Saturday Special from the Vaults: A 1997 interview with Tolkien artist John Howe

John Howe is an artist particularly well known for his illustrations based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. He and Alan Lee served as the chief conceptual designers for The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, so you have well have seen his work without even knowing his name. But when I interviewed him for InQuest Magazine back in 1997, all that lay in the future. You can read all about his current work on his website, but 15 years ago, this was what he had to say…

(Photo: John Howe, 2003, by Stefan Servos)


Vital Stats

Name:  John Howe

Birth:  August 21, 1957, in Vancouver, B.C.

Occupation:  Illustrator

Base of Operations:  Switzerland

Family:  Howe’s wife, Fataneh, is also an illustrator; they have one son, Dana, 9.

Career Highlights:  Best-known as an illustrator of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, including book covers for all three books in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the subsequent books released by Christopher Tolkien, maps, paintings for the annual Tolkien calendar and several cards for ICE’s Tolkien CCGs.  Has also done covers and other illustrations for numerous other fantasy books.

Little Known Fact:  Could never get into art class in high school; had to take power mechanics, instead.

It all started with a cow.

Growing up on a farm in British Columbia, little John Howe, age three, wanted to draw one of his father’s cows–but he just couldn’t get it right.  Frustrated, he asked his mother to draw it for him.  It wasn’t long, though before she couldn’t draw well enough to suit him.  What choice did he have?  He had to become an artist.

Lucky for us.  Lucky for us, too, he didn’t stick to cows, either raising them or drawing them.  Today John Howe is one of the best-known illustrators of the works of adult fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien.  His beautiful, evocative paintings have graced the covers of editions of all of Tolkien’s books (and the collections of unfinished works released in recent years by Tolkien’s son, Christopher) and have been a mainstay of the annual Tolkien calendar for years.  More recently, Howe has illustrated several cards for the Tolkien CCG’s put out by Iron Crown Enterprises.  He hopes to do several more.

Howe’s art, however fantastic, always seems solidly grounded in reality, thanks to his serious interest in medieval recreation, and to the fact that he lives in Switzerland, where the remnants of medieval times are never far away.  That sense of reality is what gives his works their power.  But all the same, he’s never completely satisfied with a drawing.  Inside, he’s still that same little boy who wanted to draw a cow but couldn’t get it right.

Fortunately, Tolkien didn’t write much about cows!

INQUEST:  How did you become an artist?

I’ve always drawn.  One of the first things I remember is asking my mother to draw a cow for me, because I couldn’t draw this stupid cow and I was terribly disappointed and upset. Ever since, I still haven’t been able to draw anything to my satisfaction.  Maybe when I can, I’ll stop.

I grew up on farms around B.C.   We moved three times while I was in high school, so I only got into one art class.  I always arrived too late, and the art class was always the one where they used to stick all the guys who couldn’t make it in typing.  I could never get a spot.  I had to do things like power mechanics, but I drew continuously.

When I was about 19, I wanted to get out of the very tiny town we were living in.  I had some scholarship money, and I was accepted at an American college in the outskirts of Strasbourg in eastern France.  I spent one year there, and then went to the Decorative Arts School of Strasbourg for three years.

Did you find work as an illustrator right out of school?

Yes.  We came down to Switzerland to work on a feature-length animated film for about a year and a half.  It went bankrupt, but in the meantime we’d had time to find other work.

Aside from the film, what was your first work as an illustrator?

It was all in children’s books at the start, even though I was determined not to illustrate children’s books when I was in art school.  I was still all tied up in American comics, but there’s really no demand for it when you’re right out of school.  The biggest consumers of illustrations are children’s books, so that’s where I got my first commission.

How did you get started illustrating Tolkien’s work?

I got the first Tolkien calendar that came out about ’74 from the Hildebrandt brothers. I’d never seen anything like that before. In art school I started running after the people that owned the rights to Tolkien, showing them artwork.  I finally got a couple of pictures in the 1987 calendar, and then in the 1988 calendar, and then I did the ’91 calendar, and then ’95 and ’97.  And in the meantime I’ve done all these covers of the full series, and maps, and other things.

There are times when I do nothing but Tolkien pictures, and then there are times when I don’t do any for a year or so.  I’ve been doing more with ICE recently, and with Harper Collins.  I just finished the cover for the last of the Tolkien books.  I’ll be working on a Hobbit pop-up book this fall, which will be lots of fun.

When did you first read The Lord of the Rings?

I must have been about 12 or 13.  I read The Two Towers first, because The Fellowship of the Ring was never in the library and I got fed up waiting.  Then I read The Return of the King and then The Fellowship of the Ring.  I thought it was very good, but I didn’t fall in love with it immediately.

Do you have favorite characters to paint?

I have unfavorite characters–there are lots I don’t know how to draw yet.  Treebeard, for instance.  I don’t know what the top of his head is like.  Nor has his nose been chopped off, like in that horrid Ralph Bakshi film, where he looks like a big lump of celery with leaves on the top.  And I don’t know how to draw his feet and legs.

I have more trouble with the feminine characters. I’ve only done one picture of Galadriel, but I’d like to do three or four more and try to get it right some day. I’ve only done Eowyn once, and that was a very small figure.

I’ve never done Saruman.  And I’d like to do all these wonderful contingents of warriors that come into Minas Tirith before the big battle.  There’s some wonderful descriptions in there.

I won’t draw Sauron.  The thing to do would be to depict him without showing him.

Do you have any favorite scenes?

I like action, light, movement and life.  I’m less happy with empty landscapes, though they are a pleasure to do.

How did you begin working on ICE’s Tolkien card games?

I did a couple of things for a gentleman in Holland who distributes products by ICE, and he put me in touch with the people at ICE.  I just finished four pictures for them.  I must have done at least a dozen by now, or more–maybe 15.

What’s the biggest difference between illustrating cards and creating other Tolkien illustrations?

I end up doing scenes I would never dream of drawing spontaneously.  I’ve just done a barrow wight, for example.  I never thought I would draw a barrow-wight in my life!

I also work a lot smaller, but I try to treat the scene properly, even if it doesn’t fit their format, and then they can crop the piece they need.  I think they reproduce quite well, considering, but they’re so terribly small I don’t see how people can even collect the things.

Have you ever played any of the Middle-Earth games?

No.  One, they’re so time-consuming.  Two, I just can’t imagine playing something so visually rich, and being stuck to things like cards and a playing surface.  It just seems so disappointingly limited.  I’m not attracted to it.

Will you be working on any future expansion packs for ICE?

As long as they want me to do pictures, I’ll be happy to do it.  They’re fun to do and they’re good people to work with, very professional.

What media do you use?

Colored ink on paper, some water color, some pencil crayon and some airbrush. I used to use much more water color, but I gave up on it because the colors are so hard to keep alive. These inks move around, they’re not indelible.  When I do a picture, things tend to shift about considerably.

What’s your work routine?

I like to work in the evenings, although I usually have a very productive hour early in the morning.  You get up in the morning and the thing that took you hours before you went to bed the night before, you can suddenly sit down and do in five minutes.

We use one of the spare bedrooms as a studio.  My son has half of my table.  He really draws quite well.  I’m not just saying that because he’s my son!

What sort of illustration does your wife do?

It’s much softer and much rounder, much more pastel, much more feminine.  She does mostly children’s books.  She hasn’t even read The Lord of the Rings, though she’s living with this guy who spends half his life drawing this stuff!

How long does it take you to complete a painting?

Between four and 10 days.  It depends on the picture.  There are times when you can work for 15 minutes and you’ve actually got a day’s work done.  Then there are times when you have to sit down for 12 hours to do a day’s work.  There are things that are very difficult, where there’s a certain element of chance and luck and judgement involved.  It takes a long time to actually nerve oneself up to start, and then you’ve got the first five or 10 minutes to either make it or blow it.  If you screw it up you’ve got to start again, so when I’ve actually started a picture, I can rarely work on it for more than 10 minutes.  Then if I feel happy I can leave it and come back.

Aside from Tolkien, what sort of subjects do you most enjoy painting?

As long as it doesn’t have a golf course or a kitchen, then I’m quite happy.  Anything a bit Celtic, a bit wild, a bit northern European, medieval or earlier, I’m very happy in.

Do you use a lot of reference material?

I do nothing without reference–actual documentation, actual objects, a mix of different things.  Most of the architecture I draw from very eclectic, but very definite, sources. I think it’s extremely difficult to snap your fingers and do a sort of designer’s dream city.  Cities aren’t built like that.  It’s got to be alive, it’s got to be real, otherwise it’s just not worth drawing it at all.

I’m very interested in the architecture of Mordor.  I make a huge effort to use the same architectural references for anything built by Sauron or enhanced by Saruman, to make it a sort of perverted copy of something actually built by the elves or by the Numenoreans.

I do a lot of medieval reenactment on a very serious level, which has been a big influence.  It’s also been a bit of a burden because I’m a lot less spontaneous than I was before.  Now I’m determined to make things, if they can’t be historically exact, then at least realistic.

I made a shield for a Rider of Rohan, one of these sort of Viking shields that are flat with a big shield boss in the middle.  I spent a long time figuring out what to paint on it.  I always end up drawing a nice running horse with a wavy mane, very modern.  Everybody does. I finally got back to that wonderful chalk figure of a horse on a hill in the south of England.  Now I feel a lot happier, because I can use this to actually draw a few of the characters properly. I’m trying to do that more and more, but it means a lot of extra time and effort.

Does living in Europe help?

Absolutely.  There’s a much better chronological sense of what’s around you.  In the American way of looking at images, you have this sort of vast image bank, out of which you pull any kind of image.  A 19th century copy of a 16th century print is considered of equal value to the 16th century print itself.  So you get a mix of the strangest references, and then these horrible sort of run-of-the-mill fantasy references that everybody uses–anything that’s sort of vaguely medievally fantastic.

I get terribly annoyed when I read a lot of modern historical fantasy.  Most of it is so bad and takes itself so seriously, and it’s based on nothing.  I did a cover for a book where a futuristic agent is transported back to the time of Shakespeare, in a kind of English Tudor costume, and she has to walk through the woods.  After a few miles her feet are blistered and bleeding, because, and this is a quote from the book, at that time people didn’t know how to make left/right shoes. Nothing points to that!  Every pair of medieval shoes that’s ever been dug up is very definitely either right or left.  A person should never use anything that’s not the original source.

Who are some modern fantasy authors you do enjoy?

I like Lovecraft, Russell Hoban, and Julian Barnes.  I love Robert Holdstock. I thought Mythago Wood  was truly magical, a wonderful book.  He’s written quite a lot since.  He’s working on another which is not quite finished, but I think when it comes out I get to do the cover!

Who are the painters that have influenced your work?

Anything that comes from before the end of the 15th century or from the 1840s on.   There are lots of the turn-of-the century illustrators I love–a lot of Eastern European ones whose names I can neither remember nor pronounce. And all these wonderful people like Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth.

I have trouble keeping track of the more recent American publications because they’re hard to find over here.

Did you ever think you’d be as successful as you are today?

I thought I’d be making a lot more money than I am!

Are there any projects you’d really like to do that you haven’t had the chance to?

Definitely some Lovecraft.  I’d like to do an Arthurian cycle.  And I’d like to have time to do some pictures for myself.  The last time I had a chance to do a non-commissioned piece of artwork was in the mid-’80s.  There are tons of things I would love to draw just for their own sake.

What sort of feedback do you get from fans?

I’m always surprised by people who say, “Oh, so-and-so is not like that, an elf is not like that.” “Well, what’s he like?”  “Oh, I don’t know, but he’s not like that!”

It’s such a funny world, this world of Tolkien admirers.  They’re not apparent in the street, it’s not written on their foreheads, but if you give them any kind of a chance to come out of the woodwork, it’s amazing the people you meet.

There is a sort of secret enjoyment you have that you reach out by proxy and touch people, over any space and any distance.

What are the best and worst things about your success as an illustrator?

The best things are doing what I want to do and being paid for it.  The worst–no matter how successful you are, it doesn’t help you get done the picture you’re working on.  You might as well be named mud and never done a picture in your life if it’s just not going the way you want. You’re continually running after something you can never really accomplish.

My pet theory on why people draw is that it’s not a gift at all, it’s something missing.  Normal people are able to look at a lovely cloud or a wonderful tree and just be very happy with it, whereas the rest of us poor sods, the only way we can go through life is by trying to draw it.

But then, I’m also of the opinion that most illustrators, including myself, would do better to just shut up and draw.



Howe’s Favorites

One painting I don’t mind looking at is the one of Gandalf walking along.  It was on a one-volume printing of the trilogy, it was in the calendar, it’s everywhere.  It just felt right. I would redraw his left hand if I could, but the rest I wouldn’t touch.

Another one that I like is the painting of the Dark Tower, which was on The Two Towers, in the calendar (and everywhere else).   Again, it just felt right.  You’re always aiming for something you can never really do, so the closer you get to that tiny inner circle, the happier you are.

I’m working on a book right now that I hope I’ll be pleased with.  It’s a children’s book for a publisher in Brussels.  It’s called The Abandoned City. It takes place in Bruges, one of these lovely northern Flemish towns all built of brick.  Brick is this funny thing that can be either a warm blue or a cold red depending on the color of the light, so it’s magic to draw–and a printer’s nightmare to reproduce.

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