May 31 2010 11:34am

John Berkey’s The Humanoid Touch

John Berkey, The Humanoid Touch

I love this painting by the incomparable John Berkey for a book cover entitled, The Humanoid Touch, by Jack Williamson, published in 1980.

The ship sits on an Earthly landscape and immediately gives the sense that its just landed and out pours its inhabitants, arms open, to embrace mankind. Instead of a smooth cylinder, Berkey has given it relief, texture, and design. All of those little pieces give the ship a technological advance. As in all of John’s spaceship art, the technology feels practical. I believe it made it this far in space.

It’s lit from above, offstage, strong enough to light the planet in the background and bounce light to fill its shadow with a warm glow. But the top of the ship sits in some half shadow, from a cloud, perhaps. All are set before a black sky, with stars and gentle star dust. Which would normally mean there’s no atmosphere. But hey, it’s a Berkey. And it’s a painting, not a photograph, and it’s meant to give us more than just the facts, ma’am.

The whole ship is reflective; we can see the mountains distorted and mirrored off the hull. I love the visual trick of painting shiny things with flat paint. The flared skirt at the base reflects the reflection.

The beings that emerge are barely visible, and I was struck with the feeling that as they draw closer to the foreground humans, they will reveal their unique otherworldliness. It fills the painting with anticipation. Dare I ask if the ship reflects the world it has found because the aliens do as well? Naw, I don’t take it that far, honestly. I’m more excited about the question than the answer.

Berkey’s strokes are meant to pile on top of one another, in a frantic color layer, leaving bits of the last layer to show through. There’s no detail but the overall realism, grown from the abstract. The color is dead on, as always. The comp (seen below), though less reflective, is just as great. Crisp, bold color strokes; you can see him thinking his way through.

And of course, all is in snow. My favorite of John’s work, it blends his sf work with his mainstream landscape work.

John Berkey, The Humanoid Touch sketch

Greg Manchess is an award-winning illustrator currently writing his first novel.

Dominick Saponaro
1. SwashbuckleDom
Amazing Berkey piece, I never saw it before.

First novel huh? Anything to do with Above the Timberline?
2. DavidApatoff
First novel? Terrific! I look forward to it.

And thanks for an illuminating analysis of a lovely painting.
3. ian scott berry
Such a good one. Im not super familiar with all his work, but this one I find striking because of the figures in the foreground. All of his paintings that I can think of off the top of my head rarely have figures in them- it adds scale to the scene and a tremendous amount of "story". Really great painting! Would love to have seen the original.
Also a pleasure to read the musings of another legend, Mr. Greg Manchess, reflecting on the work. Thanks!
Irene Gallo
4. Irene
Ian: Jane and Howard Frank had a party during World Fantasy Con one year. They owned the painting at the time and seeing Greg next to it was like seeing a kid meet the real Santa Claus. It's a stunning painting...And big! You can really fall into it.
Paul Gruber
5. paulg01
Hmm... Picture is brilliant. It gives me the memory of one movie that touched deeply me long time ago - with Jodie Foster in it. Wow! I saw that movie at least three times and just when I looked to this picture, tha same feeling of something that is real but we can not see struck me again.I like such kind of things ( science fiction and such paint...) Thanks a lot for this trip to my childhood and hope that we are not alone in the Universal... probably children of our children will met somedays with our brothers from the space

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Gregory Manchess
6. GregManchess
I had to keep from writing: "It's the BEST!" every other sentence. And I REALLY wanted the original. Maybe someday. I love the idea of owning some of my favorites...just because. I got a chance to speak with John before he died. I can't explain how nice it was to know that he was familiar with my work.

I asked about buying a different painting than this one, and he was so generous, he offered to send it to me to "live with" before I made a decision! (I'll write about that one sometime.) Did I do it?

Nope. Didn't seem right. So I politely apologized and told him I'd rather buy it outright soon as I had loved it ever since I saw it. He understood. Then later I met him at the Society, but he was in poor health. He died not too long after.

Yes, I pound my head from the inside about that one.

I hope to write about more artwork from John and others here soon. Glad you guys liked it.

Yes! I'm constructing the story of Above The Timberline that's been sitting in my thoughts for a while now. Hoping to do an entirely illustrated book.
crypto nomico
7. cryptonomico
I remember going through the back issues of Omni in the college library. Talk about judging a book... I read every story published with a John Berkey first thing. Usually a hard sf piece. Ahhh, Omni. The large format glossy art and cutting edge sf by Lailaw or Gibson. It was the analogy of the kid at the soda fountain flipping through the pulps fifty years before.
Gregory Manchess
8. GregManchess
I LOVED OMNI. I had a subscription from Day 1 of that magazine. A beautiful, coffee table-like issue every month, with science, SF, and fantastic art. Museum quality art. I learned so much from that magazine.

My first freelance job from NYC came from OMNI. I walked in the door with a portfolio full of SF art (originals!) that I'd worked on for about 6 months. I had a painting of a generic astronaut in the book, and they bought it on the spot. It started a long relationship of work. Certainly I was new to the business, but the odd thing was that they forgot anything about that. For some reason, this myth got started about my work. At one point I was told they thought I was a little old man working in some secluded wood in the mountains.

My second job came a couple months later, when they called and asked about a sketch I had showed in the book. They wondered if I'd finished it. (They bought 2nd rights for a long time instead of commissioning.) I said, "Why, I'm working on it right now!" They asked how long it would take; I asked for a few days. I hung up the phone and started the painting!

I worked like that with them for about a decade. Kooky, but fun.

I loved that magazine. Too bad they let the marketing people take over when they thought they had a 'good thing.' Killed it in a couple of years.

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