An Annotated Guide to The Star Wars Portfolio by Ralph McQuarrie

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.

Star Wars novelization cover

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.

Del Rey promotional Star Wars art

Del Rey promotional art courtesy Pete Vilmur.

The September 12, 1977, issue of Publisher’s Weekly featured a Star Wars cover declaring, “Ballantine brings you “The Force” with a galaxy of dazzling trade paperbacks,” and the inside front cover featured the announcements for their first wave of post-release Star Wars items, including:

  • The Star Wars Portfolio
  • Paintings by Ralph McQuarrie
  • The essence of STAR WARS in 21 magnificent original paintings — inspiration for the movie’s sets and costumes. Reproduced in full color on the finest stock, suitable for framing. Gift packaged and shrink-wrapped.

Unfortunately, despite the claim of the finest stock being used, the initial print run of the portfolio was plagued with problems. Having seen first-hand hundreds, if not thousands, of the individual prints that Ralph signed throughout the years at shows and later from his home, I can attest to the fact that the printing quality varied greatly from one print to the next, with inconsistent colors and numerous flaws. While Ralph was rarely one to complain, when word got back to Judy Lynn Del Rey that there was some concern with the quality of the reproduction of the art, not only were whole pallets of the initial printing of portfolios destroyed, she had Ralph flown out to oversee a new printing of the portfolios. As a result, while still facing the limitations of a mass-produced item, the second printing of the portfolio features a much higher quality reproduction of the artwork.

Carol Wikarska (nee Titleman), then Lucasfilm’s director of publications, provided the text that accompanied the paintings, as well as the insert that gave us our first real introduction to the man behind the art.

Ralph McQuarrie concept painting of C-3PO and R2-D2 Ralph McQuarrie concept painting of C-3PO and R2-D2

Ralph completed his first Star Wars production painting of the droids in the desert at the end of January, 1975. The original version featured a much more human face on C-3PO, as well as a different torso. Ralph didn’t recall any specific reason for the changes made to the final painting, although he was never quite happy with his design for the C-3PO’s face. John Barry suggested the round eyes that gave Threepio his astonished look, and Ralph felt that finally completed the character. In the portfolio, Wikarska notes that Ralph used photo reference from the Oregon coast for the background, but many fans have since recognized that backdrop as Morro rock, in Morro Bay California.

Ralph McQuarrie concept painting of Deak Starkiller versus Darth Vader

Perhaps the most popular of Ralph’s paintings to appear in the portfolio, the laser duel, as he referred to it, was completed in February of 1975. While the portfolio, and nearly everyone who has discussed this painting in the past 35 years, describes it as “Luke versus Vader,” at the time it was painted, the protagonist would have been Deak Starkiller from the second draft screenplay Ralph was working from.

It was because of this scene that Darth Vader came to have the look that he does. Ralph, concerned that Vader was jumping from ship to ship through the vacuum of space, felt that he would require some sort of breathing apparatus. George agreed, and the look of the masked villain was born.

As for the Blockade Runner hall, Ralph pointed out that it was “transferred to film as I had envisioned it, although I felt that in the film the interior was too white-too clean.”

The Sandcrawler by Ralph McQuarrie

The droids escape from the Jawa Sandcrawler was completed in April of 1975. While the model in the finished film is very similar, it’s stubbier than Ralph originally envisioned.

Tusken Raiders concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

The Tusken Raiders painting was completed much later, in December of 1975. Ralph told me that he “figured there were probably thousands of years worth of battles above Tatooine, and as a result, wrecks might have fallen from the sky and been buried in the sand.”

Mos Eisley concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

One of Ralph’s favorite images, the view overlooking Mos Eisley, was also completed in April of 1975. At this point in the film’s development, the character of Luke was still a girl.

Cantina concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

The cantina painting was completed in March of 1975. George asked Ralph to add more technical details to the original version (of which there are unfortunately no known photographs), so he “added the seekers patrolling, and an air-conditioning unit to the right.”

Millennium Falcon and Docking Bay 94 concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

Millennium Falcon and Docking Bay 94 concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

As we will see, one of the most common reasons for new or updated paintings was the change of the “pirate ship” (a.k.a. the Millennium Falcon) from Colin Cantwell’s original design (that would become the Blockade Runner).

In the case of the pirate ship in Docking Bay 94, where so much re-painting was required to replace the ship, I asked Ralph why he didn’t just create a new painting. He explained that he was so pleased with how the figures in the foreground had turned out, particularly R2-D2, that he didn’t want to spoil them by attempting to recreate them a second time!

Death Star and Millennium Falcon concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

Ralph’s painting of the Death Star trench, and the Millennium Falcon being drawn in by the tractor beam, was obviously completed later in the schedule after the ship concept had been changed. The painting closely matches the finished film as Ralph also created the matte painting used for this scene.

Imperial City concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

CLoud City concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

One of Ralph’s earliest paintings, also completed in February of 1975, was of the Imperial City of Alderaan, where the rescue of the princess would take place. As this design was ultimately unused in the finished film, it was not included in the original Ballantine portfolio. Of course, the concept would resurface in The Empire Strikes Back. Of the revised version of the cloud city, Ralph said, “I felt that I should make it more streamlined — more curved rather than it being on a straight line.”

Ralph described his concept for the clouds surrounding the floating city, “We’re used to seeing clouds follow the Earth surface. The planet is all gas, and I began to wonder about how that could impact things, so I decided to make my clouds go up.”

Death Star hangar concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

Originally painted in March 1975, this painting shows the pirate ship in the Alderaan docking bay. If this image looks overly familiar, it was brought to life nearly 25 years later in the opening scene of Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace.

Death Star hangar concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

The second version of the painting, which reflects the change of location to the Death Star in space, elaborates on a John Barry set design. Ralph confided that this painting was actually unfinished. He was not intending for the edges of the Millennium falcon to be smooth, but never got around to incorporating the additional details.

Death Star hangar concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

This painting represents the reverse shot of the one above, with the pirate ship in the Alderaan docking bay.

Death Star hangar concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

For the reverse version of the Millennium Falcon in the Death Star hangar, Ralph chose to paint over his prior version. As with the characters in the Docking Bay 94 painting, the Stormtroopers in the foreground all survived the repainting process.

Death Star elevators concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

Ralph’s painting of the Death Star elevators, completed in November of 1975, was one Ralph often singled out as the painting that most closely realized in the finished film, right down to the droid that walks by the main characters.

Stormtrooper (with lighstaber) concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

Ralph wanted to do a painting that showcased his Stormtrooper armor, and settled on this painting, which was also completed in March of 1975. The pirate ship can be seen in the hangar in the background. He could not have imagined the impact of seeing a Stormtrooper holding a lightsaber would have in the imagination of a generation of kids. Of course for Ralph, it was purely a practical decision. “I gave Han Solo a lightsaber, and I thought it was reasonable to assume the opposing forces would have the same weapons.”

Lash La Rue concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

As with the other Death Star interior painting, the ‘Lash La Rue’ painting was also completed in November of 1975. Of this particular image, Ralph noted, “I never figured out how to do a loose painting when I wanted a surface this smooth. I added skin joints where I felt pieces of metal would join up or overlap.”

TIE fighter pilot and cockpit concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

TIE fighter pilot and cockpit concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

TIE fighter pilot and cockpit concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

Another one of Ralph’s earliest paintings, the view from inside the Imperial ship would also go through the greatest number of known revisions. Originally conceived with the early Death Star concept and the Y-wing attacking head on, at some point the Death Star was changed to a planet (Yavin?). In this form, the piece was reproduced (in black and white) in a 1976 Fox Exhibitor’s manual. And finally, sometime after the change of the Millennium Falcon concept, it was repainted once more with the final version of the Death Star, and the Falcon replacing the Colin Cantwell Y-Wing.

Yavin 4 temple concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

Completed in April 1975, the painting of the temple on Yavin was another very accurately realized onscreen. According to Harrison Ellenshaw, who created that particular matte painting, George specifically requested that it be re-done to look more like Ralph’s original concept.

Ralph also had very distinct ideas as to why the Rebels chose to use the ancient temples for their ship hangar. “The material in the huge stone shapes is so dense that it stops the flow of gravity.” Thereby making it easier for them to move their heavy equipment around.

Y-wing concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

Another one of Ralph’s favorite paintings was the Rebel base on the moon, also completed in April of 1975. He liked that “everything is in full light reflected from the planet above.”

Y-wing concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

That said, he also realized that such a concept would require matte paintings all around to achieve on film, so he was not surprised when the request was made to move the base indoors, which could be done much more effectively on a soundstage. By this time, Joe Johnston’s X-wing and Y-wing designs had replaced Colin Cantwell’s original versions.

Yavin concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

Likely the last original painting (not necessarily the last re-paint) of Ralph’s Star Wars images was of the ships taking off from the moon of Yavin, completed in late 1975 or early 1976.

Death Star attack concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

Death Star attack concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

The painting of the Y-wing assault on the original Death Star was also one of the earliest, completed in February of 1975. It featured Ralph’s original design for the Death Star’s weapon. “My concept for the Death Star laser cannon was one that would charge up deep within the core, focus its energy and fire through the opening in the surface,” he said.

Unlike so many of his others, this particular painting was not signed by Ralph when completed, which has led to some confusion through the years as to the proper orientation of the image. Ralph confirmed that the inverted Y-Wing, as it appeared in the original Star Wars portfolio, is in fact the way he conceived it. It currently is inverted in the Lucasfilm digital archives, so you will occasionally see it reproduced with the Y-Wing’s right side up (not that it isn’t an effective image either way). Most recently, it appeared (in the proper orientation) in Ryder Windham’s Death Star Owner’s Technical Manual.

X-wing and TIE fighter dogfight concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

This painting of the dogfight in the Death Star trench was completed in November of 1975. Ralph was quick to point out that all of the elements in this painting — the trench surface, the TIE fighter, and the X-wing — were based on Joe Johnston’s concepts. Ralph, while certainly playing an integral part in the creation of many of the characters, vehicles and locations in the film, also realized that his role was to incorporate the final designs George selected into finished paintings that would help the crew bring George’s vision to life.

Death Star trench run concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

The painting of the Death Star trench run was also completed in November of 1975. Again, not exactly like it was portrayed in the film, Ralph “envisioned a smooth trench — there were a lot of greeblies in the finished film. I liked the idea of seeing the cast shadow of the ship on the wall.”

Throne Room concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

Throne Room concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

Ralph completed the painting of the throne room scene in December of 1975. Ralph preferred the princess with her arms upraised, welcoming the heroes in the preliminary version (note the lack of detail on the crowd). The final painting was based on what the production team felt could be achieved on the stage in England.

Whether you’re revisiting them like old friends, or experiencing them for the first time, I hope you have enjoyed this annotated tour through Ralph’s paintings that make up the Star Wars Portfolio. To me, they’re just as vibrant and inspiring today as they were to my seven-year-old eyes nearly 40 years ago.

John Scoleri is the co-author/publisher of The Art of Ralph McQuarrie and several other volumes on Ralph McQuarrie from Dreams and Visions Press. 2013 saw the long-awaited release of the Ralph McQuarrie 35th Anniversary Battlestar Galactica Portfolio (created in homage to the Ballantine Star Wars portfolios), available from



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