Written by Kirk Snavely
Prior to entering college, John Schoenherr considered a career in biology. Fortunately for those of us who enjoy his work, he preferred drawing to dissection and opted for art. His interest in animals and rocks developed at an early age, and is reflected in his illustrations for science fiction and children’s literature, and in his wildlife art.
He was born in New York City in 1935. As a four-year-old he drew pictures to communicate with his friends, who spoke Chinese, Italian, Irish and Greek in the Babel of his Queens neighborhood. He spoke only German at home, as his German father and Hungarian mother were European immigrants. The desire to draw remained after he learned English, listening to his mother practice it as she read to him from the comic strips, and any available surface would do. When he was eight his parents gave him a set of watercolors, and soon after he was given oils. At thirteen he was taking the subway into Manhattan to attend Saturday classes at the Art Students League, where he studied etching and lithography under Will Barnet, whom Schoenherr later credited as “getting me to see and draw things realistically, instead of in a comic book mode” (quoted in Frances Traher, John Schoenherr).
In the midst of the city he discovered the natural world, exploring the abandoned lots and undeveloped fields in his neighborhood as a young boy and becoming aware of the shapes and textures of cobblestones at his doorstep. He sketched the animals at the Bronx and Central Park zoos and drew habitat groups at the American Museum of Natural History, where he came in contact with spelunkers and learned about the Art Students League. Summer camps in the Adirondacks were an occasion to draw the animals he encountered.
He began exploring caves as a teenager. The time spent underground over the years informs his illustrations for Speleology – Caves and the Cave Environment (1964, 1978, 1997), such as the stalactites shown at right. The book was authored by George W. Moore and Nicholas Sullivan. Above ground, rock climbing gave him a daylight view of stone as well as a visceral feel for its texture, knowledge he would use in later work. He also enjoyed hiking and camping, just being outdoors, spending weeks alone exploring the woods and rivers of the Adirondacks.
After high school Schoenherr attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he enjoyed photography but (ironically) failed nature drawing. He was more concerned with drawing accurately while the instructor stressed self-expression. During the summers he returned to the Art Students League, where Frank Reilly introduced him to the old French Academy style of painting. Among the instructors who influenced him at Pratt were Richard Bové, Frederico Castellon, Stanley Meltzoff, William A. Smith, and Khosrov Ajootian, who helped him with his draftsmanship, getting the right contours. Schoenherr admired the use of light in the work of the old masters Van Eyck, Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Vermeer. He also liked the photographs of Edward Weston, with their monumental stones and their simplicity and strength of composition.
After graduating from Pratt with a B.F.A. in 1956, he worked for a short while cutting mats in a studio then became a free-lance illustrator and never looked back. His simple philosophy was to adapt the client’s needs to his own vision and make the best picture he could.
(Back to top) Schoenherr made his first professional sale while still in college, collecting $20 from Amazing Stories in 1956. His affinity for science fiction (SF) began in childhood, when he read Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. As a reader he had admired Richard Powers’s ethereal paperback covers and Edd Cartier’s lively magazine interiors for their ability to enhance the text of a story. After graduation from Pratt, Schoenherr was able to get work in the field and contributed interior illustrations to a variety of SF magazines over the next several years, primarily Amazing Stories, Fantastic, and Infinity. The tongue-in-cheek Noah’s ark piece at right, from Adam Chase’s Deadly Honeymoon in the June 1957 issue of Fantastic, is an early depiction of alien fauna.
In his early portrayals of humans, the eyes are often visible. One example, at far left, is from A. Bertram Chandler’s The Man Who Could Not Stop, in the May 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF). The eyes tend to disappear in shadow later on, however, as in the drawing at near left from Raymond F. Jones’s The Great Gray Plague in the February 1962 issue of Analog. This lends his drawings a darker, more abstract quality in my view.
In 1958 began what for him would be a long association with Astounding Science Fiction, which changed its name to Analog in 1960. He had been reading Astounding since high school and preferred the tone of the magazine. His art dominated the covers of Analog during the sixties. Many of his early cover paintings were done in egg tempera or oils, and are somewhat subdued in color compared to his work after 1964, which includes acrylics. Schoenherr’s covers portrayed a variety of settings and moods as shown below, from future police stations (February 1963) to sandstorms on a desert planet (December 1963), from whimsical (July 1965) to startling (February 1972).
|February 1963||December 1963|
|July 1965||February 1972|
Code Three (February 1963) is an example of his compositional skill. My eyes are led around the page, from the ‘face’ on the cruiser with its contrasting red light, green windshield and white ‘mouth’, to the textures and rectangular patterns of the pavement stones, overhead lights and brick wall. The cover for Dune World (December 1963) demonstrates his ability to create a dramatic scene. The lines of eroded gullies in the foreground converge on the two running figures, who are dwarfed by the massive rock formation that dominates the picture, a potential shelter from the approaching storm in the background. The stark contrast of this scene with the two moons floating in the serene blue sky further emphasizes the danger. A reproduction of the cover for Trader Team (July 1965) hangs in my living room and whenever I look at it, it is fresh. Perhaps it is the eyes of the centauroid saurian, the masterful lighting on his skin or the contrast in color between his skin and the sky. Fido (February 1972) reminds me of other media images from the early seventies, for its shock value. The cover is both disturbing and attractive.
His covers include elements that elicit a second look from the observer. What are the human figures doing in the background of Code Three? Is that a rock spire or a rocket ship in the background of Trader Team? Is something falling out of the sky in Fido, and why does the sky appear to be burning?
John W. Campbell, Jr., who was the editor of Astounding/Analog, had a preference for scratchboard for the interior illustrations of his magazine. Scratchboard showed up well in the primitive letterpress printing that was used at the time for the SF pulps, and Schoenherr was a master of this medium. One example is the Siamese cat at left, from Mario Brand’s The Spy (Analog, April 1964) (click on the image to obtain something approximating the actual size of the illustration in the magazine). The cat’s eyes are luminous. The larger size of the magazine for this year (‘bedsheet’, or 8¼ inches by 11 inches) enabled more detail to be seen in the illustrations.
Using his considerable knowledge of animals he enjoyed creating convincing aliens, designing his own or fleshing out the author’s descriptions. The atmospheric rendering of Azkashi shown at right is from Poul Anderson’s The Ancient Gods (Analog, June 1966).
When his favorite type of scratchboard (Rossboard) became unavailable after the manufacturer’s proprietor passed away, Schoenherr explored other media. He started using acrylic drybrush because he could scratch into it, but did less of that over time. Anne McCaffrey’s Pernese dragons (Weyr Search, Analog, October 1967), shown above right, were done in acrylic over gesso and modeled on dinosaurs. Then he started using rough watercolor paper with ‘bowl-pointed’ post office pens and drybrush with Japanese brushes. He created marvelous texture using this technique, as in the crazy quilt of the spaceship’s cargo hold, above left, from Spider Robinson’s When No Man Pursueth (Analog, November 1974). It is a three-dimensional scene that appeals to his spelunking days. When the pulps went to offset printing, he tried some ‘wipe-out’ techniques, but they weren’t too popular.
Occasionally he would tweak your funny bone. The baboons below are doing their own version of the Three Monkeys, in Bernard Deitchman’s Chester (Analog, June 1973).
In 1961 Schoenherr started painting paperback covers for science fiction, horror, and fantasy, primarily for Pyramid and Ace. (He was also doing paperback covers in travel adventure and natural history.) His early covers showed some influence from Surrealism, a movement in art that was adopted for paperback covers in science fiction the previous decade by Richard Powers. The dreamlike qualities of The Green Rain (1961) include the spiky tree, the human forms moving along the single road across the barren plain to the abstract city, and the rain that looks more like a green aurora. When I first looked at the cover of More Macabre (1961), I saw what I thought was the profile of a dinosaur-like head with a large eye and ear hole. Only later did I see it as the frontal view of a primate-like head, missing one eye! Either way it is a striking cover. For me the blade of grass is a ‘whatsit?’ element.
|Pyramid 1961||Ace 1961||Pyramid 1964|
|Ace 1966||Ace 1970||Ace 1987|
He quickly developed his own more representational style, typified by biomorphic machines (1964) and buildings (1987), alien encounters (1966), and faces with strained or sardonic expressions (1970), often set against brightly colored backgrounds. A good Schoenherr cover, be it a magazine or paperback, has a presence to it.
In the science fiction genre, Schoenherr’s name is perhaps most closely associated with Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, originally published as two serials in Analog, Dune World and The Prophet of Dune, between 1963 and 1965. Schoenherr’s illustrations for Dune World, rendered in scratchboard, and for The Prophet of Dune, using acrylic drybrush on illustration board, helped garner him the 1965 Hugo award for Best Artist. He later produced all-new illustrations for The Illustrated Dune, published in 1978. The sandworm at left is from the 1978 Dune Calendar. Frank Herbert was so impressed with Schoenherr’s work that he once referred to him as “the only man who has ever visited Dune” (quoted in The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction).
Noted SF illustrator Vincent Di Fate holds John Schoenherr in high esteem, saying he is “one of the very best artists to have ever worked in the science fiction genre” (personal communication). Schoenherr worked diligently in the genre for a decade, producing some of his best illustrations for Analog in the sixties and providing close to 100 paperback covers for Pyramid and Ace. Yet he remained relatively poor. At the time, publishers were not paying competitive rates for SF illustration. In the late sixties he lost interest in the subject matter. Following a short hiatus he returned to Analog for several years in the seventies then, aside from a rare appearance now and then, he left the field of SF illustration.
(Back to top) Around this time he and his young son Ian, who is currently a talented illustrator, worked on a science fiction novel for young readers, Lee Harding’s The Fallen Spaceman (1980). Schoenherr was no stranger to children’s literature however. Coincidence played a part in his first book assignment, Sterling North’s Rascal (1963), about a boy and his pet raccoon. Both Schoenherr and the first illustrator chosen for the book occasionally did art work for the Bronx zoo, though they had not met. That artist was too busy to work on the book. On the basis of what he had seen of Schoenherr’s zoo work, he recommended him to the publisher’s art director, who happened to be a fan of science fiction. Schoenherr’s scratchboard illustrations for Rascal, which was a Newbery honor book, attracted the attention of other publishers, and over the years he illustrated close to fifty hardcover wildlife books for children and young adults. Other well-known titles include Walt Morey’s Gentle Ben (1965) and Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves (1972), which won the John Newbery Medal. (The Newbery Medal is awarded to the book which showed the most distinguished writing for children in the previous year.)
In Robert Murphy’s The Golden Eagle (1965), the hungry mountain lion at right faces off with a porcupine (not shown). Schoenherr captures the concentration in the cat’s posture and does a beautiful job depicting the texture of the lion’s fur. The fox in Miska Miles’s Fox and the Fire (1966), shown below, is unconcerned as he scratches his ear. Here we see Schoenherr’s dramatic scratchboard style. In 1968 Schoenherr wrote and illustrated The Barn (an ALA Notable Book), inspired by a skunk he observed waddling into a neighbor’s run-down barn.
Allan W. Eckert’s Incident at Hawk’s Hill (1971) is based on a true story of a little boy who became lost in rural Manitoba, Canada, and was adopted by a female badger. The chance meeting of the two is depicted in the scene at left. For me, the continuity of the boy’s hair with the grass and the badger’s fur suggests a link between boy and badger, while the shading of the badger’s back into the paper denotes the unexpected nature of the meeting. By 1978 Schoenherr had illustrated ten of Miska Miles’s books. Looking at the otter below, from Miska Miles’s Otter in the Cove (1974), I get a real sense of the ocean.
Sometimes he worked in pre-separated color. Printers charged more for doing separations than illustrators. He used a ‘wipe-out’ technique for Theodore Clymer’s The Travels of Atunga (1973). The Eskimo Atunga watches Sun dance with Moon in the scene shown at left. In Joanne Ryder’s Simon Underground (1976), he combined color with the texture of drybrush on watercolor paper. Below, Simon the mole digs his way to the surface and Springtime. The toad appears to have been rudely awakened!
After The Fallen Spaceman, Schoenherr spent the next seven years happily focused on his own wildlife painting. Then he read a Jane Yolen manuscript given to him by a friend and editor at Philomel, and accepted the assignment to illustrate the book without hesitation. He had taken his own children owling in the woods when they were small, and he resonated with the attitudes toward the wild found in Jane’s prose. In addition, for the first time in children’s literature he could work in full color, and he chose pen with watercolor on d’Arches paper. The woods around his farm formed the setting and his wife’s suggestion of including the small animals hidden in the landscape helped enliven the winter scenes. John Schoenherr won the 1988 Randolph Caldecott Medal for his work on Owl Moon. The Caldecott is for the illustrator of the most distinguished picture book for children in the previous year.
With the success of Owl Moon, Philomel encouraged Schoenherr to write and illustrate more children’s books. For Bear (1991), a story of growth and survival of a young bear, he traveled to the Alaskan Peninsula to study the coastal species. In the watercolor at right, produced for the book, the bear wanders through mountains and snowfields and valleys of ash in search of food. In Rebel (1995), a curious gosling goes exploring, unaware of potential dangers in pond and forest. In both books each realistic watercolor is a two-page spread. Scholastic commissioned him to contribute watercolors in a more playful mode to From Sea to Shining Sea (Amy L. Cohn, ed., 1993) and Lynn Plourde’s Pigs in the Mud in the Middle of the Rud (1997), well worth the enjoyable read.
(Back to top) From a young age Schoenherr had a desire to paint wildlife. He began painting wildlife in his teens and continued to do so for assignments at Pratt and while making a living as an illustrator, all the while improving his fine art technique. He traveled widely to study and photograph animals that he would later paint in his studio, an old barn that he himself rebuilt. The barn was located on the 24-acre rural farm near Locktown, New Jersey where he lived with his family.
|Red Rocks, oil, 1989|
The American West appealed to him. On his first trip to the western United States in 1960, while attending a spelunker’s convention in Wyoming with his wife Judy, he encountered bison. Over the years he climbed cliffs after mountain goats in Montana and photographed sea otters in California. During return trips to the western deserts and caves he grew to love the stone and dirt there, the underlying structure of the landscape, in preference to the eastern woodlands. Many of his wildlife paintings are set in rugged, barren landscapes.
Some of his field trips were commissioned. The National Park Service hired him to paint bears in the Great Smoky Mountains. As official artist of a tour to Puerto Rico he painted the cave where the Camuy river flows. On a month-long trip to Iran, commissioned to paint the wildlife there, he and his wife came upon tigers, leopards, red deer, brown bear, and wild goats while hiking in the Elburz Mountains, and were chased by a wild boar! The boar can be found in The Art of Painting Wild Animals (1975), part of the Grumbacher series.
In 1979 Schoenherr made his first trip to Alaska. During a month spent photographing and studying the huge Alaska brown bear at Katmai National Monument, he came to identify with the bear, though he soon learned not to carry food with him on the trails. He made many return trips to Alaska. During one trip he was surprised to suddenly see a 700 lb brown bear in the viewfinder of his camera; the bear passed within six feet of him while he remained motionless!
Illustration continued to pay the bills but Schoenherr chafed at the constraints and compromises involved. As he described in his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech:
I gradually learned, however, that my most satisfactory work was based on intuitive discovery, usually while painting and usually at the last minute. This approach is not accepted gracefully by most publishers. They require sketches, done on schedule, and finished work which relates to the sketches – also done on schedule. I was discovering that my best ideas usually happen in hindsight and on their own schedule. . . . I found the compromises of illustration too limiting and devoted myself fully to creating my own images, painted in my own manner and done on my own schedule.
In the late seventies he devoted himself to easel painting, creating large paintings for galleries, and managed to make a living at it. His work has won awards and hangs in private collections and in museums and galleries around the country, including the Carson Gallery in Denver and the Spanierman Gallery.
In the field his sketchbook is a camera. Schoenherr relies on photographs, and sometimes movies, to study movement, color and configuration. Most of his paintings begin as visions, whether using a photograph as a springboard or recalling an image that persists in his memory. He does not paint actual scenes. Art comes before subject matter.
In his early work, Schoenherr showed an affinity for cats. He portrayed many members of the cat family, often working in egg tempera on panel. The cachets for the 1983 Belize World Wildlife Fund Stamp issue honoring the jaguar were painted by him. At right is a proof page featuring one of his watercolors.
His preference later shifted to working in oils on canvas and painting large monochromatic mammals that he could use a big brush on, particularly bears. To him, bears represent intelligence and power, and recall a primeval age. Oil paint was a flexible medium that allowed him to make major changes on the canvas.
|Bear with Salmon, oil, 1986|
During the creative process he will often rework a painting until it pleases him. In one extreme case he worked on a painting of a tiger for eleven years! His art is characterized by strong compositions and draftsmanship, as well as masterful lighting. With a few brush strokes and a heavy application of paint he creates the illusion of detail, be it fur texture or feather markings. His canvases tend to be large, as well as long and narrow.
|First Outing, oil, 1985|
In referring to the animals he has encountered in the wild, Schoenherr states (Caldecott speech):
Large or small, I feel awe and wonder and respect. They are all presences and personalities, alien and largely unfathomable, but worth acceptance and contemplation for what they are. This is what I’ve found worth trying to express in my work.
He continues to communicate through his art.
|Two’s Company, oil, 1992|
John Schoenherr and fellow SF artists were honored at Chicon 2000 in an exhibition of science fiction art of the fifties and sixties. His watercolors for Owl Moon have toured the country. A major retrospective of his wildlife painting and illustration, John Schoenherr: Beyond the Edge and Deep Within, was held at the Hiram Blauvelt Art Museum in 1997.
The artist has generously given his permission for the use of his work on this page. In addition, publishers were contacted, and those who responded and still owned the copyrights to the illustrations have consented to their use here. In particular, Cave Books permitted the use of the image from Speleology, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction agreed to the use of its image. Each image from Analog has a copyright to Conde Nast Publications, Inc. in the year of its publication, and is used with permission of Dell Magazines, the current publisher of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. The image from the July 1966 magazine cover is used with permission from Reader’s Digest Magazine.
In putting together this webpage, the collections of the following libraries were thoroughly perused: KU Spencer Research Library (science fiction), Lawrence Public Library (literature for young readers), KU Art & Architecture Library (wildlife art).
For more information
- VISCO provides a complete list of Schoenherr’s Analog covers, with images.
- The James H. Schmitz Encyclopedia contains images of the alien animals Schoenherr drew for James Schmitz’s Analog stories.
- The official website of Dune has a gallery of Schoenherr’s paintings for The Illustrated Dune.
- Embracing the Child includes a comprehensive list of books for young readers that Schoenherr has illustrated.
- WNAG displays some of Schoenherr’s wildlife paintings along with other information about the artist.
- Ian Schoenherr is Ian’s website and has some of the work he’s done for children’s books.
Illustrations copyright by their respective
This page written, designed & © 2005 by Kirk Snavely
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