Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Berkey’s Painting in Perspective

John Berkey is best known for his paintings of spacecraft in the 1970s and 1980s. His approach to painting was both loose and precise. He used water-based opaque paints, usually casein or gouache, which he kept in cups near his workstation and stirred with a dental drill. He lived in Minnesota. I visited him there in 1983.

This painting of Henry Ford’s auto assembly line was an impressive feat of execution. Each square inch of the painting is a masterpiece of abstraction. It shows him at the height of his powers. All the strokes are in proper perspective.

Although he probably had prepared a careful drawing to establish the main forms of the room, the car, and figures, based on whatever existing photos he could find, he didn’t pre-draw all the smaller wires and widgets. Those details he found in the paint.

To paint in this way requires the willingness to cover up your underdrawing in the early stages and “find it in the paint.” It helps to think of painting as a form of drawing, of discovery. The brush is really a drawing tool, and you can rig up straightedges to pins placed at vanishing points to get all the painted lines in perspective. 

This was painted in 1976, around the same time he was illustrating the Death Star for marketing the first Star Wars. This kind of painting requires both accuracy and improvization, like playing a cadenza on a Mozart piano concerto.

Have a look at a huge collection of Berkey’s work at the website of collector Jim Pinkowski. Thanks, Jim.


P.T. Waugh said...
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P.T. Waugh said...

I like Berkety's work and I've tried replicating his techniques in photoshop. Berkey gives just enough information for the viewer to imagine pipes and wires and things without really painting each one. I can see traces of his style in some of your earlier sci-fi paintings, James. In particular, I'm thinking of one with a spaceship buzzing a confused band of knights.

David Teter said...

Great to see a post on Berkey. I have been a fan of his for years (along with the similar Syd Mead) and have a book of his work.
And I always like the little tidbits of info you provide even in a short post '...and stirred with a dental drill', that's the human interest stuff I look for, keep it up.
I can see his influences in the digital entertainment field, all great stuff. Like Mead they both did their work pre-digital in gouache and casein.

Chris Jouan said...

The first Berkey piece I ever saw was on the cover of a National Geographic book about the Universe. The energy of the art was mesmerizing even to a 10-year-old. His ability to create the impression of technical detail has fascinated me and inspired me to loosen up in my own work. Not easy for me but very worth the effort.

Richard said...

YOu might be interested in the fact that what we call brushes (for watercolor), that is brushes that "point" , were first called "pencils" because you drew with them. Apparently the term "pencil" applied to the activity and that with which you did that activity.


Brett W. McCoy said...

Oh, yes, I remember his artwork well. I used to have that Star Wars poster up in my room when I was a kid... I think it came with the original music soundtrack double LP record set.

John VanHouten said...

James, could you talk more about rigging "straightedges to pins placed at vanishing points to get all the painted lines in perspective"?