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A Fine Hunch Indeed

Recently Mike Acs shared a piece of concept art – by an unknown artist – on Flickr, and with it he mentioned a hunch that perhaps the artist was Robert McCall. It’s his opinion and an interesting one. If he’s right, he’s revealed the hand behind an extraordinary set of concept art drawings. You be the judge.

The Background

In 1970 NASA wanted to build what they were then calling a “space shuttle” , a reusable space vehicle that would dramatically reduce the cost of access to space. Lowering the cost would leave money on the table for other things NASA wanted to build, like a space station. If it worked, it would have changed the landscape of space exploration for decades to come.

North American Rockwell wanted a piece of both, and commissioned  an artist to produce artwork to help sell their vision. The set is uncharacteristic of anything that was coming out of agency art departments at that time. They’re loose, dynamic, barely finished and I think rather beautiful. You’ll find in them in a number of books, papers and magazines published in the seventies. As luck would have it, I found some slides on eBay about two years ago that are part of that set. They came from the estate of a former NAR employee (the seller couldn’t tell me who) and amazingly they’re in color. I had them scanned professionally, and put them on Flickr.

I believe these are from the same set, scanned from photographs.

So is it remotely possible that these are by McCall? I think so, and here’s why:

One of my favourite instructors in college, would tell us often that a good artist was only as good as his or her references. He was right of course, and I spent a quarter century in animation making a good living off his advice. Perspective drawing is relatively easy once you learn the rules and that’s fine for drawing simple shapes like boxes or cylinders, but if you’re trying to draw complex compound curves you can either spend months trying to massage that albatross, or you can bust out a light box. 

The problem with looking at heavily referenced work for someone like me, is trying to tell where the reference ends and the artist starts. To make any kind of educated guess, you need to look at the motifs the artist uses. It’s not how the vehicle is drawn, that’s from a photo, but the other things like how clouds or an igniting rocket are rendered. It’s as much a part of the artist’s DNA as their signature. 

Speaking of signatures…

Take a look at the drawing below, it’s a concept sketch from Disney’s The Black Hole. I it found at an online auction house. It’s not signed by McCall so I can’t say conclusively it’s by his hand, but he art directed the picture.

It’s a loose exploratory sketch, but there’s something familiar about it, especially when you compare the loose figure drawings to the ones in the North American Rockwell set. Keep in mind they were done almost a decade apart.

Digging In

The artwork in the left column below are all by McCall. On the right, the art is all by the same NAR artist.

Top row: Notice the similarity in how the artist renders cloud.

Second row: Similar high-energy linework.

Third row: McCall’s Apollo 8 Coming Home and Artist X. Look at the rocket exhaust in both.

Bottom Row: The artist’s use of high contrast rendering in both images.

Is he right? I think so, but I can’t pick up the phone to Robert McCall and ask so let’s say for now he is and it was a fine hunch indeed.

Image credit: North American Rockwell / Robert McCall

Image source(s):

Mike Acs

Numbers Station

NAR Space Division

I’m pretty certain these two images are by the same hand, but which one? They’re both heavily referenced and painted in what I would describe as North American Rockwell’s house style, but the palette and brushwork bring me back to a beautiful painting Don Bester did of the Saturn Shuttle. I could be wrong, but that’s the box I’m checking for now.

Shuttle Program at Astronautix

Image credit: North American Rockwell

Image source: Mike Acs

Space Station

Space Station 1970 at Astronautix

Image credit: North American Rockwell

Image source: Drew Granston

Mysterious Alvarez

I’m pretty sure the top piece is by North American master illustrator M. Alvarez because he/she signed it. I think the bottom is by the same hand. What are we looking at? It’s a space station, but you knew that. You now know as much as I do. Parked here only because it shares the same page in Flying the Space Shuttles as the 1982 concept by Ted Brown I shared earlier.

Flying the Space Shuttles
Don Dwiggins
Dodd, Mead & Co., 1985

Space Station 1982 at Astronautix

Image credit: NASA

Image source: Numbers Station

Henry Lozano Jr. Gallery

Shuttle Program at Astronautix

Image credit: North American Rockwell

Image source: Numbers Station

Phase A

Space Station 1970 at Astronautix

Image credit: Krafft Ehricke Papers / North American Rockwell

Image source: NASM

KAE Papers

Space Station 1970 at Astronautix

Image credit: Krafft Ehricke Papers / North American Rockwell

Image source: NASM


Space Station 1982 at Astronautix

Image credit: NASA

Image source: Numbers Station