Monday, October 01, 2012

Virgil Finlay: Master of Fantasy

This Monday I was back into my favourite pursuit—looking up rare and vintage stuff in the world of literature. And this is what I came up with: an illustrated article by Gerry de la Ree on the brilliant art of Virgil Finlay in Starlog: The Magazine of the Future, No.14, June 1978.

Ree, a noted American publisher of fanzines, appears to have been somewhat obsessed with Finlay's work in the field of American pulp—science fiction, fantasy and horror. According to the internet, between 1975 and 1981 Ree published a series of seven books that explored the spectacular art of Virgil Finlay accompanied by some 800 high-quality illustrations and detailed essays. The seven books are:

1. Finlay's Last Drawings: For Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream (1975)
2. The Book of Virgil Finlay (1976)
3. Second Book of Virgil Finlay (1978)
4. The Third Book of Virgil Finlay (1979)
5. The Fourth Book of Virgil Finlay (1979)
6. The Fifth Book of Virgil Finlay (1979)
7. The Sixth Book of Virgil Finlay: The Astrology Years (1980)
8. The Seventh Book of Virgil Finlay—Virgil Finlay Remembered (1981) 

In a career spanning more than thirty years, Virgil Finlay (1914-1971) contributed over 2,600 illustrations to popular sf and fantasy and horror magazines like Amazing Stories, Weird Tales and Famous Fantastic MysteriesHis speciality was pen-and-ink drawings which he "accomplished with abundant stippling, cross-hatching, and scratchboard techniques."

He was the master of the scratchboard (or scraperboard) technique where, according to an article on Wikipedia, drawings are created using sharp knives and tools for etching into a thin layer of white China clay that is coated with black India ink. 

Virgil Finlay by artist Charlie McGill
Since the article from Starlog is under Creative Commons License, I'm taking the liberty of quoting Gerry de la Ree. Of Finlay's art, he writes, "His use of the stipple and cross-hatch techniques, and an ability to enhance drawings quickly rocketed him to the top. Over the years many artists would attempt to duplicate Finlay's techniques, but none ever attained the quality that was the trademark of Finlay's finest efforts."

According to him, Finlay did his black-and-white drawings in a variety of techniques, employing pen, brush, spatter, lithographic pencils, sponges, and knives on a variety of paper; the majority were done on scratchboard.

Virgil Finlay's art brought alive the stories of most of the top writers we have heard of, and read, in the sf-fantasy-horror spectrum. Mentioning names would be a waste of time and space though I was surprised with the inclusion of William Shakespeare and John D. MacDonald. You'll find hundreds of covers with Finlay's art over at Internet Speculative Fiction db.

I don't understand Finlay's art or his technique but I admire his work immensely, particularly his black-and-white illustrations. Scroll down for a look…

You can read the Starlog article at Todd Mason has also featured Virgil Finlay over at his blog Sweet Freedom. Walker Martin's Favourite WEIRD TALES covers, one of which includes cover art by Finlay, can be accessed at Laurie Powers blog Laurie's Wild West.


  1. Yes, I like Finley a lot. I've always liked his alien and non human figures best.

    1. Charles, I'm impressed by the intricate detailing in Finlay's art and I like his alien and non-human illustrations too. I'm going through some of his covers at ISFdb and a couple of other sites.

  2. He was simply one of the most consistently popular illustrators of his time...and since.

    1. Todd, that was one of the first things I realised about Virgil Finlay. His work keeps popping up on nearly every second pulp magazine cover I see. He must have been a huge inspiration for other artists.

  3. Some lovely art here, thanks Prashant. I'm amazed that the Starlog article is available under CC though - used to read that avidly in the early 80s ...

    1. You're welcome, Sergio. I'd never heard of "Starlog" before and this one came with a few surprises. I'm scouting for more as it carried a lot of fascinating articles and illustrations.