Ralph McQuarrie was a name I didn't learn until I was probably about 12-13, and yet his art had been molding my own mind since about the age of 4. Being the primary concept artist behind the Star Wars films, you might say that he'd been training my mind all through my childhood and, indeed, is probably the artist to whom I most owe my current career path.
From time to time, I'm asked to provide a short biography for an event or article or whatever. A standard sentence which appears in these reads something like, "Randy credits seeing Star Wars in the theaters at the age of 4 with his eventual desire to enter the field of fantasy and science-fiction." Sometimes I add that this memory may be my earliest memory, period. Doing some research, I think this may have been the 1979 theatrical re-release. I don't remember much, but I do remember that I think I'd begun falling asleep in my seat when the opening scene began. The sight of the immense Imperial Star Destroyer passing overhead, impossibly huge, melted my still-forming brain. When it re-formed, it was thoroughly cast in the mold of fantasy and sci-fi illustrator. There was sort of no going back.
An evolving pair of droids, not the ones you're looking for
However, at the time, during the initial release of the original trilogy, I had very little access to any of McQuarrie's art. All I was seeing were the filmic representations of his designs (although, as at top, often they were very faithful to them). Nevertheless, my exposure to Star Wars comics, toys, cartoons, video games, and every other licensed product (cereal!) only served to cement the fantastic imagery deep inside me.
As I said, somewhere in there I did become aware of Ralph, probably through scouring magazines with behind-the-scenes articles or the like. But I didn't really know of or see other art of his for some time, though I now know he did visual design for a number of beloved films of that era.
It wasn't until a reprint of the short story collection "Robot Dreams" appeared (left) that I actually got to see some finished art by McQuarrie. Being a young college student planning my own career, I had a great appreciation for this image and subsequently bought the book and read it, being also a fan of Asimov.
In that image I was able to see the work of an accomplished artist, not hindered by the rapid concepting nature of film work. I didn't yet know at the time that the painting was a direct homage to Leighton's excellent, "Flaming June." I took a year of art history around that time and never once was Leighton even mentioned...which is a topic for another day....
In any case, what has been unsurprising to me has been learning how many illustrator friends of mine, working in this industry, would say almost the same as I just did. An entire generation of kids was steered towards a particular career because of those movies. Was it because of the story of Star Wars, in particular? No, I don't think so. We enjoyed the stories, no doubt. Was it the characters? To an extent, yes it was--but if Darth Vader had just been a Very Bad Man, if the enemy soldiers had just worn military outfits, if the Sandpeople were just your average desert-dwellers, well then it would not have been the characters who were influential. No, what it was was Ralph McQuarrie (and the team of craftsmen and artists who brought those images to life). It was those particular visions which moved us, which made everything amazing. George Lucas gets the credit for Star Wars, deservedly, but honestly I think McQuarrie deserves a spot just as famous.
Such a strange phenomenon. Has there been any film since then that has had that kind of impact on young artists? I don't think so, but time will tell. Will there be a raft of illustrators who were inspired by the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which they saw when they were 4? I guess we'll find out in a few years. All I know is that some 30+ years later, I have a newer Star Wars-related painting (still under wraps), hanging behind me. Its designs were created by Ralph McQuarrie.