Science Fiction Illustration:
An Artist’s View of Life on Mars.

Sketches & Stories:

Golden Age illustrator William R. Leigh received a challenging science fiction illustration assignment in 1907 for Cosmopolitan Magazine. He was asked to create drawings for an article called The Things that Live on Mars, by H.G. Wells, author of War of the Worlds (1898).

Wells and Percival Lowell, of the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, speculated on how life on Mars might appear. Lowell made a case in his book Mars and its Canals that Mars indeed was habitable and that the canals were evidence of intelligence and engineering skill. Leigh’s job was to translate their verbal descriptions into illustrations.

William Leigh’s Martians, below, with bug-eyes, big heads with antennae, and advanced technology became the stereotypical space aliens of science fiction illustration that have served artists, writers and movie makers for decades.

Martians depicted in 1907

Previously, alien life forms pictured in books and magazines had been the products of wild speculation and lurid fantasies. Wells insisted on showing the flora and fauna of Mars in conformity with the very latest astronomical revelations and scientific reasoning. And he insisted on putting the "science" in science fiction illustration.

Martians, Wells wrote, would include plants, insects, and animals including a higher form capable of ruling the planet in addition to planning and building the Martian canal system. “They will probably have heads and eyes and backboned bodies, and since they must have big brains, and since almost all creatures with big brains tend to have them forward in their heads near their eyes, these Martians will probably have big shapely skulls.”

All life on Mars, he said, will be affected by its thin atmosphere and gravity less than half of that on Earth. Plants would be tall and spindly since thick stalks would be unnecessary to support the plants’ weight. The same would hold for animals compared to those on Earth: larger, slighter, slenderer. Blue green would be a predominant color for life forms on Mars due to the presence of chlorophyl-based chemistry.

Martian Flora and Fauna

"Since the Martian vegetation will probably run big and tall, there will be among these big-chested creatures climbing forms and leaping and flying forms, all engaged in seeking food among its crests and branches," H.G. Wells, 1907

“We shall find no flies nor sparrows nor dogs and cats on Mars.” And no fish either, Wells speculates. All water on Mars appears to be in the form of polar ice caps and hoar frost that alternately melts and freezes, leaving no large bodies of water as fish habitats. The higher animals must have more lung capacity than the Earthly equivalents, and probably feathers or downy fur. Likely they will be mammals that give birth to their young at “a high stage of development.” The harsh climate of Mars would preclude the “easy going, sunshiny, tropical, lay-an-egg-and-leave-it method” of reproduction.

Wells was pleased with William Leigh's paintings of Martian life. He felt confident that future renderings of Martians and other celestial aliens would be bound by scientific evidence. Henceforth, he wrote, we will be “forbidden by definite knowledge to adopt any foolish hobgoblin or any artistic ideal that comes into our heads and call it a Martian.”

Be sure to see our Fantasy Gallery for more examples of Golden Age science fiction illustration.

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