“I’ve been encouraged to do… flagrantly wrong ideas on covers simply for the effect… I believe in doing scientifically accurate work in many cases… [but] I will do jobs, gladly, that have an effect which I know full well is not supportable scientifically.” - Ed Emsh (Pittcon panel, 1960)
During the 1950s Edmund Emshwiller, known by fans as Ed Emsh, dominated the science fiction art world with his combination of realism and whimsical exaggeration. After attending the University of Michigan to get a degree in design, with a major in painting and illustration, he moved to Paris with his wife in 1949. There they both studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and returned to New York in 1950, where Emsh attended the Art Students League.
The following year Emsh sold his first science fiction illustration to Galaxy magazine. He created over seven hundred covers during a thirteen year period (1951-1964) for magazines, hardcover and paperback books. This number did not include the hundreds of black and white interior illustrations he did for stories in science fiction magazines.
Emsh’s works were created quickly over a period of one or two days, which dictated the use of fast drying media such as gouache rather than slow-drying oil paints; however, his work week often totaled seventy hours long. He would travel to New York from Long Island once a week to bring cover sketches and finished artwork to art directors. He would then pick up new stories and discuss what would need to be created. Returning home he would read the stories, sketch for a couple of days, photograph models and determine the final composition for the finished illustration. He would attempt to create an image reflecting the style of the magazine while capturing the story’s content.
Other pulp magazines allowed Emsh the creative license to invent his own covers. These would then be shown to writers who would invent stories based on the images. Emsh was also given the freedom to create independent covers unrelated to content within the magazine.
Emsh’s wife, Carol, eventually stopped painting to begin a career writing science fiction stories, some of which Emsh illustrated. Aside from his commercial illustrations, Emsh also continued to create fine art graphics and paintings including abstract expressionism, which he exhibited publicly.
Emsh became interested in experimenting with 16mm films leading to a career change in 1964 when he was awarded a grant from the Ford Foundation for making his film Relativity. He never returned to illustration but continued making documentaries, underground and experimental films and would become dean and provost of the School of Film and Video at the California Institute of the Arts during the 1980s.