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EXCLUSIVE: From Middle-Earth With John Howe

Best known for his role as conceptual designer for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, John Howe first got “a real spark” from the Hildebrandt calendars and began illustrating his own versions from the inspiration of iconic artists.

Through the years, John’s works have included illustrations for such classics as The Silmarillion, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings, and many more. No one can argue that John’s vision of Tolkien’s world helped to create the movies filmed by Peter Jackson and has definitely influenced the direction of future projects to come.

I was able to talk to John about his work in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, his other works and about “John the man” outside of the Tolkien universe.

Can you tell me how you got involved with creating Tolkien art?

JH: I began doing artwork “seriously” when the Tolkien calendars first appeared in the mid-seventies. By seriously, I of course don’t mean professionally, but pushed by the desire to create finished illustrations. I actually even worked my way through a Tolkien calendar once, doing the same scenes, one per month, when I was in high school. (Clearly, I had far too much spare time on my hands. All of these pictures have since mercifully disappeared.) I eventually had a piece (done in art school, that one) included in the 1979 Tolkien calendar, which was my first published Tolkien artwork. Even earlier pieces have since been published, but most of my Tolkien work was done since.

What specifically attracted you to created works based on the Tolkien lore?

JH: It’s very rare to stumble on a fantasy world where literally everything seems attractive and compelling. Usually there are incompatibilities of temperament; often there is overly minute and restrictive description, or distressing anachronisms or inaccuracies (especially true of “historical” fantasy, which can be an entirely dreadful potpourri of misconstrued history, full of baldrics and trews and goodness knows what). Tolkien’s storytelling, despite his affection for jeweled hilts and scabbards, is always inspiring.
As well, Tolkien is a master of evocation, he usually describes places and events through his characters’ eyes; suddenly we are in the story, no longer simply dispassionate observers. Translating that sentiment into a visual depiction is far richer than carefully painting an itemized account of the identifiable details.

The Unexpected Party by John Howe

What would you say was the work that made people notice and launched your career?

JH: I suppose Tolkien, since it’s the largest readily identifiable body of work I’ve done, though it is not the majority by far… although, this said, with the work on the Lord of the Rings and now the Hobbit, in sheer numbers it might possibly well be by now.

Peter Jackson said in an interview that “John Howe’s art is like a freeze frame from a film right at that perfect exciting moment” What specific aspects of your approach to depicting the story of ”The Lord of the Rings”, do you think makes you unique and set you apart from other artists who have used Tolkien’s work as their inspiration.

JH: Peter is being very kind. I think what he sees is not a freeze frame, but a sort of “prequel” (to use a neologism of which I’m not particularly fond, but which is of circumstance) to the actual action, a summing-up of the potentiality of the action itself. There is always an instant that contains the dramatic storytelling power of any action; finding that instant rather can be far more dramatic.
Photography has, to a degree, modified forever our perception of movement, rather than sum up a scene, we tend to cherry-pick what we think might be the most telling microsecond. I far prefer to find a pose that might be a combination of instants, but which is far more effective for the narration.

Gwaihirs Eyrie by John Howe

Tolkien spent a great deal of time and effort in creating a rich cultural feel to the different races in ”The Lord of The Rings”, what are some of the specific historical styles of art and culture which you have used to influence your depiction of the story.

JH: Too many to count! I have quite a decent library, and a wall of shelves for documentation on every subject I find of interest. This said, it’s never good to confuse information and inspiration. The former is a permanent task, researching, reading, taking photos or simply observing. The latter is what happens when all that accumulated material is at your disposal without thinking. It’s very easy to fall into a copy-paste routine with fantasy artwork, but the result can be shallow and disappointing. To give you a complete and logical breakdown of all the elements that have contributed to depicting Tolkien’s work would read like a very long and random shopping list, I’m afraid.

When working on a project such as Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, etc., for inspiration do you read the books and create based on your thoughts, or do you get direction from the author/publishing company?

JH: It’s easy to underestimate the contribution of an editor or a publisher, especially in these days of indie publishing (or vanity press, as it used to be called) and deviantART. They bring, more often than not, a sharp eye and a thorough understanding of the material to be illustrated. I find that interaction stimulating and productive. This said, a good editor is not someone who describes what he or she wants in a scene, but someone who provides a framework in which it is possible to work freely. (I have had commissions like that in the past, where the client describes a scene down to the last detail – the point at which I invariably say I’m too busy to take the job on.) It’s often not immediately, that there is contact with the author.

Some have said the JRR Tolkien is the “Father of modern fantasy literature”. Just wondering your thoughts on how the fantasy genre may have evolved or not evolved without the influence and writings of Tolkien’s work?

JH: I believe that Tolkien put myth back in fantasy, as well as defining the genre. I’m not in any way an expert on the evolution of fantasy in the last centuries, but it has clearly always been written. William Morris’ fantasies, for example, while they are tedious to a modern reader, contain elements of Arthurian legend, but few strong mythological elements. Most 20th century fantasy before Tolkien is surprisingly modern in its preoccupations, and despite the colourful trapping of fantasy, it contains little real mythological depth, although to his credit, he was the first modern writer to use Mirkwood, in the Well at the World’s End. Lord Dunsany’s work is intriguing, but dissipates rapidly once read (despite Sidney Sime’s fabulous illustrations – what I would give to see a luxury edition of Dunsany with Sime’s work properly reproduced!). Robert E. Howard’s heroic fantasy is a purely modern work, once again, despite the fantasy setting, Conan’s philosophy of life is indistinguishable from Howard’s contemporary heroes. Tarzan, which arguably defined a fantasy genre, remains stoically pseudo-historical. Perhaps Moorcock’s Elric comes closer to a world-vision bound up in eschatology and a real fin-de-siecle ennui, exploring the burdens of eternal existence. But not until Tolkien do we have a real mythology redefined and retold. (There was the premise of this evolution, in the portfolios of the numerous illustrators from Europe who went to create film art in Hollywood, notably for Walt Disney, but while it is possible to discern traces of the familiarity with history, myth and legend that they took with them, it quickly dissipated in the Americas.)
So, all in all, it took a college professor, a “serious” and respectable person (who nevertheless had an affection for coloured waistcoats), to succumb to the powerful attraction of storytelling, and to build, layer upon patient layer, a world of a symbolic and mythological density until then rarely achieved. It is easy enough for us now to identify all these elements, benefitting as we do from the work of the likes of Joseph Campbell, and an incredible amount of literature has been generated about Tolkien’s work – authors such as Tom Shippey, Verlyn Flieger, John Garth and many others, have all explored the fascinating achievements of Tolkien, and are all well worth reading.
I also blame my only mistake ever in a spelling test on Tolkien – who took it upon himself to change the plural of dwarf (to link it etymologically to plurals such as “wolves” or “halves”) and I still recall remonstrating – in vain – my elementary school English teacher. Clearly I had taken my first reading of the Hobbit very much to heart and had entirely forgotten Snow White.

The King Under the Mountain by John Howe – Inspiration for Richard Armitage’s Thorin?

I had a chance to interview Richard Armitage in New York City during the Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey premiere. Richard had stated regarding your work on the movies;(see the full interview at this link here)

“…John and Alan—Are just incredible. You look at their work, and it bowls you over. And they come on set and they’re like, “Are you okay? We really like what you’re doing.” And I’m like, “You’re Alan Lee! You’ve made all these incredible sketches, so let me please say Thank You.” They’re one of the reasons why I was able to take the role.
There’s a sketch of Thorin, a pencil sketch…It’s John’s sketch of Thorin, then, and he’s got his hands crossed. That’s what convinced me I could play the role.(Thorin)”

What are your thoughts on such praise and respect from cast members?

JH: Actors are truly extraordinary people, they really do have something in them that is so far beyond the rest of us that it is magical to watch. Richard is being very very kind, and if a few lines on a page resonated with him (I honestly cannot recall which drawing that might be – we did so many) then it is the grandest compliment.
But yes, of course I love the actors, all of them. After literally years of pre-production, when they finally arrive on the project, they embody everything that we have been laying the foundations for during all that time. They will add the things we can only dream of: real drama, action, dialogue… in short, they will finally write the story. We’ve spent months patiently trying to craft a world in which we are eager to believe, creating everything around them, in the hopes that something almost magical will happen when they arrive. It’s very exciting. Unfortunately, we don’t get to spend much time loitering to watch them; we are too busy, either keeping a tep ahead of the set builders, or have already dived into post-production.

Post-production is another privilege to be a part of. Weta Digital is an amazing company, crammed with a thousand talented people, and it’s been quite a steep learning curve. (I think I’ve learned more in the last 6 months than in the three years preceding.) Very few people, other than the director, get to work on a film from the very first pieces of concept art right down to the last few days before the film hits the screens. While it’s been a far longer commitment than I had initially anticipated, it’s been fascinating.

In your work on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, did any of the actors or Peter Jackson influence your work and vision?

JH: Well, some certainly have now! At the time, though, as the concept art was principally conceived before the cast was announced. Pre-production is a very rich period in any film, usually taking place long before shooting dates are even set. During that period, most of the creativity is channeled into creating the world itself. This said, some of the more memorable characters in the Lord of the Rings have come to colour my perceptions to such a degree that it’s hard not to be influenced. Christopher Lee’s Saruman makes it incredibly difficult to come up with something novel. Sir Ian McKellan’s Gandalf, though initially based in part on one I had painted, is now a very powerful influence in turn. (And yes, you will find the same Gandalf in the Hobbit movies, if anything Sir Ian is younger than he was a decade ago.)

What would you say you learned while working on set with Alan Lee? What would you say he learned from you?

JH: I learned a great deal from Alan. I’ve always admired his work, and have, with one or two exceptions, all of his books. I’m sure poor he grandly augmented his capacity for long-suffering patience, putting up with me! We’ve shared an office for nearly half a decade now, so it must mean we do indeed get along. Together, I think we’ve produced somewhere between five and six thousand drawings and paintings for the Hobbit.

Is there anything you can tell us about the upcoming Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug movie? Will you be making a cameo appearance? What can the fans expect?

JH: I really can’t tell you anything about the movies that hasn’t already been revealed, and it would be a shame to spoil any surprises!  This said, the Hobbit trilogy will reinforce the fact that Middle-Earth is a vast world. While the films will visit a few places the audience knows by heart, I think you’ll find Wilderland to be breathtaking and unexpected. The fabulous landscapes of New Zealand will once again be very present – for the time we spend out-of-doors of course. (It seems those poor dwarves spend a considerable time underground, which was naturally shot on sets built in the sound stages. But for the rest, you’ll get glimpses of New Zealand you never imagined.)
I wish I could tell you more, but right now we are in the process of picking up where we left off, and where the end of the first movie left Thorin & Co., heading towards the home of a very strange individual, the very last of his race in Middle-Earth.
I’m tempted to say that the fans can expect more of the same: unexpected visions of places familiar from reading the novel, with the Lonely Mountain at the end of the journey. Oh, and of course, that inconvenient dragon.

You are involved in a group called, “The Company of St George”. As a practitioner of Western Martial Arts including German longsword, Italian rapier, and member of the Society of Creative Anachronism, I am very interested about the function of the group, how you became involved with this group and what your participation is? Does your involvment in this group give you an “authentic” perspective when creating your work?

JH: I was very involved with the Companie of Saynt George for many years, though I’ve not been to an event for ages now. (Living in the Antipodes means it’s rather hard to get back home for a weekend in costume.) I’m not even sure they would let me back in now, they’ve grandly improved – and I need a new costume, my son stole mine. You can find out more about them at www.companie-of-st-george.ch

I read a wonderful quote from you where you said “All in all, Tolkien fans are as varied, remarkable and marvelous as the books and the worlds that they share. They make me feel a little like a Hobbit who glimpses colourful strangers passing but has never left the Shire.” Have you had a positive experience from Tolkien fans?

JH: Yes, always. They are a most passionate bunch as well; I find that people who are able to find themselves a place in a work of literature to be very endearing (I also confess I find it a little scary; I’d not be capable of that kind of unreserved fantasy) and ultimately quite engaging. I’m taken with the desire to interview them, to find out what their motivations are, and where in themselves they find this ability to connect so personally, to the point of living out a fantasy role for themselves. (All right, I have spent a lot of time dressed up in medieval costume firing cannons and fencing with swords, but that’s perfectly normal.)

What advice would you give when creating works for a series of books/lore, such as the Tolkien stories? How would an aspiring artist become known in the industry?

JH: My advice is simple: be yourself. If your work has something to say, then it will be heard. Go to an art school, if you have the smallest opportunity to do so. You may find it does not respond to your needs entirely, but that’s quite normal. It will, however, provide you with the space to evolve and mature. Learn to draw. Musicians practice endlessly, drawing and sketching is the illustrator’s equivalent of that. Having a solid academic base means you can abandon it later if you wish, but creating visual narrative means being convincing. Don’t create a gulf between your commercial work and your personal work. I’ve met many illustrators who have chosen to exploit their talent based on pure technique and versatility, all the while cultivating a “secret garden” to justify their artistic pretensions, which a lifetime of slightly cynical illustrating for flat fees has turned into a weedy and sparse little plot.

Otherwise, learn to enjoy the pleasure of simply looking and understanding. Go to museums, read books on art and history. Familiarize yourself with the source material – myth, legend, costume, architecture, weapons and armour. When you travel, make an effort to visit what’s on your route. Go to art galleries to see original paintings. I know we can do it all over the internet, but the experience of actually standing in front of a real painting, over which an artist laboured perhaps centuries ago, is a rich and moving moment, especially if you’ve done your homework beforehand, and know what you are looking at. A good illustrator is not just a skilled draftsman; the whole idea is to try to become and interesting, interested person, who happens to make pictures. Your work will be the richer for it.

Be yourself. Your work will eventually show you who you are.

Errol and the Red Dragon by John Howe from “Guards! Guards!” by Terry Pratchett

Now that the first of the Hobbit trilogy is out, what is next for John Howe?

JH: I think the key word there is “in”… we are working very hard to make headway on film two right now, and I confess I am hardly looking beyond the frame I am working on. I have foolishly taken on a couple of illustration jobs, just pencil work, so my weekends are occupied right now. Once that is done, I hope to get back to weekend walks, I’ve done most of the southern tip of the North Island on foot along the ocean, just appreciating the amazing landscapes and taking thousands of photos. It is incredibly beautiful and wild, even just a few miles from downtown Wellington.

I am looking forward, though, to seeing the films done, and getting back to my modest existence surrounded by brushes and paints. Pushing pixels about is all very well, but pencils and pigments have greater appeal.

See more of John’s work and subscribe to his newsletter by visiting his website at: www.John-Howe.com

The adventure continues with the second installment The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, which opens in theaters December 13, 2013.

Follow Steve “Rifflo“Fitch on Twitter: @HobbitSteve

About Steve "Rifflo" Fitch

Steve, also known as “Rifflo”, is a University MBA Administrator in Ontario Canada where he lives with his wife, Lisa and two young daughters, Alexa and Ava. Steve has an extensive background in corporate sales. Steve also worked for ISAF: International Security Assistance Force and the Canadian Military as a recruiter in Human Resources for the operations in Bosnia and Afghanistan. When not immersed in Tolkien works,sci-fi, and film, you can find him training in Muay Thai, and Italian rapier.