If you’re going to start an occasional series on the greatest Star Wars artists to have graced our collective eyeballs, there’s only ever going to be one place to start:
Ladies and gentlemen, I present the art of Ralph McQuarrie.
Many words have already been typed on how fundamental McQuarrie’s work was to Star Wars, but it’s impossible to overstate his contribution to the saga.
George Lucas was so impressed with McQuarrie’s early visualisations of his rambling space story that his illustrations became a key part of the pitch package, helping to eventually sell Alan Ladd Jr on taking a chance with the young filmmaker. Even if his involvement had stopped there, McQuarrie would have already played an essential role in creating the Star Wars we know – yet the best was still to come.
Creating the worlds and colours of Star Wars helped to refine Lucas’ vision, giving the entire production team a goal to aim for. However, what McQuarrie’s work also did was provide life around the edges of the film we saw. When Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was still just a twinkle in Alan Dean Foster’s eye, Ralph McQuarrie was giving us glimpses of Tusken Raider culture, Jawa swap meets and Mos Eisley shoot-outs that had nothing to do with the narrative of the film.
This work went beyond Star Wars. The ideas he had for developing the worlds of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are equally luminous, showing us new explorations of the environments presented on film.
In fact, it’s his work on Return of the Jedi that has always resonated the most with me. The lush, saturated colours and accuracy of the character illustrations set the series apart from his earlier work, while the scenarios he envisaged around Endor in particular strike a chord to this day. Whether it’s the delightful Ewok lake camp under snowy mountains or an enormous Gorax attacking a tree village, the focus on the Ewoks, their life and culture has always been welcome.
Despite taking a peek around the edges, it would be a stretch to describe McQuarrie’s work as ‘Expanded Universe’, per se. It really owes more to imagination, to the scenes and situations these characters could be in that help to make the whole universe feel that much deeper.
His work is more akin to unbridled imagination than calculated world-building, as he considered Lucas’ ideas and followed them through to a logical new scenario. And in doing so, he went on to influence Lucas in turn, the Lucasfilm production team, the entire Disney Star Wars team, and countless numbers of fans around the world.