I met Jay Johnstone at the Return Of The Ring convention. It was the summer of 2012 and the Tolkien Society had organised a large scale event for all things Tolkien at Loughborough University.
I was in charge of organising the authors and their book signings, which were to take place in the dealers and art gallery. I was obviously surrounded by talented people, some who I had met through the Society in previous years, and some completely new to me. Occupying 5 tables along the western wall was one of these artists, German born Jay Johnstone.
As I walked along his station, my eyes were drawn to a vast array of Tolkien inspired portraits, strikingly set in the Eastern Orthodox iconographic style. I remember staring down at a regal looking man, admiring his straight nose and rounded cheekbones that wouldn’t be amiss on a Byzantine painting. Imagine my surprise when I realised it was Aragorn, from The Lord Of The Rings opus. The delicacy of the lines, set against a golden background on a wooden board, added so much to the overall presentation that I truly felt like I had stumbled across an early Christian image. Just like the Christ Pantocrator, he even had a halo. This particular touch, of the halo, present in many of Jay’s iconographic images, from Gandalf to Frodo to Arwen, was also the cause of more than a few raised eyebrows and interesting discussions on the theme of using religious artistic liberties to bring Fantasy to life. For some it was too much to take in, but it seemed that the majority of the convention goers saw true art and a homage to ancient styles instead, because by the end of the event Jay had sold almost all of his work.
Jay’s diverse technique seems to have evolved through the exploration and reinvention of the artists and styles he loves. He has given us visions of Middle-earth in Assyrian style using clay on slate bas relief; on Medieval illuminated manuscripts using gouache on board with gold leaf and frescoes, all the way to oil on paper modern portraits, passing via Gustav Klimt. He likes to work in most mediums – oils, watercolours, acrylics, egg tempera with Gold powder and gold leaf.
His enthusiasm for diversity and experimentation brought him to display his work at Oxford’s annual Oxonmoot, RingCon, in Germany, and all the way to LA – attending the Unexpected “Oscar” party with Peter Jackson.
Since last year, Jay has been exploring a new realm and its characters, that of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros. Since 2011, the Game of Thrones TV series has been brought to life for millions of viewers the world over, thanks to the excellent performances of its actors and the incredible characters they play. This was another natural opportunity for Jay to expand his portrait panorama to include these characters. Using oil on panels, the faces of Starks, Lannisters and Greyjoys have come to haunt our imagination.
One of my favourite portraits is that of Yara Greyjoy. The side of her face which is hidden in shadow is cracked, as if time has been nibbling at the painting over the centuries. Her gaze is telling a story – she carries many cares, but strength is there also, hovering just behind her clear eyes. I imagined a museum curator rediscovering it in the forgotten depths of a vast storage room, where it had lain dormant for centuries. Once again, Jay’s ability to set his work in the past is so well mastered that you cannot believe they have been painted only months or a few years before.
Over the course of the last three years, Newcastle based Jay Johnstone has established himself as one of the most prominent fantasy artists on the scene, leaving the public hungry for more.