In a perfect world, you wouldn't be scratching your head and wondering who the heck George Barr was. He'd be just (and justly) as famous as Virgil Finlay and Kelly Freas. Since this world is anything but perfect, let me rectify this startling oversight.
Born in 1937 (one year before Jean Giraud), George was drawing at the age of three. Encouraged in high school by a local artist to develop his skills (and because he "liked to draw"), he sent away for the Famous Artists Course. After high school, he also enrolled in the local Salt Lake City Vocational School of Commercial Art. Neither course proved to be to his liking, though the latter gave him a working familiarity with many of the tools of the artist's trade.
In 1958, George discovered the world of science fiction fandom. He had been an sf fan since age 13 and finding an organized group that shared his joys was a wonder. He began to contribute to fanzines (see the 1962 cover to Amra vol. 2, 22 at left) and to display his artwork in the convention art exhibits. This led to his first commercial successes - two 1962 covers for Fantastic magazines. You can see the first of these to the right. He was on a roll...
Only trouble was, nobody else knew it. Living in Utah, with
no experience in the trade, he figured once he was published that
the world would come to him. He spent six years waiting for a
call that never came. In the meantime, he worked in advertising
and freelanced locally. He eventually removed the two covers from
his portfolio because some of the rather provincial art directors
wouldn't hire him for fear he was overqualified.
He continued his contributions to fanzines, the most notably his work for Tom Reamy's Trumpet. The masterful playing card images were on the covers of issue 3 (1965) and with issue four he began his legendary (albeit unfinished) comic strip adaptation of Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword. It was his first comic style work and, as far as I can ascertain, his last. In three installments over a period of three years he produced 22 pages of the story for no pay. He was fairly glad when the magazine and the project ended, but not before he had produced innumerable interior drawings for them and the stunning cover for issue ten (directly below).
A word about technique
A fascinating aspect of Barr's work is that much of it, in these early days, was done in ball point pen. Even the color "paintings" are really "inkings" with different color pens used to "mix" the colors. Since the mid-Seventies he's switched to watercolor for the tints, but still he does most of his drawing in ball point pen. He was once encouraged, as a teenager, to try to sketch in pen to avoid the temptation of erasures - to which he was prone. This unique technique was the result. (See enlarged sample above.)
In 1968, the quality of his plethora of fanzine art earned him the Hugo Award for best fan artist. That year, he left the Salt Lake City doldrums for the potential of Los Angeles and a career as a science fiction artist. Soon the paperback racks were filled with his paintings. He did some of the very earliest covers for DAW (#s 6 and 10) and worked for Ace and Ballantine and others. The novels of Marion Zimmer Bradley and Thomas Burnett Swann were especially favored subjects.
Another aside: Though George lived for many years in neighboring San Jose, I've never met the man. But Bud, Al Davoren and I did publish some of his work in 1970. It was the back cover of Promethean Enterprises #2 and the image had been crafted in 1961. That image, at left, demonstrates George's superb appreciation and understanding of the techniques and strengths of Virgil Finlay - while still being much more than a mere imitation.
And while I didn't have anything to do with its publication, the image at right, from the cover of The Conan Swordbook (1969 Mirage Press) is pertinent in that it was the first piece of George Barr art I ever encountered. He did the back cover to that book as well, a striking pen portrait of Robert E. Howard. I was hooked.
The Flesh Gordon erotic film was released in 1972, the year that George left LA for San Jose. He crafted a wonderfully sexy and campy parody of an old-time pulp cover as a poster for the film. It was available for a time as a print.
In 1975, George was given the plum assignment of illustrating the Red Nails volume of Donald M. Grant's uniform Robert E. Howard's Conan. Bud and I both consider this to be one of, if not the, best books in the series. One of the pen and ink plates is at left.
By 1976, Barr was such a presence in the sf/fantasy art world
that Grant published a collection of his art. Upon the Winds
of Yesterday and Other Explorations is still the best collection
of his work extant. Of course, it is hopelessly out of date. Aren't
we due for an update?
The late 70's and all of the 80's were prime time for George. He did dozens more paperback covers, lots of covers for SF program books, and covers and interior art for Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction and Amazing. When the venerable pulp Weird Tales was revived (again) in 1988, the cover and the interior art for the entire issue was by Barr (above left). He did dust jacket and interior illustrations for Underwood-Miller's collection of Jack Vance stories, Green Magic and the dust jacket for their The Dying Earth. A major locus for his art was (and is) the covers, interior art and stories for many issues of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine. Click the cover above right for an enlarged view.
Another venue for George is the computer and role-playing game industry. The little dragon at left is from the D&D game The Wrath of Olympus.
Yet another aside: What's going to happen when all of our great artists, who actually know how to draw and have great creative abilities, leave the computer gaming industry? The mere fact that they are in such demand there points out the shortcomings of the modern art training institutions. The skills learned and demonstrated by artists like Barr are often in sharp contrast to those exhibited by some of the other artists who appear alongside him. And the needs of the computer game designers are going to only increase in the future. It seems it's the imaginative aspects that will be in shortest supply judging by the derivative nature of much of the material we're currently seeing. Is it our speeded up society that discourages the prolonged study of anatomy? Does our politically correct educational stance that avers the nonsensical notion of "everyone is right" encourage poor design and drawing skills. Bring back the atelier system! Okay, I'm going to calm down now...
GoGo the Blue Gorilla at the top of the page is from a 1978 record album sleeve - profusely illustrated by George. Above is another album cover that he did in 1976 for a recording of Ursula K. Le Guin reading three of her short stories.
George Barr is currently living in Livermore, CA, and judging from his most recent work still possesses all his skills and whimsy. I hope George is still actively drawing. The last work I've seen from him was in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine from circa 1997.To learn more about George Barr, see:
|The Art of George Barr||William Rotsler, Vertex V1:5 1973|
|Upon the Winds of Yesterday||Stuart David Schiff, Donald M. Grant 1976|
|George Barr Interview||Darrell Schweitzer, Marion Zimmer Bradley 1989|
|The Vadeboncoeur Collection of Knowledge||Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. 2001|
This page written, designed & © 2001 by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. Updated 2011.