At The Tolkien Society event The Return of the Ring, at Loughborough University, I was fortunate to meet the legend that is Ted Nasmith. As the new kid on the block, I must confess, I was both thrilled and awestruck to meet someone whose art had been part of my life for such a long time. With this interview, I wanted to talk to him about something that is close to my heart, about how art allows people to find meaning in their lives and give directions. Qualifications are important, but they do not define who you are and through art and literature you can find your place in this world.
JJ: As a shy child struggling to engage socially how did drawing and painting help you?
TN: I think for me, or any introspective sensitive child, the practice of drawing, or any other solitary activity which exercises the imagination and can be enjoyed privately, is very therapeutic and helps offset the over-stimulation one experiences in a fractious family or out in the unruly, potentially awkward social realms of school and the playground. My retreat into my imagination as expressed in pictures, was a great help in the business of staying reasonably balanced, as well as a great joy in and of itself.
JJ: How did you initially discover the works of Tolkien and how did this impact on you and your art?
TN: The arrival of The Lord of the Rings in my life around the age of 14 was pivotal, certainly. My older sister’s high school circle were reading and discussing Tolkien, and she soon recommended it to me. At the time I had only just recently had a key breakthrough in my future direction professionally, and was an art student. At graduation from elementary school in Grade 8, I still had not decided on a general direction for my high school courses, and, strange as it sounds, I had no clue that my habitual drawing was the obvious clue to the answer. It took a meeting with the guidance counselor to inform me that I was a natural for a comprehensive commercial arts program being offered in a neighbouring jurisdiction. I was soon making great strides in developing my potential as an illustrator, and gaining a lot of social confidence as well, and it was during this highly nourishing creative environment that I read Tolkien’s great epic novel. Not long after, I was all about making drawings from this hugely appealing invented world, despite also having a passion for car illustration and dreams of a related career.
JJ: You graduated and went on to be a successful commercial artist. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration and the path that led you to be published as a Tolkien illustrator?
TN: Once I’d embarked on my ‘mission’ to create illustrations from LotR (and later TH and QS) according to what I perceived as a more sensitive approach than in any of the (few) examples I knew of Tolkien art available then, it wasn’t long until the first illustrated calendars appeared in shops, and once I saw that they featured artists and art from fan-artists, rather like what I was pursuing, I aimed to be ‘discovered’ and published. It then took roughly 15 years to make the right connections and have my existing work seen by Tolkien’s publishers. I accomplished this partly as a consequence of joining The Tolkien Society in the mid 80s. A fellow member knew Jane Johnson and sent her photos of my gouache pieces, and she soon suggested I meet her colleague David Fielder. Mr Fielder was traveling to Toronto the following year for a Sci-fi/Fantasy convention, and I duly signed on and met him with my art. He chose 4 works which were published in the 1987 JRR Tolkien Calendar.
JJ: Illustrating the Silmarillion was a breakthrough milestone in your career. How did that come about and what opportunities did it create?
TN: Around 1996 I began re-reading The Silmarillion with an eye to potential illustrations. I considered it a book that could especially benefit from artwork given its remote, somber and often tragic content, colouring perceptions of it as compared to The Lord of the Rings. Over a period of months I compiled a series of thumbnail drawings; maybe 200 or more, covering the entire book. I then chose among these sketches and worked them up in colour as roughs and early impressions in a process of refinement. It was this effort that I then decided to submit to Harper Collins as a series of possible illustrations, but mindful that the best I had any right to expect was for the art to be published in an art book tribute to the actual book. It turned out that the editors presented the sketches to Christopher Tolkien during a routine meeting, and he responded so positively that he was persuaded for the first time since its publication to entertain the possibility of an illustrated edition. It’s hard to say whether or how publishing my art in such a prestigious way may have raised my stock or paved the way for other high-profile projects or opportunities, but I did receive a commission to illustrate 3 successive Tolkien calendars soon after, and continue to enjoy great acclaim. Quite possibly there’s a link to George RR Martin’s high regard for my work, though it may just be my general profile and good fortune at continuing to be identified strongly with Tolkien illustration.
JJ: Game of Thrones has brought you a new avenue to explore. How much influence has the world of Tolkien guided your way?
TN: In some ways, my orientation to Tolkien’s world artistically proved to be an obstacle to a more effortless ability to project my imagination into Westeros and its tales. Martin’s prose style is very different and edgy, with an emphasis on dialogue between characters and much less description of landscape or Tolkien’s delight in creating an often melancholic atmosphere of decline and change within his world. Martin’s world is solidly harsh by contrast, a great struggle of people and Royal Houses against the constant threat of political intrigue, recalling the grittier plays of Shakespeare, if anything. It was important to adapt my art to this less idealistic world, though I nonetheless brought my aesthetic instincts to bear on it, honed in so many Tolkien illustrations. And the task for me was much more about conceiving the principle characters convincingly, with all the research into costume and age-appropriate looks it would mean. Even when it came to my first main assignment for Martin, the design of several of the main castles, Tolkien didn’t offer a template, since in Middle-earth one would be hard pressed to find a proper castle of the sort so common to our canon of familiar faerie tales or medieval/Arthurian sagas.
TN: It can be achieved. You must continually pursue the impulse to draw pictures. It is a divine gift, one to be treasured.
JJ: What advice would you give to young artists who are thinking of making a career in the arts?
TN: Don’t give up on your dreams, and when difficulties arise in capturing a subject, it’s totally okay to borrow ideas from artists and art you aspire towards. Most, if not all successful artists, learn best by imitation of those they admire. Originality may come later, but it is far down the list of essential ingredients for artistic fulfillment and career success. Also, I recommend taking instruction, either casually by tutor or fellow artist, or formally within an art school. Exposure to other student or expert artists is a great way to accelerate the process of learning the methods and how-to of painting and drawing. Experiment! And above all do not be discouraged by failure – it is evidence you are progressing, paradoxically, since the easiest way to understand the problem at hand is by trying out ideas and then matter-of-factly discarding the efforts that come up short. Finally, don’t expect success overnight, or to necessarily be employed in the specialty you yearn towards. In my case, I was fortunate to get to apprentice as a young architectural renderer, but it was by no means what I envisioned. Still, I learned valuable ideas and methods I use to this day. Many young artists may need to work in another profession or job entirely while they seek to break into the field of art they dream of.
JJ: Where does the path now lead for Mr Nasmith?
TN: I believe it will consist of a continuation for me of commission work for fantasy subjects, but my aim is also to ease up on the career accelerator and turn more to work I’ve had precious little time to pursue while economics was paramount. That might include automotive art (I’m still mad for 60s American cars), or the pastel and painting subjects gathered from rural areas near my home, such as old barns and sheds. I would also like to return to composing songs and performing music more often, if not recording new and old songs I’ve written or may yet write.