//Sessions with John Howe: Part 2

If you’re new to this series, or would like to refresh your memories, you can find Part 1 here.

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?

J:

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?

J:

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?

J:

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)?

J:

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.

To Be Continued…

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//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 www.john-howe.com] 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!