“He came out of his coma. We left a sketch pad and pencils by the bed. He did a drawing, went back into the coma, and died.” – Lail Finlay (Virgil Finlay’s daughter describes her father’s final hours)
Virgil Finlay, a largely self-taught artist, would eventually be classified as one of the most important science fiction pulp illustrators of all time. His 2,600+ works in both color and black and white had a profound impact on this genre of art.
Finlay was a childhood fan of science fiction and particularly of fantasy appearing in Amazing Stories and Weird Tales magazines in the late 1920s. He studied art in high school and was greatly influenced by the works of Pablo Picasso, Aubrey Beardsley and the black and white illustrations of Gustave Dore. By 1935, at age twenty-one, Finlay was ready to submit his art portfolio to his favorite magazine: Weird Tales.
At that time, Finlay was utilizing a stippling technique in which he would dip his lithographic pen into ink, make a dot and then wipe the pen-top clean after each stipple. Hundreds of dots would create a time consuming, pointillist composition. The editor of Weird Tales was greatly impressed with the imagination and superior execution of Finlay’s portfolio but was concerned that this technique would not reproduce well on the magazine’s cheap wood pulp paper. He bought only one illustration as a test but once the art proved to reproduce without any trouble, he commissioned Finlay for more.
Finlay’s pen and ink drawings and scratchboard works appeared mainly on the inside of magazines to illustrate the stories. Interior illustrations were once considered fillers and an annoyance by readers who wanted more stories and less images. This changed with exposure to Finlay’s exquisite craftsmanship and the sheer beauty of his drawings, which elevated interior illustration art. It did not take long for fans of fantasy and sci-fi to also become fans of Finlay. Even authors were inspired by his imagery, including H.P. Lovecraft who wrote a sonnet about one of Finlay’s works.
During the 1930s, Finlay was paid eight to eleven dollars per illustration and would create five to six for each issue of Weird Tales. Considering this was during the Great Depression, Finlay did rather well financially. By the late 1930s, Weird Tales paid him one hundred dollars for creating its covers. This, combined with his income from interior art, made him one of the highest paid illustrators of monthly pulps.
By 1937, Finlay became employed by The American Weekly, the largest mainstream circulation magazine in the world at the time, but he also continued illustrating for Weird Tales, Amazing Stories and Famous Fantastic Mysteries among other pulp publications. After being drafted and serving during World War II he returned home to continue illustrating and was in such demand that he often worked sixteen hour days, seven days a week. Finlay switched to illustrating astrology magazines during the 1950s and 1960s and creating large, abstract paintings that were displayed in fine art galleries and museums in the United States.