Jim Burns Interview

Science fiction artist Jim Burns talks about his career, space exploration, and the sci-fi genre.

Science fiction cover artist Jim Burns is regarded as one of the Grand Masters of his craft. By utilizing clean lines, unique color work, and excellent composition, Burns’s work often exhibits intricate photo-realistic displays of advanced machines and detailed spaceships. Using primarily acrylics, and occasionally oils, Burns’s ability to take mundane objects and transform them into something otherworldly is nothing short of spectacular.

Jim Burns, a British illustrator, had his work featured in multiple issues of OMNI magazine. Years later, he talked to OMNI about his craft, inspirations, and what space exploration advancement he is most eager to see to fruition.

OMNI: What was the first science fiction film you ever watched?

Jim Burns: It’s tricky to recall after all these years! As a youngster in the 1960s, I do recall some of the old movies from the 50s being shown on TV, such as War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Forbidden Planet. I had been too young to see them at the cinema at the time of their release. These truly fed into my imagination and, to be honest, I still watch these clunky old films occasionally with much nostalgic pleasure.

I was already immersed in the genre through years of comic reading, mostly The Eagle comic and its famous "Dan Dare—Pilot of the Future" storyline. In 1963, Doctor Who arrived on our TV screen here in the UK and that, too, helped feed the growing addiction to all things "spacey."

The first science fiction movie that really did—in the parlance of the time (1968)—"blow my mind" was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I lost count of the number of times I went to catch it at the cinema. I loved it then and still do, especially its sense of the alien through the unseen powers that have manipulated human evolution. It was "grown-up" science fiction at last.

My first proper novel as such, as opposed to comic strip creations like Dan Dare and Captain Condor, was probably one of the old Robert Heinlein juveniles. I do recall reading his Red Planet and it triggered a lifelong passion for the genre which still persists, albeit with not quite the same intensity now as I try to catch up a little on all the mainstream stuff I’ve missed out on! But from my early teens and through my twenties and thirties I think it’s fair to say that science fiction amounted to maybe 60 or 70 percent of my novel reading.

How would you define the term science fiction? What does science fiction mean personally to you?

Gosh… that’s something that has been argued to death by aficionados and fans of the genre! One writer named Mark C. Glassy once argued that the definition of science fiction is like the definition of pornography: "You do not know what it is, but you know it when you see it." Simply put, and quoting directly from Wiki, "Science Fiction is a genre of speculative fiction dealing with imaginative concepts such as futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes and extraterrestrial life." An uncontentious definition and one to which I subscribe. I did once hear it described as "the Literature of Warning," which I rather like.

For me, personally, it’s essentially the written form: the novels that have filled my life with delight and wonder, and just occasionally a good movie that manages to possess the essential sense of "otherness" that I like in my science fiction. Most of the more popular movie franchises don’t do this for me, I’m afraid. Although, I can be quite entertained by them if I’m in the mood and can switch off certain brain functions.

There is a thing called "sci-fi" as opposed to "science fiction" (and it’s what most people tend to call this stuff these days). It was coined by Forrest J. Ackerman in 1954 and essentially describes what might be considered the more "hack work" end of the genre as opposed to "serious" science fiction. In the 1950s, it defined low-budget, low-tech "B-movies" and low-quality pulp science fiction publications. Today, to my perceptions, it accurately defines most of what is presented to us on TV, the movies, and much of what is published, too. My interest in this end of the genre is somewhat limited. For instance, I have no real interest in Doctor Who.

Importantly, science fiction should be distinguished from "fantasy" literature, which usually relies on magic or other supernatural elements as plot elements. And in which I have very little interest. Magic, dragons, elves, and so on and so forth, I am somewhat allergic to. So I’ve never read Tolkien!

Courtesy of Jim Burns

Early on in your career, what/who were the major influences on your style of painting? How has your work transformed throughout the years?

I like to think that I possessed "my own voice" from the beginning, but I suppose it’s impossible to deny the influence of others, albeit subliminally. I still see, in things I paint now, the influences of both Frank Hampson and Frank Bellamy—comic artists who were part of the team who created the Dan Dare strip through the 50s and 60s. Particularly in the lines of the hardware and machinery. When I attended art college from 1968-1972, one of the more pre-eminent British artists working in the field was Chris Foss; It’s impossible to deny the fact that he was influential in not just the way my art developed but also that of many UK SF artists of my generation.

Coupled with that was a great love of natural history—both the study of it (I turned down the chance of an interview in my last year of art college with the Natural History Museum. I might easily have become a natural history illustrator) and the art of it. I possessed—still do—many beautifully illustrated natural history books and field guides so this probably fed into my imagination, too. My preoccupation with believable alien landscapes and creatures/aliens that look like they might have followed their own distinct evolutionary curve.

I was also very interested in the kind of detail-obsessed art of the 19th century... such as the Pre-Raphaelites. As time has gone by and my career has drifted away from commercial book jacket work towards more personal stuff and private commissions, I find I’m re-engaging with a lot of that 19th century material and the subject matter of my work is becoming rather more fixated on themes of mythology or darker strands of Romantic poetry from that period. So I’d say that those guys from that time influence me more now, at least in the spirit of the chosen themes and the desire to reveal detail.

I think a better word than "influence" is "inspire," and there is any number of contemporary artists both within and without the genre whose work I can pore over and which feed into my always ongoing bits of experimentation.

As an illustrator, how do you begin? What aspects of the story influence you? When is the image finished?

I’ve always tried to read the manuscript or book all the way through to get a good feel for it. Not all illustrators of book cover art do this, preferring to be given a fairly specific brief. I simply have to get a handle on the narrative somehow. Early on, art directors started to trust me to "get it right" (usually!) so I was given a lot of freedom to come up with the goods. Feedback from authors was usually positive and that helped,, too. In fact over the years I've counted many SF authors amongst my friends. What I usually like to achieve is some kind of condensed sense of the narrative of the book, insofar as one is able to in a single piece of art. Often a main character is desirable, so I will find a suitable scene featuring that character and the rest of the painting is dictated by whatever is going on in that scene. I will try to find such a scene, but one that also includes something of those kind of elements I like to paint: the strange alien landscapes, bits of weird technology, alien beings. Occasionally, I find that a sort of mix of elements from various parts of the story thrown together interestingly can work. Short story collections are often treated this way.

When is it finished? That’s a good question! Usually when I can no longer get away with testing the client’s patience and the deadline is looming large! So it has to be handed over. I don’t ever feel that any painting of mine is truly finished to be honest. I’ve heard other artists say the same thing.

Courtesy of Jim Burns

How has the digital age morphed, enhanced, and changed science fiction art?

I don’t know if it’s enhanced it at all. Too many people are arriving at too many similar concepts and styles, dictated very often by the nature of the software. We seem to be drowning in huge masses of very similar art, individual style, and expression. This is being subordinated to the demands of the market place.

However, there are of course brilliant artists working in the digital domain and the very best work is indeed mind-boggling. All this happened starting in the 1990s because suddenly tools were available, which meant that book jacket work no longer had to be tackled by generously paid traditional artists, many of whom suddenly found themselves facing more impoverished futures. I was one of them! Many got out altogether and did other things with their lives. Some soldiered gamely on and found their careers petering out or maybe morphing into quite different fields of art. And some managed to achieve a rare star status in the field by changing direction, but they are few in number and they, too, often supplement their commercial output with other work, including, for a lucky few, gallery representation. Some will have nothing to do with the demon digital. Some went 100 percent over to digital and became very successful. Others, such as myself, got into digital as a sort of extra tool in the armory.

I would never be able to leave paint completely behind and, although I do the occasional digital job, my preferred medium is paint. But virtually all my book jacket work is digital which isn’t a huge percentage of my output these days, to be honest. The rest of the time I’m doing what I prefer; painting canvases for myself with a view to finding a market and also painting to commission for collectors out there who like my stuff.

If you could choose any up-and-coming science fiction film to design art for, which would you choose?

Anything by a classy director who understands the genre and its traditions (by which I mean that sense of "otherness," the truly alien, the unfathomable). Most science fiction movies are simply adventure yarns or war scenarios with formidable, militaristic, and slightly weird enemies or simply off-beat disaster films. I would love for film directors to go to the great treasure trove of brilliantly visual science fiction novels, waiting out there to be explored, rather than cobbling together some daft, clichéd story line that is guaranteed to pull in the usual undiscriminating youth crowd who can cheer on the marines as they take on and of course, defeat the supposedly superior alien forces. 2001 worked for me so you could start with Clarke maybe, although I was a little disappointed with the way Childhood's End was handled recently on TV. I hear rumors that Joe Haldeman's brilliant anti-war novel, The Forever War is to be made into a movie. That's one I'd like to be involved with!

How would you define your work?

Well, there is a new definition going round for the kind of work I and other science fiction and fantasy artists produce, namely "Imaginative Realism." I must say I rather like this new label... it lends what we do a kind of gravitas perhaps previously missing! It was I believe coined by Pat and Jeannie Wilshire who each year run an event called "Illuxcon—The Symposium of Imaginative Realism." This event enables artists whose careers had mostly perhaps been compromised by the changes brought by the digital revolution, to find a place to present their work to a new and perhaps more discriminating audience, the collector market, which in the US at least, whilst still small is growing. And the label "Imaginative Realism" doesn’t necessarily confine one to the assigned pigeon holes of traditional science fiction or fantasy expression.

I personally am finding myself drawn more and more to the worlds of mythology, weird fiction, and the darker strands of romantic poetry. So whilst I still paint science fiction subjects, so I am still a science fiction artist, more and more of my output is now preoccupied with those other zones of the strange. So "Imaginative Realism" is, I think, a fairly apt definition.

If you had to choose a favorite painting from your vast career, which would it be and why?

The next one! One always hopes that the best lies ahead. I think this is true of all artists. I have never been 100 percent satisfied with anything I’ve painted, and asking me to choose a favorite is very difficult. The answer would change from one day to the next, I suspect. But there were times when I was doing work which I was pretty satisfied with at the time and perhaps I have a particular affection for. So the work I did for my collaborative effort with the late, great Harry Harrison—"Planet Story," back in the late 1970s will always have a special place in my heart. At the time I was very happy with that work and it did advance my technique by leaps and bounds over the two years it took, but inevitably as time passes, it recedes more into the past and one's interest in it wanes.

I know that my skills have improved a heck of a lot over the intervening 40 years since "Planet Story" and just occasionally I produce something which I feel quite proud of and which seems to create a bit of a buzz out there. I was showing someone my most recent collection, Hyperluminal, earlier today and in it I came across again my painting "Homuncularium" from 2010. It was the first thing I'd done on stretched canvas in many a long year and it also features my youngest daughter, Gwen. There's much about this painting I'm rather fond of, proud of even, and it definitely marked a bit of a change in direction and attitude to my art at the time.

Courtesy of Jim Burns

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave in the world of science fiction art?

Now that’s something that, truly, has never crossed my mind! I have a very down-to-earth attitude to this work. It was essentially driven by the simple, rather banal fact of the need to make a living. I got married shortly after leaving art college and it wasn't too long before the first of my four children came along. So these things took priority in my life and the thought of "legacy" didn't occur to me. But, the fact is, I have painted many, many pictures, hundreds, possibly into the thousands or more, good, bad, and indifferent. And almost everything I painted was eventually bought by a collector somewhere, sometime, and I occasionally see these things being sold on to other collectors. So I can't pretend that my output has no value to people who understand the genre beyond that initial commercial brief.

People are already referring to that period of science fiction art between the late 60s up until, say, the late 90s when digital art became the new mode of expression as a "Golden Age of science fiction art." It slotted into a time when scientific advance, in particular space exploration, and a new awareness in the public mind of our place in a vast universe and the myriad possibilities of an infinite cosmos helped seed the popular imagination with an array of wondrous potential futures. So the art of that time was an important element in these new perceptions of what the future might offer. To have been one contributor amongst many, visualizing the what-might-be is legacy enough for me.

What discovery in space exploration are you most excited for?

Short term: to find evidence of life or that there was once life on Mars, which is something I hope may be resolved in my lifetime. Although as the decades pass, it seems less and less likely that I’ll be around to witness such a thing. But I think that common sense would dictate that if there is or was life on a second planet of our very ordinary, commonplace solar system, our Sun being nothing special in the great stellar scheme of things, then that would surely indicate that life was very widespread throughout the cosmos. We may not find it soon, if ever, but if we do then it must surely change our whole relationship with the cosmos of which we are just a tiny, tiny element.

Depressingly however, I suspect that we will never venture beyond our solar system. The fact is, everything is simply too far away and things like FTL travel, wormholes, and warp drives will probably always remain in the realms of science fiction. We will never meet the aliens! As Arthur C. Clarke wrote in his 1950s book, Profiles of the Future, "You can't get there from here!"

If any world depicted in your art could become a reality, which world would you choose and why?

Oh I’m not sure I’d want any of them to become reality!! The most interesting times and places described in science fiction, in my opinion, whether you’re talking about the literature or the art, is essentially dystopian and rather dark. Maybe full of conflict. But some are more interesting than others in terms of the skill of the writer with regards to convincing world-building. So I did rather immerse myself in the art I created for the Majipoor novels of Robert Silverberg back in the 1980s and 90s. Silverberg conjured up a uniquely complex world, vast and strange, a collision between what seems to be an essentially peasant, agrarian economy and dimly suggested advanced science…largely the leftovers it seems of a technological time long past. Starships occasionally visit but they seem almost an irrelevance to the massive ongoing tale of Majipoor and its array of weird and wonderful inhabitants, mostly exotic humans but with a whole menagerie of different alien species attempting mostly to get on with each other And alongside the mysterious aboriginal inhabitants of the planet are the Piurivar shape shifters. The books are big and dense and Majipoor is certainly a place where someone of an adventurous and curious disposition could spend a whole lifetime exploring its infinite mysteries and strangeness.

What advice do you have for aspiring science fiction artists?

This is a very tricky one for me because the field has changed out of all recognition since I produced my very first commercial work. Back in 1972, it was all about painting. Now probably the majority of young artists working in this field are drawn to digital modes of expression so I feel a little out of touch with the way the market now works. Most artists doing this stuff are probably more drawn to the worlds of film and gaming design than book jacket work, which is the territory I know most about.

I think the thing about art of any kind is that the artist should seek their own voice above all else and to persist with that thing that drives them forward, which fascinates them most rather than always pandering to a perceived market, although some compromises are permissible when one is trying to make a living! It's ok to study one's heroes and to learn from the legacies left by them, but not to submerge one's identity beneath that of others. Originality, personal expression, one's own voice, are all important. And even if it turns out that making a living from it proves impossible, not to stop painting, because real creativity is rare and gifted to very few. 

Recommended Reading

Learning about an artist's life, views, and experiences makes their art that much more intriguing. Delve deeper into the art of Jim Burns with his Hyperluminal collection, and see how the inspirations he discussed come to life.

The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal by Jim Burns

The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal features a wide array of Burns's work, from his initial sketches to his final works and published book covers. The volume includes covers from the sci-fi greats, including Oson Scott Card, Neil Gaiman, Timothy Zahn, Greg Bear, Terry Pratchett, and many more.

Natasha Sydor
Natasha Sydor

French-born travel enthusiast. Enters the Hamilton lottery everyday (and doesn't want to talk about the results). Maybe one day she’ll be an extra in a Star Wars film... 

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Jim Burns Interview