The Del Rey Star Wars Covers of Ralph McQuarrie, Part 1

Open the sketchbook of the legendary concept artist in a special new series of articles.

Most Star Wars fans are aware that Ralph McQuarrie painted the cover for the first printing of the movie tie-in issued in the fall of 1976, six months before the film’s release. And that he also painted the cover for the first Expanded Universe novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. But few know that he developed an unused cover for the novelization to The Empire Strikes Back, that one of his paintings was used on an early mock-up for the Return of the Jedi novelization, or that he did preliminary design work for the first of the Lando Calrissian adventures. This three-part series explores both the published and unpublished Ralph McQuarrie Star Wars artwork for Del Rey books from 1976-1983.

Part I – The Star Wars Era (1976-1978)

Star Wars

Publishing the movie tie-in so far in advance of the film was all part of Charles Lippincott’s (vice president of Advertising, Publicity, Promotion and Merchandising for the Star Wars Corporation) master plan to get the word out to science-fiction fans. It proved quite successful. The entire print run sold out months before the film’s release, and one can only assume this was in no small part due to McQuarrie’s evocative painting of Darth Vader looming over our trusty heroes.

That iconic illustration was the first Star Wars image created for a mass-market product (Howard Chaykin’s “Poster 1” would have the distinction of being the first piece of official Star Wars merchandise offered for sale in the summer of 1976).

The book’s cover painting came together rather quickly. On July 19, 1976, George Lucas called McQuarrie from New York to ask him to work on the cover art for the novelization of Star Wars that would be published by Ballantine/Del Rey. In classic fashion, Ralph began working on sketches immediately, including the following thumbnails.

“As I knew this was something that was going to be a point of sale item, I wanted it to have a good first reading—Darth Vader in full size.” – Ralph McQuarrie

One concept McQuarrie explored above featured Luke in the foreground, Vader towering over him and the Death Star in the background. This was refined into a color thumbnail and a more detailed color composition (below) featuring the early Star Wars logo designed by John van Hamersveld. The baseline of text helps identify this as one of Ralph’s book cover comps.

While ultimately not the concept selected for use on the book cover, McQuarrie would revisit it in one of his unused poster designs for Star Wars (below).

Two of the initial thumbnails above retain Vader’s pose with his lightsaber as rendered in McQuarrie’s famous production painting (below).

McQuarrie - Darth Vader's Lightsaber

McQuarrie’s color composition for this concept recreates the dynamic confrontation from the production painting in a portrait orientation, with Luke and Darth Vader rendered in more screen accurate costumes.


McQuarrie chose to zoom in on Vader’s mask for a third concept; placing smaller figures in the foreground. In this initial thumbnail (below), he left the top of the cover white for the film logo.

McQuarrie - Darth Vader poster

Using the image of Darth Vader from his production painting, McQuarrie touched up this final color composition (below), which also features the early Star Wars logo and a baseline of text announcing, “Soon to be a major motion picture.” Also present is the Ballantine/Del Rey circular logo (an element that helps quickly identify book cover concepts amongst Ralph’s thumbnails). George Lucas approved this concept on July 28, 1976.


McQuarrie’s pencil drawing of Darth Vader (below) was transferred to illustration board for the final rendering. McQuarrie started work on the painting on July 29, 1976, and completed it on August 3, 1976.

While the design remains a fan favorite, and has been used as reference for a number of products (Gentle Giant busts and bronzes, eFX’s helmet replica), it is important to note that this was not one of McQuarrie’s original concepts for Darth Vader. The renderings of Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2 in his final painting were an amalgam of his original concepts and the look of the characters from the finished film. That said, the book cover painting was one of McQuarrie’s favorite depictions of Darth Vader, and he was very pleased to see it realized in three dimensions.

Once the painting was finished, McQuarrie provided his suggestion for the text placement on an acetate overlay (below). The John van Hamersveld logo was not used, and the printed cover did not contain a baseline of text, which McQuarrie felt was necessary to contain the artwork at the bottom, rather than having it fall off into black.

McQuarrie - Vader Poster

As with all of their paperback titles, Del Rey sent printed flats of the book cover to bookstores to solicit orders for the book before its release. Apparently the cover worked on the bookstores as well as the readers, as the book was sold out by early 1977 and not reprinted until the film’s release in May.

McQuarrie - Book Cover

When Star Wars was finally reprinted to coincide with the release of the film, it utilized a horizontally flipped version of one of artist John Berkey’s paintings (below).

McQuarrie - Star Wars Book Cover



Following the success of the Star Wars novelization, Judy-Lynn del Rey would go on to hire McQuarrie to paint the covers for a number of Del Rey science-fiction titles over the next ten years (you can see them all here). Among his first was the initial foray into the expanded universe.

It is important to point out that when it came to providing cover illustrations for novels (including Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye), McQuarrie always read the book first, looking for a key scene in the story that he felt would make a compelling illustration. While that might seem like a perfectly reasonable approach for an artist to take, it was far from common in a field where artists are often given very specific direction, or worse yet, when an existing piece of art is married to a book for the sake of convenience.

Vader once again takes center stage in McQuarrie’s eye-catching painting, and very little changed from McQuarrie’s original color comp to his finished painting (above).

I incorporated the crystal from the story to provide a focal point for the cover. You’ll see that in the finished painting Leia is reaching for Luke’s lightsaber.” — Ralph McQuarrie

McQuarrie - Splinter of the Mind's Eye Hardcover

This was the first time McQuarrie’s artwork appeared on a hardcover dust jacket. The Ballantine hardcover was released in February of 1978, followed by the mass-market paperback in April. The more common Science Fiction Book Club hardcover, also featuring McQuarrie’s artwork, was released in May of 1978.

Coming in Part II—Ralph McQuarrie’s Del Rey art from The Empire Strikes Back Era!

John Scoleri is the author of The Art of Ralph McQuarrie: ARCHIVES, available from