M: Do you keep any kind of schedule to help with your productivity?
J: When we were working on the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, I had an office job! It’s quite a switch from working in your own home. At Weta Digital, in post-production, we had the liberty of working to the timetable we wished; for many months I would arrive at work at 4 a.m., (principally because the computer switched to the current day at 4 a.m., so if you swiped your card too early, it thought you were arriving at work the day before…) which meant I could have a painting more or less done when everyone else started to arrive between 8 and 9. I love the quiet hours of the early morning, and we were blessed with a tui that would sing to the sunrise outside the office. (Tuis are the most remarkable birds, I really miss them.) There were a few periods where we were working 80 hours a week, but generally we worked a normal week of 50, which is the standard in the film industry. Clearly, when I work at home, it’s likely I work much less, but I enjoy mixing work and the daily household activities. Also, with a regular space for painting, a “pulpit” to draw standing up, sketchbooks & sofas, as well as the computer, I never stay too long in any one place. 🙂
M: I’ve never even heard of a Tui; now I’ll look them up! Have you ever experienced artist’s block, and if so, what did you do?
I’ve never experienced writer’s block, but then I write so little that it’s more a recreation than an actual job. The artist’s equivalent of writer’s block is not something I’ve experienced either. The whole notion of the “white” or “blank page” to my mind is an error of interpretation. If you consider a sheet of paper to be your window on an infinite space, inside of which you are going to detail with your pencil the contours, then there really is no possibility of not finding ideas. I wonder if many people use formats that are too small; the equivalent of trying to see a landscape through a tiny window. If you reach into that space with your pencil, even though of course you are drawing on a flat sheet of paper, if you reach in and trace the contours of what you imagine, or can see first, the image will emerge of its own accord, as if a mist was gradually lifting.
It may be as well that for many people, drawing is a one-way operation: putting what you have in your head on paper. I prefer to think of drawing as a conversation, a three-way dialogue between artist, idea and drawing, with each providing hints and inspiration. For this to happen, the right speed of execution needs to be found (it naturally varies with everyone) where your pencil and your mind advance at the same speed, or never too far from each other. Think too fast, and your pencil struggles to keep up; the drawing is rushed and messy. Too slow, and you bog down in detail that can interrupt the flow of inspiration, and transform the sketch from an incidental exercise to something else entirely.
Maintaining the right distance between artist and page is important too – too many people make errors linked to writing (the materials used are so similar) but don’t get me started on that. 🙂
M: What was the best piece of artistic advice you ever received, and what single piece of advice would you pass on to budding artists?
J: I can certainly recall lots of BAD advice I received, but not much good, really. I think the best was from Alan Lee, about sketchbooks: If you are reluctant to draw on the first page of a new sketchbook, for fear of doing an awful drawing you will be stuck with every time you show it to anyone, then start in the middle. [Note from Mirriam: John gave me this advice when I mentioned my reluctance to mar the pages of my Daler-Rowney sketchbook, and I took it. It works.]
To budding artists, I would have so much to say that it would take ages to sum it up, and it ranges from pencil sharpening and how to hold it, through developing skills like perspective and the like. Perhaps the most important, though is to find your voice, and to have something to say with what you do. Oh, I could encourage those who wish to copy to do exactly that, copy to their heart’s content; it is the fastest way to learn. If something strikes you in another artist’s work and you feel the desire to copy it, then don’t hesitate, it is the absolute quickest way to understand what appeals to you and to get past it quickly. The siren song often put forward to young people about being original at all costs can have the opposite effect, and often comes from professors who somehow consider the copy to be a capitulation, and who, upon inspection, don’t often produce much of any originality themselves.
Copy and get it out of your system, you’ll have explored what intrigued you in the most efficient fashion.
Otherwise, very simple advice: draw. Just draw. The drawings themselves the least important thing, it’s what you will learn while doing them that will liberate your imagination.
M: You mentioned getting loads of bad advice – is there any common bad advice handed out to budding artists?
Much of it has to do with expression at the cost of development, the pictorial equivalent of telling concert musicians that solfège is a waste of time, and not demanding that they be fluent in musical notation. Learning to see properly is a long process, and everything that can liberate the creator from awkwardness and difficulty getting an idea across is worth learning. This said, academism can be a trap when it is rigid and institutionalised, but learning how to draw lets you decide how you wish to draw.
Teaching art history is also full of pitfalls; I’ve sat through classes that turned every subject into a stultifying marathon of dates and names. Art history should be vibrant and fun; the scope of human artistic achievement over literally millennia is astonishing, rich and exciting. Being told to prioritise “developing a style” is another instruction that leaves me perplexed. I’m sure there are many more that have set off alarm bells in my head, but as I’m sure I’ve said, I’m not good at lists. 🙂
M: The next question comes from a blog reader, Rana; she says you mentioned the ‘ideal’ piece of art – have you ever captured it on paper and if so, which work was it?
The ideal piece of art is of course the ever-elusive archetype – the painting of a mountain that somehow sums up all mountains, or the seascape that encompasses the very idea of all the oceans of the world… Of course, that’s not possible, but the essence of these things can come close to the surface of a painting that achieves what I call the immobile narrative, the sense of time encompassed in something that remains fundamentally unchangable in terms of human perception.
But of course, that’s not entirely true either. The best picture is always the next one, because its potential is intact. As a picture progresses, each decision eliminates other choices, until finally there are no more decisions to take. It would be wonderful if all those faded opportunities could still be part of the picture, like a palimpsest of possibilities-in-passing, but generally they are submerged and forgotten.
I find little appeal in going back to fiddle with an existing piece, it belongs to the moment and circumstance that created it; better to let it alone and start something new. On the other hand, I enjoy revisiting themes, I have a series of paintings under way right now that does just that, borrows a theme from the preceding image to create the next one. (Hard to fit in with commissions though, so it’s not going too quickly.)
M: What are the most visually stunning/creative examples of entertainment you’ve ever seen
(besides those in Middle-Earth)?
I’m terribly bad at answering questions involving “most”, favourite” or “best” (followed by any number and theme of your choice). There have been split seconds from even the most un-entertaining blockbusters where I’ve snapped to attention and thought what a beautiful – and fleeting – image THAT was. Equally, my memory does me disservice more often than not, and embellishes those films where a split second appealed and I retain a fond memory of a truly awful movie because of one moment.
My favourite moments in film are usually either the occasionally beautiful close-ups with stunning prosthetics and lighting, or the wide vistas, although these days they often seem to be marred by tiny figures traipsing casually along the edges of precipices, when you can feel they were on an ample green-screened studio floor.
My favourite films have relatively little in the way of VFX, and concentrate on more subtle details to create striking tension and atmosphere – I’m thinking here of Stalker, which I love, and which was done long before any form of vfx; nevertheless, it’s an intensely spiritual film about the human plight where our mundane universe touches on the extraordinary or otherworldly. Recently I was member of a design jury at the NIFFF (the Neuchatel International Fantastic Film Festival – yes! a real high-end festival right IN the town where we live; this year Michael Moorcock was the guest of honour) and while there were far more professionally made films in the running, we chose “Crumbs”, by Miguel Llansó, an Ethiopian film with a modest budget shot with local actors and practically no vfx. Nonetheless, the director had managed to confer a truly powerful symbolism on the locations (the film takes place in an undefined post-apocalyptic world, shot entirely in Ethiopia) and created a magical atmosphere with an almost shamanistic touch.