Tim White is one of the world's foremost fantasy illustrators. Ranking alongside Chris Foss, Jim Burns, Chris Achilleos and Rodney Matthews amongst others, his paintings have graced the covers of books by Arthur C Clarke, James Herbert, Clive Barker, Robert Heinlein, Robert Silverberg, H P Lovecraft, Bob Shaw and many, many others. In a career that has spanned seventeen years of fantasy illustration his name is now synonymous with realistic paintings of the impossible.
I spoke to Tim at his house near Maidstone where he lives and works with his wife Lyn (herself an author) and their ten year old daughter. The obvious subject to talk on first was what had fascinated Tim in the world of fantasy painting.
'I've always been interested in fantasy. I entered a Blue Peter competition to create a robot way back in the early '60s which I would have won only I was two months too old - they gave me a trip to the BBC for my entry instead. I've always liked the Dan Dare comics with Frank Hampson's wonderful paintings. I went to Medway Art College, painted nothing but fantasy and then when I left there, the first approach I made was to Pan Books. They told me to go away as the book cover market was all sewn up by a handful of people and that I didn't stand a chance. They also asked if I had ever thought of doing other sorts of illustration!
'Then, in 1974, in the third issue of a magazine called Science Fiction Monthly (published by New English Library), there was a science-fiction painting competition. I got the magazine on a Friday evening and I remember I had to ring them because I was not sure of the rules or something, and this was about 7.30 in the evening. So I rang them and amazingly there was someone there in the art department. He asked me if I did SF paintings, I said that I did, so he told me to forget about the competition and to come in and show them my work. I did this and they gave me a commission there and then for a book called The Not-Quite Rain which was about acid rain. At that time it was science fiction but now it is fact! I did a few bits and pieces for Science Fiction Monthly [Tim's first black and white piece appears in issue 7, and his first colour in issue 11] and eventually I was made redundant from my day job and so I went freelance. My first commission as a freelance artist was from Corgi Books with the cover to Arthur C Clarke's The Other Side of the Sky in 1974. Other publishers started to use me following that, and it all just carried on from there.'
Like most freelance artists, Tim finds that to make a living, he often has to take work that he would otherwise turn down. It seems to be the bane of the artist that he is unable to paint what he wants to, more often than not painting to the requirements of a book or an editor's ideas. 'I believe I could be a commercial artist and paint what I wanted to,' asserts Tim, 'but the money really isn't there and when you have a family to support you have to go where you can earn a living. That's where book companies can be life savers!
'I do paint for pleasure as well. I loved painting unicorns, scenes and characters from C S Lewis' Narnia books long before I really knew the great scope that SF and fantasy offers. This genre is just a marvelous carrier for the imagination.
'To my way of thinking, reality is all around us, but fantasy is something different. Lots of painters have painted reality superbly - Monet, Rembrandt, Vermeer - who can do better than those guys? So the only real area left to explore is the imagination.
'I remember the first piece of work I ever saw by Salvadore Dali was on a postcard when I was about fifteen years old. It was called Metamorphosis of Narcissus. There is a chess board on it, and the painting is full of pockets of image and interest. I had never seen anything quite like that before. It was quite a shock seeing it for the first time.
'I think works of the imagination have so much going for them, so much more reward than in simply painting reality. Each of us has unique dreams and that is what I try and capture as an artist.
'I like to have a personal involvement in my pictures. When I look at other artists' work I want to feel involved. Does it pull my imagination and almost transport me? That's what really turns me on about the genre.'
Far from being a shrine to his work, Tim's house is almost bare of its owner's occupation with the exception of a couple of small framed prints on the walls. His work room too is of a functional rather than display nature and yet from cabinets around the room, three dimensional characters from Tim's paintings stare down with maniacal gleams in their eyes. These effigies are incredibly detailed and painted and I wondered why Tim created them in three dimensions when the work he has been commissioned to do is in two.
'What I'm after is realism in my pictures,' he explained. 'Juxtaposition of images from reality (for example a field of poppies) with fantasy (for example a spacecraft landing in the field).
'I do preliminary work in three dimensions but I'm primarily interested in the final two dimensional image. When you're trained as an artist you can perhaps anticipate the way light will behave on a textured shape but often it doesn't actually work out. If you make a model then you can understand the lighting completely. I'm interested in creating fantasy as reality and this approach helps me to do this. The detail in the models has come about progressively. At first, when I had a problem with lighting I would build the bit I was having problems with. Then I took to building the complete thing - depending on the time available and whether or not I felt it was vital. I use photographic references as well but it is always the final product that is important, getting the realism into it.'
I commented that some artists, like for example Patrick Woodroffe, actually use reality in their paintings, like photographs, marquetry for wood texture and so on. What was Tim's view on this approach?
'My paintings are just that, paintings. I try to achieve photo-realism but I wouldn't consider using actual photographs and re-touching them. I can spend weeks and weeks on the preparation of a piece only to have it not work out. It is important to me that the picture is plausible and not to have it spoilt, for example, by bad lighting.'
Tim has had two collections of his work published by Paper Tiger/Dragon's World; The Science Fiction and Fantasy World of Tim White (covering his work from 1973 to 1981) and Chiaroscuro (covering 1982 to 1988). His talents have also been on display on some video jackets ('A more restrictive market as you are tied to actors' images and the visuals of the film. You also lose all rights in your artwork as they are signed over in totality to the film company') as well as numerous American books ('They pay more than British companies, but again are more restrictive in what you can paint').
In a new venture, a small company, Lightning Man, are producing four 432 x 286mm art prints of Tim's work. The prints are beautifully reproduced on quality 170gsm art paper.
'The one thing that all the paintings being released as posters have in common is that they are all pictures that were originally done for myself. Some have subsequently been used on book jackets - the robot fly was used on Terry Pratchett's The Dark Side of the Sun in 1978 and the lion on The Lion Game by James H Schmitz in 1979 - but originally they were done for no-one but me. I always paint such that they could be used as covers because there is always that possibility, but they were all ideas and concepts that I did because I wanted to.
Tim White seems to only have one ambition left. To do his own thing. 'I am a painter who is being an illustrator because I have to be,' he asserts. 'I get a lot of satisfaction from everything I do, but I love to work to create my own dreams and worlds.'