and hard-edged realism” (Infinite Worlds).

Words: Jane Frank, author of
“The Art of John Berkey” (2003).


Personal work, 1997 Casein and acrylic.
“Depicting a ship under attack from the ground. When you think about it, that is from where most ships would be attacked.”

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