Tuesday, March 6, 2012

RIP Ralph McQuarrie

I was saddened to hear of the recent death of artist and illustrator Ralph McQuarrie. He wasn't a household name to the public at large, but to Star Wars fans he was nothing less than a legend.

Back in the 1970s when George Lucas was trying to sell a little space opera script he'd written, studio after studio turned him down. His story was full of robots and aliens and people with weird names and was simply beyond the comprehension of studio executives. Then as now, Lucas had all the charisma and personality of a damp sponge and just wasn't able to convey the adventure, granduer and sense of wonder of Star Wars to the suits.

In desperation Lucas turned to illustrator Ralph McQuarrie, who had worked as a technical illustrator for Boeing. Lucas commissioned McQuarrie to produce a series of pre-production paintings to illustrate key scenes from the film. McQuarrie easily grasped what Lucas was trying to do and produced a beautiful series of paintings.

Finally the studio honchos had something tangible to go on and immediately green lit the script. There is no absolutely no doubt that without Ralph McQuarrie, there would be no Star Wars.

As you can see from his paintings, McQuarrie had a HUGE influence on the look of the film. He designed the look of the droids, the ships, the landscapes, and even Darth Vader himself. His contribution and importance to the Star Wars universe cannot be overstated.

In 1977 Ballantine Books published The Star Wars Portfolio, a series of prints of twenty of McQuarriie's pre-production paintings from the film. It cost all of $7.95, which was quite a princely sum back then. I bought a copy and hung all the prints on the walls of my room. Other kids had posters of Kiss and AC/DC adorning their walls; I had Ralph McQuarrie prints.

I spent countless hours staring at his paintings,studying them in minute detail and trying to figure out how he'd done them. His designs, his colors and above all his sense of composition spoke to me the way no artist's work had ever done before, or since. I stared at them so much that each and every brush stroke is permanently seared into my brain. Long after dementia causes me to forget my own name I will still remember these paintings.

McQuarrie also dida series of production paintings for The Empire Strikes Back, which were just as impressive, if not more.

His image of the Cloud City of Bespin is my all time favorite painting- not just of his, but of any artist. In fact, more often then not when I'm illustrating something in Photoshop, my first instinct is to give it a reddish-yellow background just like this one. Could this painting be subconsciously influencing my choice of color?

Scoff if you like, but I truly believe his work belongs in an art gallery or museum.

McQuarrie also produced production paintings for the original Battlestar Galactica, Cocoon, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

His art has had a huge and lasting influence on me and no doubt inspired me to become an artist. I probably wouldn't be a graphic designer and illustrator today if not for Ralph McQuarrie. His talent and sense of design will be missed.


  1. My favorite fact that I learned in reading a bit more about him after he died: he created the illustration of the Ark of the Covenant that the government stooges show Indy and Marcus at the beginning of "Raiders."

  2. Cool! Did not know that. Now I need to watch the movie again to get a good long look at this illustration!


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