CCAD alum Ron Miller discusses his career in space art
You might be tempted to go for the easy pun when discussing Ron Miller’s career. Stellar. Out-of-this-world. Dazzling. You get the idea. After all, Miller is an illustrator and author who, in April, released Natural Satellites: The Book of Moons, the latest in an accomplished career that has led to him receiving the Lucien Rudaux Memorial Award for Lifetime Achievement in Astronomical Art. Using acrylic paints and digital tools, Miller (Illustration, 1970) illustrates worlds, fictional and real, for such entities as NASA, the United States Postal Service, and the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum; such publications as National Geographic, Air & Space, and Scientific American; and such creatives as David Lynch (Dune) and David Cronenberg (for whom he created concept art for Cronenberg’s unrealized version of Total Recall).
Below, Miller discusses his work, his CCAD experience, and his advice for students wanting to launch their careers. (OK, we couldn’t resist just one pun.)
A large body of your work features sci-fi or astronomical themes. Were you interested in these subjects as a child?
For as long as I can remember! Some of my earliest memories were of live TV shows like Space Patrol, and my hero was Mr. Wizard. I made model spaceships while still in grade school and read everything about astronomy and space travel that I could. It was then that I first became aware of Chesley Bonestell's artwork, which I eventually sought out wherever I could.
What was it like to be learning at CCAD in 1970?
It was pretty incredible. For one thing, the school was very, very small. Pretty much just Beaton Hall! I attended a fifth year at the school since it wasn't accredited until my fourth year and I wanted a degree. To accommodate the needed extra classroom space, some classes were held in the church across the street and other local facilities. A physical education course was required for accreditation and was fulfilled by bowling at a local bowling alley. So students could take care of their phys ed requirement by eating cheeseburgers, drinking beer, and bowling. The small size of the school was really a great thing: all of the students knew the entire faculty and all the teachers knew all the students. And among the students, no matter what your major might have been, everyone knew everyone else. It was almost like a big club.
How has the field of illustration changed since you graduated from CCAD?
Probably the obvious: the dominance of computer-aided art. But, illustrators (at least the best of them) still have to create their artwork, which requires almost all of the same skills as painting traditionally. For instance, you still have to be able to draw, understand anatomy, color, composition, and so on.
There is often no hard line between digital and traditional illustration. A great many professional illustrators (myself included) will create hybrid illustrations (or “tradigital art”) where traditional techniques are combined with digital. This might be something as simple as doing some digital retouching to a painting created in traditional media, to something extensive as doing part of an illustration traditionally and completing it digitally.
What kind of research do you do before beginning an illustration?
The research process depends on what I am working on. There are subjects that don't require a lot. For instance, I am very familiar with what the moon or Mars looks like so it doesn't take much research to do a new picture even if the feature I am depicting might have been recently discovered. Other times, it might be something totally new so I will need to dig up a lot of data. Fortunately, this often takes the form of just asking the scientists involved a few questions.
You’ve also been a concept artist for such movies as David Lynch’s Dune. What sort of creative calisthenics did you have to do to illustrate Dune’s fictional planet, Arrakis? What was it like working with David Lynch?
I loved it (and Lynch and I are still friends to this day). He's a very nice person and a nice person to work with.
There were a lot of things involved in creating an entire planet. Part of this was balancing what we knew the book said—since we wanted to be faithful to the original author—with what David Lynch's vision was. And whatever the result was had to be convincing: it had to look like a real world. A great deal of care was taken by the design team to allow for the different environments of each world in Dune, including Arrakis. Designs of everything from sets to props reflected the materials that would be available, the history and culture of each planet. A goal was that someone could walk into the prop department cold and just by looking at a prop tell what planet it was meant to come from.
You’ve written a biography of famed science fiction artist Chesley Bonestell that was turned into a documentary. Tell us a little about your relationship with Bonestell.
As I mentioned, it goes back to elementary school. I had no idea who Bonestell was but I was absolutely enthralled with the incredible spaceships and space scenes I was seeing. They looked absolutely real to me.
Around 1973 or thereabouts I saw an ad for two prints of Bonestell paintings. I could afford only one, so I sent off for it. I included a letter in the hope that Bonestell might be alive. I got a reply from his manager saying that, yes, indeed, Bonestell was still with us and was glad to hear about my admiration for his work and that I was working on space art of my own. The manager asked me if I knew that the new National Air & Space Museum in Washington was going to have a planetarium, and why didn't I ask if they needed an illustrator? So I wrote to the museum and asked. They hadn't thought about the need for an illustrator but it sounded like a good idea. So I got the job.
In a real way, Bonestell led directly to my career as a space artist.
How have advances in technology, both in terms of illustration tools and the ability for researchers to photograph or otherwise record outer space, impacted how you approach your work or how people perceive it?
Getting close-up photos of distant worlds, even photos taken from the surface of many, is totally cool. But it is both expanding and limiting. Limiting, of course, in that you need to be careful about how you depict a place: you can't show Mars covered in water and palm trees, for instance. But there is still a lot of room for imagination and invention. After all, while there have been close-up pictures of many worlds in our solar system there have been surface photos of only four. The only way to see what someplace might look like to a visitor is through an illustration. And even if there are detailed images taken from orbit, that is not the same thing as seeing a feature from the ground. The difference between a photo of a feature seen from space and the same thing seen by a visitor on the surface is the difference between touring the U.S. from 30,000 feet in an airliner and standing on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
What advice would you like to give to CCAD students who wish to pursue work in illustration or concept art?
Create constantly, even if all you are doing is sketching. Work toward developing a portfolio that is not only uniquely yours but as diverse as you can make it. If you feel there is something you do especially well or with special expertise, you might want to emphasize that, but not to the exclusion of everything else. (If an art director thinks you are good at doing only one thing, that may be all they ever ask you to do.) So, do a number of things well and at least one thing very, very well. That way you may get work in between the times you get to do your specialty.
Photos provided by Ron Miller.