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“Discovering” rather than “inventing”: An interview with Ted Nasmith

“An author who so convincingly renders his invented world through faux histories, languages, cultures, and lore, played out over a vast physical world rich in minute details of its geography, biology, and zoology, demands artwork which reflects that level of detail.”

Ted Nasmith is well-known as an illustrator of J.R.R. Tolkien and other fantasy fiction, and is a long-time fan. He is responsible for both the 2010 Tolkien Calendar and Diary. Ted is accomplished in architectural renderings, and his career has also included book illustration and automotive portraiture, among other work. He lives in Bradford, Canada, and regularly appears at fan events, and also exhibits his art in the UK annually. Colin Duriez interviewed him for the Festival in the Shire Journal.

Ted, your early life, I understand, involved a lot of moving about. Has that broad experience affected your landscape illustrations, particularly those on a Tolkien theme?

It has, yes. However, I suspect that landscapes, such as in Switzerland or Holland, or north country camping trips in Ontario, were bundled in with other key sights and sounds, films, books, paintings/illustrations and other influences which fuelled my imagination toward fantasy.

What led to your fervent interest in all things Tolkien?

Simply speaking, it was reading The Fellowship of the Ring at a point when it could have maximum impact; my early teens. As these things tend to go, I think I felt that it was an answer – a big one – to a question I hadn’t realized I was asking.

I believe that Tolkien was shown some of your early work and commented on it. Did that affect the shape of what you subsequently did?

Definitely. I was impressionable and full of inspiration toward the great author’s fantasy, and here I had a letter from him acknowledging my art positively, even making a mild criticism (proof he wasn’t writing superficially; he’d taken the time to look carefully). It reinforced the desire in me to express his wonderful invented world in detailed illustration, while also surrounded by family members and friends who encouraged me to continue exploring my new “hobby”.

You appear to have transposed your architectural knowledge and skills to the creation of your art pieces. How much does your work owe to this background?

It’s not entirely clear what the relationship is between the years of disciplined architectural renderings and any bearing that may have had on the Tolkien art. Professional detachment and the skill set in developing perspective, or the practice in rendering materials, use of media, and compositional skills, were all instrumental in bringing a greater ability to conceive of, and render architectural elements to, my Tolkien artwork.  

Illustrating The Silmarillion must have been a milestone in your very successful career. How did you go about selecting the subjects of your illustrations, given the richness and complexity of that book?

Happily, it was a case of starting with illustration ideas and later having those ideas form the body of artwork which came to fruition. For the 1998 illustrated edition, however, I was restricted to under twenty interior illustrations, since the paper stock being used had to be inserted at regular intervals into the binding. Selecting from a set of some seventy or more colour thumbnails I’d assembled and submitted to HarperCollins, and in consultation with Christopher Tolkien, we narrowed it down. I had developed criteria for selection which I was granted considerable latitude in maintaining, such that the scenes might best reflect the book’s remarkable variety of ideas, locales and characters. Christopher Tolkien imposed some reasonable limits, too, but was overwhelmingly supportive and positive as we discussed the short-listed subjects for inclusion.

Later, when an expanded edition was proposed (published in 2004), over twenty-five new works were added, and in two instances new paintings replaced earlier ones. For The Light of Valinor on the Western Sea and Luthien Escapes Upon Huan, I restored them to ‘landscape’ format (as opposed to uniform vertical/portrait format), while refining the former as a painting in general, over-rushed during the original few months I was granted to produce the ‘1998 edition’ illustrations.

As to the original selection of images, the whole project started when I felt it was time to re-read the book in the mid-nineties, jotting down subjects as I saw them in my mind’s eye. That led to an extensive, exhaustive series of thumbnail drawings compiled in file folders and numbered. From these I then selected subjects to colour-sketch, and once those numbered in the dozens (all this done in spare time over many weeks), I photocopied them and sent them as a booklet with notes to HarperCollins’s Tolkien editors, suggesting how they might form a basis for an art book. I never suspected they would help change a longstanding policy against illustrating The Silmarillion, but they proved persuasive enough to do so, to my great surprise and joy.

Do you work to a strict routine and what is your workplace like? What is a typical day?

My typical workday has evolved, but presently I tend to write correspondences and run errands to begin with, after joining my partner for early breakfast and helping her prepare her day. Depending on the project in question, I then try to get onto painting, sketching and/or research-gathering as soon as I can in the afternoon. By and large it’s a freely structured equation with self-imposed discipline, achieved with greater or lesser success depending on the pressure load. Before my recent move to my new house, I had a separate studio space I rented, and not infrequently I would work evenings (as deadlines demanded), enjoying the relative quiet. Some artists work to specific music, and though I’ve occasionally done so, mostly I work to CBC1 radio, detaching my mind to a range of topics, music, and personalities while drawing or painting Tolkien or non-Tolkien art alike. My studio is cozy, surrounded by my books, clip files, photos, painting supplies, overall wherewithal for picture-making. I block out any over-intense outdoor light in favour of a fluorescent lamp, and use an old drafting board still, despite that architectural renderings are few and far between nowadays.

Tolkien seems to have been inspired by real landscapes and places from his experience. Are your visualizations of Tolkien’s work influenced at all by real places?

To an extent, yes. But I usually already have a mental impression of the landscape in question, and tend to want the use of real world places to be subordinate to this mental image. They are discarded if they don’t fit the bill, and are mostly useful in fleshing out what I see in my mind’s eye after reading a passage from the book in question. That said, I also pay attention to what I know of Tolkien’s varied sources for landscape, in order to reflect more authentically how I think he conceived Middle-earth. The deeper one is immersed in the whole backcloth of folklore, tradition, imagery and history that informs Tolkien’s fiction, the better one can reflect it in visual terms, I believe.

What have you found to be the most Tolkienesque places in the real world?

For me, the British Isles are the central place, seen – as they are for many North Americans – as more romantic, resonant and rich in history than our vast expanses of relatively wild hinterlands and our relatively short European-imposed settlements and history. Other places include the Scandinavian lands (naturally), and much of Europe or western Russia. New Zealand comes to mind, although admittedly I (like many) have come to appreciate its suitability as Middle-earth through the films by Peter Jackson. I also find inspiration in odd places in other continents, simply because almost any land form described in Tolkien has a real-world example, and since Middle-earth straddles many climates and cultures, corollaries in the real world abound, I find, or can be adapted with a little imagination.

How long does it take typically for you to render a work like, say, your famous illustration of Rivendell?

Well, Rivendell is atypical, as a painting, created before I had deadlines imposed on the Tolkien art in any formal way. Most paintings or illustrations can be completed in two to four weeks, depending on variables like complexity, technical demands, number of figures or creatures, and overall size of the work. Some artworks, where figures are small and few, and the scene relatively simple, can be painted in a few short days. Rivendell was an ambitious exercise in translating Tolkien’s watercolour version from The Hobbit into a nineteenth-century style landscape painting, though in gouache, not oil colour; it was painted over many weeks. Like many such works, Rivendell was conceived as a ‘window’ into Tolkien’s great invented world, the delight of indulging imagination to the task of conceiving a bridge between his fictitious world and ours, much as his description of the minutiae along the way helps us feel we’re ‘there’ inside his story.

What do you think has been the secret of the popularity of your Tolkien-inspired illustrations?

As far as I can determine it, the popularity involves the consistent comment from my fans and admirers that my illustrations ‘get inside their heads’. I’d set out originally to flesh out Tolkien’s worlds because I didn’t see any other artists (Tolkien himself notwithstanding) rendering his world properly. The books seemed to call for illustrations that were both ‘modern’ (that is, influenced by contemporary fantasy illustration, photography, theatre, and cinema) but also traditional, and I saw a niche for myself, as a consequence. In a nutshell, I painted what I wanted to see, and it turned out to strike a strong chord with a large readership, hungry, as I was, for amplification of Middle-earth into its innumerable visual possibilities.

Surprising as it seems now, it took a long period before your Tolkien art began to be recognized. What led to the breakthrough?

Approaching the matter in the 1970s from Toronto, there were some obstacles I hadn’t at first appreciated, such as that the calendars, to which originally I was inspired to dream of adding, were published out of New York, while the books were of course published out of the UK. A UK-based calendar series using Tolkien’s art only made me aware that there were different publishing interests and decision-makers involved, but until I joined The Tolkien Society (itself then obscure in North America), I didn’t make the contacts I needed in order to establish relations with (then) George, Allen and Unwin Publishers in London. Previously, my only contact with GA&U was through a letter written on my behalf by my Scottish architect cousin, inquiring about the publishing of my illustrations. The cordial reply mistook my intentions and merely informed me that no illustrated editions of The Lord of the Rings were being planned. It wasn’t until the eighties that my work was sought anew by GA&U, now seeking art for a multi-artist calendar for the 1987 year. I was contacted and met their representative in Ottawa at a literary conference. Breakthrough.

Once established in print, my art was in demand ever since for the several calendars in which we’ve seen my work appear, including this year of 2010.

Although you had to turn down the opportunity to collaborate with Alan Lee and John Howe on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, did your work influence its visualization, so far as you know?

It’s been shown through comparisons of my art with scenes in the films that there appears to’ve been a degree of ‘borrowing’ (consciously or not) in order to realize the film’s look. This extends to other artists, lesser or greater, and my assumption is that the director naturally wished the films to be consonant with established Middle-earth visuals widely published.

How did you get involved in the Tolkien fan community? You are likely to be found at Oxonmoot and Tolkien conferences in various parts of the world!

As referred to above, my motivation initially was to connect to others who might be able to present me favourably to the publishers of Tolkien, but after my first Oxonmoot, membership in the society was an end in itself, surrounded as I was by fellow enthusiasts with as deep a passion as I had, being as I was (and am), as much a fan as a potential illustrator.

What have been the big influences upon your distinctive style as an artist?

The list is long, but includes many American Luminists and/or Hudson River School artists (e.g., Bierstadt, Church, Cole, Moran, Herzog), ‘Pompier’ artists (e.g., Bouguereau, Leighton, Draper, et al.), the Pre-Raphaelites, various illustrators (e.g., Maxfield Parrish, Frazetta, Arthur Rackham, Rockwell, Howard Pyle), Norse landscape painters (e.g., Gude, Cappelen, A. Heaton-Cooper, others), Russian and Czech painters, various marine artists, and lately Andreas Achenbach, a ‘new’ discovery. I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few others …

Music of course is very important to you. What does the inspiration of Tolkien on your music have in common with your illustrations?

It’s mainly a case of the way the visual medium complements the musical one. For Tolkien-inspired music I draw on ideas heard in other music which seems to capture the mood of the faerie realm, and then follow my own Muse in the composition. I seem to have an ability to turn words – whether my own original lyrics, or a poem of Tolkien’s – into song. I don’t try to write music which sounds as though it actually came from Middle-earth, but songs which evoke faerie using modern lush chording, harmonics, and melody.

Tolkien and his close friend C. S. Lewis were both drawn to what Lewis called  “northernness”. Is this quality something that you are constantly trying to capture in your art?

Yes, it would be difficult to gain insight into either author’s romantic sensibility without instinctively understanding their love of dark forests, distant, strange or hidden lands, and cruel, grey expanses.

To me, you appear in your work to be painting in light. Light of course is a central theme in Tolkien’s work, beginning with the light of the two trees that shone on ancient Valinor. Is light a central theme of your Tolkien art? If so, how much does it reflect Tolkien’s theme, for instance, his embodiment  of providence at work in the battle against the dark?

It’s one of the things that most seems to justify illustration of Tolkien—his constant use of light and dark imagery and metaphor. Despite the mixed messages Tolkien left us with about whether “to illustrate fiction and fantasy or not, lest the imagination of the reader be constrained” (my paraphrasing), illustration on balance wins if readers’ enthusiasm and appreciation is any guide. Tolkien once said that he felt his original writing style for The Hobbit, with ‘asides’ to his young readers in mind, was patronizing and unnecessary; it was dropped or toned down considerably for The Lord of the Rings and other works. Thus you could argue that any belief that illustration (depending on specifics) diminishes the reader’s imagination or personal sense of a description given, is also unnecessarily patronizing. But there are still purists who agree that illustration is extraneous and detracts, as I’ve encountered from time to time. I respectfully disagree, obviously!

What can an illustration add to the interpretations of a Tolkien text––say, a scene in a story?

I’ve found that it can create visual associations and interest only hinted at in a text passage. Art (or music) can be as rich in symbol and metaphor as language, and it’s remarkable how Tolkien’s prose lends itself to visually equivalent metaphor, allowing for rich layers of “amplified” subtext when rendered creatively and with an open imagination. One feels that same Muse that leads writers, musicians, playwrights or artists alike to declare that it felt as though they were “discovering” rather than “inventing”.

Do you see your very deep and erudite knowledge of Tolkien’s work as essential to your artistic rendering of it?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that as I continue to discover the depth of Tolkien’s genius, it fuels inspiration and the evolution of my illustrative legacy, and also reinforces what I sensed but couldn’t articulate earlier in my career. No, in the sense that the basic emotional, irrationally intense and romantic/nostalgic thrill I received upon discovering Tolkien is of itself still burning with sufficient intensity to justify many more forays into the creative visual realm. And that is by far the greater force informing my Tolkien art; the continual sense of wonder at the genius of the man, as I read books or articles about the many facets of his career and interests, exist more alongside my relationship to his fiction than ‘inside’ it.

Why are you so committed to a distinctively realistic style to depict fantasy?

That comes, as you’d imagine, from my own reaction to the amount of detail in the books. Surely, I reasoned, an author who so convincingly renders his invented world through faux histories, languages, cultures, and lore, played out over a vast physical world rich in minute details of its geography, biology, and zoology, demands artwork which reflects that level of detail. Happily, this has amounted to a vocation for me these many years later.