The Del Rey Star Wars Covers of Ralph McQuarrie, Part 3

Hello, what have we here? See recently unearthed Lando Calrissian novel concept art and much more.

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 This three-part series (check out parts one and two in case you missed them) explores both the published and unpublished Ralph McQuarrie Star Wars artwork for Del Rey books from 1976-1983.

Part III – Return of the Jedi and Beyond (1983)

Return of the Jedi

While Ralph McQuarrie worked on initial concepts for Return of the Jedi, he did not stay on through the completion of the film as he had with the first two chapters in the Star Wars saga. As a result, many of the production paintings he created were for sequences that didn’t make it into the finished film, such as these sequences (below) of Vader taking Luke to meet the Emperor in his volcanic lair beneath a grand cathedral on the Imperial City (that would come to be known as Coruscant in the Expanded Universe and prequels).

Before the film’s release, McQuarrie was hired to create a number of paintings to round out a portfolio for Ballantine/Del Rey to publish as they had for Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. If you’ve ever wondered why so many of McQuarrie’s Return of the Jedi paintings seem uncharacteristically photorealistic when it comes to character likenesses, or extremely faithful in terms of how they were rendered onscreen, it was because he was working from reference photos from the finished film. When Ralph did attempt to bring his vision to a particular painting, modifying elements to be more in line with how he might have envisioned them, he was asked to re-paint it to look more like the film. One example is his painting of Luke’s confrontation with the Emperor (below).

As with The Empire Strikes Back, the mass-market version of the novelization for Return of the Jedi used the key art from the film’s one-sheet; in this case Tim Reamer’s painting of Luke’s lightsaber against a star field (below).

McQuarrie - Return of the Jedi Book Cover Luke's Lightsaber
As with The Empire Strikes Back, at the time the Return of the Jedi novelization was solicited to bookstores for pre-orders, the final artwork either wasn’t ready or wasn’t yet revealed. Thanks to the same collector who had saved the Empire Strikes Back solicitation cover (shown in Part II of this article series), we now know that an equally rare Return of the Jedi solicitation cover shows that the Del Rey marketing department utilized one of McQuarrie’s paintings created for the portfolio — the dynamic image of Luke and Vader dueling on the Death Star (below, along with the production painting).

This image was ultimately used on the illustrated trade paperback edition (as had been done with The Empire Strikes Back), although cropped more tightly than the mass-market paperback cover design (below).

McQuarrie - Return of the Jedi Front Cover
Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu

Following the release of Return of the Jedi in the summer of 1983, Del Rey published the first of three novels detailing the early adventures of Lando Calrissian (much like they had done with the Han Solo trilogy from 1979-80).

McQuarrie - Lando and the Mindharp of Sharu Cover

While McQuarrie’s artwork does not grace the cover of that volume (the published cover is by William Schmidt, above), two unused concept drawings for the cover of L. Neil Smith’s Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu were discovered in his archives in 2007 (below).

It’s unlikely we’ll ever find out why McQuarrie was not asked to paint the final cover for the Lando Calrissian novel. When these drawings turned up, he simply couldn’t recall. Fortunately, we have the artwork to show us what might have been; the final pieces in an amazing legacy of Ralph McQuarrie’s Star Wars book covers.

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