Saturday, February 9, 2002. 3:00 PM. Illustrating Tolkien: a discussion of how the master fantasist's world has been illustrated in film, calendars and books. With John Howe, Ted Nasmith and Martin Springett (M)

Martin Springett: On my stage left (which is your right), John Howe, illustrator of renown, and on my right (your left), another illustrator of renown, Ted Nasmith. I blush, and say that my name is Martin Springett, I don't know whether I'm an illustrator of renown or not, because I don't have the same viewpoint that I have on the other guys. You will have noticed actually that in the programme, beside my name there's a small "M," for a while I was puzzled as what this "M" was for, now, at home, because my name's Martin, my family calls me "M." And so I thought the programmers were being very cozy and nice, calling me "M." And then of course I saw a lot of other people had "M" after their name, so eventually I figured it out it meant "moderator," so I'm vaguely going to moderate. The topic is "Illustrating Tolkien," and of course these two guys have done a lot of that, and I'm sure they'll have lots of insights, especially John, right John?
(audience laughter. John Howe doodles with a pen on a cloth napkin.)
Yes, lots of insights from John, and my position of course is that I've illustrated Tolkien, but it hasn't been published, so I'll just have a different viewpoint. So, maybe, as we did yesterday, is there anyone who has a question to start us off, we would appreciate it.

Question: This is for John: how did you get started? Well, for everyone on the panel.

MS: Ted Nasmith, then.

Ted Nasmith: Starting illustrating Tolkien, I believe you mean, not just drawing pictures in general? Because if it's just drawing pictures in general, apparently I was producing houses in perspective when I was in kindergarten, according to somebody, my mother, but illustrating Tolkien was simply the natural outcome of reading the book and discovering his wonderful, rich imagery, tremendous warmth and nostalgia and other factors. It was for my own pleasure, strictly speaking, I had at the time been intending to actually go in to car illustration, automotive illustration, because I was absolutely enamoured of those wonderful Pontiac advertisements in Life magazine & National Geographic all through the '60s. I had been drawing pictures like that, of spaceships and the other kinds of things that kids draw, like war scenes- Tolkien was absolutely a different thing entirely, and it just became something of a personal indulgence. Carr illustration wasn't really in the cards because it was in decline in the early '70s, and there were a couple of choices that would have been involved, moving either to Detroit or New York City. As an 18-year old that was a bit daunting for me. I ended up almost haphazardly getting involved in architectural rendering. The person who hired me recognized that I had a facility for it even I hadn't actually studied it. It sort of suited my temperament in a number of ways and resolved a number of questions, first of all being that I wasn't going to have to start in paste-up at some anonymous studio somewhere, a big art house that we would actually be a small group, and that struck me as good, and I stayed, and continued doing Tolkien paintings on the side, until, there was sort of critical mass, a push to go and seek out the publishing of that work. That would have been about twelve or thirteen years after I really started doing paintings for myself, and done quite a number of fairly elaborate ones by this time. I was experimenting with oil painting, acrylic, and eventually settled back on gouache, which I had started with, and was most comfortable with. So that's pretty much how I started it.

MS: John?

John Howe: Yeah, umm, the same. (audience laughter)

MS: So any more insight will be welcome. As a moderator, I do wish you'd been wrong. Actually, you should know that John is from the West coast originally. I'll tell you that, that he's from Vancouver, and has lived in Switzerland.

JH: We moved to Switzerland because we wanted a view of the ocean. It's high up, you can see for a long ways. Why do I have this thing (microphone), you should have it.

MS: There will be more insight as we go on.

Q: I've been looking at all your wonderful pictures from the books; I've read the books, but my imagination felt almost kind of inadequate, from all the imagery that you've drawn. I was wondering if you saw these images when you read the book for the first time, or if you had to really work it, developing what they looked like. Or is that what you saw in your mind's eye when you read the books?

TN: Well I'll start with that one. Yeah, you get some fairly detailed impressions, but they are just impressions. What I found was, a funny thing would happen to me, I would get the impression and would draw some kind of thumbnail or drawing or something of that kind and take it further. I would go back and read it again and realize that I actually had missed the specific details that were described, I was going on my own impressions. I eventually embarked on a kind of a game where I would try with each successive painting to pay a little more attention to what the author said, and reconcile that to my own impression of it, because there's going to be my own ideas that I'm bringing to it, and why it inspires me, because I'm feeding some imagery that I've already got inside of me, that I'm bringing to it. At the same time, it was, I would really like this to be the actual picture that Tolkien is describing, which is of course impossible to know. I can get something like that, "pull it out of the ether," the collective unconscious. You develop your ideas, get feedback from people who tell you whether you've got something wrong or right, or they agree with you or not too, and that can help shape your impressions in the future, too. You do definitely react to that kind of criticism. I just allow my work to evolve as I see new insights into particular scenes, and will actually go back and revisit one scene over and over again in some cases, because I realize I have something new to bring to it, some new way of expressing it, some freshness to it. That's generally how I would do that.

MS: If I could interject, as it were, because I haven't had published work to do with Tolkien, although I've been on the edge of it a few times. I was approached to do an illustrated version of Farmer Giles of Ham, which sadly didn't see the light of day. You used the word that you felt inadequate, don't feel inadequate, because you should you know, I had it from the lips of Elijah Wood himself, that what do you prefer, Elijah, the film or the book? "Well, I prefer the book, because the book allows me to take my own journey." So Ted and John's work, as terrific as it is, isn't necessarily going to be your journey, everybody takes their own journey in that book. However, Ted and John allow you to, perhaps, get a little closer to the books. That's the way I feel, but everybody takes their own journey with that book, those books. I think one thing John mentioned in an interview, which he remembers clearly, I'm sure-(audience laughter)
-being the insightful chap he is, that Tolkien himself was the first illustrator of his own works. Now there's a distinctive quality that he has, it's unique, the way his work is, but there's a quality to that work that's really fascinating to me, because, somepeople might call it a naive approach, but he does somehow get to the centre of what those stories are all about, without a lot of razzmatazz. Without a lot of, in fact, even much technique, he just draws very soulfully. John mentioned in his interview that Tolkien was obviously influenced by the work he saw as a young man, growing up in the '30s, '20s and '30s in fact, and the work he would have seen was very highly decorative work, it might have been art nouveau, it might have been art deco, certainly illustrative work of that time in say, children's books was highly evolved art of the time. I think Tolkien himself was very much influenced by the art of the day, so when you look at Tolkien's work, himself, he's probably the prime illustrator, for me, he's right at the primal centre. But as Ted says, you can't talk to the man, you can't find out what he would like to see. So every artist who approaches Tolkien has to come to it personally, just as every reader has to come to it personally. So one should never feel inadequate, looking at another artist's piece, "Oh well I could never imagine that," well, you do. If you've really enjoyed the book, then you have imagined just as much as Ted or John or me. It's just that you don't draw or paint it, you do something else with it, so that's my take on that. What do you think, John?

JH: I think that illustrating a book like that which has such a powerful set of roots in a readily identifiable culture is actually a job closer to archaeology than it is to actually illustrating. I usually have a fairly clear idea how I think a thing should look. I don't do sketches, if I can help it. I don't search unless I'm having a problem actually rendering something because I have an idea of how it should look. I'm just not capable of getting it anywhere near right, but it seems to me the images coming out of that impose themselves with a clarity which allows little choice for a number of options, any one of which could be valid.Actually trying to render those generally means getting about 20 or 30% of what you think it should look like. Usually having to settle for that, sometimes in a few cases you get a bit more. I'm a firm believer in actually showing as little as possible, in actually trying to illustrate fully a scene without showing anything. I'd like to, a lot of the times I'd like to do a scene, a large complicated battle scene, then put a rock in front. Because I firmly also believe that if you've done the scene yourself, and you've seen it all, and then you put the rock in front, it's still there for people to see in spite of the rock. So I think Tolkien is a little bit special in that way, in that there is to some extent a community of spirit in the familiarity you may have with the sources he was using. And if those sources are familiar to, appeal to you, and you happen to be in the job of illustration, then it's a fairly straightforward exercise. I'm not saying it's easy, simple to do, but it's not complicated, it's not complex, there's no angst involved. On the other hand, I don't think it should be illustrated either.I agree with Tolkien in that sense, I think it's better to leave books like that alone, not illustrate them, but what the Hell, we've got to make a living!
(audience laughter)

Q: I thought one of the reasons that Tolkien didn't like to have anything illustrated went right along with the same reason he didn't like television or movies, or radio?

MS: Well, I don't think he was actually, I know Ted and I talked about this, I know that sometimes Tolkien pushed the Luddite thing quite too far. He would often be quite keen to answer questions like that. You're right, he hated the industrial world, we know that he hated what happened to the village he remembers as a child and so on, he hated what happened to that. I think I said it in the panel yesterday, that the one remark he made about illustration, he felt that if there were going to be illustrations in a book of his, that the illustrations should always, always have a border. It sounds very simple, but what he meant was that you have to allow the illustration to breathe. The technical term for this, if you take an illustration and you let it flow right off the edge of the page, it's bleeding the illustration off. Somehow it loses some power when an illustration bleeds off the page, but if you have the illustration set into the book, and it has a nice border on it, then the world somehow within that picture is contained. If it flies off the edge of the page, then it dissipates. So this is a small point, but I've actually taken it to heart and agree with it. It's a small thing but if you are going to have an illustration in one of his books, always give it a border. Or give it room to breathe in some other way, you plop it in the middle of the text or something like that. When I was doing work on Father Giles, what I wanted to do was, my feeling is quite strong about books, because I do illustrate children's books, and each kids' book I've done is a completely different world unto itself, so when I was given the task of Farmer Giles, which I just, you know, I couldn't wait to get there, because as John says, illustrating Tolkien is like a gift; if you're into it, you can do it, if you can marshal your technique and your ideas. It's a real gift to do, because there's so much in there, so with Farmer Giles of Ham, what I really wanted to do was to consider the story and the book as a world unto itself. So that I was going to design every aspect of that book, I was going to design the type that they used, I was going to design the endpapers, the cover, where the illustrations are placed. I was going to have my hand in every aspect of that book. I wasn't just going to do a number of illustrations and have them pop up every 25 pages, sort of an explosion of colour. I wanted to weave my naughty way all the way through this story. There's a chance that one day it might come out, I don't know. I have one painting from it in the art show, if you're interested. I'm sure these guys would agree, that if you're going to illustrate Tolkien, you have to listen to him closely. Was there another question?

Q: As far as illustrating then, especially Tolkien, who makes the decision (as to) what illustrations go in, is it the publisher, I can see in a regular book where the author is alive, the author may have something (to say) especially for a cover, but for Tolkien, is it his estate? You've said so yourself, Martin, you've been close, but you 're not published. Who makes that decision?

TN: The last decision comes from the Tolkien estate, generally Christopher or his wife Ann will talk about it together and make that decision. The editors of course have their opinions and their input as well. There are variables involved with things of this kind; for me, I can speak of my own experience with having established myself as being kind of a reliable quantity, there's not a lot of fuss around what subjects and what illustrations, for a calendar, I happen to know that if it is a calendar illustration there aren't quite as strict criteria applied. There's more freedom, because it is understood the artistic expression and showcase of art as opposed to specifically applied to a book like the Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion. In the case of the Silmarillion there was a great deal more discussion and criteria to meet and back-and-forth, so that I felt satisfied with what I was doing was worth doing, for my own creative reasons and/or at the same time meeting all the editorial criteria, and in that case working with Christopher as well, and having his input and discussion with him. For instance, there was a selection of pictures, four times the images, at least, than we could fit into that book. You could only have an illustration every 16 pages, because of the binding, so they could put in.this glossier paper. I'm not restricted in the scenes as well, because we wanted to have something that was more or less close to that spot in the book. A calendar never involves such decisions, except to generally represent, if it's a Lord of the Rings calendar, well then, a sort of reasonable distribution of Lord of the Rings scenes that would more or less would satisfy a number of types of people's expectations of Tolkien illustration. John had mentioned earlier in his other, hour, doing work, on one hand, for the reader, who wanted the expected scenes, the key scenes that we see various artists attempting, and/or a series of illustrations that personally you find it intriguing and interesting and their imagery or images are strong for you and quite beautiful. The sidelights and obscure corners, but at the same time there are readers who delight in that too, and enjoy the fact that the artists will take these little side trips as well. It's a discussion between the editors and the estate and the artist.

MS: I know when I first met Ted I was offered myself, fifteen years ago, a calendar, I had to turn it down for various reasons. Ted picked that calendar up and has been zooming (?) it ever since. I do recall one of the problems, visually, and I don't know if John or Ted ever had this problem, one thing I know that Christopher Tolkien doesn't care for is fully realized close-up portraits of any character. It would be fun to see that occasionally, but that's one thing I think he's agin', if I recall my experience from the past. Isn't that the case, Ted?

TN: Yeah, that's right.

MS: So you you're kind of stymied there, if you're keen on portraiture and you really want to bring that out, that's one thing you can't do. I think even Alan Lee had trouble finding just the right look for the hobbits when he illustrated Lord of the Rings. There was quite a process that he had to go through to find the right look for the hobbits. You got anything much to say, John?

JH: Next question? (audience laughter)

Q: Do you as an illustrator try not to see too many of other illustrators work, so as not to be influenced by it? The reason I bring this up is, of Sir John Tenniel's work in Alice (in Wonderland) has influenced every Alice illustrator ever since. It could be cramping to an illustrator's imagination, what do you guys think about that?

TN: It gets a bit complicated, doesn't it? It seems to me like you are dealing with audience or people's expectations, and if a very strong precedent has been set with an illustrator of a particular classic, then I have found that I naturally want to reflect some of that continuity in what I do. I happen to like Tolkien's own art, and I like Pauline Baines', and understand what they're trying to project in the way they do it. I try to look behind the artwork to try to somehow harmonize my own work as much as seems reasonable without absolutely abandoning my own ideas which might be much more interesting between the two.With different kinds of pictures you can explore different kinds of ideas - if you try to completely not be influenced by anybody else it becomes almost neurotic, it's so hard not to, because your work isn't going to really touch people with what they expect. Something like that has to occur with my commercial art, architectural renderings. I can do something which I think is quite realistic and perfectly representative of what's going to be built, and your client will look at it and say, "No, I don't want that." You've got to make it different, you've got to cheat so you get what people expect to see, not what they're actually going to see when they build it. It's a game, working at finding a balance between your individual expression and what others expect of it. Every artist confronts that in a different way, and will create either a more personal style or something that's reflects other influences. You won't be able to satisfy everybody either, so that's another reason why you have to be careful about having too many people telling you what you should or shouldn't do, or getting too analytical about, "Oh, I shouldn't see this or that."

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