Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern series has been one of the most popular, long-running and influential fantasy book series of the past 50 years. In addition to its intriguing stories of high fantasy, one of the most integral components to its longevity and popularity are the stylized, intriguing and fascinating cover art that has graced every edition of each of the numerous books in the series. Many artists have worked on the series' cover art for many years, and their varying styles throughout the decades show the differences in fantasy art styles and audience sensibilities in a very intriguing way. Through various examples of the ways in which the Pern books' cover art has changed over the years, we will trace the changes in fantasy art sensibilities as viewed through a single book series.
The 1970s is the decade when the Pern books really took off; their cover art in particular was hugely influential in the development of the stylized, romantic fantasy art styles of the period. The art of Michael Whelan is arguably most closely associated with the Pern books of this time; his artwork for Dragonflight, in particular, shows a simple, bright color scheme with intricately detailed dragons - all with huge wingspans and tiny bodies to give them more of a bat-like appearance. In the Dragonflight cover, landscape is minimal, restricted to just vague mountains in the background, placing the focus solely on the giant dragon spreading his wings across the length of the cover.
Gino D'achile is another influential cover artists who drew for various editions of the Pern books in the 1970s, and his style also reflects the eye for detail and romanticism that the era demanded. His cover for Dragonquest, for example, features a human in the foreground against a pleasant beach, with a large, scaly dragon looking down at him happily. He is also holding a baby dragon, creating a stronger, more human-centric relationship with dragons. His painting uses much broader strokes, using oils to create a sense of broader shading in tones.
Even in the late '70s, Michael Whelan continued his overall painterly style of emphasizing the size and scope of the dragon, though his backgrounds grew more detailed. In his cover for The White Dragon, the rider is bigger, but the dragon still maintains that bat-like appearance. Resting against a rocky mountainside, Whelan uses contrast to set the white dragon against the dark background, his artwork all about demonstrating the power of the creature.
In the late 1970s, the most dramatically different set of artwork for the Pern books has to have come from artist Fred Marcellino. As part of his overall ouvre, his style is extremely minimalist, seeking to capture a single image that will set the tone of the book. His art is never ornate, always preferring to keep things as simple as possible. In the case of the Dragonsinger cover, we simple see a strange, bird-like dragon with light, fragile wings and a woman, mouth agape, looking in profile. These two simple things are colored with the same muted shade of red, linking them as a single idea. This conveys the relationship between person and dragon that is exemplified in the book simply, without overt romanticism shown in many other artists.
Rowena Morrill was one of the most ubiquitous cover artists for the Pern series throughout the 1980s and 1990s; her work showed a dramatic change from the works of the 1970s while still keeping the romanticism the Pern books were known for. In the cover to Dragonsong, bright, oversaturated greens and blues are contrasted against each other as a woman stands in the center of the cover against a blue ocean. These colors are almost obnoxiously present and overbearing, lending to the brightness and grandeur of the cover. As for the objects, instead of large dragons dominating the cover there are simply a series of smaller dragons framing the woman in the middle, showing an emphasis on humans in Morrill's work.
The emphasis on humans continued throughout the 1980s, as Dragondrums' cover features no dragons at all; instead, a man stands behind two drums, with a huge tree trunk dominating the background behind him in a shallow perspective. The colors for this one are quite muted, featuring earth tones, but this move towards eschewing dragons entirely is an interesting one.
In the 90s, Morrill's art moved more toward the dragons of Whelan and his ilk, as many covers adopted inking as opposed to straightforward painting. In The Dolphins of Pern, the image of a woman riding a dragon near the sea, with a man on a dolphin next to them, seems to have a bit of a comic book feel to it. The cover almost appears as though it was inked, as the colors are very bright and streamlined. The dragon itself has veiny wings, adding a bit more to the level of detail found previously in other books, and the size of the dragon has grown smaller, if the comparison between it and the dolphin is any indication.
In the 2000s, a return to relative minimalism was found, especially in the cover for Dragon's Kin. This cover is much simpler, and it uses digital art to convey a dragon hatching from an egg. However, this object is one of the smallest on the cover, as much of the space is occupied by the authors and the title; a single strip of blue connects those elements and sets them against a nearly black-and-white background of mountains. This art style is meant to emphasize the authors' names and the book title, with the art elements seemingly an afterthought.
Les Edwards, on the other hand, shows a slight return to the original styles of Pern novels, with a digital art version of the kind of painted dragons that Whelan would have in his works. The colors are very exacting, computerized oranges and purples, adding an air of artificiality and computerized cleanliness to the artwork, still setting it apart from the earlier paintings.
In conclusion, the Pern novels demonstrate a slow transition from paintings to digital art over the past few decades of fantasy art. In the 1970s, paintings ranged from ornate, romantic images of sweeping dragons to the minimalist paintings of Marcellino. The 1980s and 1990s saw an emphasis on humans and smaller scale environments, as well as comic book-style inking instead of traditional painting. The 2000s saw the advent of digital art, as both absurdly minimalist and digital recreations of romantic flying dragons were found. All in all, tracing the timeline of Pern book cover art provides a window into the ways fantasy art has changed over the years.