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An Interview with Jim Burns
conducted by Sandra Scholes

© Jim Burns
Jim Burns
Jim Burns
Jim Burns was born in 1948 in Cardiff, South Wales. In 1972, after attending a foundation course at Newport College of Art in South Wales and subsequently a three year course in Graphic Design and Illustration at St Martin's School of Art in London he got his first professional science fiction commission, for an anthology called Towards Infinity, using the very uncommercial media of pencil and light watercolour washes. Preceding this and the 4 years at art college was an earlier career move... as a would-be pilot in the RAF. Which came to naught as, despite soloing on jets, he was really not a very good pilot. In the 40 years since has carved a name for himself as a science fiction and fantasy artist. He has won three Hugo awards and a dozen BSFA awards and his originals are now in many collections around the world.

Jim Burns Website
ISFDB Bibliography

The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal
Transluminal: The Art and Thought of Jim Burns
Imago: The Fantasy Art of Jim Burns
Jim Burns started painting back in the 70's and has a career so far that spans forty years. He has worked with some of the most famous writers to illustrate their novel covers; George R.R. Martin, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Peter F. Hamilton, Anne McCaffrey, Robert Silverberg and Joe Haldeman. For an artist who has such a rich career, The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal is one book of many released to show what a captivating artist he is.

Jim Burns has had various art books published over the years; Transluminal: The Art and Thought of Jim Burns (1999), Lightship (2000), and Imago: The Fantasy Art of Jim Burns (2005). He has also recently done a collaborative work called Planet Story commissioned by Philip Dunn and written by Harry Harrison.

I interviewed Jim Burns by email in October 2014, focussing my questions on his new art book The Art of Jim Burns: Hyperluminal.

What was the inspiration behind your beautiful painting "Children of Forgotten Gods"? The background is just as enchanting as the lady and her dragon.
This was one of several paintings privately commissioned by a collector in the U.K. Others for the same collector include 'Planet of Peril' and 'Days of Gloriana'. He is a singular fellow with some very specific ideas of his own when it comes to commissioning paintings! You may notice a similarity in these three paintings. In particular he has a penchant for elfin ladies with pointy ears! I basically interpret his ideas in my own way. The lady is based on a particular model I employed (the same model appears in both the other paintings mentioned above) but I obviously layer lots of my own ideas and re-interpretations on to her. But she's good 'basic material'. I decided to interpret his requisite dragon in my own way. Essentially as a 'wyvern' rather than a true dragon as I do have some issues with the skeletal implausibility of dragons! Wyverns follow a basic body form that does actually exist in bats and the extinct pterodactyls -- but true dragons have no equivalent in evolution. The wing/forelimb articulation is pretty much impossibility. Though I may have another shot at one someday.The background is entirely invented...essentially made up as I go along.....

Still on "Children of Forgotten Gods", the background is just as enchanting as the lady and her dragon. Tell me, is the place real too?
No, it's not real -- I invented it -- but elements such as the waterfall are obviously influenced subliminally by imagery I have seen.

In "Hatchling," the 'Wyvern Mistress' is modelled by your local barmaid. Have you had any unexpected models in your career who you have worked with? Perhaps someone famous?
Well the model for "Children of Forgotten Gods" did appear once in Britain has Talent - as an assistant to an escapologist style act. Other than that -- no-one famous. These days I'm employing models, both professional and amateur far more than in the past. In the more remote past I would perform what I call my 'Frankenstein act' on variously sourced material and have also employed my family over the years.(cheap that way!). My wife, Sue appears in a few early pieces but not usually as a particularly central figure. Except in some of the historical romance covers I produced before my science fiction career took off. The painting 'Homuncularium' features a verbatim interpretation of my youngest daughter, Gwendolen whilst 'Tertiary Node' features middle daughter, Megan.

One of my personal favourite paintings in "The Naked God" -- Book 3 of the Night's Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton. The detail is amazing. Just how large is the painting so readers can get an idea of the size you actually work in?
That all the panoramic Hamilton paintings was 4 ft wide.

You worked with Ridley Scott on the iconic movies Blade Runner and Dune. Which director would you like to work with these days?
To be accurate. Only Blade Runner. He'd initially wanted me for Dune but he didn't get to make that movie at all. Blade Runner replaced it. I'm not that drawn to film work to be honest. I'm happy to beaver away at my canvases in my studio. Much has been made of my film work but the truth is I'm not really cut out for that kind of thing. I did work with Irv Kersher of The Empire Strikes Back fame on a projected remake of Forbidden Planet and did in fact produce a lot more work for that than I did for Blade Runner. But the project fell apart in a screaming mess of litigation over in the U.S. -- so that was that. I also produced quite a lot of work for David Twohy's Chronicles of Riddick -- but I don't perceive much of my early concept work realised in the movie. Concept art has a slightly spurious glamour about it...and it is well paid -- but I find it a frustrating business and would prefer these days to try and explore my own imagination more than cock-eyed SF film scripts. My agent once told me of the possibility of some design work on a movie but I was so caught up in a piece of work with an urgent deadline that I had to turn it down. I asked her what it was called and she said 'Oh...can't remember... Raiders of the Lost something or other'. Win some, lose some! It might be nice to come up with something nice and creepy for say, David Cronenberg!

Did you ever get chance to work with George R.R. Martin on his book covers for Game of Thrones, and have you had a chance to take a look at the TV series based on it?
Well I did create all four of the covers for the very first editions of the series A Song of Ice and Fire of which A Game of Thrones is Volume 1. This was in the U.K. in the late 90s. They were heavily worked pieces with lots of bonkers detail and real wood veneers. I almost had a nervous breakdown over those! I didn't work directly with George on these. Although I did know him slightly. Apparently he did like the covers. I met him again recently at Loncon, The World Science Fiction Convention in London and he said some nice things about Hyperluminal. I was so heavily immersed in those GoT novels at the time that to be honest I couldn't bear to watch the series on TV..brilliant though I hear it is. It's also 'high fantasy' -- which I'm not hugely interested in. I've never read any Tolkien!

You say in your book Hyperluminal that you have had some strong working relationships with the authors you have done book covers for. Who was the craziest and most humorous you have worked with so far?
It might be supposed that the weird and wonderful imaginations of science fiction authors suggests crazy people behind the pen...but the truth is -- most are reasonably sober professionals of pleasant and approachable demeanor! But The work I did with Harry Harrison back in the late 70s was memorable for me...meeting I think my first pro-writer and finding him ...well a bit of both those things you mention. A little crazy, very funny -- the man who delivered words at an extraordinary machine gun rate and who had been in his own time a comics artist. He was also a very keen promoter of the language of Esperanto.

Hyperluminal is a huge collection of your work. Are there a few pieces you wanted to include but didn't?
Inevitably a book like this is a massive job of editing one's own archive. There are many pieces I would love to have put in and some that initially I wouldn't but which did make it in when I was persuaded as to their merits by the people at Titan...and on the whole they were right!

When you have painted book covers, you have had to read the novels to get an idea of what scenes to create, but when you like to relax, what kind of novels do you like to get into?
These days I'm trying to read more mainstream novels. A lifetime of reading nothing but science fiction is guaranteed to rot the brain -- but there was a prolonged period of my life when I read hardly anything but. My wife belongs to a book club and I sometimes take up her recommendations. I think it's safe to say that these days I get more enjoyment from mainstream novels than SF -- and I NEVER pick up a fantasy novel by choice. I'm also reading some Dickens again..the greatest novelist of all maybe? Recent reads would include Stefan Zweig's The Post Office Girl and Beware of Pity, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, struggling a bit with Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. Eric Ambler's Journey into Fear ....also reading some horror! My first Stephen King recently (Salem's Lot), Peter Straub's Ghost Story and all of Adam Nevill's books. And lots more!

What made you want to change from your acrylic artwork to working exclusively in digital?
I didn't. I did take up digital art in part as what seemed to be something of a necessity back in the late 90s -- if I wanted to stay in the business of book jacket commissions. That was the way the world was going. And I still produce the occasional digital book jacket illustration. The 'bottom line' dictated this...Publishers were no longer prepared to pay large fees to 'traditional' artists when a new method arrived in digital production which could produce very rapid output at inexpensive prices. But I do very few book jackets now..I much prefer to be working to private commission and also producing my own personal work...and this is all done in traditional media..acrylics mostly but with likely diversions into oils and watercolour in the future.Which isn't to say that I don't find sitting in front of the Mac and turning out something in Photoshop (that's the only program I ever use) both satisfying and interesting and a nice occasional diversion from the physically hard work of painting on canvas or board.

You already have forty years' worth of work behind you as a successful artist, what does the next ten years have in store for you?
My best work for a start! I'm convinced I have my best work in me particularly as I'm exploring my own imagination more now. You'll still see science fiction subjects -- but I'm very drawn to the old mythologies and am working currently on several paintings based on various mythologies. Also one big one about to be commenced based on a Keats dark romantic poem and some Poe subject matter also. Darker territory of the imagination I like to think.

Copyright © 2014 Sandra Scholes

Sandra Scholes is a writer and reviewer who works in the UK dividing her time between Horror, Anime, Manga, Fantasy, Science Fiction and anything and everything in between as far as reviewing is concerned. She has been published in Albedo One, Hellnotes, The British Fantasy Society, Active Anime, Love Romance Passion and Love Vampires. Her short fiction has been published by The London Vampyre Group and Quailbell Magazine and varies between vampyres and the strange world of fairy tales.

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