Stephen Hickman (April 9, 1949 – July 16, 2021)

Stephen Hickman passed away last week. His was not a household name, if any illustrator can be said to be one. He was not as well known as a Frazetta or Boris but within the illustration world, Hickman was a giant.

Stephen Hickman was an award-winning illustrator, sculptor and writer, whose work graced the covers of hundreds of science fiction and fantasy novels since the early 1970s

Drakon

Hickman’s professional career began in 1972 when he got a job creating T-shirt designs for Shirt Explosion in Lanham, Maryland. His entry into book illustration came in 1974, when Neal Adams of Continuity Studios introduced Hickman to Charles Volpe, art editor at Ace Books. Volpe bought the printing rights of items from Hickman’s portfolio, and later commissioned paintings which were used for reprints of Ace Doubles in the Classics of Science-Fiction series. Hickman then became a full-time artist.

Hickman provided art for over 300 covers for science fiction and fantasy novels for companies like Ace, Baen, Ballantine, Bantam, Berkeley, Dell, Del Rey, Doubleday, Phage Press, Tor and Warren Publications. He even wrote his own fantasy novel for Ace Books called The Lemurian Stone.

Hickman won six Chesley Awards, which are given out by the Association of Science Fiction & Fantasy Artists. He also won a Hugo Award in 1994 for his work on a series of stamps for the U.S. Postal Service.

One of Hickman’s best friends was artist Ron Miller. “I knew Steve Hickman for more than forty years,” Miller says. “We met when I was working at the Air and Space Museum. We both lived in Northern Virginia at the time so we visited each other at our homes often. After Steve moved to upstate New York and I moved further south in Virginia, our visits became less frequent, but he would try to come down to stay for a few days at least once a year.

“We always talked about art… but because we did such different sorts of art between us, it was more of an exchange of ideas and mutual admiration than any sort of critiquing. I started using digital tools years before Steve did so when he finally decided to use Photoshop to enhance some of the details in work meant for publication, I would get a call from Steve at least once a month, wondering just how to achieve a certain effect.

Gryphon

“While Steve was as traditional a painter as one could imagine – he worked almost exclusively in oils for his entire career – he was not above taking advantage of technology if it meant enhancing an illustration or achieving an otherwise difficult effect. We both recalled how Norman Rockwell would sometimes “cheat” by employing actual, 3D textures in his paintings — for instance, real hair in a painting that included Santa’s beard — and agreed that it was how the artwork appeared in print that mattered.”

Hickman received more and more commissions for traditional paintings, though, and his need to experiment with digital effects faded.

“I suppose because we were contemporaries developing our crafts simultaneously, watching each other grow, I probably didn’t appreciate Steve’s work as immediately as I might if I had come upon him later in life.” Miller explains. “We had a kind of mutual admiration society. Every few months or so I would get a photo of a work in progress in my email and I think Steve appreciated my enthusiasm as much as my suggestions.

Cthulhu sculpture

“Steve was unrelentingly kind and generous… even when he was at his most critical. Regarding his own work, he was one of his own biggest fans and would be the first to point out something in one of his own paintings he was particularly proud of. But by the same token, he invited and welcomed informed criticism and as much as he, like any artist, appreciated an admiring audience I think he valued more highly hearing anything that would eventually make his art even better. And I think that one of the things that made Steve such an extraordinary artist was this ability to grow and develop, to not allow themselves to be typecast or locked into a mould, no matter how successful that mould might be.”

Indeed. For my money Hickman was one of the best artists in the business because of his ability to grow and adapt. The fact that he was able to write a fantasy novel, The Lemurian Stone, for Ace books in 1988 is a testament to this ability. His sculptures are further testimony. His sculpture of H. P. Lovecraft’s cosmic entity Cthulhu, has been described as a modern day masterwork.

His work is distinctive, but, as Miller says, it never fell into a rut. He was constantly surprising and challenging expectations.

“It would be as hard to make even a short list of the things I admired and liked about Steve as it would to single out my favorite,” Miller says when asked what his favorite Hickman painting was. “There are paintings I liked better than others, of course, but then I don’t think he ever did anything that didn’t have something remarkable about it. My first inclination was to pull down my two Hickman art books and pore through them. But I don’t want to do that. I think I’d rather remember that I loved everything he did.”

The Art of Stephen Hickman from Titan Books is available in bookstores and at Amazon.com. You can see more of his artwork at his website, stephenhickman.com.

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