Illustrator John Howe is a Canadian born artist whose works have become legendary over his prolonged career in the art industry. With many recognizing his contributions to the Lord of the Rings and now The Hobbit film series, his ability to extract worlds that have become literary milestones is for the most part unparalleled. He has illustrated extensively for fantasy driven literature, has written children’s books, design work for collectible cards and much more. Howe is an artist who really finds very specific mediums to express something out of this world and his technique is always reflective of a person who has really studied and applied their craft.
Now residing in Europe and fulfilling the continuation of a life rooted in the arts, John Howe is an inspiring individual to all of us at Sound Colour Vibration and a creative member of this society that we knew would be a very important contribution to our interview archives. His art work has really defined something special for the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film world and without his contributions among many others, those films would never be possible. John Howe is simply one of the best.
Q&A with John Howe
Conducted by Xavier Vilaplana
Xavier: Before working on the illustrations for any of J. R. R. Tolkien’s works and worlds, what was your relationship with his works?
John: Quite flawed, entirely by my own doing, I’m afraid! I read the Lord of the Rings in the wrong order, much to my embarrassment. The Fellowship of the Ring was never available at the local library, I waited and waited, but of course it was one of those books that everyone borrowed, kept for a month and likely bogged down somewhere during the first hundred and fifty pages. The other two volumes never left the shelves, so I took out The Two Towers and read that first, followed by The Return of the King, and eventually by the Fellowship. Needless to say, that was a very stupid thing to do, so my first reading of the Lord of the Rings was not something I’m very proud of. I was 12 or so at the time and couldn’t afford to actually buy the books, which is hardly an excuse, I suppose. I eventually re-read the book in the right order many years later. (The Hobbit I believe I read around the age of 7 or so, but I can only recall the Unexpected Party, so it’s quite possible I never finished it.)
I only really began to appreciate the books when I finally learned enough about Tolkien’s own sources and motivations to appreciate their depth and meaning. Though I was attracted to the most dramatic episodes, I had largely missed all of the more subtle references entirely. I have found, though, over the years, that anything which immediately attracts my interest in any domain (usually visual, of course) will be of interest on many other levels once you take the time to scratch the surface and look a little deeper.
In high school, I did paintings (in oil pastel, of all things!) based on Tolkien’s work (thankfully, none of those have survived) and eventually received commissions from the publishers of the novels, then Unwin Books, for calendar imagery.
There are all manner of curious associations which have developed over those decades, some by choice, some by chance, which has allowed me not only to pay the bills by doing work associated with Tolkien, but to acquire a view of the landscape and nature which is certainly largely influenced by a wide palette of myth and legend to which Tolkien’s writing introduced me. I will always be grateful for the doors that his writing opened.
Xavier: Was your relationship to Tolkien’s work something that led you to contribute on The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe being that C. S. Lewis and Tolkien were friends?
John: In a sense, I suppose that could be true. I was asked to work on the Narnia film following the work done on the Lord of the Rings. I only worked on the first movie, though, for about 6 months.
Xavier: How is it working with both Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson on The Hobbit films? What was the difference between both of their perspectives? How did it translate into your drawings?
That’s a very hard question to answer. I don’t know anything about filmmaking, really, and my contribution to such huge productions is a very limited one – it’s rather like asking a very small cog how a steam engine works.
They are obviously both immensely talented filmmakers. Both have an appreciation for and a high degree for what I’d call “image literacy” where concept art is concerned. They also never forget a picture, which is gratifying for the teams that produce the huge quantity of artwork this kind of project requires.
Guillermo is an all-embracing personality, he reads widely and voraciously, has incredibly eclectic tastes in art, and in a sense reaches out and gathers the world in to himself, where he fashions and shapes it into his personal vision, a sort of empire by acquisition and conquest, colourful, varied, extensive, always filled with significant detail and depth. Working with Guillermo means keeping up with his light-speed far-ranging imagination, understanding his esoteric and subtle references, and trying to weld all of that into a rich and coherent world.
Peter tends to work from the center outwards, in a sense, finding inspiration in the narrative and the world he imagines, contributing, at least initially, a deep sense of curiosity and a desire to explore, pushing the imaginations of his concept team out into places they might not spontaneously go. In a way, it’s an empire built on patient exploration, colourful, varied, extensive, always filled with significant detail and depth. Working with Peter means responding to those hints and trying to help him build outwards to create a rich and coherent world.
I’m sure both of them would shake their heads in mild puzzlement at that appraisal, and likely it doesn’t capture their methodology or approach at all.
Xavier: What are the differences between the Lord of The Rings illustrations and The Hobbit and which do you feel more inclined to dive into?
John: Clearly the Lord of the Rings appealed to me more, but certainly because I had never considered the depth of the Hobbit – the world behind what looks (and initially reads) like a children’s story is rather harder to perceive. This said, it is entirely my fault as an inattentive reader, mistaking style for content and doing very little reading between the lines, lulled to a sense of complacency by what appears to be a bedtime story. (This is something that happens distressingly often concerning meaning in myth and legend, echoing the period where Grimm had devolved into edulcorated nursery material before Bettleheim’s pioneering research – the rose without the thorns, in sum, but that’s another debate.)
The Hobbit is a fascinating glimpse into a world that changes and deepens from chapter to chapter, where the roots of the Lord of the Rings can already be seen deep in the ground. The implied tale of the Beornings, for example, has echoes of Scandinavian legend, and a deep sense of loss of nature, not the park-like inviting nature of the Shire, but a more savage and challenging view of the world, primal and fierce. Smaug is every western dragon, but shorn of the devilish attributes with which Christianity has saddled dragons, he is the true descendant of Fafnir and his brood, reminders of the inevitable doom brought by all-consuming greed. There is so much in the Hobbit that is either cleverly disguised, or possibly more plausibly barely glimpsed by the author, themes that he would return to in greater depth in the Lord of the Rings.
This said, that approach to illustrating the Hobbit would be to deny the intended public, a much younger audience than Tolkien intended with The Lord of the Rings, a certain warmth and gentleness of vision in favour of a vision exterior to the novel itself. So, in that sense, I would distinguish between illustrating the book and exploring the themes Tolkien touches upon in the same book. The two could yield very different imagery.
Xavier: What’s it like imagining someone else’s world and bringing it to life as drawings?
John: I think it’s what I prefer. Have you ever felt how strongly felt an idea that is not one’s own can be? Somehow, the theme chanced upon, whether it’s a novel or a book of myth, can contain perspectives that you would never imagine yourself. It is somehow like the perfect landscape, the sublime view, precisely because it does not belong to you, it is possible to approach it with your own experience and vision, and create that third entity, which is the encounter of two imaginations. It combines the excitement of extraordinary visions with the inconvenience of those details with which one might be less enamoured, conveying a sense of reality to fantasy and making any pictorial exploration of that world incredibly exciting.
Illustration is a proposition, a spontaneous exploration not only of the theme to hand, but also the deeper currents that make imagery necessary. If there’s room, I’d love to share a text I wrote for a book or a catalogue, but which was never used. It sums up my thoughts on fantasy illustration in general:
Images were magic once. They adorned the walls of deep caverns, propitiated, evoking victory over creatures dangerous and necessary for survival. In that way, man possessed the essence of those creatures as well as their nourishing flesh.
Images were language once. The earliest letters, long after the earliest hieroglyphs (the meaning of “hieroglyph” is “sacred carving”), evoked creatures and elements. They summed up, or conjured, or invoked those things they named, and gradually gathered meanings as they grew more abstract and distanced from imagery.
Images were true once. Stories of ogres, dragons, princesses and knights grew in the minds of those harkening to the storytellers the Brothers Grimm patiently listened to as well. The same kinds of stories were sung and told through countless generations, before their penning by scribes. Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Jason, Arthur, and countless more, before we invented fiction as we know it, possessed images that were real in the minds of those who knew the stories.
Now images are no longer magic, no longer language, no longer necessarily true. They are used, abused, manipulated, commercialized and bought and sold like other commodities. We take them for granted. We associate them with immaturity – we believe “serious” imagery deals with life, not with things imagined.
Nevertheless, fantasy art is the inheritor of that magic, language and truth that once only it communicated. Fantasy is the realm of archetype, meaningless only if art itself were to disappear from the face of the earth. If I could claim as my own words written more than a century ago, it would be these: “En effet, lorsque l’époque où un homme de talent est obligé de vivre, est plate et bête, l’artiste est, à son insu même, hanté par la nostalgie d’un autre siècle. .. Chez les uns, c’est un retour aux âges consommés, aux civilisations disparues, aux temps morts; chez les autres, c’est un élancement vers la fantastique et vers le rêve…” ~ J. K. Huysmans (1848-1907), “À Rebours”, 1884.
(“The truth is, when the period at which a man of talent is condemned to live is dull and stupid, the artist is, unconsciously to himself, haunted by a sensation of morbid yearning for another century… In some cases, it is a return to past ages, to vanished civilizations, to dead centuries; in others, it is an impulse towards the fantastic, the land of dreams, it is a vision more or less vivid of a time to come whose images reproduce, without his being aware, as a result of atavism, that of by-gone epochs.” ~ J. K. Huysmans, “Against the Grain”, published in English in 1926.)
The resonance of fantasy is as pertinent as ever, but fantasy is a master of disguises, and always reappears where we least expect it. The magic and the truth remain; it is up to us to learn the language again.
Xavier: Drawing, is it something that manifests currently as a necessity more than a joy or profession?
John: I’ll have all three, please, if I may! I believe the urge to draw, which is shared by all children, but eventually fades for most, is a necessity, a way of comprehending the world and one’s view of it. Because it involves satisfaction – both accomplishing something you set out to do, “getting it right” in one’s own eyes, and the approval it gets in the family circle – it can easily become a way of defining oneself. It can become a profession when those two qualities are maintained, if a person’s drawing skills can keep pace with one’s expectations and if the opportunities for art education and eventually work present themselves.
So, yes indeed, drawing is a necessity. It colours my view of the world, it helps me understand things, it is a way of connecting with what’s around me, as well as communicating how I feel about those things. It remains a joy because there is the simple satisfaction of getting the occasional drawing or painting “right” (whatever that means), or at least imagining that the next painting will accomplish that. (I invariably reply “The next one” to the “What’s your favourite painting?” question.)
Lastly of course, yes, it is now my profession, with all the responsibility that entails to my clients and to the subject matter I encounter.
Xavier: Do you ever see yourself writing and illustrating?
John: Yes please! My ambition would be to write and have others illustrate the texts. (That way I could hassle illustrators pitilessly.) Seriously, I’ve always wanted to write and admire those for whom it seems so effortless. I’m sure this comes from the desire to tell stories, but being awkward with words, not having the ability to use them effectively. In that sense, drawing is the language of the writer who cannot write – looking back as far as I can recall drawings I’ve done, back to elementary school, they were always about telling stories. I found little satisfaction in the standard assignments (sometimes I think it’s a wonder I survived school, often I couldn’t even get into art class, since it was already full of students who had been kicked out of other classes and parked in art, though I did have the good fortune of having a wonderfully encouraging teacher in my final year of high school) and little interest in landscapes or still lifes; all my pictures, without exception, were narrative.
I also love the interplay between explicit narrative, implicit narrative and internal pictorial logic in any picture that tells a story.
John Howe presents “From Bag End to Wilderland”
Illustrations for The Hobbit, or There and Back Again
In today’s Yellow Bricks, we are sticking to last week’s article by staying in film. In volume 4 of Yellow Bricks, we have set out to include a detailed break down of films we feel are potential blockbuster hits of high artistic merit for next year. With the ending quarter of 2011 seeing the arrival of many trailers for films to be released in 2012, we are beginning a new phase at SCV with much more coverage of newly released films in the independent and non independent realms. With our series Movement Nu, we have created a vehicle to open up the vaults on many past productions that have shaped the way we love film. Movement Nu will see new article entries in 2012, we are very pleased with what we have already shaping for all of you out here reading. Yellow Bricks Volume 4 is a collection of 3 features that have caught our attention for 2012. We would have included a 4th addition into this list with the new Quentin Tarantino flick Django Unchained but a trailer has yet to release, so we decided to hold off on that for a later article.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
When Peter Jackson, one of New Zealand’s most well known modern film directors, emerged out of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy between the years of 2001 and 2003, critical acclaim was immediately garnished in all areas of the films. The cinematography, computer graphics, illustrations by long time Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe along with the beautiful natural landscapes of New Zealand where all of the films were shot gave the Trilogy one of the most proper settings for a fantasy fiction plot of this magnitude. These films embody a turning point in cinematic history. With the success of the theater and home release versions, the Tolkien legend continues yet again with the prequel story for The Lord of the Rings in The Hobbit. Shot to be released in two parts, this highly anticipated epic will see the light of day in the later portions of 2012 and 2013. With many of the characters back from the Trilogy, there is high expectations on the direction and authenticity this film will carry out. There is always the questions that arise from films adapted from books, questions that underline the original vision and story line as the J. R. R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel of the same title played out. Like any release this earlier in promotion stages, one can only hope for the best.
Warner Brothers is the company handling this project and they released a trailer for the The Hobbit this week to a highly anticipated crowd of fans from the Trilogy and the classic essence of the literature that has spawned such an epic set of movies. The really interesting aspect to this film to us here at Sound Colour Vibration is the inclusion of Mexican director, producer, screenwriter, novelist and designer Guillermo del Toro. His releases have been pushing the envelope for decades. The fact that he has taken seat in the ranks of those pushing the buttons means this film will surely show different shades and directions of film making that the Trilogy never touched upon. What that will be the final product is anyone’s guess, but the trailer looks beautiful and one can only imagine how dark this film will really go considering the books unfolding menacing story. According to many press releases and statements from himself, Guillermo del Toro will have a large hand on the final direction of The Hobbit. The following press statement about The Hobbit is from Warner Bros. Pictures, ““The Hobbit” follows the journey of title character Bilbo Baggins, who is swept into an epic quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, which was long ago conquered by the dragon Smaug. Approached out of the blue by the wizard Gandalf the Grey, Bilbo finds himself joining a company of thirteen dwarves led by the legendary warrior, Thorin Oakensheild. Their journey will take them into the Wild; through treacherous lands swarming with Goblins and Orcs, deadly Wargs and Giant Spiders, Shapeshifters and Sorcerers. Although their goal lies to the East and the wastelands of the Lonely Mountain first they must escape the goblin tunnels, where Bilbo meets the creature that will change his life forever … Gollum. In Cinemas December 2012
Moving to 20th Century Fox, we now want to dive into the Ridley Scott film that is coming out in 2012 called Prometheus. As most of you know, Ridley Scott is the man responsible for classic films such as 1979′s Alien, 2000′s Gladiator, 2007′s American Gangster, 2010′s Robin Hood along with many more notable releases. Prometheus is a film that follows the same lineage of sci-fi alien horror that became electrifying to audiences in the 80′s. This movement has pioneered countless films that include the waking and demoralizing reality of a battle fought with few humans and so much risk and devastation involved. This movement that was boldly started with his very own Alien film in the late 70′s is now full circle and there is no better person to carry out the true vision of a film like Prometheus than director Ridley Scott. Prometheus shows small hints of the same world Alien’s comes from but serves as a very different story and vehicle for the modern technology and devices the film industry has provided for film makers now.
In an interview with UK’s Independent released in September of last year, director Ridley Scott talks about how dark and ethereal this film will be to audiences who dive in. “The film will be really tough, really nasty. It’s the dark side of the moon. We are talking about gods and engineers. Engineers of space. And were the aliens designed as a form of biological warfare? Or biology that would go in and clean up a planet?” When I started to read further into the futuristic plot line and the visual possibilities with the landscapes, tools and characters mentioned, I became instantly hooked to find out more. Initially, this was supposed to be the prequel to the Alien saga, but this did not materialize and only fragments of that appear in Prometheus. Finally seeing a trailer has only confirmed how good I feel this movie is going to be. With the direction of one of Hollywood’s best, a deeply intriguing plot to work around, the visual schematics only few have conceptualized let along used and intricate character plot relationships that should push the limits of sci-fo horror and give new meaning to this genre. Starring Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Kate Dickie, and Logan Marshall-Green, Prometheus is the type of film I have been waiting for years to come out on the big screen. Check out the official trailer below.
The Dark Knight Rises
Finding ourselves back in the Warner Bros Pictures lot, we now dive into the highly anticipated follow up to end the Christopher Nolan directed Batman film trilogy. Beginning with 2005′s Batman Begins, continued with 2008′s out of this world The Dark Knight, this series is now concluding with The Dark Knight Rises. Set to launch in June of 2012, I can’t even explain how excited I was when sent the official HD trailer for The Dark Knight Rises. Shot all over the world, this DC comics film looks to be the best visual addition in the extensive Batman catalog. One can only hope the story line, acting and overall sequence of the film stands up to the standard of the past two Batman films released under Christopher Nolan’s direction. Reportedly, much of The Dark Knight Rises was shot using special IMAX cameras to enhance visual possibilities and post editing manipulation. With a budget in the $250 million range, director Christopher Nolan and his crew have been expected to release the most brilliant Batman to date. With the introduction of first time big screen DC characters in villains Selina Kyle and the infamous Bane, this is going to move up a notch in sinister and evil wrong doings that one of the worlds most beloved comic characters has to defend the world from. With an all star cast of Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman, one can only expect a collectively stellar acting performance for the film on top of the high level of technology they have reported utilizing for this production.
Set in Gotham City 8 years after the devastating events in The Dark Knight, Batman’s introduction back into the crime fighting force is met with the highest degree of risk as Bane proves to be one of his toughest adversaries. This is another high budget movie that goes far and beyond to show why high production art is just as important as anything the film festivals are plugging away at. Thank you for taking part in our Yellow Bricks series.