Walter Velez Sci-Fi Artist

Sci-fi and fantasy artist Walter Velez discusses artistic integrity, technology, and the never-ending learning process.

Michael Jordan. Kanye West. Walter Velez. While you will surely recognize the first two names on this list, the latter may be a little more difficult.

It shouldn’t be though, as those familiar with sci-fi and fantasy cover art will tell you that Walter Velez was one of the most influential sci-fi artists of his time, undoubtedly creating a lasting impact within the field. Similar to Jordan’s impact on basketball, and Kanye’s impact on music, Velez is known for his signature style of expression, often conveying his creative personal thoughts through his unique work. In 1981, Velez sat down with Starlog magazine to discuss his art, as well as space technology and the integrity of others in his field. 

Walter Velez is an impressive figure. He is tall, good looking, and soft spoken. He looks you directly in the eye when he speaks and you believe him when he says, "I’m not above breaking somebody’s legs if it’s necessary to prove a point. With some people it’s the only thing they respect." 

Velez was born in Harlem and grew up in the South Bronx. He always knew he wanted to be an artist—"The first time I picked up a pencil, I was two years old. I never wanted to be anything else." He went on to become one of the most prolific and successful illustrators in the field. His work is found on album covers, movie posters, book covers, and in magazines ranging from Scholastic's Dynamite to Playboy. He has made a reputation for himself in science fiction and fantasy illustrations, though that is only one aspect in the broad spectrum of Velez's work. Though his style varies from assignment to assignment, the work is always bold, colorful, and utterly professional.

"My imagery is generally quite strong because that’s the way I feel. Jill will tell you I can be something of a gorilla."

The reference is to Jill Bauman, a petite, attractive woman who met Velez through her sister when she herself was an art student. Jill admired his work and was soon apprenticed to him. Now she, too, works as an illustrator. She studied with Velez and acts as his agent. Bauman is as personable as Velez is gruff. She is the perfect intermediary between the often undiplomatic artist and his clients. Velez describes her as "one of the only people who can stand me."

Bauman laughs when she hears this, but admits, "Walter never meets the client—rule number one." Then she quickly adds, to clarify, "He believes in something and stands by it, where most don’t, and he gets very angry."

Walter Velez, Artwork for an RCA record album. Photo via Starlog magazine

Artistic Integrity

What Walter Velez believes in is his integrity as an artist. What makes him angry is anyone or anything that stands in the way of his artistic growth.

"Some people think they can bullshit their way around everybody. They think they can con everybody. I'm not a con. Either I can do the work or I can't. What I do is a reflection on me and I don’t have the time to be bullshitted. I have too much work to do."

"If my head isn’t in the right place I just can’t do the work right. If that happens, somebody is going to pay. And rather than take it out on Jill or somebody else, I'll take it to the source. I’ll walk into somebody's office and eat his bleeping desk."

For Velez, the development and perfection of his craft is everything. "Once I’m done with a project, as far as I'm concerned, it's of no importance. The part that really interests me is the learning process. Once I’ve done a painting and learned something from it, I’m more interested in doing the next one."

"Whether I’ve handled the subject matter before or not is irrelevant because I can always improve on it. I don’t know at what stage you ever call anything perfect. I don’t think there is any such stage."

The infinite challenge of this process is a large part of what intrigues Velez. "That's the fun of it, that it’s never the same twice. I feel that the most frustrating thing is to say to yourself, well, I should have done this, or I should have done that. I just want to kick myself in the ass and say, well why didn't I? Each piece creates its own goal."

Walter Velez, Cover of The Golden Man by Philip K. Dick. Photo via Starlog magazine

More than Technique

Velez, who studied at the School of Visual Arts and spent much of his time in museums studying the masters ("My real teachers were Da Vinci and Michelangelo"), is disgusted by what he perceives as laziness on the part of many illustrators. "Look through any magazine and you can see how many illustrators haven’t really finished their work. They think that the first thing they get down is terrific enough, but they haven’t mastered their craft. They project slides on a screen and design a little around it and that’s supposed to be it. An artist, first of all, should not have to do that. He should be able to draw. He should be able to draw well. The only reason an artist should use photography should be research. If you can’t draw and all you have is technique, then you are not an illustrator."

Even fantasy illustrator Frank Frazetta, Velez's boyhood idol, falls under his disapproving eye. "I don’t know what happened to him. I have a collection of some of his older work and it still stands up. But lately I see his stuff and I think, Jesus, what a piece of shit. He should still care about what he's doing. If he doesn’t care, he should stop working and drive a truck."

Walter Velez, Cover of The Time Traders by Andre Norton. Photo via Starlog magazine

Space Technology

Clearly, Velez cares very much about every aspect of his work, particularly his science fiction illustrations since technology of the future fascinates him. "I’ve always been interested in science and technology," he states. "One of the things I’ve been interested in for years is computer electronics and lasers. I’ve just finished building a computerized synthesizer, which was a crash course in microcircuitry."

Fortunately, Bauman shares his interest in science fiction and fact and therefore pursues that kind of assignment for Velez. "Whatever he likes to do, I go after, because then I get the best work out of him," she explains. The closest thing Velez has to a "favorite" painting are his space paintings. "It’s the kind of piece you can just look at for days," he says fondly. 

One of Velez’s fascinating space paintings appears in Robert Randall’s 1957 science fiction novel, The Shrouded Planet. His depiction of a spacecraft hovering over some type of magical landing pad as they invade Earth is nearly identical to concepts used by Steven Spielberg in his classic 2005 film, War of the Worlds, which has since come to be recognized as one of the most iconic alien encounters in film. The intricate design of the hovercraft shows Velez’s skill in depicting the type of space technology he is so intrigued by.

As with his illustrations, each area of technology that Velez pursues leads him into something else—and it all circles back and is reflected in his illustrations. His illustrations, in turn, suggest other areas of technological interest to him.

"Being into technology is one of the things that got me into holography and then into lasers. It was after the holography that I got into lasers, masers and photon guns. As a matter of fact, what I’m interested in designing now is a digital stereo system using laser transmissions."

"You see, I believe in what I do, so, being a painter and painting about technology and also being into technology is really a way of understanding. The only way I can deal with a fantasy convincingly is to understand the reality so that I can base my fantasy on it."

Recommended Reading

Unfortunately, there is no anthology of Velez's work available, so the best way to view his art is in the sci-fi and fantasy volumes that he illustrated. Body Armor: 2000Winds of Altair, and Another Fine Myth are a few of the many volumes that fans of Velez should own. 

Body Armor: 2000 by Joe Haldeman

Velez’s interest in futuristic technology was noted in his cover art for Body Armor: 2000, written by Joe Haldeman an often underrated sci-fi author. Velez depicts what he sees as the future of war, and the strategies, weaponry, and scope of destruction all advance as more powerful technology is discovered. The intense armor and large guns worn by the soldiers represent the way Velez sees the powerful impact future technologies will have on war. 

Another Fine Myth by Robert Asprin

In Robert Asprin’s Another Fine Myth, Mr. Velez’s distinctive style is beautifully displayed on the cover art. Fit perfectly to the multi-dimensional fantasy-comedy series by Asprin, Velez’s cover combines fantasy, sexuality, and comedy into a magical piece of art. The image, marked by two green creatures, is nothing short of mystical, forcing the viewer to blend reality and fantasy into one. 

Winds of Altair by Ben Bova

In Ben Bova's Winds of Altair, Earth is beginning to run out of resources and time. Man is in search of a safe haven, and Altair VI is one planet that could serve as such a haven. However, there is a beast that resides on Altair that must be dealt with before human ships arrive.

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Walter Velez Sci-Fi Artist