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Berkey, John

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Artist.

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(1932-2008) US illustrator, occasionally working as just Berkey, probably best remembered for his sf and space-science Illustration but who also worked in a wide variety of other genres, including the images for no fewer than 16 US postage stamps, among them the Santa Claus stamps for 1983 and 1991; he also painted the Old Elvis Stamp, the image that lost a nationwide poll in 1992 to choose between this and the Young Elvis Stamp (painted by Mark Stutzman).

While still at high school he took a vacation job with a studio, running errands and the like. He received his formal art education at Minneapolis School of Art and worked at a number of Minneapolis studios before joining Brown & Bigelow, then the world's largest calendar publisher, as an illustrator – following in the footsteps of such other major US illustrators as Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell. He stayed there eight years, by the end of which time he was averaging about seventy completed paintings a year, most of which he had to research from scratch. This ability to produce high-quality work at great speed would stand him in good stead throughout the rest of his career. He continued doing some work for Brown & Bigelow on historical subjects even after he turned freelance in 1963.

He was employed sporadically by NASA, beginning in the 1960s, to paint portraits of the astronauts and their spacecraft; a stunning piece of work in this vein is "Challenger on the Gantry" (1987-8), currently in the Challenger Museum, Connecticut. He began to paint sf subjects in the late 1960s, his first cover probably being for the 1967 Dell reprint of Robert A Heinlein's Starman Jones (1953). He drew particular attention for his covers for the 1972 Ballantine Books reissue of the Star Science Fiction Stories series, edited by Frederik Pohl. Many of these earlier sf covers focused on figures and interiors; it wouldn't be until the later 1970s and the 1980s that he began to produce the depictions of vast spaceships and cosmic scenarios that became firmly identified with his name. Like the later, likewise very painterly artist John Harris, Berkey had the ability to convey the sense of vast mass and scale. He mixed his own colours, and painted almost exclusively in acrylics blended with casein to make them harder and longer-lasting, a technique he devised himself.

His rate of output of sf covers and interior illustrations dropped off a little after the death of his daughter Sharon in 1997, but he was still painting covers in his last years. He was also doing much else, notably including movie posters and associated advertising material. Among those movies of sf interest for which he painted posters and ancillary material are The Neptune Factor (1973), King Kong (1976), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), The Return of the Jedi (1983) (see Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi), Dune (1984) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). According to the Star Wars Wiki, Berkey did "at least eleven pieces of Star Wars art".

John Berkey was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2004. He received the Spectrum Grand Master Award in 1999. He was nominated just twice for a Chesley Award – in 1993 for Best Magazine Cover and in 2000 for Artistic Achievement – but won in neither instance. He was similarly neglected by the Hugo voters, being nominated in 1996 and 1997 but failing to make the shortlist. On 22 March 2007 the town of Excelsior, Minnesota, where he lived for many years, honoured him with John Berkey Day.

A first collection of his art was John Berkey, Painted Space (graph 1991); a second was The Art of John Berkey (graph 2003). [JGr]

John Conrad Berkey

born Edgley, North Dakota: 13 August 1932

died Excelsior, Minnesota: 29 April 2008


  • John Berkey, Painted Space (Pittsburgh: Friedlander Publishing Group, 1991) with text by Sharon Berkey [chap: graph: pb/John Berkey]
  • The Art of John Berkey (London: Paper Tiger, 2003) with text by Jane Frank and an autobiographical introduction by Berkey himself [graph: hb/John Berkey]

about the artist

  • Jim Pinkoski. "The Many Worlds of John Berkey" (Winter 2012 Illustration) [mag/]


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