1977, and a seven-year-old me, like a multitude of seven-year-old other people, falls under the spell of Sir George of Lucas. Star Wars has arrived and life will never be quite the same again. Suddenly there are spaceships and wookies and lightsabers and Jedi and strange figures called Darth Vader who dress all in black and breathe funny. Suddenly, science fiction is fun.

It’s easy to forget that there was science fiction before Star Wars. Lots of it, in factAt least, it was easy for a seven-year-old to forget. In 1977 the genre was reanimated completely, bathed in a new sense of wonder and imagination. Two men can take the credit for making Star Wars the phenomenal success it was. One is George Lucas, the other is Ralph McQuarrie.

Up until he was approached by George Lucas, McQuarrie had worked as technical illustrator and designer. Star Wars was the first movie that McQuarrie worked on, charged by Lucas to visualise his ideas in an attempt to drum up interest with prospective producers. Lucas himself admits that everything changed for him once he began approaching studios with McQuarrie’s conceptual drawings to hand, so vividly did they present the possibilities. And one has only to compare McQuarrie’s conceptual art with the finished movie to understand how many of his ideas became reality, including several that were replicated almost identically onscreen.

So, there’s the seven-year-old me, happily reading everything he can lay his hands on about the making of his new ‘favourite movie ever’, when he eventually stumbles upon the work of Ralph McQuarrie. What a discovery that was! I had always been a keen artist, always drawing or making something, and at that age inspiration is everything. Few figures inspired the artist in me like Ralph McQuarrie and his wonderful inventions, his strange worlds and his amazing characters. I would spend hours staring at those illustrations, marvelling at the movement, the detail and the beauty he brought to his work. I wanted to be that good, but of course, I couldn’t come close. There’s good and there’s Ralph McQuarrie.

It’s no accident that the three Star Wars prequels are unable to match the originals in imagery and design. McQuarrie was approached but declined, feeling his best work was behind him, and his absence is felt in every frame.

McQuarrie died on 3rd March, 2012, aged 82. He leaves behind a remarkable body of work, a celluloid legacy that few have matched and, back in the year 1977, a young boy who felt inspired to pick up that pencil and keep drawing. Thank you, Ralph McQuarrie.

Below is a selection of my favourite McQuarrie pieces from the Star Wars series. Each will open larger when clicked. Enjoy, and pay a visit to his site here, or his Facebook page here.

The classic. McQuarrie designs Darth Vader. It was McQuarrie who came up with the idea of Vader’s breathing apparatus.

I can’t tell you how many times I copied this one as a kid

This one appears in the movie almost exactly as seen here.

The Millennium Falcon. The greatest spaceship design in movie history.

A beautifully realised painting of Luke on a Tauntaun. I love the colours in this one.

Cloud City. Stunning, and almost impossible to realise to such a degree in the movie itself.

The AT-AT Walkers were a great invention, and McQuarrie uses distance to intimidating effect.

Okay, everybody. Altogether now, ‘I am your father’. Yay!

Ralph McQuarrie
1929 – 2012