For those of us who were there in the beginning (myself being a member of the “age seven in ’77″ club), Ralph McQuarrie’s Star Wars Portfolio holds a very special place in our hearts. And yet as familiar as Star Wars fans have become with the 21 paintings within the portfolio, few know that many of them had gone through numerous revisions during the film’s production. In the 16 years I knew Ralph, and particularly during the period when we were working on The Art of Ralph McQuarrie (Dreams and Visions Press, 2007), we had several opportunities to speak at length about those original paintings, and the Ballantine portfolio that introduced so many of us to Ralph and his work.
As beautiful as Ralph’s paintings are, he was always quick to point out they were never intended to be seen by anyone beyond those involved in bringing the film to life. He often said that had he known, he would have tried to put more of a polish on them (as if they needed it). But the success of Star Wars, and the resulting clamoring from the fans for any and all Star Wars merchandise they could get their hands on, would ultimately change Ralph’s life.
Judy Lynn Del Rey, who had been with Ballantine since 1973, saw Ralph’s art early in the negotiations to acquire the film’s publishing license, and recognized its potential as commercial art. She hired Ralph to paint the cover of the Star Wars novelization released in fall 1976, launching a relationship that would result in Ralph’s providing 22 additional cover paintings for Del Rey books from 1978-1987.
The first printing of the Star Wars novelization sold out its entire run prior to the film’s release (one can safely assume in some part thanks to Ralph’s amazing, evocative cover illustration). Once the film was released and an unparalleled success, Del Rey had further plans as how to capitalize on Ralph’s art.