He’s one of the greatest Lord of the Rings illustrators ever. It all began with a sketchpad,
some oil pastels and a bit of inspiration…
In 1976, John Howe made a startling discovery. “My goodness, this is just extraordinary,” he thought. “You can do pictures of The Lord of the Rings and get them published and maybe get paid.”
In his teens at the time, he’d picked up a JRR Tolkien Lord of the Rings calendar illustrated by The Brothers Hildebrandt and was doing his own pastel versions of the images. Like the Hobbits in Tolkien’s epic stories, little did he realise at the outset the scale of the journey he was embarking on.
Not only did John become one of the most famous Lord of the Rings illustrators around, but by 1999 he found himself in New Zealand working on the biggest fantasy project ever embarked upon – Peter Jackson’s movie version of the trilogy. “It was a unique experience – very exciting, lots of fun, loads of hard work – in New Zealand,” says John. “And very, very different to work with a huge team of talented people on a colossal project. There it was really like being a small cog in a huge machine to help make it all trundle forward until the final movie.”Location, location, location
Working alongside Alan Lee, John’s role was to sketch locations according to briefs from Peter Jackson. These would be reviewed with the director and then translated into maquettes. After testing with a lipstick camera, they’d then either be built as life-sized sets, or as physical or digital miniatures – sometimes as all three.
Two of his favourite experiences working on the films were the trips to Matamata, where Hobbiton was built, and to the hill near Christchurch where they created Edoras, the capital of Rohan. “You spend quite a while thinking about these places, what they might look like, and then you’re suddenly faced with the actual physical location and everything just sort of clicks into place,” says John. “It was really quite extraordinary when we arrived in a potential site for Hobbiton, we just sat down and started sketching things because it all seemed fit. Adjusting weeks of fictitious architectural tinkering and drawing-board wishful thinking to the lay of actual land projects you even deeper into the culture and design you’ve created. It’s a crucial step to making it feel real.”Living history
Working on the films has been one of the biggest projects in John’s career – the pinnacle perhaps of his long standing relationship with Tolkien’s works. In the 80s and 90s he worked on numerous illustrations for the same series of calendars he recreated as a teenager. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and Numenor have all received John’s watercolour and ink treatment, as have board games, card sets and maps of Middle-earth. Part of his dedication to JRR Tolkien comes through his respect for the author’s style.
“Tolkien has a truly astonishing gift for not really describing situations in minute visual detail, relying instead on the emotions of the characters in those situations. So you’re very much more free to depict whatever image it stirs up in you. I find his historical interest actually implies a similar approach for the visual aspects. It should feel real, as if it is in a parallel history of some kind,” explains John.
To John, it’s almost as though Tolkien is recording the history of Middle-earth. This gives it more gravity than other fantasy work, which doesn’t have the historical element and to John feels a touch flimsy.
Perhaps the appeal of the writer’s authentic style is charged further by John’s general love of history. He has a great appreciation for archaeology, and collects and makes swords, shields and other implements from the medieval period. A member of the Companie of Saynt George, a living history group, he’s not one to shy away from historical accuracy.
The Companie has a strict approach. It’s focused on the period from the 1450s to 1475, and close attention is paid to detail. Stitching, the cloth, the leather… When John finds himself in the midst of an accurately recreated medieval camp it’s as though he can be in one of his pictures.
“We don’t wear cloaks any more, we don’t wear hose, or leather boots, we don’t wear chain-mail or armour. To render it properly it’s useful to know how it functions,” he says. “How it wears, what boots look like if you walked a whole day
in the dust, how you have to wear a sword in order to walk comfortably, all of those things are little tiny helpmates to give you a little more access to something convincing.”Architecture
There’s a similar level of dedication where architecture is concerned. One of John’s favourite periods is the Carolingian – the 800s, when Charlemagne reigned and when dragons were very much alive and well, in European folklore at least. He also appreciates castles, Romanesque sculpture, Armenian, Abyssinian and Moorish architecture and just about anything right up to the 1930s. Exploring Gothic cathedrals always feeds his imagination.
“If I have a fantasy image to do and I need to draw a window, I want to have at the disposal of my imagination every window that’s ever been built from every period in the entire world. I don’t want to be stuck with a shortcut for windows. You see so many illustrations where you have a castle in the background and the illustrator has put in windows, but they’re windows from a house, because that’s what he knows,” says John.
Using accuracy in the details to suspend disbelief, John effectively enhances the fantastical and unreal elements of his pictures. Since his childhood when he consumed paperbacks in order to see the artwork of Frank Frazetta, he’s been inspired by fantasy art and book covers were a major early influence for him. During his career he’s worked on plenty of books and their jackets including Myth and Magic in 2001, and A Diversity of Dragons, which was done with Anne McCaffrey.
By the time you read this, another two books by John will be at your disposal. Firstly his Fantasy Art Workshop (see box, page 68) and secondly a classical, illustrated version of Beowulf, published
by Templar. “I can’t say enough about Beowulf. It’s just such a grim, relentless, extraordinary tale of disaster and woe,” enthuses John.
John’s journey started with a simple desire to do a Lord of the Rings calendar, and when we ask him if he’d still like to do one, he answers in the affirmative. “I’d like to do one, I would indeed,” he says slowly. There’s something just a little Hobbit-esque about that…