Virgil Finlay is one of my all time favorite artists.I only discovered his work a few years ago. He was born July 23, 1914 in Rochester, New York. Upwards to 2800 drawings and paintings, most printed on cheap pulp paper, made him the most famous fantasy illustrator of mid-twentieth century. How he ever managed to produce that quantity of quality images is a mind-boggling mystery once his techniques are explored.
When Finlay started using it in the early thirties, the black was applied by the artist. That is, scratchboard was white. Black ink was applied to the surface and after it was dry, it was scraped off by the artist. Finlay chose to use both scratchboard techniques and pn and ink techniques on the same drawing: filling areas with black so that he could scratch through to the white to achieve a specific tone of gray and also creating his middle tones and grays with hatching and stippling in black ink on the white surface.
Finlay’s work was an immediate hit with the readers and the writers. Readers wrote in praising the illustrations. H.P. Lovecraft wrote him fan letters and even composed a poem about his art.
Once you’ve seen the detail, it’s important to understand how he did it. A lot of artists use pebble board to simulate stippling. The textured surface of the board prevents the pencil from filling in the depths, making a seemingly random pattern of black dots. Finlay did occasionally use pebble board, but his preferred method of working was on the clay finish of scratchboard. Using an ultra-fine lithographic pen, he would dip just the tip into India ink and allow only the liquid ink, not the tip of the pen, to touch the surface. He then wiped the residual ink off the pen point and repeated the procedure for the next dot. This incredible and incredibly labor-intensive technique, coupled with his enormous talent, created images of near photographic quality.
He served in the Army from 1943 to 1946. Except for this hiatus, he crafted hundreds of images for various science fiction pulps throughout the forties. Included were: Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Fantastic Novels, Startling Stories, Super Science Stories, Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Fantastic Adventures, Argosy, and even a few comic books for DC. He continued to work for those titles that lasted into the fifties. During that time, however, the pulps were phased out of existence and the “digest” was born. Rates decreased and making a living became more difficult.
Finlay’s popularity was always high. Throughout the forties and fifties he was the most popular and saleable artist in science fiction. What was at issue was always his speed. The painstakingly slow techniques that resulted in the inimitable Finlay magic could not be rushed. Short cuts resulted in less satisfaction for both Finlay and the readers. He often did nothing but draw, sixteen hours a day, seven days a week to eke out a living at the wages that the pulps and digests could afford to pay. When markets would dry up as magazines floundered he was known to take jobs repairing lamps.
inlay died in January of 1971, just prior to publication of Donald M. Grant’s Virgil Finlay, the first book devoted to the man and his work. It contains illustrations reproduced from the original drawings, an Appreciation by Sam Moskowtiz, and a checklist by Gerry de la Ree. de la Ree would go on to publish six hardback collections of Finlay drawings starting with The Book of Virgil Finlay and ending with The Sixth Book of Virgil Finlay. All are recommended. It was there that the enormity of Finlay’s talent was exposed for the first time. All the images were reproduced from the original art and printed on slick paper.
Here are a few examples of his masterful work. To see the enormity of his work simply Google his name.