CGSociety :: Special Feature
18 July 2013, by Ronnie Gromazio
Jim Burns was a child of the fifties, surrounded by comics and radio plays full of heroes and villians. Space flight was in the imagination, and Jim's world was filled with visuals he found solace in getting down onto canvas. His later professional imagery went on to influence a generation of followers and fans. Burns brought the scale and color of fictional travels into the minds of students,covering books, comics, posters and production art. Ronnie Gromazio spoke to the celebrated artist and the unanimously voted Grand Master of EXPOSÉ 10, Jim Burns.
Jim Burns finds it difficult to be precise about when in his life he actually became a science fiction artist. From a professional standpoint, Burns feels it would have to be October 7th, 1972—the date he received his first payment for a commercially commissioned piece (the princely sum of £37.50). Jim Burns takes up his story.
"I was creating, in essence, the same kind of science fiction-obsessed imagery that had preoccupied me since the mid-1950’s," says Burns. "As a small child armed with paper and pencil I just started letting my imagination wander where it would. The early progenitors of my exotic beings, weird machinery, and faraway worlds first started primitively to take form on the page before me. This was probably fed by the scientific and technological marvels beamed out at us from the still-new miracle of TV."
"Comics fed into the heady mix. The ‘Eagle’ in my case—beloved of many a British lad of that period—and from it the character of ‘Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future’ who is to blame for a heck of a lot in my life. As the 50’s wore on, real space stuff started happening—those first ‘bleep-bleeps’ of Sputnik 1 and then Yuri himself orbiting the world above us. A real-life Dan Dare—not an Englishman though, which was a bit of a let-down!"
"Dan Dare had fired up another ambition in me, one that was to deflect me from the obvious, common-sense direction I perhaps should have been taking (namely, art school). I decided that I wanted to actually become a pilot like Dan Dare—and the route to that was the Royal Air Force. Having successfully negotiated the entrance tests and exams, my service career ended up being only 18 months long. It seems now to have been a life lived by another person. In that brief time I grew up. I had changed from a shy, callow youth to something resembling a young adult. I had 146 hours flying time under my belt, some of them jet solo hours—and that’s something I’ll never regret having done."
"I don’t regret coming out of the service life either, and going to art college—in effect getting back on the pathway I’d been briefly distracted from. In the next single year at Newport College of Art in South Wales and then three years at St. Martin’s School of Art in London, something seemed to move me one small step at a time. I went from being a person who loved drawing as a pastime to someone who’s career was increasingly gearing in that direction—and finally into the professional illustrator I remain to this day. I suppose it’s a lucky man whose hobby turns almost imperceptibly into the means by which he makes his living. I don’t really feel that I ever trained for anything—art college was a four-year long party!"
"In the 40-odd years since then, I’ve painted hundreds and hundreds of covers. This has been both in paint and digitally. I succumbed in part to the seductive charms of the AppleMac back in 1997. I’ve found myself happily engaged in film work on several occasions, including an eye-opening ten weeks in Hollywood in 1980 working on ‘Blade Runner.’ My paintings seem to be collectable—which is very satisfying indeed. The notion that many of my paintings provide pleasure to people in ways beyond their original commissioned purpose is immensely gratifying."
If I go back to the beginning of my career—just about the time I was leaving art college—I would have to say that luck and timing had a fair part to play in the success I enjoyed over the next few decades.
"St. Martins, it seems to me now, was basking rather lazily in an earlier period of success earned during the heady days of the 1960s. It, along with the other major London art schools, was in the vanguard of the whole ‘Swinging London’ revolution in the arts, and to some extent, I always felt it was rather resting on its earlier laurels by the time I came to pass through. So people like me, who preferred to focus on what was generally seen as uncool or irrelevant directions in illustration, kind of got ignored."
"I was always a stubborn so-and-so, disinclined to follow others’ instructions or well-meaning advice. And I had seen the work of a UK artist named Chris Foss appear in one of the Sunday color supplements, and decided that for me the future lay somewhere in that direction. He was the latest in a succession of ‘hero artists’ I had admired, from Frank Hampson and Frank Bellamy in ‘The Eagle’, Sydney Jordan and his ‘Jeff Hawke’ strip which appeared in my dad’s Daily Express, and the various artists of Captain Condor in ‘The Lion’ comic."
"I was reading a lot of science fiction at this time and could see the burgeoning new popularity of the genre in both paperback novels, and of course, cinema. I knew I had some kind of a future there. It was John Spencer of the Young Artists agency who spotted something in my work which he thought might carry through to paid commissions, and for that I shall always be incredibly grateful to John."
"Indeed it was with that agent I stayed and gained many hundreds of commissions down the years. In fact his successor at Young Artists, the splendid Alison Eldred, remains my agent to this day, and in its various incarnations you could say I’ve been with the same agency now for 40 years. During that time I’ve produced covers for the majority of the well known writers of science fiction, as well as some of the forgotten ones. I still look around at all that is contemporary, whether it is traditional paint or digital, and I’m not too proud to say that I can still be influenced by new young artists bringing an innovative eye and a bold imagination to the field."
"I hope that this enables me to remain fresh and open-minded about ‘directions’ and I still promise to myself every day that I still have my best work in me."
Ballistic Publishing's milestone EXPOSÉ 10 holds a massive collection of images from artists all over the planet. The book rounds up those artists who've appeared in each EXPOSÉ Digital Art Annual since the series began ten years earlier. Grab yourself a copy of the book now, at the online store on the links below, or at your favorite local book seller.