Born in August 1947, Alan Lee began his career as a book illustrator with the release of Faeries (with Brian Froud) in 1978. Subsequently has worked as a concept artist on films including King Kong and The Return of the King – for which he won an Oscar. Alan lives and works in Devon.Web: www.alun-lee.com
“I was very fortunate that I was able to go to a school that did art as a technical subject.” For Alan, this experience rapidly matured into a realisation: “I first conceived the idea of being an illustrator at the age of 15.”
Taking his exams early, by 16 Alan found himself at Ealing Art School studying graphic design, but specialising in illustration. In practical terms what this meant was, “While everyone else was busy with advertising I was left to myself, illustrating Irish myths in the corner,” he laughs.
Don’t think Alan was being left out: “It was great!” Although not in the sense that he learned a lot of painterly ways. You get a sense of art school being a dangerous place for a callow youth. “It was just a great space and time to pursue my interests,” is how Alan describes it.Watercolour
Alan’s love of watercolour can be traced to his first encounter with Edmund Dulac, “I think I was about 20 and I remember being totally amazed.” Dulac’s work, which often featured fantastic and mythical themes, struck Alan with the feeling of possibility but there was another door to be opened.
“The revelation was finding watercolour paper and just seeing how different it was to any other surface and how much it interacts.” The experience of painting with watercolour lived up to Alan’s expectations: “You just keep on working wet into wet. Unexpected things happen then, and you respond to them immediately. It’s more of a dialogue.”
For that reason, he has become known as a master of the watercolour medium. “I love traditional media,” he says. “Pencil, watercolour and charcoal… I find those the most satisfying.” But, thanks to his work with Peter Jackson on the Lord of the Rings, Alan Lee now works digitally. Digital world
While doing work for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which would later win him an Academy Award, Alan found himself presented with an entirely alien device and asked to paint with it. “Up until that time I didn’t even have email,” he recalls. “But it was the perfect environment in which to learn.”
His first pieces constructed with Photoshop had a genuine effect on the artist: “The first paintings ended up looking like watercolours because I tended to kind of build up with tints. I was working mainly at around 30 per cent and building them up as half-tones.” Like a duck to water, then.
But there’s a caveat: “It always feels to me that if you’re trying make your digital art work look like watercolour then it might be best to actually use watercolour.” So Alan began to explore: “Becoming aware of other artists using the computer was a revelation, I was just blown away by what was being done.” Tolkien
To get the full story on how Alan wound up in New Zealand we need to rewind a few years. “I first read Lord of the Rings when I was 17. I think that’s the perfect time to discover it.” It had a lasting impression on the budding artist: “I was living in that world for months after.”
At college Alan began to produce ‘Tolkienesque’ artwork but nothing based on the books directly. Then, once he graduated, making a living as an illustrator became his primary ambition, which led to work on book covers: “And a lot of romantic fiction.” It was at this time – 1970 – that Alan found an agent in the shape of Artists Partners and met Brian Froud.
In 1978 Alan and Brian had a breakthrough with the publication of Faeries, and while this led Brian off to do The Dark Crystal, Alan concentrated on his mythical theme. “After The Mabinogion, the next book I did was Castles, a look at castles in legend.” Naturally this entailed some Tolkien castles.
As fate would have it, Castles was published by none other that Allen and Unwin. “They happened to be Tolkien’s publishers at the time,” Lee explains. It took some time but the next step was an illustrated LOTR. “That idea had always been batted away by the Tolkien estate but I did a few trial pieces and they gave it the go-ahead!”Movie star
That’s how Alan became a concept designer at visual effects company WETA, producing some 2,500 Tolkien drawings over six years. “I learned so much through the process,” he says. “The potential of film is so enormous.” And the process is also very different.
“The drawings in New Zealand, they were done to illustrate a point,” says Alan. “I quite like it when the illustrations have this other purpose so you’re not really conscious of the aesthetics so much.” They’re working drawings, he says, “but being done quickly and loosely means they’re not self-conscious.”
Not surprisingly, that six years flew by. “It felt like no time at all on the plane home.” But, nestling among the artist’s hand luggage was a new prized possession: an Academy Award.Rabbit in the headlights
“It was amazing, and really quite bizarre.” Alan was enthralled by the night The Return of the King swept the board at the Oscars: “I was totally up for the experience. I wasn’t going to be cynical about it even one bit. I just wanted to enjoy every moment, and I did.”
Alan was nominated along with Grant Major and Dan Hennah. “You get 45 seconds before you get yanked off the stage so we decided if we did win, we would have 15 seconds each.” The running order for those 15 seconds of fame: “Grant first, then Dan, then me, and I would thank Peter.” Alan’s lot were among the first up so at this point LOTR and Peter Jackson were still only Oscar nominees.
“Grant started speaking, and we’re looking out at this audience you can’t really make out but you know it has all those famous faces in it.” Feel the tension: “Right behind me is Angelina Jolie and Grant seemed to be taking forever.”
Finally it was Alan’s turn, “I said something nice about Peter, then I looked out and there’s this huge sign in the middle of the auditorium.” Obviously there’d be some signal to start winding up, “But it actually said ‘End It Now!’” He did, and the rest is history.