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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Interview with artist (and author) Alastair Reynolds

Russell Crowe would totally 
play Al in a movie, right?
Some months back Strange Horizons held a fundraising drive to keep their doors open for 2011.  I made a small contribution which, to my surprise, entered me into a raffle for a boatload of prizes donated by authors, publishers, and artists.  I was even more surprised when I won my choice of these prizes.  One of those choices was a piece of original art by science fiction author Alastair Reynolds.

Wait, did I just say art?  Indeed, who knew?  Alastair Reynolds can paint!  I have plenty of books laying about the house, but an original piece of art?  Sign me up!  Couple days later Reynolds e-mailed me, asking me what I wanted.  Like any good non-artist I said, "I dunno dude, whatever looks cool to you!"  I did mention that I was a fan of a piece I saw on his blog called Chinese Mining Spacecraft.  And away he went.  A couple weeks later he e-mailed me this:

To say the least, I was thrilled.  I love the palette and who can say no to space ships and funky mountains?  Anyway, I liked the piece so much I invited Reynolds to the blog to talk about his art, and why he's doing it.  Enjoy!


Justin: You took some years away for drawing/painting. Why come back to it now after having had so much success as a writer?

Reynolds: It feels as if I've taken a break from it but when I look at the pictures and drawings in my collection, there's probably not been a year when I haven't done something. I was quite active right through the 90s, then I tailed off a bit. There's definitely been more of it in the last couple of years, though. I started getting back into it in a small way when my wife and I joined our local art society. My wife's also been taking classes in watercolour and drawing, so we've inevitably been spending more time in art shops. I've put art up on my website for years, though, on and off, so it's not a part of my personality that I've tried to hide away. I do a lot of non-SF stuff - watercolours of birds, oil paintings and so on - but that's really for my own consumption.

Justin: Your novels are science fiction, and you're an astronomer by trade. So naturally you seem to draw a lot from that in your art. You mostly do landscape (or the space equivalent). Any interest in doing more figure work? When can we expect your first unicorn piece?

Reynolds: I've always wanted to do figure work but the success rate is lower - doesn't mean I won't keep working on it, though. I can't see myself ever doing a purely fantastic scene, though - no interest! And I wouldn't even claim that my art is particularly informed by my background as a scientist. I'd much rather let rip with some crazy colours and improbable arrangements of stars and planets than try and do something realistic.

Justin: Your art is decidedly nostalgic. Most feel like they'd be perfect as covers for a LeGuin or Heinlein novel. Is this 'your style'?

Reynolds: In so far as I have a style, it's probably the natural outcome of trying to copy/emulate the great SF artists who inspired me. Most of them British paperback illustrators of the 70s - Chris Foss, Chris Moore, Jim Burns, Peter Jones, Peter Elson, Tim White, Tony Roberts. And a large dose of Roger Dean and Patrick Woodruffe, of course. I loved those guys and still do - and of course some of them are still going, and I've even had the pleasure of having Chris Moore do my covers. In the course of getting back into painting, though, I've been relearning a lot of techniques that were second nature to me twenty years ago - mixing paints for the airbrush, masking, and so on. To some extent the "nostalgic" look is a direct result of using fairly simple methods.

Cover by Chris Moore
Justin: Do you think you'll be experimenting with different styles as you continue to improve?

Reynolds: I'm all for experimenting and trying to improve, but generally the more complicated techniques require more time, and I don't want to lose enthusiasm for a picture. If I can't finish it in a couple of weeks, it's probably not going to get finished.

Justin: I am always intrigued that creative people are just creative. Not creative in one space, but in all spaces. You've made your living writing, but you're not half bad at this art thing. What else can you do?

Reynolds: There were only two things I was ever naturally "good at" during school - drawing and making up stories. Everything else has been an uphill struggle. I'm not even a natural mathematician. I'm very into my music these days - I spend a lot of time mucking around with guitars, and I can read music at a reasonable level - but I've no natural aptitude for it whatsoever. The only other creative thing I do is make models - I'm forever building and painting things, and it gives me terrific satisfaction, and to some extent plugs into the same area of the brain responsible for art. It's one of those "zone" activities - the time just flies.

Justin: So what are you working on now on the writing side?

Reynolds: I'm currently working on the follow-up to "Blue Remembered Earth", which will be my next novel, out in January. I don't have a title for the next one, but it's very big in scope, with an interstellar setting and a continuation of the main themes of the next book. Africa in space, elephants and so on. 

Not until June in the U.S.!
Justin: Any interest in making a go at illustrating your own cover for the next book?

Reynolds: I'd never want to do my own cover artwork, not when I get the chance to work with my heroes. The cover of the new book is by Dominic Harmon, who's both a friend and a very gifted digital illustrator.

Justin: Thanks for answering my questions, and more importantly thanks for this killer painting (and supporting Strange Horizons).

Reynolds: Cheers!

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