clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Inside the finest Star Wars art book ever made

The complete works of Ralph McQuarrie, collected for the first time

Ralph McQuarrie/Abrams Books

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Long-time fans of the Star Wars franchise will no doubt recognize the work of concept artist and illustrator Ralph McQuarrie. He was instrumental in turning George Lucas’ epic into a reality, and played a key role in creating the visual language for the entire universe. This fall, Abrams Books published Star Wars Art: Ralph McQuarrie, the definitive collection of his work. We’ve spent some time with the final product and can say without reservation that it is among the finest Star Wars art books ever made.

The two-volume, $250 set comes hardbound with a custom slipcase adorned with the now famous concept art for Star Wars: A New Hope. It’s one of the first paintings that McQuarrie ever did for the project, depicting R2-D2 and C-3PO leaving their "lifepod" and setting out across Tatooine’s Dune Sea. Both black, cloth-bound volumes are 400 pages start to finish, and each full-color page is a dramatic 12-by-14 inches. At that scale, it makes the many two-page spreads inside a genuine treasure.

But even more valuable is the behind-the-scenes history of the Star Wars universe that these books contain.

While the forward, written by George Lucas himself, is bland in the extreme, the work of the book’s actual authors — Brandon Alinger, Wade Lageose and David Mandel — is extraordinary. It charts McQuarrie’s early days as an illustrator for Boeing where he produced aerospace illustrations and technical documents. Later, it highlights the work he did animating the Apollo missions in the 60s and 70s for television. It even touches on McQuarrie’s service in the U.S. Army, where he fought in some of the Korean War’s most brutal battles.

The bulk of the text, however, covers McQuarrie’s working relationship with Lucas and other key members of the Star Wars creative team.

Where applicable, the team has added additional works by other artists, including production photos, matte paintings and photographs of hand-made models. Together, they tell the complete story of the original Star Wars trilogy. There are also Easter eggs inside, including illustrations done for LucasFilm corporate holiday cards, toys and merchandise as well as original artwork produced for the Indiana Jones films.

Abrams has agreed to share with Polygon’s readers some of the collections’ more than 2,000 images. Among them are new pieces from the LucasFilm archives, renderings of original McQuarrie pieces that have never been seen before in public or published in any book. Babykayak

Concept sketches, Darth Vader. The helmet sketch (right) has been printed frequently in the past, but only from a photographic transparency — the photograph caused the helmet and chest to appear softer than the faceplate, and the helmet appeared distorted. It is accurately reproduced here for the first time.
Ralph McQuarrie/Abrams Books
Illustration, Splinter of the Mind's Eye novel cover, late 1977. A classic piece, presented with a new photograph taken exclusively for these books.
Ralph McQuarrie/Abrams Books
Concept sketches, ice planet mobile turret, circa February 1979. Recently discovered among McQuarrie’s archives, and included here for the first time.
Ralph McQuarrie/Abrams Books
Portfolio illustration, The Emperor's powers, version 1. While McQuarrie had reference photographs from the film available while working on the portfolio illustrations, he sometimes blended in his own ideas as well, such as this evil face for the Emperor. He was subsequently asked to change the piece to match the film more closely.
Ralph McQuarrie/Abrams Books
Production illustration (photoprint), "Artoo and Threepio leave the pod in the desert," version 2. McQuarrie revised the painting twice, presumably at the request of Lucas. The first revision altered C-3PO’s face and abdomen.
Ralph McQuarrie/Abrams Books
Printed drawing with additional work for matte study illustration, Luke in Cloud City hallway. Pieces were retrieved from ILM’s dumpster by a young fan who frequently stopped by with his father to check for souvenirs, circa late 1979 or early 1980. ILM started locking their dumpsters not long after.
Ralph McQuarrie/Abrams Books
Poster illustration, "Fantastic Five", April 1, 1975. Early Chewbacca artwork from McQuarrie's "Fantastic Five" painting as inspiration for Zeb Orrelios from Star Wars: Rebels.
Ralph McQuarrie/Abrams Books
Illustration, "Jabba’s palace – North Gate Bridge", 1992. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was inspired by McQuarrie's depictions of Darth Vader's castle for Maz Kanata’s castle on Takodana. It also used images like this one of Jabba's Palace for the Jakku spaceport.
Ralph McQuarrie/Abrams Books
Concept sketch, snowtrooper commander helmet.
Ralph McQuarrie/Abrams Books
The 1979 LucasFilm holiday card.
Ralph McQuarrie/Abrams Books
Printed McQuarrie illustration with coloring by Craig Barron, Ark of the Covenant. This piece was inserted into a prop bible for pick-up shots of Raiders of the Lost Ark completed at ILM.
Ralph McQuarrie and Craig Barron/Abrams Books