Dune: the Most Important Science Fiction Art Ever

Dune: the Most Important Science Fiction Art Ever



If there’s anywhere the old axiom about judging a book by its cover holds true, it’s science fiction. Few authors and the artists employed to visualize their stories achieve a real dialogue; more often than not, throughout the history of science fiction, literature of real depth is sold with flashy aliens and cosmic exaggerations. An extraordinary illustrator, however, is capable of contributing to a piece of literature just as meaningfully as its author. In the case of an artist like John Schoenherr, he becomes the work’s joint architect–and leaves a mark no less indelible.

Schoenherr’s illustrations (see: Omni Magainze, July 1980) are among the most celebrated of science fiction artworks; he showed, like Richard M. Powers, that science fiction art could be mature and painterly, worlds away from the lurid pulp exaggerations the genre had cultivated since its inception. The first artist to tackle the desert planet Arrakis, his Dune illustrations in particular have become archetypes by which Frank Herbert’s universe is visualized.

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Schoenherr was born in New York City in 1935, studied at the Art Students’ League, and graduated from the Pratt Institute in the late 1950s. After initial sales to magazines such as Infinity, Amazing, and other pulps of the day, he found a home in the pages of Astounding (later renamed Analog), arguably the most important magazine in the history of science fiction, under the reign of science fiction’s ur-editor, John W. Campbell.


I can envision no more perfect visual representation of my Dune world than John Schoenherr’s careful and accurate illustrations.
– Frank Herbert

His partnership with Analog was where he was most visibly active. Illustrating Gordon R. Dickson, Clifford D. Simak and Anne McCaffrey, Schoenherr’s artwork dominated the covers and interiors of the magazine for almost two decades, continuing well into the early 1980s. During his tenure at Analog, he also produced full-color paperback covers for publishers such as Ace and Pyramid–covers of classic science fiction novels like Starship Troopers, The Stainless Steel Rat, and Galactic Patrol. By the early 1970s, he’d begun to explore new subjects, and found a second wave of critical acclaim for his animal paintings and children’s books. It was this subject matter that focused his attention until his death in 2010.

Schoenherr’s association with Dune had its genesis in the pages of Analog. He illustrated Herbert’s serialized stories: the three-part Dune World (December 1963 through to Februrary, 1964) and the five-part Prophet of Dune (January to May, 1965) with highly detailed scratchboards and acrylic drybrush drawings. It was this work that won him the coveted Hugo for best professional artist, an award for which he was nominated eleven times.


He revisited Dune again when Herbert’s third novel in the series, Children of Dune, was serialized in Analog in 1976, and again in 1978 for a handful of super-rare LP sleeves featuring excerpts from the novels read by Herbert on Caedmon Records (Sandworms of Dune, The Truths of Dune, Battles of Dune and Heretics of Dune) and most prominently; The Illustrated Dune (1978, Berkley Windhover), an almost legendary volume containing 33 black and white scratchboards and 8 full-color paintings. Reportedly, the paintings were commissioned separately, originally created for an even rarer collector’s item: the 1978 Dune Calendar.

OMNI generously exhibited this series of Schoenherr’s iconic Dune paintings in its July 1980 issue, including two not present in the actual book. The series of images seen here have never been reproduced in their entirety since their appearance in OMNI, and remain touchstones of the Dune universe. Sadly, and somewhat bizarrely, these remarkable paintings have lingered in relative obscurity. Although iconic to those in the know, the Dune acolyte must practice a little archaeology–time spent in musty bookshops or scouring online sources–to unearth these hidden treasures. Owning them is expensive, whether original (his 11×15” watercolor painting used on the 1967 Ace Dune paperback sold for $26,000 in 2011) or in regular book form. The publications in which they were presented have been out of print for three decades.

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Schoenherr’s artwork perfectly corresponded with his subject matter: visionary, unique, extraordinary. His renditions are timeless and impressionistic while remaining so carefully drawn from Herbert’s descriptions that they become the perfect companion, an illuminating template for the reader intent on visualizing Herbert’s desolate world. Dune is a work of depth and often excruciating detail, but Schoenherr’s accompanying artwork is ambiguous and abstract. Devices, machinery and costumes are elegant in their simplicity. Its technologies are instantly recognizable, organic, and convincing, while still seeming like conventions of an environment set 21,000 years in the future. Utterly alien concepts are rendered fluently; 400 meter-long Sandworms erupt from the desert as though they always existed, and other demanding conceptions–the Ornithopter flying machines, Stillsuits, Sarduakar warriors and the 200 kilo Baron Harkonnen–leave little doubt as to their authenticity.

Admittedly, Schoenherr could be technologically unsophisticated–numerous 20th century mechanical parts hide, like Easter eggs, in his work–but as his emphasis was on form, not function, the results were more often than not unobtrusive. His timeless renditions of Arrakis are the perfect reader’s companion.

John Schoenherr’s artwork brought a sense of credibility to his medium, trading the lurid canvases of yesteryear for authoritative, atmospheric composition. At the height of his popularity, his association with Dune was as intimate as Herbert’s, helping to bring the world of Dune to life. Herbert once gave Schoenherr the ultimate praise: he called him “the only artist who has ever visited Dune.”

The Sandworm:

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  1. Chris Williams 11 months ago

    Goddamn those are beautiful.

    • Robert Shane Wilson 11 months ago

      I couldn’t agree more!

  2. Ronaldo Nascimento 11 months ago

    Thanks OMNI!

  3. Bill 11 months ago

    It’s “John W Campbell”. Not Joseph

  4. Kirth Gersen 11 months ago

    The art: amazing, beautiful, breathtaking, exquisite, .

    The article: Didactic, entertaining, enthralling.

    Thank you very much!.

  5. gideonvalor 11 months ago

    This is incredible.

  6. john 11 months ago

    Outstanding. Love the sheer scale of the sandworms.

  7. Feyd Darkholme 11 months ago

    Love them! I want prints to frame and hang!

  8. Heteromeles 11 months ago

    Great to see them again after all these years!

  9. Ken Baumann 11 months ago


  10. choons 11 months ago

    the spice must flow

    • Philip 11 months ago

      The spice is life.

  11. Cory James Hill 11 months ago

    These are spellbinding. I want to buy prints!

    • Snackpants 11 months ago

      Agreed. If anyone on here has a line on someplace that is selling them, some links would be awesome.

  12. SmithDoc 11 months ago

    truly breathtaking works of art.

  13. John Nemesh 11 months ago

    You can see how his art DIRECTLY influenced the David Lynch movie…especially the design of the sandworms, but also the palace at Arrakeen. Good stuff!

    • J. Chris Bourdier 11 months ago

      I would disagree. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Lynch’s people threw out all of this and started from scratch.

      • John Nemesh 11 months ago

        Well, the Ornithopters were definitely different…I can’t see how they would have replicated those on screen without the benefit of modern CGI…but the similarities in the other elements is striking.

      • Jim Hat 11 months ago

        I believe that Lynch or DeLaurentiis approached him about working on the movie, although he was never credited specifically. Something on this here:


      • Alphonse Idolgazer 11 months ago

        I don’t know, the Baron looks similar.

      • Ben Lowdon 11 months ago

        From what I understand Moebius did a lot of the concept work for the movie, though you can definitely see Schoenherr’s influence too

    • nametaken 11 months ago


    • Maxxzz 11 months ago

      I agree. The sandworms really look like the ones in the movie.
      Great artist.

  14. vic 11 months ago

    So beautifull

  15. Richard A. Tucker 11 months ago

    Thank you for presenting these evocative and wonderful paintings.

  16. Mark 11 months ago

    Will there be prints of these available for purchase?

  17. bluetyson 11 months ago


  18. Daniil Yakovenko 11 months ago

    no sign of stillsuits…

    • Grant Cruickshank 11 months ago

      Well, not a whole one. But you can see bits of one covering Paul’s legs in the painting where he’s holding the worm sticks.So yes – Worm-sign!

      • Mitchell Glaser 11 months ago

        Nope. Paul doesn’t have maker hooks until after he was trained by the Fremen. And a Fremen would never be out in the deep desert like that without his mask on (though there is something hanging next to his face). Similarly, Stilgar (or whoever that is several paintings up) isn’t wearing a mask either.

        • Postulative 11 months ago

          Yep, I think that picture is the least representative of the Dune Herbert wrote about. Moisture is being wasted.

  19. Connolly Damien 11 months ago

    The eyes are the wrong colour! I don’t know WTF some moron DID but Stilgar has blue eyes. Check the original. Good grief. Animals. You fail the test.

    • ape 11 months ago

      Yes, the colour “enhancement” is a little overzealous in that one!

      I wish we could get some proper scans of these colour ones – there are great ones of the black and white illustrations out there, but every copy of the coloured images is lossy, tiny, or both!

  20. J. Chris Bourdier 11 months ago

    There’s one missing, that I know of. It’s of a Fremen, presumably Stilgar, standing in front of a thopter on the ground, with a cityscape in the background. No idea why the movie and the miniseries chose their crappy designs over these for the ‘thopters. Oh, wait. I do know why. David Lynch said the idea of an ornithopter was stupid. Stupid or not, these are a heck of a lot better than the diamond-shape “thing” that was in his abomination.

    • Jeff 11 months ago

      The original design *was* kind of stupid. There’s a b/w illustration in the book that shows one full-on from the side and it looks like an overgrown bee.

      btw I don’t see the missing one you’re talking about in the book, but there is one missing of Paul administering the oath of the Fedaykin, with a bunch of fremen holding up khrysknives in the crowd.

  21. vicky 11 months ago

    These are beautiful.

  22. Sharon Jones 11 months ago

    wow…my thoughts brought to life…

  23. Jorj_X_McKie 11 months ago

    Awesome to have these re-released. I remember a few of them fondly. As a member of the Bureau of Sabotage, I can vouch that Frank Herbert is Da Man!

  24. Pete at MK 11 months ago

    Just wonderful – a long time Dune fan…

  25. Postulative 11 months ago

    It’s such a shame that Herbert’s son has destroyed so much of the incredible universe the father created.

    • Comadreja 11 months ago

      First let me put my stone-proof suit on, but I think Frank’s own part of the series shows a clear decline from God Emperor onwards… either the books are just not fun to read (lacking in the classic sense of adventure the first three novels, especially Dune, had) or because it just jumped the shark with clones of almost everyone (they never fail to ruin anything you put them in, and Dune should be a prime example) and concepts that were just rather ridiculous (space Jews! – and before anyone screams at me, I’m only talking within the context of a fictional work) and detracted from all of the genuinely incredible ideas the setting and its history and characters were grounded upon. However, the good thing about having a critical appreciation of an author’s work is that you can still love their good output and disregard the bad as just another bad day at work on their part.

      • Nitivia 11 months ago

        I agree with you completely!

        • Comadreja 11 months ago

          I’m surprised at the upvotes really. Most of my friends who know the series actually claim it only comes into its own at God Emperor, and it baffled me to the point that I stopped considering myself a fan, even though Dune’s probably my favourite novel of all time. I think it might be because they discovered it after Star Wars and Dune’s merits as an epic are probably lost on them, which is a pity because it’s another thing Herbert did magnificently.

          • Snackpants 11 months ago

            I didn’t initially like God Emperor. After a couple of years and multiple re-reads though it became my favorite. The new books though, not a fan.

          • Comadreja 11 months ago

            To each their own, of course. I have to admit my last reading of God Emperor was more than ten years ago and there’s a chance I might be more appreciative of it now, but I don’t have much of a good memory of it. I’m sure I liked it far more than Heretics or Chapterhouse, though. As for the Brian / KJA books, I have to admit I tend not to rage about them because I never gave them the chance and I prefer not to cast judgment on books I haven’t read. Most second-hand accounts of the experience make me unwilling to change that, though.

          • Snackpants 11 months ago

            It was about a 4 year span I think when I decided to pick the series back up and re-read it. Wasn’t looking forward to God Emperor again, but after getting back through it was very pleasantly surprised at how much more I enjoyed it.

            With the newer books, after I finished the last one I wished I had never picked them up. I preferred where Frank Herbert left the readers with his last book. To their own devices and imagination.

          • meenween 8 months ago

            I loved all of it. his son’s work was great to me as well. it was pulled largely from Frank’s historical notes he had accumulated over the years. he did a commendable job on his own series and I for one am happy to read any new DUNE work. few if any other authors would have done as well. I’m very pleaded to see OMNI return. I loved that publication as a kid. helped expand my mind from an early age.

      • Derf Backderf 11 months ago

        I also agree with you completely, Comadreja. I’d take it even further. I love Dune, but find even the two sequels that you cite to be huge disappointments. It’s not uncommon for authors to be creative spent after producing a masterwork. Tolkein was. Bradbury was not. It depends.

        btw the original series in Analog in 1963 and 1965, which is where most of these illos come from, is NOT what ultimately wound up in the book. I have copies, and enjoy reading a work in progress. Herbert refined the text quite a bit.

        • Comadreja 11 months ago

          Well, it’s not so much that I like Messiah or Children (especially not Children) as rather that I especifically like to point out God Emperor when it comes to discussing who had a bigger part in “destroying” -speaking in fan terms- the Dune ‘verse. I think Messiah is brief enough not to be offensive and introduces one or two interesting characters along with feauring a few nice pieces of dialogue, but Children I already disliked a lot, just not so much as God Emperor. Also, I know a few people that have only read the Brian Herbert / KJ Anderson novels and absolutely love them, so I guess that speaks to the strength of the source material… or maybe to their own bad taste, I don’t know xD

        • Spice Addict 7 months ago

          And don’t forget “Dune Messiah’s” original publication in “Galaxy Magazine!”

  26. Roderick T Faulkner 11 months ago

    Sensational artwork. So glad these have been re-discovered for the rest of the world to enjoy again! Thank you Omni!

  27. Comadreja 11 months ago

    Amazing! I always thought Dune could have a beautiful animated adaptation, and seeing these only makes me weep for it. Also, I’m a huge fan of Sega’s Panzer Dragoon game series and I always knew that their setting and stories were heavily influenced by Dune (along with Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä and Jean Giraud’s SF and fantasy art), but the resemblance of much of Panzer Dragoon’s artwork to these pieces is striking! It’s actually made me want to dust off the ol’ Saturn and play them again :)

  28. EnnIsFor 11 months ago

    Ummmm… Sardaukar… wtf are the Sarduakar?

    • James 11 months ago

      The emperor’s ruthless elite guard, raised on a brutal prison world.

      • EnnIsFor 11 months ago

        No, those are the Sardaukar. The article spells it Sarduakar, which is wrong.

        • James 11 months ago

          I have been out-nerded! I humbly accept my defeat.

    • Will McCool 11 months ago

      They were the emperor’s elite sauerkraut makers.

    • Diogenes 11 months ago

      Yes, indeed, typo’s are the most important thing!

  29. ouija147 11 months ago

    Thank you, I haven’t seen these in nearly thirty years…all these years later and they are still how I think of Dune. The power of Schoenherr’s art is astounding

  30. Jim Hat 11 months ago

    Just in case anyone hasn’t seen them and might be interested – Mark Zug’s Dune interpretations.


  31. Diogenes 11 months ago

    Maybe science fiction’s N.C.Wyeth.

  32. Cousin Barnabas 11 months ago


  33. Rab Cummings 11 months ago

    My Mom gave me a subscription to Omni when I was nine years old. The volume with these paintings was one of the first I received. This is where my Sci-Fi obsession started. Thanks for bringing me back.

  34. demoncat_4 11 months ago

    those are a piece of art . hebert really knew what he was doing picking schoenherr to help bring dune to life on paper. epsically love the one of the sand worms.

  35. beanmhor 11 months ago

    Dune. Arrakis. Desert Planet!

  36. Kristi Martin 11 months ago

    I remember these…lord, these bring on some severe nostalgia.

  37. bonks alano 11 months ago

    these are so good to see. He also illustrated The Fox and the Hound, the novel by D. Mannix.

  38. Seth 11 months ago


  39. kkillert0fu 11 months ago

    Not to start a “who did what first” debate (I’m a star wars guy), but this artwork looks a lot like tattooine. Even that jabba the hut resembling fat guy in the second to last picture. Makes you realize how small the sci fi art community was during that time in film making history. I’m sure a lot of the same ideas were shown entirely across the board and passed from one director to another.

  40. Derf Backderf 11 months ago

    The Dune calendar! Damn, I forgot all about that thing. I had one!

  41. Nathan Smith 9 months ago

    These pictures are fantastic, in every sense of the word. I’ve never heard of John Schoenherr before, but he was excellent.

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