Ian Craig is a slightly rare beast — he’s a cross between an illustrator and a fine artist. While he’s made a successful career out of producing cover illustrations for science fiction book covers and computer publications, he’s currently taking something of a break from illustration and is following his interest in Fine Art photography....

After a couple of years at Salisbury College of Art in the mid seventies, Ian Craig packed his bags and left for Leeds Polytechnic, where he followed a three year course in Communication Design — specialising in illustration in his final year.

With his formal academic training behind him, Ian gathered up his portfolio and left for London, in search of fame and fortune and a career as an illustrator. Soon he realised that the streets of London were not paved with gold: ‘I had rather a naive folder of work,’ Ian explained, ‘and I ended up spending a year on the dole painting, preparing another portfolio.’

A worthwhile investment of time, for then Ian found an agent — Young Artists of Camden. Young Artists specialise in science fiction illustrations, which fitted in well with Ian’s personal tastes. For three years he worked regularly, providing cover illustrations for sci-fi paperbacks.

‘I prefer the mystical side of science fiction rather than the hardware,’ Ian said, ‘I’m more interested in what could be called the ‘softer’ end — alchemy, strangeness, the dreamlike elements. Publishers tend to want hardware — detailed space ships, weapons and the like, so I usually have to try and combine the two elements when producing a science fiction illustration for a client.’

Ian first became involved with the software industry in a queue at the American Embassy in London! The tale began when he was wandering through WH Smiths one day, looking idly at the magazines. He noticed a copy of Practical Computing which caught his eye — in those days they had a full colour illustration on the front cover. Ian wrote off to The Man at PC who replied that he was interested in viewing a portfolio of work — could Ian meet him at the American Embassy where he was going to be queuing for a visa?

Having shown the very suspicious guards on the door the contents of his portfolio and explained his business, Ian gained admission, found The Man in the queue and was commissioned! Popular Computing covers soon led to other commissions within the software industry — Tim Langdell from Softek was one of Ian’s first software clients. He needed a cover for a book on the Dragon. In three days. Soon Ian was regularly doing work for Century Books and Sunshine Publications as well as science fiction covers.

To begin with Ian worked in gouache — then he moved to acrylics for the textures they can create and he explored the qualities of that paint. Other artists whose work was sold through Young Artists began using oils (tricky to use with an airbrush; you have to thin them very carefully). ‘I began to get a bit annoyed with the way acrylics could subtly change colour as they dried, but had always been reluctant to work in oils as so much careful planning is needed. Oil paint takes so long to dry that you have to organise a picture and plan it very carefully, but the quality of the paint leads to more exciting results. Nowadays oil is my first choice, followed by acrylics and I never use gouache.’

So where does the inspiration for science fiction paintings come from? ‘I’m not an avid reader of books — I find it much easier to assimilate pictures. I see all the latest science fiction films as they come out and take a lot of inspiration from the Science Museum; there are some fantastic devices on show there. Every now and again I take a stroll round Forbidden Planet (an ‘Underground’ bookshop in Denmark Street, London) just to see what’s going on — I can’t deny I am and have been influenced by other artists, particularly those working for Young Artists.

‘I take photographs of people which I then use as reference. Once I have got a good photo to use as reference for the central character I find that invention comes easily and I can build a whole world around the figure.’

At the moment, Ian is taking a break from full time illustration. Computer book publishers have been cutting back on their lists, and Ian left Young Artists, so he’s not got a great deal of illustration work on. ‘I wanted to move away from science fiction — I don’t want to become a specialist in that genre,’ he explained. And a small cash windfall came at just the right time to encourage him to make the break.

‘I found myself under quite a lot of pressure after a while — sometimes I had three book covers on the go at one time. I began to feel a bit frustrated and unfulfilled, concentrating on science fiction images all the time. Now I’m looking for jobs where I can spend a lot of time on one picture, rather than having to churn out illustrations, each in a couple of weeks. I’d like to get into advertising illustration, maybe...’

At the moment, Ian is working on a painting for the box of a Games Workshop boardgame, Cosmic Encounter. And is thoroughly enjoying it, working unhurriedly, in oils. While he obviously needs to continue producing illustrations to pay the rent, Ian is effectively treating himself to a sabbatical, allowing himself to follow his own interests in the Fine Art direction.

‘I’m interested in photography and have been investing in equipment. I’m interested in photography as an art — although I have been taking publicity photos of friends in bands and theatre groups as a service, I have been working on an exhibition. I hope to collect twelve images, involving texture and colour which have dreamlike, surreal qualities for a show, and so far I have six. They’re close ups of still lives and may be combined in an exhibition with sound and light so that visitors are presented with sight and sound together which invades their senses.’

Ian’s clearly enjoying his change of direction — no longer is he having to work at breakneck speed executing a painting in a couple of days. Maybe after his exhibition he’ll clear off for a year, possibly to Spain. ‘I like the Sabbatical approach to life,’ he said.