Artist Interview: John Harris
by Beth and Mike Zipser
Review by Beth & Mike Zipser
Date: 01 July 2014
Links: Joh Harris' Website / The Art of John Harris /
SFRevu: What drew you to Science Fiction/Fantasy art?
John Harris: I've always sought out the bigger perspective of things, the sense of the Future, the reality of the Space in which we find ourselves. The writings of authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury were saturated with that flavour. I loved it and still do.
John Harris: They invited me to watch a launch of the Shuttle in 1985, and I did a single piece for them, which is now in the Kennedy Space Center. A great honor and a privilege to see a launch in the flesh. But the significance to my work only became apparent much later. See below.
SFRevu: What do you think of digital art and the software that aids the artist?
John Harris: I think it's a terrific tool and helps to create ever more convincing visions of the future. However, as an artistic process, the bloodless nature of it removes for me a lot of the inexplicable magic that flows from the heart to the hand. It's a subtle business, which I choose not to question. In addition, at the end of it I am left with a piece of art that is unique, textured and alive in a mysterious way. It can be handled and smelt.
John Harris: I was trained in the tradition of English landscape painting. Artists such as Turner, John Martin, and more recently, Graham Sutherland, quintessentially English, influenced me hugely. Closely connected to these figures is a streak of the visionary, William Blake, Samuel Palmer and others. Add to these, the Surrealists such as Max Ernst, Magritte, and de Chirico, and you can see the soup from which I've emerged. Music and film have also played their part -- music for its power to generate mood, and film for the pictorial dynamic that I instinctively reach for.
SFRevu: You have several personal projects in the works – your art book, the Secret History of Earth, etc. Can you tell us a bit about them?
John Harris: Producing the book (The Art of John Harris) for Titan was frankly, a revelation for me. It provided an opportunity to see more than 40 years of work in perspective.
Thanks to the generosity of my editor at Titan, Omar Khan, I was able to include pieces which I thought were only vaguely related to the genre. This included work that had sprung out of my time with NASA, which I call The Secret History of the Earth. I had not realised until I assembled all the imagery, just how intimately connected those images were to the more genre-based illustrations in the rest of the book. They were, after all, as I saw it, a tone poem to the Earth and in that sense, they were a natural extension of the SF work. It's simply that I had developed a new language in which to describe the same sensibilities.
Then, of course, there is The Rite of the Hidden Sun, which is an ongoing project, for which I cannot see an end. It is my way of travelling through the unknown.
SFRevu: In addition to your oils, you also do pastel works – the individual e-book chapters of John Scalzi's The Human Division, for example. What do you find appealing about pastels?
John Harris: Firstly, they are very direct. The colors are ready mixed as it were, and by a process of layering, and allowing the underlying colours to show through, great subtlety can be achieved. Secondly, their softness allows me to push the material around as much as I wish. The immediacy of them, and therefore the connection of hand and heart, makes them hard to beat.
John Harris: This seems to be a perennial and persistent question, muddied by the value judgment of the 'cognoscenti', whose survival depends on making such distinctions.
For me, the definition of illustration is: a description of an idea shown in image form. A tighter definition might be an image whose sole purpose is to illustrate a narrative. By this token, the religious paintings of the Renaissance are, without question, illustrative. Yet most would agree they are generally regarded as a benchmark of 'Art'. Why?
So really, the question is, what is art? Your own description, contained in the preamble to your question, seems to me, to be a pretty good one , i.e. a medium that causes a reaction in the viewer. I would like to add to it: that which communicates a feeling that cannot be expressed in any other way. But I don't think either of these definitions go far enough. After all, a punch in the face does those things.
I would suggest, those illustrators of the Renaissance were seen as artists because their vision changed the way we see. This has little to do with craft and everything to do with perception, but a combination of those two might attain Art.
SFRevu: Is there a question you always wanted someone to ask but it never happens? Here's your chance (and we'd like an answer too).
John Harris: Actually, I think you've already covered it and the answer is unknown to me as well.