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A Conversation With Don Dixon
An interview with David Maddox
May 2004

© Don Dixon
Don Dixon
Don Dixon
Don Dixon has been a free-lance writer/illustrator since 1972, specializing in astronomy, science fiction and astronautics, working in both digital and traditional media. Currently, he is art director at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

Don Dixon Website
ISFDB Bibliography

John Brunner -- The Crucible of Time
Kim Stanley Robinson -- Red Mars
Kim Stanley Robinson -- Green Mars
Kim Stanley Robinson -- Blue Mars
Rick Gauger -- Charon's Ark
Larry Niven -- Crashlander

One should never judge a book by its cover. But let's face it, sometimes the cover is what drives a reader to pick up a novel in the first place, especially if the book is a science fiction piece. The covers of SF books have allowed readers a snapshot, a momentary glimpse into the amazing and fantastical worlds that lie behind the cover. The artists who creates these images are just as important as the writers of the books.

Artist Don Dixon has been creating professional space and science-fiction related artwork for over 20 years. His works have graced the covers of The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, OMNI, Smithsonian World, Astronomy, Sky and Telescope, Scientific American, over 60 novel covers and even design concepts for Epcott Center and Caesar's Palace. He also serves as the Art Director for the world famous Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California. His work can be viewed at

What was your first inspiration that got you on the road to painting?

Painting in particular or my weird genre?

Your weird genre.
As a child I used to spend summers at my grandfather's house in New Jersey. They were out in the countryside so you could see stars at night which was always fascinating to me. By then I was always asking questions. There was one occasion when I was riding in the back of my grandfather's Studebaker and I saw a meteor and I had no idea what it was, I was 4 years old at the time, and I said "Wow! What was that? A thing shot across the sky!" When we came back and I got out my crayons and I drew a picture of it, my grandfather identified it, "That's a shooting star." So that was my first astronomical rendering. Then I started reading science fiction and discovering the work of Chesley Bonestell, he was the grand-daddy of us all.

Do you remember what the first piece of Bonestell's work you saw was?
You know I don't actually remember. I do remember that I thought they were photographs and I was wondering "How could they take such pictures?" When I got it into my head that they were paintings and that someone could paint that realistically, that amazed me as much as the subject matter. That somebody could create a picture that could fool you into thinking it was a photograph. So I laboriously tried to learn to paint like Bonestell.

How did you get involved with book covers?
That started in 1983 or thereabouts. A friend of mine, Rick Sternbach, who for many years was a senior illustrator on the Star Trek series, had been doing covers for some time and got a couple Hugo Awards for it and put me in touch with Ballantine Books. The art director of Ballantine started sending me manuscripts to read and the first one was John Brunner's The Crucible of Time.

How did you wind up at the Griffith Observatory?
How did I end up getting an honest job after twenty years of being a happy freelancer? Got married, had a baby and got a mortgage. We decided it would be nice to know when at least one of the checks was going to come. So I've been here ever since. When I'm not freelancing or spending 5 hours a day sleeping.

Has working at the Observatory added to or affected your work in any way?
It actually forced me in some ways to learn the new technology because, up until five or six years ago, I was just a painter and that's how I made all my pictures. But it became so obvious (at the Observatory) that in order to get a show out on time I would have to go digital that it forced me to learn these tools. I'm glad of that because otherwise I would not be competitive with anyone else. As it is, I can do revisions for magazines very quickly and all my commercial stuff is digital now. I just paint for collectors.

How much independence do you have when painting a book cover?
Not much. A case in point... Warner books has bought the rights to Greg Benford's Galactic Center series and they're repackaging and reissuing those. Benford asked them to use me for the covers. I've worked with Warner for a long time, they're great people with a great art director, so for most of the new covers, there's been no problem, but it's very easy to get typed. God knows I've done it to myself, you know -- I'm a space artist. We've done half a dozen of these covers that have been space scenes and they actually have been scenes from the books but this current one, Sailing Bright Eternity, doesn't really take place in space. It takes place inside this weird knot in space-time that was created by an ancient intelligence which is a kind of artificial hollowed out universe. And I really wanted to do a scene in there to accurately reflect the book but it has to go with the rest of the package so... it can be frustrating.

Do you usually read the books you've been hired to paint?
Oh yeah. It's terribly frustrating to not have a copy of a manuscript. That was the case with the last two of the Red/Green/Blue Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. I had a partial manuscript for Red Mars, that was enough to give me some sense of what was happening, some of the scenes in the book. I had nothing for the last two, except the original author's outline which was very, very general and suggestions from the art director.

About how long does it take to render a cover, or does it vary by project?
It does vary, but the actual painting time, not counting time for turnaround on revisions, editors to look at it. Typically I spend maybe 30 hours on a cover total. This may be spread over the course of several weeks, though.

What sort of rights does an artist retain?
For most publishers, the artist retains the copyright. The publisher will buy the rights to use the painting on a specific edition. For a Warner book cover, they'll pay me for hardback rights then when it comes out in paperback I'll get another fee. If a foreign publisher wants to do a translation and use that artwork, I'll negotiate with them directly. So, for most clients, the artist gets to retain the copyright. Some, not necessarily major book publishers but a lot of magazines, will commission a work for hire. Basically you do the job and they take it and it's theirs forever. And as long as the fee is high enough and the artwork is sufficiently specific to their use I don't feel the pain of not being able to resell it.

What would you say is your most memorable cover?
My favorite cover. My favorite? See the sad thing, is all I can see are the faults in everything I've done. Out of literally hundreds of paintings there are maybe half a dozen I can look at and don't want to go and fix. I'd have to say my favorite cover was for Charon's Ark. The premise of the story is that an airliner full of bright teenagers is high-jacked by aliens and taken out to Pluto, which is actually a starship. Pluto and Charon were parked there, 65 million years ago by a remarkable coincidence, and Pluto was terraformed and set up as a dinosaur preserve. So these kids are dumped on this planet and they have adventures with dinosaurs. But there are interesting geometries involved because you have this terraformed world and then there's Charon, their artificial sun. They even had an elevator that went up to it. I got to do dinosaurs, I got to do jungles with people prowling around with weapons, futuristic technology, a natural landscape, interesting sky -- lots of different elements that I rarely get to do were incorporated into that painting.

What sort of research do you normally have to do? Does it depend on the subject matter?
I don't have to do a whole lot of research these days. I read the manuscript, find a scene or two that tickles my fancy and that I think the publishers may let me do. I've got enough knowledge of basic astronomy already packed away that I don't have to go find out what Mars looks like, for instance. I know all that stuff and most of the time there's nothing so specific in a novel that I have to do research.

Any recently published books that you enjoy?
I've started reading the Alternate Histories by Harry Turtledove. They're great, I'm enjoying those. That's it, of late.

Any recent films that have tickled your fancy?
Recent to me would be Gattaca. I thought that was a good science fiction film and there was nothing stupid in it. That's the main criterion for me in Science Fiction films. Minority Report and Vanilla Sky were good also.

Copyright © 2004 David Maddox

David Maddox
Science fiction enthusiast David Maddox has been many things, including Star Trek characters and the Riddler in a Batman stunt show. He holds a degree in Cinema from San Francisco State University, and has written several articles for various SF sites as well as the Star Wars Insider and the Star Trek Communicator. He spends his time working on screenplays and stories, acting on stage and screen and giving tours at Universal Studios Hollywood.

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