Alan Lee Biography

Alan Lee is many peoples’ favourite Tolkien artist, his use of water colour and lack of definite lines makes for a magical image instantly recognisable as Lee’s work. He has been illustrating Tolkien’s universe since the 1970’s and recently became involved in concept art for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

“It felt as though the author had taken every element I’d ever want in a story and woven them into one huge, seamless narrative; but more important, for me, Tolkien had created a place, a vast, beautiful, awesome landscape, which remained a resource long after the protagonists had finished their battles and gone their separate wars.” Alan Lee

Place of Birth: Born in 1947. Middlesex, England.

Education: Lee studied art, specialising in illustrations, at the Ealing school of art. After graduating he lived and worked for a while in London, moving to Dartmoor in 1976. Most of his work before 1978 was in the publishing and advertising field, this changed with the publication of best selling “Faeries” and Lee has since established himself as an illustrator, winning the Kate Greenaway Gold medal for his illustrations.

Family: Alan Lee still lives in Dartmoor and has two grown up children, Owen and Virginia. His daughter is also an artist and worked with WETA doing sculptures for the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Calendars: Lee has only done one calendar, the 1993 Tolkien calendar, all 12 images were his work.

Books: Alan Lee is best known for his book illustrations. He has done numerous book covers. His work featured on the 1987 dust jackets of the Lord of the Rings three volume edition, and volumes VI through to IX of the History of Middle Earth series.
Lee’s work has also featured in the 1991 illustrated version of Lord of the Rings to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Tolkien’s birth, where he had 50 colour plates, and the 1997 version of The Hobbit.
The focus of the illustrations in the Lord of the Rings was more “distant” than those of The Hobbit. He has talked about his reasons for this:

“In illustrating The Lord of the Rings I allowed the landscapes to predominate. In some of the scenes the characters are so small they are barely discernible. This suited my own inclinations and my wish to avoid, as much as possible, interfering with the pictures being built up in the reader’s mind, which tends to be more closely focussed on characters and their inter-relationships. I felt my task lay in shadowing the heroes on their epic quest, often at a distance, closing in on them at times of heightened emotion but avoiding trying to re-create the dramatic highpoints of the text. With The Hobbit, however, it didn’t seem appropriate to keep such a distance, particularly from the hero himself. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a drawing of a Hobbit which quite convinced me, and I don’t know whether I’ve gotten any closer myself with my depictions of Bilbo. I’m fairly happy with the picture of him standing outside Bag End, before Gandalf arrives and turns his world upside-down, but I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the reasons Hobbits are so quiet and elusive is to avoid the prying eyes of illustrators.”

Other contributions: As well as illustrating Tolkien’s books, Alan Lee illustrated “Tolkien’s Ring” which was an exploration of the myths Tolkien based his work on.
Lee was also involved in the concept art for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, working along side Peter Jackson and John Howe.

Influences: In an interview for “Realms of Fantasy” magazine Alan Lee talks about his influences: “”I’ve been strongly influenced, in technique as well as subject matter, by some of the early 20th-century book illustrators — Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac in particular, Burne-Jones and other Pre-Raphaelites, and the Arts-&-Crafts movement they engendered. I’m continually inspired by Rembrandt, Breughel (I’ve wondered whether his brilliant “Tower of Babel” had inspired Tolkien’s description of Minas Tirith), Hieronymous Bosch, Albrecht Durer, and Turner; it’s not necessarily that they influence my work in any particular direction, more that their example raises my spirits, re-affirms my belief in the power of images to move and delight us, and shows me how much further I have to go, how much is possible. Having visited Venice and Florence for the first time, I am besotted with the Italian Renaissance artists — Botticelli, Bellini, da Vinci and others. Their work is calm, controlled, and yet each face and landscape contains such passion. In Botticelli’s paintings, every pebble and every leaf is rendered with a religious devotion; there is reverence inherent in paying such close attention to every stone, turning painting itself into a form of worship, an act of prayer.”

Concept art for Lord of the Rings trilogy: Alan Lee’s popularity has soared since he began working on the Concept Art for the trilogy. The project was huge, Lee worked on it for almost 3 years, including some work on the post production side. His favourite location was Edoras and the Golden hall. In the following interview for Borders, Alan Lee talks about working on the films.

When you began work on the Lord of the Rings movies, did you view it as bringing your previous work to life or creating something entirely new?
Working on Peter Jackson’s version of The Lord of the Rings has been the culmination of a long period of imaginative involvement with Tolkien’s work as a reader, illustrator, and now as a designer.
It has been partly a matter of expanding on imagery that I had already created for the books and that Peter has responded well to, but the majority of my time has been spent working on designs for sets, miniatures, and props for scenes that I hadn’t previously touched upon, or that have been changed by the demands and opportunities of working on this production.
What was the greatest creative challenge you faced in making the movies?
The greatest challenge has been the scale of the production, trying to keep half a step ahead of the 400 or so hardworking individuals in the art department and to keep coming up with ideas that are fresh and exciting enough to appeal to Peter’s imagination.
I completed 50 illustrations for the centenary edition of The Lord of the Rings and a few more for other related books, but we have produced nearly 400 different sets, as well as over 60 miniatures. I’ve also had input into [special effects studio] WETA Workshop’s brilliant work on the creatures and armour.
Describe your day-to-day working relationship with Jackson.
In the initial stages of the production, Peter would visit WETA every day for a design meeting with Richard Taylor, Grant Major, John Howe, myself, and the other designers, and we’d get a lot of immediate feedback. Since the juggernaut of the film production and all its attendant demands got under way, Peter’s time has been more limited, but the design process is still very important to him. He has the ability to maintain an artistic vision—and the energy needed to fulfil it—over a long period of time, and he has a very individual style. It’s been fascinating working with him.
Tell me about the use of computer animation in these films.
The use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) has hugely expanded the scope of this movie and allowed animators and modellers to create some breathtaking and vivid scenes. But the bulk of what you see on the screen in even the most awe-inspiring shots is made up of miniature and other physical elements that have been filmed and compounded together, and all the creatures and artefacts have been physically sculpted before being scanned, textured, and animated. One of the artists—Gino Acevedo—who designed and applied makeup to characters and creatures on set is now applying the same finishing process to a CGI Gollum using a PhotoShop airbrush instead of a real one.
What is remarkable about this movie is the extent to which Peter has imposed his style into the CGI end of the filmmaking process. By creating the same kind of dynamic camera moves on his miniatures that he achieves in his live action, he gets his effects sequences to merge seamlessly into—rather than interrupt—the drama.
In working with Jackson, how did you resolve issues of artistic conflict, if they came up?
There’s never been any question of artistic conflict between Peter and myself. These are his films. I’ve enjoyed watching them as well as being involved in their design, and I’m pleased that I have been given the opportunity to be part of such a remarkable project. The real thrill for me, though, is seeing how effectively the characters have been brought to life by our cast and how gripping the drama is. There is some nice scenery in the background, but it’s in the storytelling that the real magic happens—and I’m still captivated, even after all these years.

Creating his art: Almost all of Alan Lees work final work is done in water colour, but before that they start their life as small sketches, Lee gradually increases his work in size occasionally using models (usually his friends and family) for the closer detail work. He then transfers the sketch to water colour paper. “I like to leave as much unresolved as possible before starting to put on washes. This allows for an interaction with the medium itself, a dialogue between me and the paint. Otherwise it is too much like painting by number, or a one-sided conversation.”
Alan Lee uses his home in Dartmoor for basis of a lot of his works. He describes the process of gathering photographs and sketches before starting an illustration as “priming the pump” saying that by filling oneself with ideas and images before the work, the imagination can flow freely and yet be grounded in reality.

Other interests: Alan Lee also takes an interest in literature and poetry, jazz and blues music, archaeology, history and walking in Devon.

On illustrating Tolkien:“it is quite a mine field treading through Tolkien’s world, but you somehow have to trust your own judgement and your own vision. Tolkien’s descriptions are so beautiful and poetic, yet he has left plenty of room for us to make our own little explorations.”


Borders- concept art
Realms of Fantasy article
TOR.n Interview

Researched and edited by k.

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