Ralph McQuarrie; artist drew ‘Star Wars’ characters

Brooklyn Museum of Art
Ralph McQuarrie created “C-3PO and R2-D2 Arrive on Tatooine’’ as a conceptual drawing for “Star Wars’’ director George Lucas.

WASHINGTON - Ralph McQuarrie, an artist whose paintings of a gold-plated robot in an otherworldly desert and an intergalactic sword duel between a scraggly youth and a black-masked villain helped persuade film executives to gamble on a young director named George Lucas and his visionary story, “Star Wars,’’ died March 3 at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 82.

He had complications of Parkinson’s disease, said John Scoleri, coauthor of a book of Mr. McQuarrie’s art.

“Ralph McQuarrie was the first person I hired to help me envision ‘Star Wars,’ ’’ Lucas said in a statement posted online. “When words could not convey my ideas, I could always point to one of Ralph’s fabulous illustrations and say, ‘Do it like this.’ ’’


Mr. McQuarrie, for instance, designed the Samurai-inspired helmet and black caped-outfit worn by arch nemesis Darth Vader. (It was Mr. McQuarrie’s idea to put a breathing apparatus on Vader’s mask, so that he could survive in the vacuum of space, which led to the villain’s raspy voice in the films.)

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Mr. McQuarrie’s pens, pencils, and brushes brought lush color, dramatic scenery, and lifelike characters to stunning vibrancy in film classics such as “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’’ “Cocoon,’’ “Raiders of the Lost Ark’’ and “E.T.’’

He was part of a team that won the 1985 Academy Award for best visual effects for his work on “Cocoon,’’ about aliens who can pass on the gift of immortality.

As an artist for all three episodes of the original “Star Wars’’ films, Mr. McQuarrie was widely credited with shaping Lucas’s far, far away galaxy.

As a technical artist for Boeing in the 1960s, he drew diagrams for a manual on constructing the 747 jumbo jet and later was an illustrator animating sequences of the Apollo space missions for NASA and CBS News.


Through two artist friends, Mr. McQuarrie was introduced to Lucas in the mid 1970s. At the time, Lucas’s tale of a interplanetary civil war between a loose band of rebels and a Naziesque empire, had been rejected by United Artists and Universal. Lucas enlisted Mr. McQuarrie’s help to show movie executives his story. Mr. McQuarrie drew scenes of a space battle between laser-shooting fighter planes and lightsaber-wielding warriors.

Lucas, with the images, quickly won funding from 20th Century Fox, and “Star Wars’’ was born, beginning with “Episode IV: A New Hope,’’ in 1977.

Artist Iain McCaig - who worked on the “Star Wars’’ prequels, Episodes I, II, and III - called Mr. McQuarrie a pioneer of film conceptual art.

“He didn’t just draw a picture of Darth standing in a neutral pose,’’ McCaig said in an interview. “He did a scene of Darth lashing out at Luke Skywalker. You could feel the power and the pathos going on in that moment. He did more than just design costumes. . . . He helped capture the storytelling moments in really dazzling pictures.’’

Doug Chiang, who worked with McCaig as an artist on Episode I, said that Mr. McQuarrie’s artwork was “cinematic.’’


“Most science fiction art at the time were for posters and book covers. But his looked like images you could see on the big screen.’’

He designed the porcelain armor of the Imperial storm troopers and the shiny gilt frame of the humanoid robot C-3PO and the droid R2D2, which resembled a motorized trashcan.

Ralph Angus McQuarrie was born in Gary, Ind., and grew up on a farm outside Billings, Mont.

He worked as an illustrator for a dental business drawing teeth and dentist’s tools before his work in films. His art for “Star Wars’’ led director Steven Spielberg to tap McQuarrie to draw spaceships for his movies “Close Encounters of the Third Kind’’ (1977) and “E.T.’’ (1982).