Virgil Finlay

Virgil Finlay was one of the greatest science fiction and fantasy artists. He started working for Weird Tales in 1935 and continued to work for that magazine and others for over 35 years. He was a prolific artist and created more than 2,500 images.

Although Finlay created many color cover paintings for magazines, the majority of his images, and what he was renowned for, were stunningly rendered black and white illustrations.

Finlay was a master of pen and ink. Obviously influenced by pen and ink greats like Joseph Clement Coll, Edwin Austin Abbey and Franklin Booth (see my post on Flesk Publications’ volumes on Coll and Booth), he developed his own unique style and range of ink drawing techniques.

Finlay worked in a combination of hatching, the use of small lines to create tone in pen and ink, stipple, the application of hundreds (or thousands) of tiny dots to create an even smoother and almost photorealistic tone, and scratchboard, the application of ink to a clay-coated white board which is then scratched away with a sharp instrument to reveal white lines.

Many artists would work in any one of these techniques; Finlay’s unique approach was to combine them in the same drawing, giving him the ability to utilize an extraordinary range of tone and texture. He was noted in particular for his beautiful and elaborate stipple work.

He also had an amazing range of imagination, his drawings included delicately rendered classical beauty, wild science fiction, startling fantasy and wonderfully rendered astrological images (in the latter part of his career, he did work for several astrology magazines).

The astounding level of detail he lavished on his drawings indicated an intense devotion to his work, particularly given the short deadlines and low pay rates that were characteristic of working for the pulp science fiction magazines.

I give several links at the end of the post, The first is to a gallery of smaller images, but some of his better ones, the other two are to galleries with nice large images. None of them, however, give you the real flavor of Finlay’s extraordinarily fine detail work like a good high-resolution print image can. They also don’t demonstrate the broad range of style and subject matter an don’t include many of his most famous and striking images.

There were some excellent and inexpensive books of his work published in the early ’90s. Though out of print now, they were popular enough that you can find copies on Amazon, eBay, and Alibris.

Here are a few titles in that series: Virgil Finlay’s Strange Science, Virgil Finlay’s Phantasms, Virgil Finlay’s far beyond, Virgil Finlay’s Women of the Ages, and not in the series, but also a nice inexpensive volume of his work for astrology magazines, Virgil Finlay: An Astrology Sketch Book. At the very least, try to find some of his books in a public or university library just to get a glimpse of what his work looks like in print.

You may have gleaned from my attempt to utilize every superlative in my word-box that Finlay is one of my favorite illustrators. I think he is just amazing. If you like pen and ink drawing and/or classic science fiction and fantasy illustration, don’t miss out on Virgil Finlay.


8 Replies to “Virgil Finlay”

  1. Charley,
    Without the artwork of Virgil Finlay I would likely never have put pen to paper. He was a true master of science fiction illustration. Thank you for spotlighting him in your blog.
    Randall Ensley

  2. just turned a buddy of mine on to finlay. within 48 hours he had chosen two pieces to get tattooed: finlay’s libra with the dove/rose scales (he’s going to modify it a smidgen) and ‘the woman who could not die’ illustration. myself, i’m going for the butterfly girl from the work i can’t remember.

  3. btw, if you’re ever in toronto visit The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy; 239 College Street, 3rd Floor; call 416-393-7748 for more info.

  4. I had an art class while I attended University and we studied Finlay for about a week. For me it wasn’t enough! Someone recently recommended a few magazine subscriptions ( ) that are dedicated to my favorite artist but for the life of me I can’t remember. Any ideas??? Help!!

  5. Have literally discovered Virgil Findlay this evening whilst idly surfing for graphic novel inspiration. My subject is the golden age of film and want to create a realistic/dreamy style if that makes sense. have found my teacher. Look forward to sharing future insights with Findlay fans.

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