//Sessions with John Howe, Part One

In the words of the man himself, ‘biographies are hard…so welcome to the strict minimum.’ John Howe is an artist and author. He was also a major concept and design artist behind Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. [His website is] He has been my creative hero since I was twelve years old, and a little over a year ago, I sent him a message. To my amazement, he responded; and since then we’ve kept up a regular correspondence. A couple months ago I was seized with an idea – since he was willing to mentor me in private, what if I could actually snag an interview for my blog? My readership consists mainly of beautiful nerds and creative types, after all. Again, Mr. Howe astonished me by agreeing to the idea.

In case you’re wondering how I felt in that moment, let me illustrate.

Not only did Mr. Howe agree – he generously suggested we continue the interview, as long as I had questions for him. Therefore not only do we get a single interview with Mr. Howe – we get a continued interview! I don’t know how many parts it will consist of – I told him that I couldn’t foresee running out of questions, which didn’t seem to faze him in the slightest. I’m so excited about this, guys – I hope you enjoy getting to know the Merlin of art, John Howe.

[Notations like this are mine, provided for clarification.]

M: When you first fell in love with Tolkien, did you ever imagine you would influence the Tolkien world at all, let alone as vastly as you did?

J: I first read The Lord of the Rings around the age of twelve, but in the wrong order. The Fellowship of the Ring was never available at the library. I suspect readers checked it out, keep it a month, and bog down somewhere around the barrow-downs, but nonetheless kept it a month. So, weary of waiting, I read The Two Towers and the Return of the King, and finally reached the top of the waiting list for the first volume of the trilogy. Admittedly, it was a foolish way to read the book of the century, and I honestly found the story a little confusing.

Later on, when the first calendars were published, I realised that it was possible to illustrate the books, and even did my own versions – in oil pastel – of each month on the Tolkien calendars of 1975 and 1976. Mercifully, none of these paintings have survived. In art school in France, I used every excuse available to turn assignments into Tolkien assignments, surely much to the perplexity of my professors and fellow students, who had never heard of the Lord of the Rings. I still have my dog-eared, much-annotated Unwin edition from those days. Jane Johnson gave me my first chance at a calendar, accepting one or two existing pieces, and commissioning another. I was terribly excited. Then of course one thing led to another and here we are in 2105, just back from 6 years on the Hobbit. But honestly, when I started out, no, I never thought I would influence in any way the visualising of Middle-Earth the way it came about. I often think about what I call the “persistence” of imagery; why some seem to stick and become part of popular culture, why so many simply fade and are forgotten. I am a huge fan of dozens and dozens of turn-of-the-century illustrators, and often wonder what they would have done with Tolkien.

M: I was twelve when I first read the Lord of the Rings, too – the whole trilogy in three days, because I was laid up in bed with the flu. Of course I re-read them the next month and realized I didn’t remember half of them! You did such amazing work with the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies – is there any book series that you would jump at the chance to work on, if adapted for the screen?

J: Too many to count! Honestly, though, there are a number of them I would jump at the chance to work on. Robert Holdstock (the Mythago Wood books) and Robin Hobb (pretty much everything) would both make wonderful films. I would love to see Robert E. Howard’s Conan novels, or even better, his stories of Bran Mac Morn, taken to the screen with the density of his writing. Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné novels would be fabulous to see too. H. P. Lovecraft as well, especially the Dream-Quest of Unknown Hadath, though it would not be an easy book to adapt, but has stunning visuals. Philip Reeves’ Mortal Engines would be fabulous, as would the Temeraire novels, and I very much regret that Philip Pullman’s trilogy stalled after one movie. One last one, in case you haven’t read it: Caitlin Sweet’s The Door in the Mountain, which, while it’s still only volume one of a trilogy, is the most original interpretation of Greek myth I’ve ever read. (Hurry up Caitlin, finish writing the next two!)

There are some wonderful tales by Gustave Meyrink and Leo Perutz that could be wonderful films, though they are not series in the strictest sense, they unfold in coherent worlds which are poetic, moody, dangerous and fantastical. Assuredly, many more would spring to mind if I was any good at reeling off lists. 🙂

M: I fell in love with Robert Holdstock and Robin Hobb, thanks to you! I buy their books whenever I run across them. Thank you for that. This next question is my own selfish curiosity – have you ever ended up hating a piece of artwork you loved when you first finished it? I know for many artists (myself included) this is a fairly frequent occurrence. If so, what do you do? (I.e. re-draw the picture, ignore it and move on, etc.?)

J: I’ve always thought that once a picture is done, it is indeed done, and no amount of embarrassment or frustration can make me return to it. I’m generally not overly satisfied with much of anything I do, but usually I don’t return to old artwork. I do revisit themes often, though when one drawing or painting is not enough, and if a book is republished, I’m not against going back in and tidying up the odd thing. Usually though, once a picture is done, it’s of little interest to the person who made it. Whatever potential to resonate with the viewer has either been painted into it or not, or with varying degrees of success. To go back is to constantly re-affirm that something is never really done, which I really cannot manage. The ideal image, the one you strive for but never attain, is still intact, it’s out there somewhere, waiting for you to make another, fresh try, not going back to touch up old attempts, applying an extra layer of make-up on an ageing face. I certainly never disown anything, even the least successful pictures, though I have little pleasure in seeing them again. 🙂

Oh, and HOW could I forget? [In response to the previous question] The Gormenghast trilogy, by Mervyn Peake! I would give my right arm to work on that! Okay, perhaps not my right arm, I’d still need it (speaking of which, do remind me to tell you my story of drawing with the left arm) to do concept art. 🙂

M: Well, for my next question, I’m reminding you to tell me your story of drawing with your left arm! I’m insatiably curious now!

J: One day I was out hill running and tripped on a tree root, smacked into another root with my shoulder and rolled a good ways down the steep slope below. I took my shoulder to the doctor the next day, and he promptly put it in a sling – it hurt too much to use anyway, nothing broken or fractured, but the collarbone was a bit out of place and there were some pretty serious bruises. I went to work – no point in staying home – and I didn’t want to miss any meetings with Peter. He looked at me and shook his head “I hope you’re ambidextrous.” “I’m not,” I replied, “but I hope to be by the middle of the week.” I haven’t an ambidextrous bone in my body, and certainly none in my left arm, but I made myself comfortable on our office sofa and started a drawing with my left hand. I’ve often wondered where “art” lives in the body, how much is indeed in the arms and hand, and it turns out that all the ease is situated there, all the accomplished gestures and fluidity are in the arm.

Nonetheless, it’s all in the head as well, and you can will that inexperienced arm to draw, but it is incredibly tiring; every pencil stroke needs to be thought right through. It’s akin to watching a child draw, but it’s you. By the end of the day, I had a couple of acceptable drawings, but was totally beat. The next day was far better, and by the time the right arm recovered enough – around the Thursday of that week – to start working again, I was happily drawing with my left. Not nearly as fast, and much sketchier, but drawing. I think a month would have brought the left arm onto par with the right. Oddly, the most difficult part was having to switch lighting directions – you know how often you tend to light a scene from one side – generally the shadow side corresponds to the drawing side, at least for me. I suppose it’s to do with the natural gestures involved in shading, but it really meant learning to swap that over, which was an exercise in itself. I’m almost grateful to have had the opportunity to be forced to draw with my left hand, though I wouldn’t go so far as to break the right to give it another go. 🙂

I actually sat in the office for about 3 hours with my sling before Alan [Alan Lee, the other prominent design artist for the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies] noticed. 🙂 He concentrates VERY completely on his work.

M: That was way more entertaining than it probably should have been – plus impressive! You had your arm in a sling, and at some point Alan Lee injured his left hand falling off a set near the Argonath, didn’t he? And people say art isn’t a dangerous job. Pfff. Speaking of Peter, do you have any favorite memories from your time working on the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies?

J: Peter is of course an astonishing person, or he would hardly be where he is now. 🙂 What I most remember about working with him (compared to many people of the various teams, especially the film crews, we didn’t see him very much, but we did have regular meetings over a long period of time) is his unquenchable and enduring enthusiasm for what he does. We would see him to get notes on artwork throughout the while time we were there, from the early days of pre-production right into the extended DVDs. Peter never misses a detail and never forgets a drawing, and happily for us,. I believe he enjoys seeing new artwork, so we always had 100% of his attention, even when he must have had a million other things to think about.

When the main unit was on the road, shooting around New Zealand, once every week or ten days, Alan and I would pack up a big manila envelope full of printouts of our artwork and catch a plane to some tiny airport, get our rental car and then head off to find main unit where they were shooting. Then we would sit and wait until Peter had time to see us and discuss artwork. Once or twice we waited a whole day before heading back to Wellington drawings not reviewed, because Peter couldn’t spare the smallest second. I recall spending a marvelous day on the shore of Lake Tekapo, where the refugees of Lake Town were gathered, sitting under a pine tree on a scavenged cushion, drawing statues for Erebor. Another time, in another location, with the sun playing hide and seek (and havoc with continuity) we ended up sitting inside Peter’s tent passing drawings to him when the sun stopped the shoot; it was a unique opportunity to see him coaxing scenes along, very inspiring.

Another time, I received a summons from Kong stage around 4:30 one afternoon. Alan was off sick – perhaps the only day he was away in 6 years – so I grabbed a sketchbook and rushed over. Peter had shot every possible angle of the current Lake town set, and needed to shoot a new sequence “elsewhere in Laketown” the next day. “Where’s Alan-and-John?” he said. “Present,” I replied. “Alan’s not here? Well then, you’re Alan-and-John today.” With his whole team listening in (no pressure!) he explained how he needed to make the existing set into a very different one, in entirely another part of the city. I took note, headed off back to our office, sat down and did a sketch before 6 o’clock, keeping in mind that not only did it have to appear very different, it also had to be rearranged overnight. Sketch done, back to Kong stage, sketch approved, and the drawing was rushed off to be scanned and distributed to the night crew. The next morning at 7, when the lighting crew arrived, the new set was in place. Whew.

Until next time!

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