John Berkey’s 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.


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