Richard Powers helped change the perception of science fiction in the 1950s from being juvenile-oriented pulp stories to legitimate fiction aimed towards an older, more sophisticated audience. For this contribution he is considered one of the most influential science fiction artists of all time, next to Virgil Finlay, and Frank Frazetta.
Powers had extensive formal art training; however, he was not trained in magazine illustration nor was he a fan of science fiction. Instead, his interest in classical European artists influenced his style. As a surrealist artist, his paintings were exhibited in a four-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1952.
After attempting to land a few jobs with New York publishers, Powers was assigned several book jacket covers for Ballantine Books and Doubleday that included the genres of westerns, mysteries, and science fiction. He despised commercialism but found creative expression in the endless possibilities within science fiction illustration.
During the 1940s and prior, science fiction was primarily published in serialized form in pulp magazines but rarely published in book form other than by small presses. By the 1950s, Publishers Doubleday and Simon & Schuster wanted to place their science fiction books in public libraries and needed respectable covers unlike the typical, garish pulp images associated with this form of fiction.
Powers became one of the most sought-after artists for science fiction book covers during this period because of his unique, surreal and symbolic imagery. He often worked with a limited color palette and based his compositions solely on the book titles without reading the manuscripts. His thought-provoking imagery captured the essence of the book to illicit a feeling rather than rendering a literal interpretation of the story or a scene.
Powers would eventually create nearly two hundred science fiction book covers for various publishers during the 1950s to 1970s. Other artists would emulate his style during the science fiction publishing boom in the 1960s as the movement toward sophisticated book covers gained in popularity.