Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Interview with John Howe

John Howe is a Canadian illustrator and concept artist, best known for his work based on J. R. R. Tolkien's worlds. Howe and noted Tolkien artist Alan Lee served as chief conceptual designers for Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, John Howe also did the illustration for the "Lord of the Rings" board game and re-illustrated the maps of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion in 1996–2003.

His work is however not limited to this, and includes images of myths such as the Anglo Saxon legend of Beowulf. He also illustrated the board game Beowulf: The Legend. John Howe illustrated many other books, amongst which many belong to the fantasy genre. He also contributed to the film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. In 2005, a limited edition of George R. R. Martin's novel, A Clash of Kings was released, complete with numerous illustrations by John Howe. He has also illustrated cards for the Magic: The Gathering collectible card game.

For the upcoming The Hobbit films, former director Guillermo del Toro and current director Peter Jackson have been in consultation with John Howe and fellow conceptual artist Alan Lee to ensure continuity of design. John Howe is a member of the living history group, The Company of Saynt George.

Bridge of Kazad-dum

  1. You are a world-famous illustrator and concept artist whose work I have long admired. For the benefit of those who may not be familiar with your work, tell us about your career and your artistic creations. 
I’m afraid I’ll have to leave the introduction to you; I am not very good at writing about my own work. I am grateful, though, to have been able to pursue drawing and painting as a profession. I suppose the best part is being under the constant obligation to LOOK at things, since so much is needed to paint fantasy, from an acceptable layman’s knowledge of history, armour, architecture, and much, much more, to landscape and light and the human figure, not to mention all the astonishing creatures that inhabit fantasy. This means you are always attentive to atmosphere and detail. 


I spend a lot of time visiting the cities in countries I go for convention or work, stopping at museums, visiting sites, getting up at all hours to catch sunrises, heading out in the rain to take photos. Insatiable curiosity is a desirable trait for an illustrator, it keeps you open to the world, rather than centring your technique on your own depictions, you can retain a certain vulnerability to circumstance, to the appreciation of everything around you. To have had that appreciation of things opened up for me is perhaps the thing for which I am most grateful.

Concerning my own work, it’s either done, therefore not really of much interest to me; or yet to be done, which, while I’m eagerly looking forward to it, cannot really say much about it. The best picture is always the next one.

Gandalf the Grey

  1. What aspects of your childhood inspired your artistic creativity? 
A certain freedom, I think, to pursue drawing. Also, a certain undeniable obsession with a few fantasy illustrators likely helped. This was, you’ll have to remember, back in the ‘70s, before a lot of fantasy art books came out, and you had to search through stacks of old paperbacks to find appealing book covers. The first art book I bought was a collection of works by Gustave Doré. I knew nothing at all about art history, not even about the 19th century fin de siècle painters, who have since become my favourites.

    Smaug the Golden

    1. Tell us about your learning process, and particularly how your work evolved as a result of it. 
    I wasn’t able to follow many art classes in school, but finally did get into art class in the last year of high school, in the class of a lovely art teacher with whom I am still in touch. After that, I went on to art school in France. This said, although it’s a little trite, you never stop learning. It’s a process that demands a good deal of attentiveness, though, always keeping both eyes open, recalling visual relationships, establishing a little order in what you see, since a person’s wanderings, whether in situ or in books, cannot always be chronological or by category – so, when you stumble on a little church on a street corner in some small medieval town, you are much better prepared to remember (and profit from) what you see if you have some basic notion of architectural period and style. Fantasy is not a departure from history, but a refining and an enhancement of it. The only way to make fantasy real is to make it as solid as reality, but simply other or extra-worldly.


    1. What do you find most rewarding in the creative process, and how do you overcome that which you find challenging?
    I’d be tempted to say that the challenges are the most rewarding aspect. It would be a shame to fall into a certain routine. That’s why I enjoy illustration work; every picture on a theme is first and foremost an introduction to the vision of another, whether it’s the anonymous author of some ancient saga like Gilgamesh or Beowulf, or a modern fantasy writer. They open up a window on a world, and then stand to one side to let you try and capture the view. Remaining attentive to the text is like having them at your elbow, prompting, providing details you might have missed, enriching the experience. The process is what it all reminds you of, those things that you’ve picked up over the years, and which come into play with what you’re being shown. The result is a blending, interweaving, extrapolating and emulating of the two, a pictorial narrative where the story is either implicit or explicit, but underpins the image itself. I also very much enjoy the interweaving of narrative with the inner logic of an image in the graphic sense. These two can be complimentary or opposed, intertwined or independent of each other.

    Mythago Wood

    1. What advice would you give to anyone considering a career in art?
    Go to school! Even just for a short time, to give yourself time to get a little experience and maturity before trying to make it in the professional world. Judging one’s own work is near impossible at the best of times, and it can be quite hard to step out of the world where you’ve grown up as the clever child who can draw and into a world where it’s your bread and butter (for better or worse).

    Winter of the Raven

    1. Tell us about your experience as a chief conceptual designer for Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.
    It was very challenging, and enormous fun. I don’t think anyone realized at the beginning how huge it was going to grow. We created thousands of pieces of artwork to help Peter capture the vision he had of Middle-Earth.

    1. Evolution is an inherent facet of contemporary art. What new developments are you aware of, with regards to the application of technology, in art?
    "When an idea seems to revolutionize the world, it is really you that is changing. "-- Edward Robert Hughes (1851-1914)


    1. Tell us a little about any good art you’ve seen recently.
    I’m far more interested in sculpture and metalworking than painting; I’ve recently seen some wonderful work by a number of artists.

    1. What other interests do you have?
    Many, though they are mostly related to history, architecture and art. I do enjoy blacksmithing, although my skills are minimal. I’m also involved in a re-enactment group, which is enormous fun, though I’ve not been to many events recently. I have done a little archery and fencing, but all on a strictly amateur level. Otherwise, I very much enjoy making things and often retreat to my little workshop and poke about amongst bits of wood, plaster and metal.

    Perilous Wood

    1. What are you doing now?
    Back in the movie business for a brief stint! Looking forward to getting back to publishing, though I am working on texts as best I can, it’s not possible to draw and paint right now.

    You can find out more about John Howe at his Official Website.

    Listen to the artist, in his own words, in the Forging Dragons - Trailer.

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