Born Ronald Kirby he gained his nickname at Liverpool City School of Art where colleagues thought his painting was reminiscent of the great painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. The nickname of Josh Kirby stuck and few people ever called him by his original name from then on. Josh Kirby was a traditional artist unconcerned with commerciality. He was successful entirely because of his tremendous skill and creativity.
Josh Kirby was already a long-established name in fantasy art before the Discworld series came along although much of Josh Kirby's work during the years prior to Discworld was for American publishers (where the name Josh Kirby was always confused with Marvel legend Jack Kirby!). Josh Kirby was specially chosen by Corgi to paint the cover for Colour of Magic. Josh Kirby was quite humbly surprised that this happened but nowadays most people who read Discworld books would find it hard to think of anyone then or since who would be more appropriate. Josh Kirby had a unique blend of bright bold fantasy images and humour, which was very suitable for these books.
The first painting for The Colour of Magic was painted by Josh Kirby in watercolour on watercolour board (purely because Josh had some laying around!) but all the later paintings are oil paintings (though generally still on watercolour board!). Josh Kirby was a straight painter and used very few "special effects" beyond the use of thinners to get his oils to look subtle almost like watercolour (see 'Soul Music' sky). When Josh Kirby did the first cover he thought it would be a one-off as he had never heard of Terry Pratchett before and couldn't see how he could spring "fully-formed" into the world as it were. Also, he was misinformed by publishing gossip that it was a pseudonym for a writer who was successful in another field and did not want their real name used for their fantasy book. It was around the third or fourth book that Terry Pratchett and Josh Kirby met (not unusual in publishing). Terry Pratchett said he never really knew what the Discworld looked like till Josh Kirby painted it and that although he was its inventor Josh Kirby was its creator. Mind you, they had a few disagreements along the way. The most notable being Josh Kirby's painting of Twoflower - two eyes or not two eyes, foureyes? Originally Josh gave him four eyes and then he became four-eyes. Confused? Look at the covers.
Josh Kirby had his own unique style and copied no-one but he was quite fond of Hieronymous Bosch, Bruegel and MC Escher. Josh Kirby's first book of his own work was entitled "In the Garden of Unearthly Delights" as an echo of Bosch's work. This book is highly recommended for people who want to know about Josh Kirby's early work. It includes his Magnum Opus "Voyage of the Ayeguy" which is a kind of sci-fi take on the bible as Jay Zuzz goes into the galaxy to enlighten other races but meets only ignorance and violence.
Why was Josh Kirby so good at doing Discworld covers? Well, for a start he read the books, cover to cover. He made notes; he did biro sketch roughs and then worked up to the finished painting. Josh Kirby was meticulous, professional and thorough in his work. He was one of the few artists to have transferred between publishers. Most publishers prefer to use their own artists but Josh Kirby and Discworld became inseparable. An attempt at one time to republish the first two books with a different artist's covers (to reach a more adult audience…ho!ho!ho!) failed dismally! As Terry Pratchett did, you will find Josh Kirby's artwork on lots of old Sci-Fi paperback covers and magazines going back into the sixties and seventies (even late fifties). Josh Kirby also did work for posters on the London Underground to advertise films and has always been known as a great portrait painter. In 1997 Josh Kirby agreed that Artists UK could publish 'Soul Music' and 'Discworld Companion' as Josh Kirby Limited Edition fine art prints which were then followed later by a special Josh Kirby Cibachrome and three more Josh Kirby Limited Editions: 'Interesting Times', 'Men At Arms' and 'Witches Trilogy' (for the collection of the first three witches books and shows the original three up on the heath - Josh Kirby also calls it "When Shall We Three Meet Again"). Josh Kirby said that these were excellent quality prints and we feel privileged to have worked with him on producing them. Sadly, because the second set was to be produced in batches so that Josh didn't need to sign all 500 at once there are only just over a hundred copies of each of these.
Josh Kirby was of course called upon to do covers for all the Pratchett-like authors, some good, some not so good. One of the best is Robert Rankin and Josh Kirby did a fabulous cover for his 'Brentford Trilogy'. Another book of Josh Kirby's work entitled 'Cosmic Cornucopia' was published in 1999 which contains later Discworld paintings and a trawl through some of his older work not included in the first book due to lack of space. Although Josh Kirby was something of a hermit and hid himself away in the country most of the time he did the occasional exhibition and attended several Discworld events.
Josh Kirby had a simple view of his work. "I am a painter," he said to me once, "that's what I do, I paint." Josh Kirby died in bed at his home near Diss in Norfolk on 23rd October 2001. Josh Kirby was one of the greatest names in the world of fantasy, which makes three worlds he will be missed in, that world, the real world and the Discworld.
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