There have been a lot of Sword & Sorcery painters, and I will get to many of them, but one of the finest and most enigmatic was Catherine Jones, born Jeffrey Durwood Jones in Atlanta Georgia. Called by no less a person than Frazetta “the greatest living painter”, Jones had a successful career and a sometimes difficult life, and overall has remained somewhat of an artist’s artist – appreciated by peers more than fans.
Jones first came to light in the 70s along with the cresting wave of S&S popularity, and she provided many illustrations of heroes like Solomon Kane, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, and Conan himself. She did comic line-art, marked by heavy use of blacks and complicated, organic linework, but her real strength and demand was covers. Jones was an amazing painter, with an understated style that often garnered less attention than artists with flashier, shallower work. Her look was layered, erudite, and complex, with as much influence from Klimt as from anyone contemporary.
Her work was moody and dark, with sharp details that shot through like lightning. She illustrated over 150 book covers, and rendered many Sword & Sorcery heroes, both well-known and obscure. Further, one can see her influence on other artists, from Frazetta himself to Sanjulian and Kelly.
Jones’ life was troubled. Married to Mary Louise Alexander for many years (who would later be widely known as comics writer Louise Simonson), Jones began to question her gender identity. After her divorce she moved into studio space in Manhattan with Bernie Wrightson, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Micheal Kaluta to form a collective called The Studio. Virtually a template for artist collectives formed since, it captured all four of them at pretty much the peak of their powers.
After the Studio broke up in 1979, Jones became more interested in expressionism and fine art, and worked less. By 1998 she was ready to address her identity issues, and began hormone therapy and changed her name from Jeff to Catherine, and as Catherine she was known and will be remembered.
By 2001 she suffered a serious nervous breakdown, which cost her both her studio and home, and which took years to recover from. By 2004 she was working again, but her health deteriorated. She died in 2011 after suffering long ailments including emphysema and heart disease, and passed into legend.
Jones’ work eschewed the lurid details of the common Sword & Sorcery artwork and focused on complex color, texture, and a virtually unmatched control of light and shadow. Her work was murky, iconic, brooding, and menacing. Many more people have seen her work than know her name, and many artists walk in her shadow without even knowing it.