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“Here be dragons”: Festival in the Shire interviews John Howe

John Howe is an outstanding and well-known Tolkien artist, who was born in 1957 in Vancouver, Canada, growing up in British Columbia. He studied at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs de Strasbourg, and lives in Switzerland as a freelance illustrator, with his wife Fataneh (also an illustrator), and son Dana. He is author of several books, including Forging Dragons (David and Charles, 2008), and Lost Worlds (Kingfisher, 2009). Fantasy Art Workshop (Impact Books, 2008), Fantasy Drawing Workshop (Impact Books, 2009), and illustrated the map books, The Road Goes Ever on and on: The Map of Tolkien's Middle-Earth (HarperCollins, 2009), West of the Mountains, East of the Sea: The Map of Tolkien's Beleriand and the Lands to the North (HarperCollins, 2010), There and Back Again: The Map of Tolkien's ‘Hobbit’ (HarperCollins, 2010). There is a lot more information on his website: www.john-howe.com. Interviewing John for Festival in the Shire, Colin Duriez asked him about the techniques and content of his work, magical creatures and dragons in particular, the background of his remarkable interpretations of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, and his formative involvement with films such as Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.

John, what took you from Canada to France to study? And why have you adopted Europe as your home?

It’s quite common for English Canadian teenagers to make a “European trip” before settling down and going to university or entering the workplace. It’s seen as a kind of reward for graduating high school and often a slightly unfocused attempt to seek out some family roots. My plan was to combine the two, largely due to generous scholarship money hard won in high school. I went to France for a year to an American college near Strasbourg. It was an academic disaster, I might add, but quite exhilarating just to spend that time in Europe, even if on something of a shoestring. After that, I ended up enrolling at the bona fide art school downtown, where I really didn’t understand very much for some time, as my grasp of French was tenuous where it wasn’t inexistent. From there one thing just led to another. I think I might be a little lost in Canada if I went back. All those deep woods and endless forests, you know.

To tell the truth, it’s a little late to go back. Most of the things I feel I need for my work are on the opposite side of the Atlantic to where I was born. In Canada, I appreciate the landscapes most of all, especially the Pacific Coast. Otherwise, I’m quite happy to remain a stranger in a strange land, which is an apt metaphor for fantasy illustration anyway. I think it’s possible to set down roots in places that have little relationship to country but reach down through the topsoil into strata of history and culture.

What led to your special interest in Tolkien? Is there a broader interest that provides a context for this interest?

I discovered the virtues of Tolkien quite late, all things considered, and quite slowly too. I read the books in the wrong order for a start, when I was about twelve (it’s a story I’ve told countless times; please forgive me for not repeating it here), so it didn’t make an indelible impression on me – the sky failed to open, with a thunderous voice saying “You’ve just read the book of the century!” I went back a few years later and read it properly, though. (Curiously, The Hobbit made even less of an impression. I must have read it when I was around nine years old, but can only recall the “Unexpected Party”. Perhaps I never finished it. I still clearly recall the cover though – proof I must have been destined to be an illustrator after all.)

I did my first illustrations for Tolkien in high school, and they are all dismayingly awful. I would purchase the current Tolkien calendar and do my own version of the month at hand. The one I recall most clearly was where I painted the confrontation of Théoden and the Witch-king. I drew this monstrous Frazetta-like figure with a horned helmet standing on the back of a huge pterodactyl-like creature, looming over Théoden and Snowmane, with a ghastly red sky in the background. It was awful. I painted the fell beast green. It’s a wonder anybody encouraged me to carry on.

I agree with you, Colin – my interest in Tolkien was the glimpsing of the tip of a then-unsuspected iceberg of much broader and deeper interest in history, art, architecture and culture. I do still enjoy illustrating Tolkien immensely, though. It’s a looking-glass into so many worlds.

Has being an illustrator been a long-standing ambition?

Emphatically, yes!

Well, of course … I guess.

Come to think of it, I suppose so, but on second thought, perhaps not really...

I did want to have a profession for which I could use what I thought at the time were my “skills”, but had no clear idea of what manner of creature an illustrator was. Retrospectively, though, I realize that everything I’ve ever drawn has had a strong narrative thread woven through it.

What have been your main artistic influences?

Too numbersome to truly count! :-) Have you got a moment? The list is as long as Grendel’s arm.

How does your work as an illustrator dovetail into your interest in living history? What actually is living history? What is behind your passion for history (“real or feigned”, as Tolkien would have put it)?

I believe fantasy is credible on a certain level only if a serious level of “reality” is sought. (Also, our knowledge of what we think we know about the past involves a measure of fantasy, or perhaps wishful thinking or deduction by default already.) “Living history” is a slightly self-conscious term for historical re-enactment; at its most serious level, it can provide valuable information by putting human beings back in the middle of whatever is left of a vanished period. It’s also a very hands-on approach, practical, meticulous and open to a strong-willed art direction. Rather akin to illustration in three dimensions. (There have been times, especially in the evening when the public has gone, when there is not an element out of context, and it is quite like being in the middle of a painting by Memling or Van der Weyden.)

I find all that, especially when translated into real objects and costume, incredibly helpful for my work. My fifteen minutes of fame came when being allowed to wear a full fifteenth-century harness of real Milanese plate, the Rolls Royce of armours – I was the only person skinny enough to fit in the waist of the cuirass. Re-enactment is a fascinating pastime. The outfit I used to be with deserves special mention: www.companie-of-st-george.ch. To my regret I’ve not been able to participate much lately, and my son has “borrowed” much of my costume (which, though I suppose is better than borrowing the car keys, leaves me rather unequipped.)

Do you find it restricting to be regarded as a Tolkien artist, when you have done so much other work—for example, your illustrations of Beowulf and other writings?

One has the labels one deserves, I think. It’s part and parcel of the profession to be pigeonholed to a certain degree. I tend to see it as a reflection of several things, particularly a certain resonance between subject, treatment of subject and expectation on the public’s part. Also, the Tolkien work represents a clearly identifiable body of work for a public who appreciates the books. It’s a tribute to Tolkien’s writing and the space he offers to the imagination that there can even be “Tolkien artists”. Can’t think of any other modern writer to whom a similar categorization of artists could be ascribed.

All this to say that I don’t mind being labelled as a “Tolkien artist”—one is in pretty decent company, and it’s really up to each person to pursue his or her work as best seems fit, independently of that.

This said, Tolkien’s Middle-earth is a particularly coherent syncretic universe; thus, illustrating themes taken from his work is really far more about seeking inspiration and meaning from the sources he used than sticking to the text itself. Tolkien is best illustrated between the lines.

Which of your works do you regard as your most successful?

The next one! (It’ll be great; I just have to do it.) Seriously, though, completion of a picture is the slow and relentless reducing of potentiality, where imagination is replaced by brush-stroke decisions. The closer those little coloured marks and washes get to what might have been, the more they suggest and the less they delineate, the better the image is.

People often comment on how detailed the work is, but it’s not actually. There are few real details, but I try to put them in the right places, where the viewer’s eye goes naturally, or where the narrative (whether it’s the implied narrative of which the image is a part or the visual coherence of the image itself) needs the eye to go.

I cannot see the interest in imagery that is all skilful rendering, lovely effects and accomplished painting with little underneath. Take away the form and there is no depth. I far prefer less deft work, but which really has something to say.

I particularly like your portrayal of dragons. What is it about such magical creatures that has such a wide appeal today?

Dragons seem to be everywhere, their ubiquity matched only by their variety. No other creature spreads such colossal wings or drags its scaly belly across the mythical lands of so many cultures over the aeons. They span the spectrum from devilry to divinity, from blackest evil to boundless good. They come in all configurations, they speak, or they make our minds reel with the power of their thoughts, they squat athwart hoards of treasure untold.

When humans became to wonder what came before, they imagined dragons there.

If dragons were there at the Beginning, they will be there at the End. Jörmungandr will yawn wide his mighty jaws, releasing his tail, breaking the circle, breaking the world. When the CERN finally makes molecules collide to give us the image of the beginning of the universe, I am confident a dragon will appear on the computer screens. After all, what is the Hadron collisioner but a smaller version of the wyrm Ouroboros, the world-encompasser, the circle-snake with his tail held in his jaws?

Artists have been fascinated with dragons for millennia, and modern fantasy illustrators are not immune to their baleful charms. They exercise a wicked charm and a perilous glamour. They resist easy anthropomorphizing, thus redefining the visual terms of their iconography. They are hard to fit on a page; the energy of their coiled bodies and the breadth of their wings are difficult elements to master. Dragons are irresistible.

All in all, sic hvnt draconis has never been more apt an expression.

Simply, it no longer applies to those uncharted lands on Africk maps that cartographers once decorated with dragons, but to those places within our very selves we can but ill explore, the interior kingdoms of our fears and aspirations, our victories and defeats. That is where we are doomed and charmed to wander, and to face we know not what. Only one thing is certain: we will meet dragons there.

What is it about watercolour that you find so congenial and appropriate for fantasy art?

Technique is a curious thing, often born of circumstance, later embraced as personal, eventually a source of vindication. I do like the transparent qualities, though opaque colours, while useful under certain circumstances, don’t appeal quite as much. I also enjoy the borderline control one has over large well-dampened areas, where accident and happenstance can often (sometimes not, occasionally disastrously so) create things which you simply could not do in a more controlled manner.

Also, I’m never quite sure where a picture is going at any given time, so the suppleness of the medium is distinct advantage. Actually, I’m less and less sure as I grow older, which I prefer to take as a good sign. Keeping possibilities open as long as possible in an image means keeping the door open just a crack to serendipity and unexpected thoughts, which can considerably enrich a composition.

What is your secret in telling a story so successfully in illustration—a frozen moment in two dimensions yet so often full of movement (though I love the stillness of Gandalf outside Bag End in your well-known illustration)?

Every image contains two narrative threads, one (which is either explicit or implied) that deals with the action or situation depicted, and a second, internal visual narrative, which makes the image itself function. The former, which begins “before” the image, flows through it, and implies a continuation of the consequences leading up to it. The latter is independent of that (though often intertwined), and leads the eye around the image.

If you’ll pardon me for citing an example, I have a lovely clear one. I did a picture for Beowulf showing the dragon’s slow rampage through the Geatish countryside, leaving a trail of flame behind. Everything in the image is going from left to right: the dragon’s progress, the wind, the rain, the incoming waves, the smoke from his nostrils, even the lines of the landscape. All of these elements underscore the unstoppable progress of the wyrm, who has most certainly already caused havoc off to the left of the image, and will wreak more off to the right. More or less a classic storyflow. Just one element in the whole image, his neck which is bent to make his head face left, is sufficient to guide the eye back into the image while the imagination carries on with the narrative. If the dragon were facing right, none of this would function properly.

Naturally, this isn’t a method I apply, or even something I consciously devise. It does happen of its own accord, though, if one is open to the double narrative every picture contains. The spot where these two intersect is where the drama, tension and interest lie.

I also enjoy the split second before any action that resumes the whole of the action itself, which is much more powerful than showing a freeze frame part way through.

What was it like to be involved in visualizing settings for films like Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, and Adamson’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? How did such films benefit from such precise realizations

Very exciting! I do enjoy the complete change of setting from working alone on fully realized projects – where you take a book project, for example, through the whole process, from writing, preliminary sketches, layout, right to full-colour artwork and the final book itself – to being a rather small cog on a rather colossal and unstoppable wheel in a movie production. It’s also very pleasant to share that time with the people working on the project, rather than working alone with an editor who is perhaps in London or New York.

I also enjoy the incidental quality of the work, where the idea is the important aspect, not the full realization, which is a much longer process involving hundreds of people.

As to how did such films benefit from such precise realizations, I’d be tempted to say that the establishment of the visual framework – from general atmosphere to the shape of buttons – is what paves the way, or at least puts up a signpost, to the successful transposition from a medium that relies almost entirely on the imagination to a medium that essentially can ruin it if it is poorly aligned with what the readers have imagined.

How did you feel when you saw your visions as moving images on the big screen?

I was enchanted, of course, especially for The Lord of the Rings. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, very little of my work was actually used, though I did do quite a lot, certainly a few hundred drawings. (I think Peter’s sword was the only thing.) So much effort in illustration is put into suggesting the things one cannot have – the supplementary dimension of depth, movement, sound – that to see scenes come alive on the screen was well and truly enchanting.

What is your dream project?

I’ll have to come back to you on that one, but in illustrative terms, possibly doing a book like Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, or a book about the worlds of the creator of Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock.

Outside of illustration … well, remember that other list? This one would be as long as both of Grendel’s arms.

John’s answer to my dragon question consists of excerpts from his Foreword to Dragon Art: Inspiration, Impact & Technique in Fantasy Art, by Graeme Aymer (Flame Tree Publishing, 2009). (Ed.)

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