They climbed up and up. He opened his eyes, and ventured to look around him. By this time they were already level with the top of the outer rampart of precipices. There now came in sight a wild archipelago of islands, with jagged outlines, emerging from a sea of air. The islands were mountain summits; or, more accurately speaking, the country was a high tableland, fissured everywhere by narrow and apparently bottomless cracks. These cracks were in some cases like canals, in others like lakes, in others merely holes in the ground, closed in all round. The perpendicular sides of the islands—that is, the upper, visible parts of the innumerable cliff faces—were of bare rock, gaudily coloured; but the level surfaces were a tangle of wild plant life. -David Lindsay, A Voyage to Arcturus, 1920
This moment described in David Lindsay's visionary novel A Voyage to Arcturus was the inspiration for one of my earliest paintings, entitled Idawn, which I completed in 1975 at the age of 19. It depicts characters Oceaxe and Maskull riding a flying snake-like creature called a shrowk over the land of Ifdawn. Clearly, there are a lot of bizarre names in Lindsay's book!
Many of my paintings from the ‘70s were illustrations, because I was preparing myself for a possible career as a book cover artist (before ultimately becoming an animator). I wanted to go all-out with this piece and spent a year of my spare time working on a large 36" x 50" canvas. The painting had its flaws but it prevailed with style, passion, and youthful bravado. Although executed a long time ago, I still remember the method and thoughts I applied in its creation.
I designed and rendered the painting in a unique style, utilizing repeating patterns in the forms, textures, and brushwork. Added to the difficulty was the need to consistently shrink the size of the patterns as they receded in depth. There were no appropriate visual references for the scene, so I fabricated it straight out my mind’s eye.
I tried to accurately portray the book's descriptions, but one aspect was particularly difficult - Lindsay's alien world had two additional primary colors called Ulfire and Jale! This type of spectrum was of course impossible to achieve, so instead I indicated their effect with intense high-chroma colors. I strove to create these feelings in my color scheme as described here:
The sense impressions caused in Maskull by these two additional primary colors can only be vaguely hinted at by analogy. Just as blue is delicate and mysterious, yellow clear and unsubtle, and red sanguine and passionate, so he felt ulfire to be wild and painful, and jale dreamlike, feverish, and voluptuous.
Working forward from the distance, I painted the background first. The clouds were painted with an airbrush, rather simply in a pattern-like manner. I devised the landscape similar to a broken-up jigsaw puzzle and painted the sheer cliffs and treetops with bright unusual colors.
At the focal point of the painting is Oceaxe, commanding the flying shrowk with her powerful will. I painted her entirely with transparent glazes to achieve color intensity, using orange, red, and violet to imply her unusual complexion:
He could now perceive the colour of her skin—it was a vivid, yet delicate mixture of carmine, white, and jale. The effect was startlingly unearthly. With these new colors she looked like a genuine representative of a strange planet. Her frame also had something curious about it. The curves were womanly, the bones were characteristically female—yet all seemed somehow to express a daring, masculine underlying will. The commanding eye on her forehead set the same puzzle in plainer language. Its bold, domineering egotism was shot with undergleams of sex and softness.
Holding on to Oceaxe with his new third arm is Maskull, the adventurer from Earth. I chose muted brown (Earth) tones for him to contrast with the colorful psychedelic alien world he was visiting. Lindsay described Maskull thusly:
Maskull was a kind of giant, but of broader and more robust physique than most giants. He wore a full beard. His features were thick and heavy, coarsely modelled, like those of a wooden carving; but his eyes, small and black, sparkled with the fires of intelligence and audacity. His hair was short, black, and bristling.
The flying shrowk dominates the painting. I designed the shrowk based on what the book indicated:
They were not birds, but creatures with long, snakelike bodies, and ten reptilian legs apiece, terminating in fins which acted as wings. The bodies were of bright blue, the legs and fins were yellow. ... It was about thirty feet long. Its bright-coloured skin was shining, slippery, and leathery; a mane of black hair covered its long neck. Its face was awesome and unnatural, with its carnivorous eyes, frightful stiletto, and blood- sucking cavity. There were true fins on its back and tail.
For an alien look, I chose to make circular scales on the Shrowk's body. This was an extremely laborious process as I initially painted each individual scale pure white. I then glazed over the scales with transparent paint resulting in high-chroma intense color and painted the paddle-like fins on each leg with the aid of an airbrush. Because they are large and bright yellow, the fins kind of grab your attention, for better or worse; however, I am pleased with the way the Shrowk turned out, clearly due to my use of the repeating pattern technique for the painting.
Like many artists, I destroyed some of my early paintings because I had been dissatisfied with the finished result; however, this piece has remained a favorite and it has stayed with me all of these years.
Fast-forward to the present, and my Ifdawn painting has recently gained recognition. In 2020, the University of Glasgow honored the centenary of A Voyage to Arcturus with an event that featured my illustration. In 2021, publisher Nysalor-Kustannus of Finland contacted me and inquired about licensing my painting for the cover of the Finnish translation of the book. After all these years, I was very pleased that my painting ultimately graced the cover of the novel, titled Matka Arcturukseen, in Finnish!
© 2022 Joel Fletcher