In Conversation with John Howe

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Canadian John Howe, has been creating art for decades. His style, in both illustrations and concept designs, are recognisable in books and movies around the world. And of course, it is the art he has created for Professor Tolkien that has sealed Howe’s art in people’s minds. 

Jay Johnstone: When and how did Tolkien’s world become the focus of your attention?

John Howe: I read the books when I was fairly young, around 12 or so, but became interested in attempting to illustrate the books much later on, when I was in high school. In art school, Tolkien was a wonderful excuse to indulge, when personal projects were required.

JJ: Which of your paintings is the one you consider most important and why?

JH: While I’m VERY tempted to say that I haven’t done it yet, I believe the painting of Gandalf is the best-known one, so it has taken on the role of representing my Tolkien work in a way.

JJ: Did you have a favourite character from your early reading of Tolkien’s works and is that character still your favourite today?

JH: I can never answer those questions! I honestly prefer the more troubled characters, the ones who have deep conflicts and doubts. It’s worthwhile distinguishing between characters a person likes for emotional reasons and the ones that are more fun to draw, though! While it’s not really possible to admire the finely developed psychology of the Balrog, it is a challenge to depict.

JJ: Within the realms of fairy, myth and fantasy, which other stories are you drawn to?

JH: There are so many! I would love to illustrate the worlds of Robert Holdstock, for example. I have done a few covers, but an illustrated book, or even better, a film project, would be incredibly exciting to do. And, of course, the work of H. P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, Gustav Meyrink, M. P. Shiel, Algernon Blackwood, Leo Perutz and dozens more.

JJ: Your work and experiences during the making of LOTR and The Hobbit are well documented. What remains your proudest achievement from those projects?

JH: Surviving! It is quite hard work, and over an extended period. At one point, we were actually doing 90-hour weeks. Usually when you hear those kind of numbers, it’s people sitting in offices or meetings because they need to be present, but this was actually 100% time spent drawing and painting.

JJ: We are aware of the excellent relationship you have with Alan Lee, but who else blew you away from the creative team?

JH: It would take pages and pages to list all the amazingly skilled people who worked on both trilogies. Weta Workshop has some wonderful designers, and Weta Digital  wonderful 3-D modelers and more. I particularly enjoyed being part of “Team Smaug” with Gino Acevedo, during post-production on The Hobbit. We held weekly cross-departmental meetings to make sure the design and development of the dragon went smoothly (a dragon is so big that his wings cast a shadow over many different departments.)

JJ: How did you feel about creating scenes for the LOTR films that weren’t in the book?

JH: Peter was very eager to occasionally change the focus of the stories, taking events that happen “off stage” in the book and bringing them into focus. As well, you cannot simply put a book in a magic machine and expect a script to emerge from the other end. Transposing a literary work into another medium implies many changes.

JJ: In the films you did a great deal of concept work for the darker elements of the story. Was this as the jobs came up or were you drawn to the dark side?

JH: The first jobs simply came up that way, but later on, once we each acquired a certain familiarity with the visual vocabulary of the different cultures of Middle-earth, we continued on that way. There was certainly not a clear frontier between our work, though. For example Alan did much of the pre-production design of Erebor for The Hobbit trilogy, I did almost all of the post-production design. This said, I do like the darker elements of the stories.

JJ: You are renowned for your depiction of arms and armour. When and where did this love come from?

JH: Armour often has extraordinarily sophisticated and complex design, and can be very beautifully wrought. I also very much like the carapaces and shell of animals. Armour, or at least earlier armour, up to the medieval period, also takes you back to times rich in myth and legend.

JJ: How does your involvement with re-enactment groups impact on what you do?

JH: My involvement with re-enactment has been very enriching. Actually wearing costume and armour helps enormously to understand how it works.

JJ: 100 years from now, what would you hope people say about your work?

JH: I honestly wonder what might remain in 100 years. Given the incredible number of talented artists who are now completely forgotten (I am a great afficonado of late 19th-century and early 20th-century art, sculpture, decoration and illustration) I really do wonder. I hope some of the imagery might remain as a reference.

And we think it will! Huge thanks to John Howe for his time – our readers, and us with them, surely appreciate it!