The first in our Artists you Should Know series is 20th century American illustrator Virgil Finlay. If you’ve ever stared in wonder at the vivid art printed on the covers of pulp fiction magazines from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, chances are you’ve already experienced Finlay’s work.
Virgil Finlay was born in New York in 1914 and would grow to develop an early interest in the escapism fantasy popular at that time. Titles like Weird Tales and Amazing Fantasy offered a brief respite from the struggles of the Great Depression. Through far-flung stories of lost civilizations and distant planets, pulp magazines offered a welcome weekly distraction. These magazines would not only serve as creative influences for Finlay, but as future employers too.
🤔 Why were they called “pulp” magazines? To keep costs low, the printers used the cheapest paper available, which was made from wood pulp.
After years of self-guided art studies throughout high school, Finlay made the bold move of sending a sample of his art, unsolicited, to the editor of Weird Tales magazine. His audacity paid off, earning him four printed illustrations in a single issue at the young age of 21.
Finlay’s career skyrocketed soon after, with legions of magazine and newspaper publishers eager to feature his unique style. If you were a fan of sci-fi or fantasy in the first half of the 20th century, you couldn’t help but see Finlay’s art at the newsstand each week. Pulp icons like Weird Tales, Amazing Stories and Famous Fantastic Mysteries were just some of the titles that featured his illustrations regularly.
By the late 1930s, Finlay’s skills were earning him $100 per cover for Weird Tales – over $1800 in today’s dollar. Both readers and writers could appreciate his contributions to the genre, inspiring even H.P. Lovecraft to write a sonnet about Finlay’s art.
By his untimely death at the age of 56, Virgil Finlay had produced more than 2,600 pieces of art and built a legendary reputation.
“He came out of his coma. We left a sketch pad and pencils by the bed. He did a drawing, went back into the coma, and died.”Daughter Lail Finlay on her father’s final hours
Virgil Finlay’s art techniques
While he was a talented painter in his own right, it was the black and white images that would mark Finlay’s signature style. To create these otherworldly illustrations he used some of the most difficult, least forgiving mediums possible… scratchboard and ink.
Scratchboard involves coating a white artboard with a layer of black ink that’s allowed to dry. The black is then slowly scratched away with a small pick or knife, revealing the white beneath. This is a rare medium today because of the intense time and labor involved. It’s also difficult to wrap your head around working from black to white.
Finlay would then apply pen and ink over the white areas of scratchboard, employing an equally tedious method of stippling. Using a lithographic pen, he would dip the tip in ink, make a small dot, wipe off the tip and repeat the process… thousands of times. This enabled him to create the incredible midtones and shading that brought an unmatched level of realism to his work.
Beyond his obvious skills in anatomy, form and lighting, there’s also something unusually timeless about Finlay’s compositions. There are elements of the art nouveau aesthetic incorporated into much of his work, which is as appealing today as it was in the 1930s.
If we’ve piqued your interest in Virgil Finlay and pulp art in general, you’re in luck. Since his death in 1971, more than 15 different books and collections have been published featuring his work. We’ve gathered a few currently available for sale and listed links below.
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Women of the Ages features ravishing illustrations from the pages of Weird Tales, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Startling Stories, American Weekly and many others.
Virgil Finlay’s Strange Science is a 149 page collection of Finlay’s science fiction themed interior illustrations from the 1940s and ’50s.
Virgil Finlay’s Far Beyond is a stunning collection of Finlay’s distinctive black and white illustrations from the Golden Age of Science Fiction magazines. Assembled work includes pieces from the pages of Weird Tales, Startling Stories, Galaxy and many other pulps and magazines of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
It seems each generation has found a new appreciation for Virgil Finlay’s masterpieces. Thanks to his boundless imagination and astonishing talent, it’s likely they always will.