Born in 1948, the illustrator has a flare for realising the imagined future worlds of sci-fi literature in paint and pixel. His work for authors such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg and Peter Hamilton mean his universes are carried in the minds of generations of fans, world-wide. A prolific artist, he still works for print and collectors.Web: www.jimburns.co.uk
Ilustrating science fiction literature demands an artist with a clear and convincing vision of the future. Jim Burns is that man for leading authors such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg and Peter F Hamilton. A science fiction world-builder par excellence – and the only non-American to win a Hugo Award for Art (Best Science Fiction Artist) Jim sees through the eyes of the authors he works for to create what he calls “Narrative snapshots realistically depicting things that do not exist.”
Pilot of the future
Jim started early: “Even at the age of three or four I loved drawing cars and aeroplanes.” Once ignited, his fascination with all things technological grew like wild fire: “At some point it subtly transformed itself into the love of science fiction.” Like any fire, fuel was needed; it came in the form of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future. Jim was hooked: “I adored the story lines! But even more, the fabulous artwork of Frank Hampson, and later Frank Bellamy,” he enthuses.
Jim’s obsession with aviation continued to grow unabated, chiefly expressing itself in an assortment of increasingly futuristic drawings. “Common sense dictated that I should have gone straight from school to art college,” Jim smiles. “But my heart spoke louder than my brain!”
And so in the spring of 1966, 18-year-old Jim was inducted into the RAF as a trainee pilot. Things didn’t work out. “I never achieved the exalted status of fighter pilot – though that was very much my ambition,” he sighs. That may be so but it’s better by far to have loved and lost.
“It seems so long ago,” Jim recalls of his Royal Air Force days. “And in such a bizarre conjunction with my life now that it acquires a more and more dream-like quality as the years go by…” With feet firmly on the ground, Jim continued to reach for the sky by embarking on a foundation course in art and design at Newport School of Art.
Foss things first
“I can’t pinpoint the date,” says Jim, “but it was when I first saw the work of Chris Foss spread across a Sunday colour supplement article, sometime in the late 60s.” That was when the penny dropped: “In that moment I realised there was a potential career for me in this rather peculiar discipline.”
The budding artist began working towards his new goal. “Everything I painted was informed in some way by that revelatory moment.” Six years after signing up as a flyboy, Jim finished his first commission for Sphere Books, for a war-time thriller, called The Lost Command. “The artwork was gloriously executed in pencil and coloured crayons.”
Having worked for some of the biggest names in sci-fi – even brushing shoulders with Syd Mead over the concept work for Blade Runner – Jim is assured his place in history. However, he is typically self-deprecating about his talent: “I would say I’m technically competent but somewhat pedestrian,” he claims.
It’s startling to learn that, even at the level Jim has reached, there’s still an element of doubt in there. “The whole thing is redeemed by a rather good imagination and the ability to convey my ideas into paint,” he reasons. So it must be true that an artist is never satisfied with his or her work.
Asked if he’d like to visit any of the worlds he’s envisioned for sci-fi fans the world over, he’s unequivocal: “Most of them look like dystopian hell-holes to me, so I think I’ll stay put in Wiltshire!” A seat on the next shuttle launch, then? “That I could not resist.”