Virgil Finlay: Master of Fantasy


When Virgil Finlay died at age 56 on January 18, 1971, he left behind him thirty-five years of fantasy and science-fiction artwork  and a reputation as the most meticulous pulp magazine illustrator of his generation.

Most of the readers of Starlog were not around in 1935 when Finlay sold his first professional drawings to Weird Tales magazine. Within only a year he had established himself as being the finest black-and-white illustrator in his chosen field.

His use of the stipple and cross-hatch techniques, and an ability to enhance stories with his unique drawings quickly rocketed him to the top. Over the years many artists would attempt to duplicate Finlay’s techniques, but none ever attained the quality that was the trademark of Finlay’s finest efforts.

Even Frank Kelly Freas, ten-time winner of the “Hugo” as science-fiction’s top illustrator, admitted in a recently published book of his artwork that his one experiment with Finlay’s stipple technique — that of using small, individually placed dots of ink to create delicate shading — earned him a new respect for Virgil’s drawings. “It became very clear to me that I would never give Finlay any competition. Foosh!— what a lot of work all those blasted little dots were!”

Ayn Rand's Anthem2

 A detail from a 1953 illo for Ayn Rand’s Anthem. 

Donald Vieweg's The Talkie Dolls

A 1953 Finlay illustration for Donald Vieweg’s “The Talkie Dolls.”

As Finlay himself explained his work, black-and-white drawings were done in a variety of techniques, employing pen, brush, spatter, lithographic pencils, sponges, and knives on a variety of paper; the majority were done on scratchboard. His color work was generally done in oil color thinned with quick drying siccative, and sometimes combinations of ink, watercolor, gouache, and oil.


Finlay illustration for Dane Rudhyar’s 1957 “How to Shape Your Future.” 

the transhuman

Illo for Murray Leinster’s 1953 “The Transhuman.”

The stipple technique, which he refined throughout his career, he explained this way: “Using a 290 lithographic pen (which has an extremely fine point), I dip the pen in India ink and allow only the liquid to touch the drawing surface, which is normally scratch board. The point is then wiped clean and re-dipped for the next dot.” Obviously, this was a time-consuming operation. Today many artists obtain a similar effect with the use of stipple surface paper. But study under a magnifying glass will quickly determine one method from the other.

Even in the final year of his life, when pain often limited his time at the drawing board, Finlay claimed he was able to make use of the stipple without the aid of a magnifying glass. During most of his career, his magazine drawings were done to the exact size they were to be published at. Attempts by some publishers to enlarge these small drawings have resulted in ghastly distortions of his work.

Finlay’s excellent knowledge of anatomy resulted in human and animal figures that seemed to literally leap off the page. He combined alien creatures, weird settings, and a vivid imagination with an ability to accurately illustrate scenes from almost any story. His color work was not always as successful as his black and white drawings, but he still created many outstanding magazine covers. If you own a Finlay cover original you have a collector’s item— there just are not that many in existence.

Elmer Brown Mason Black Butterflies

Finlay illustrated Elmer Brown Mason’s 1949 story “Black Butterflies.”

But many of the artist’s most detailed drawings were all but ruined by the cheap pulp paper used by the fiction magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. And the rates paid by the magazines were distressingly low.

During the last decade of his life, Finlay moved to higher paying markets such as Doubleday and various astrology magazines, contributing some sixty drawings to the former and almost 200 interiors and covers to the latter. During this period he continued to work for most of the few science-fiction magazines still appearing, but made use of a simple line style of drawing that was far less time-consuming than the techniques employed during the peak years of his fantasy career. He saved the fine pen and ink work for the better paying publishers.

Over the years, Finlay illustrated stories by most of the top writers in the field, including H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Edmond Hamilton, Henry Kuttner, C. L. Moore, Seabury Quinn, Jack Williamson, Carl Jacobi, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, A. Merritt, George Allan England, John Taine, H. Rider Haggard, H. G. Wells, Talbot Mundy, Arthur Conan Doyle, Murray Leinster, Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Collier, E. F.Benson, Manly Wade Wellman, Stanley G. Weinbaum, James Blish, Frank Belknap Long, L. Ron Hubbard, Jack Vance, Leigh Brackett, Hay Cummings, Ray Bradbury, John D. MacDonald, E. E. Smith, Ben Bova, Arthur C. Clarke, Otis Adelbert Kline, Theodore Sturgeon, L. Sprague de Camp, Fletcher Pratt, Edgar Allan Poe, and even a chap named William Shakespeare. The list is almost endless.

Robert Abernathy The Rotifers

Symbols of life and death surround character in Robert Abernathy’s 1953 “The Rotifers.”

During his career Finlay appeared in virtually every major science-fiction or fantasy magazine published. For Weird Tales he did some 220 interiors and 20 covers. For Famous Fantastic Mysteries he turned out more than 200 black and white drawings and 27 covers. Other major markets in the 1940-60 period were Thrilling Wonder Stories, Amazing Stories, Fantastic Adventures, Startling Stories, Fantastic Novels, Fantastic Story Quarterly, Galaxy, If, Fantastic, and Fantastic Universe.

Despite the more than 2,800 drawings and paintings Finlay sold during his career, he often fell upon difficult if not hard times financially. If payment was low in the early days, it didn’t seem to improve that much in the two decades that followed.

Virgil Warden Finlay was born on July 23, 1914, in Rochester N.Y. His father, Warden Hugh Finlay, was at one time a successful woodworker, but like so many in the Depression period of the 1930s he found himself hard-pressed to support a family. He died at forty years of age, leaving his widow, Ruby, daughter Jean, and son Virgil.


1964 illo for Tolkien’s Hobbit. 

Some of Finlay’s earliest sketches and drawings, dating back to 1930 and 1931, are signed Finlay Jr. or Warden Virgil Finlay. Although he did some artwork for high school yearbooks, probably his first professionally published illustration was on the dust wrapper for a 1933 book of prize-winning high school poetry. The book, Saplings, featured on its front cover a drawing called, “My Mirror’s Melody,” which shows a young man playing a violin to a girl in a wooded setting. While the signature plainly reads “Virgil Warden Finlay” the caption under it reads “By Warden Virgil Findlay,” with the “D” added to his last name. This picture was awarded second prize in the Charles M. Higgins Award for drawing with black ink in the Art Division of the Scholastic Competition of 1933. At that time Finlay was a senior at John Marshall High in Rochester.

Edmund Hamilton House of Living Music

Edmund Hamilton’s 1938 “House of Living Music.

While in high school, the small but well-built Finlay excelled in athletics; he dabbled in art, poetry, and reading of such magazines as Amazing Stories and Weird Tales. He continued to refine his artistic skills after his school days, but it was not until mid-1935 that he made the decision to submit some samples of his work to Farnsworth Wright, then editor of Weird Tales.

Until this time, most pulp magazines, including Weird Tales, had concentrated on publishing garish covers to lure customers, while most of the interior drawings were on the drab side. Finlay’s new approach to fantasy art won favor with Wright, and his first work appeared in the December, 1935 issue.

Between the time Wright purchased Finlay’s initial drawings and the time they appeared in print, the editor commissioned Finlay to do twenty-five drawings for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Wright produced this as a 35-cent paperback. It was a financial flop, although the edition has become a collector’s item.

As the 1936 issues of Weird Tales rolled off the presses, Finlay’s artwork began to draw praises from readers and authors alike. It prompted three of the magazine’s top writers, Lovecraft, C.A. Smith, and Seabury Quinn to strike up correspondences with Finlay.

Finlay was now a regular in the pages of Weird Tales. In November, 1937, he received a letter from A. Merritt suggesting that he might care to join the staff of The American Weekly, a large- sized newspaper supplement edited by Merritt and published by William Randolph Hearst. Naturally, Finlay was already familiar with Merritt’s popular fantasies such as The Ship of Ishtar, The Moon Pool, Dwellers in the Mirage, and others.

So Virgil pulled up stakes in Rochester and moved to New York City. Some of Finlay’s most spectacular drawings would appear in The American Weekly, but his tenure there was a rocky one. Unaccustomed to meeting the deadlines of a weekly publication, still trying to do work for Weird Tales, and getting used to life in the big city almost unhinged him. He went through a series of firings and hiring’s at the Weekly, but he was Merritt’s boy and in the long run he did, by his own count, some 845 pieces of art for this publication. During his period as a staffer, prior to World War II, and as a freelancer from 1946 to 1951, he drew everything from the front cover to small spots on inside pages.


“Sharane and Klaneth” from A. Merritt’s The Ship of Ishtar— for the 1949 edition.

When Famous Fantastic Mysteries, based in New York, made its debut in 1939, Finlay quickly found another out- let. During the 1939-42 period, science- fiction magazines sprung up like weeds 32 and Finlay did work for most of them. The war killed off all but the heartiest of the newcomers.

By the late 1940s, pulp magazines in general were fast disappearing. Some survived as digest-sized publications. As the decade of the 1950s started, new magazines such as Galaxy, If, Fantastic, Other Worlds, and Fantastic Universe appeared, and Finlay had some new markets.

Finlay married his childhood friend, Beverly Stiles, on November 16, 1938, and they settled into a small apartment in Brooklyn. Virgil entered the Army in June, 1943, and served in the Pacific area before the conflict ended. He spent the first two years in the States. After a brief stay in Hawaii, by which time he was a corporal, he was shipped to Okinawa in April, 1945. He attained the rank of Sgt. (T-4)and saw some action.

While in service he did only two drawings for science-fiction magazines. Both were done while he was in Hawaii. One was used in the October, 1946, issue of Famous Fantastic Mysteries with C. L. Moore’s story “Daemon”, and the other in the Fall, 1946 Thrilling Wonder for “Call Him Demon”, a Kuttner story printed under his Keith Hammond pseudonym.

In 1948 the Finlays moved from Brooklyn to Levittown on Long Island. Their daughter, Lail, was born the following year. In 1950 they purchased a new home in Westbury. Some 20 years later, Finlay would tell me that this was the wisest investment he ever made.

While not exactly a recluse, Finlay stayed quite close to his Westbury home. He did not attend conventions and mix with his fellow S.F. artists and authors. He was proud of much of his work, but no doubt discouraged at his seeming inability to gain recognition outside the fantasy field. A dedicated family man, he was often forced to overcome frustrating periods of financial difficulties to make ends meet. He had grown up with the pulp magazines and would no doubt have been fairly content to stay there had not the pulps themselves disappeared, his main source of income going with them.

Cryptozoic, Brian Aldiss. 1968

One of Virgil Finlay’s last pieces, done for Brian Aldiss’ 1968 Cryptozoic

To family and close friends, Finlay answered to the name of “Chub”, with which he had been tagged as a youth. As early as 1933, Finlay sported a moustache; it is present in two of three self- portraits I have in my collection. In later years he wore a full beard.

Finlay’s closest friend in the science- fiction field was author Henry Kuttner. But this was in the pre-war days. When Kuttner married C. L. Moore in 1940, Virgil and Beverly were present. After the Kuttners moved to California, Finlay carried on a bulky correspondence with Henry, whose death in 1958 was a blow to the artist and the science- fiction field in general.

Finlay was one of the few magazine illustrators who made a genuine effort to have editors return his originals. Even so, many of the drawings were never returned. Some were retained by the editors, some were given to authors, and still more were donated to the various S.F. conventions as auction material.

Some of the “missing” Finlay originals were uncovered in 1975 by art collector Gene Nigra, who managed to purchase most of the estate of the late Hannes Bok, who had been one of Finlay’s “rivals” in the 1940 period at Weird Tales. Bok, who had died in 1964, had left a number of his own paintings with a friend. When Nigra went through the mass of material held by Clarence Peacock, he was stunned to find Finlay’s originals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as other Finlay drawings that Bok had apparently picked up during his visits to the offices of the magazines years before.

Most of Bok’s friends seemed to believe he was disdainful of Finlay’s work, but the location of this cache of drawings would seem to indicate otherwise.

During the 1940s, Famous Fantastic Mysteries published three portfolios of Finlay’s drawings from that magazine. Another portfolio of some of his finest illustrations appeared in 1953.

His first fantasy dust-wrapper was for H. P. Lovecraft’s The Outsider And Others (1939), the first book published by Arkham House. Because he was so busy at the time, Finlay used a montage  of his Weird Tales drawings for the jacket. Years later both the book and jacket would command high prices in the used book market.

He illustrated a few books such as Roads by Seabury Quinn and The Ship of Ishtar by Merritt, but he never made a serious dent in the pocketbook field, which today is both the showcase and highest-paying market for many illustrators.

Early in 1969 Finlay underwent extensive surgery for cancer, but had improved sufficiently by June to attend the wedding of his daughter. He resumed his work for Astrology, but during the time remaining to him he found it difficult to meet his deadlines. Although in pain much of the time, he retained his sharp sense of humor. During this period he began selling off many of the original drawings and paintings he had retained over the years.

Late in 1970 he was hospitalized with a liver ailment. He returned home in late December and 1 recall talking with him on the phone on Christmas day. A planned trip to Long Island to visit him in early January never materialized for me because of car trouble. Finlay suffered a final setback only two weeks later and died on January 18, 1971. When he died of cirrhosis of the liver, an autopsy revealed that the cancer had spread to other organs.

In the months following his death, I printed a portfolio of his previously un- published drawings. Most of these dated back to his pre-professional days. But one, a fine drawing in Finlay’s best style, had been done in 1964 for a proposed edition of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. While a fine drawing, author Tolkien nixed the proposed volume because Finlay’s interpretation of the story differed from his own.

Later in 1971, Donald Grant of Rhode Island published the first hard- cover book of Finlay’s art. Only a third of the book contained drawings, how- ever. There was also a biography of Finlay by Sam Moskowitz and a check- list of the artist’s published work.

In 1975 I published the hardcover edition of The Book of Virgil Finlay, which contained some 120 drawings from my own collection. The book sold out before publication, and in 1976 Avon Books reprinted it in a paperback edition. Grant did a second book, Virgil Finlay’s Astrology Sketch Book, which was edited by Mrs. Finlay. Other port- folios, some of them pirated from the magazine pages, have appeared in recent year s.

Finlay originals, which once sold for $10 or $20, today command prices in the hundreds of dollars. As is so often the case, the artist’s work increased in value after his death.

The continued appearance of Finlay books and portfolios has given a new generation of fantasy fans the opportunity to admire and study his work. He is gaining a new following, and deservedly so. *


1951 illustration for Richard Glaenzer’s “Golden Atlantis”

The Author: Finlay’s Biggest Fan

Writer/editor Gerry De la Ree is well known as one of the most ardent collector/fans of fantasy and science-fiction art in the world. Beginning his collection of SF and fantasy visuals in the 1930s, Gerry quickly assembled stunning examples of some of the finest styles of pulp phantasmagoria in existence. Today, his collection includes more than 1,000 pieces of wonderment by such artists as Virgil Finlay, Hannes Bok, Lawrence Sterne Stevens, Mel Hunter, Frank Kelly Freas, Mahlon Blaine, Stephen E. Fabian, Jeff Jones, Willy Pogany, Harry Clarke, J. Allen St. John, Edd Cartier, Lynd Ward, Frank Upatel, George Ban, Earl Bergey, Roy Krenkel and J. Watson.  Gerry first “discovered” the intricate imagery of Virgil Finlay during the early thirties. As Finlay’s reputation grew during both that decade and the forties (during which time, Finlay invariably ranked No. 1 in fan polls conducted to determine the most popular artist in the fantasy field), so did Gerry’s admiration. In 1947, he bought his first Finlay original at a convention in Philadelphia. It was love at first sight. In 1951, he began writing the artist, purchasing original drawings for $2 to $10. The two became “pen-pals, ” with their regular letters continuing for the next fourteen years. In 1965, de la Ree finally visited the veteran artist in Finlay’s West bury. New York home. The ailing artist and the long-time fan became fast friends and, during the final years of Finlay’s life, relished their mutual interest and love for fantasy artwork. Following Finlay’s death, his loyal fan and friend assembled over 120 original pieces of artwork and published a tribute to the late artist: The Book Of Virgil Finlay. // is published in paperback by Flare Books.

*The art of Virgil Finlay. A look at the work of the master of pen and ink fantasy. Article published in June 1978 issue of Starlog magazine.

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