Biography of John Howe

John Howe is one of my favourite Tolkien illustrators. He has been illustrating Tolkien for over 12 years and done pretty much everything, from Calendars to concept art for the movies. He also gives fantastic interviews.

“It is difficult to describe in a few words the fascination of Tolkien’s world. Perhaps it is the capacity for renewal – the insights brought while simply getting on with life – that makes going there and back again never quite the same journey.” John Howe.

Birth place: Born in Vancouver BC, Canada in 1967.

Education: After high school Howe moved to Strasbourg, France to learn some of the language and spend a year in Europe. From here he enrolled in the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs, he remained here for three years. He then moved to Switzerland, originally intending to work on an animated film, he instead went into illustrations.
In 1991 he gained a diploma in Illustration.

Family: Howe lives in Switzerland with his wife Fatenah, who is also an Illustrator and his five year old son, Dana.

Calendars: Howe is of course well known for his Tolkien calendars. He has had illustrations in parts of the 1987, 1988 and 1992 calendars. He had also produced entire calendars for the years 1991, 1995, 1997 and 2001.

Book covers: John Howe has illustrated on three paperback book covers. Two of these were “The Hobbit” and the other is the famous Gandalf painting on the cover of “The Lord of the Rings”.

Maps and posters: As well as a set of commemorative posters for the 50th anniversary of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. He has also produced the “Images of Middle Earth” poster collection. Howe’s maps are; “There and Back again” which is a map of the Hobbit, a map of Tolkien’s Middle Earth and a Map of Tolkien’s Beriland.

Other contributions: Howe has also had illustrations in- Realms of Tolkien, Tolkien’s Dragons and Monsters postcard book and Tolkien’s Middle Earth postcard book. Howe also worked with Peter Jackson and Alan Lee on some conceptual art for the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.

Influences: Howe comments on his early influences in an interview from Autumn 2001:
“I was blown away by Frank Gazetta when I was fifteen, then I discovered people like Bernie, all American comic or fantasy-illustrators really. And then I slowly came to know other, older illustrators. Turn of the century was my favourite period. And then I slowly became familiar with other artistic movements and all those other wonderful, wonderful artists.”
Howe is also involved in Medieval re-enactment, which he says he draws heavily on when doing his work.:
“Medieval re-enactment has become a major influence on my fantasy work. As a member of a serious group I have become aware of how real costume works; how cloaks are worn, swords suspended, bows drawn, what keeps helmets from falling off, how chain mail feels (like a ton of bricks at the end of the day) and how to get along without pockets. Gandalf wears one of the swords that I own, though I much regret that the beard is not mine.”

Concept art for the Lord of the Rings Trilogy: Howe collaborated with Alan Lee and Peter Jackson to get some amazing visual art for lord of the rings, many of you will recognise paintings of Howe’s as being almost exact copies of scenes in the movie- or vice versa. The following are extracts from an interview originally posted and reported by Leo for, in the Autumn of 2001.

Earlier on this morning during your lecture you mentioned there are some characters you find hard to draw. Can you give us an example?
Ents. Ents are very hard to draw, yeah I find many… I find the Elves very hard to draw as well because they are so beautiful. I like the way Peter Jackson portrayed Legolas, I think he’s great. I mean it’s not at all the way I see him, but I think he looks wonderful. And the other Elves, I’m very surprised by Elrond, the guy from the Matrix, but I think it’s a great choice, he looks really, really good. Maybe half of the things in the movie I don’t see the way as the movie does, but I’m not making the movie. It’s difficult to find men to play Elves you know… Elves should be tall, they should be incredibly beautiful. It’s difficult to find male faces for such parts. As for the Ents, I have not seen the way they are going to show the Ents, I mean, we saw the miniatures they were working on, but I have no idea what it’s going to look like on the big screen.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while working on the movie?
Working next to Alan Lee, he’s amazing. And the other thing is, you go into a project like this thinking this is the project of a lifetime, it’s a very important project given the fact that they are only going to do this once. I thought there was something intriguely valid in Lord of the Rings that I wanted to do it, but now I realise that what is really interesting about a project like this is the people you get to meet, the people you get to work with, the people you get to know…

What was it like working as a concept artist for the Lord of the Rings movie? How closely did you get to work with the set designers, props designers, costume designers etc. etc.?
Well… it was all very ‘organic’, there were very few lines drawn. I mean there were rules, but generally a good idea was a good idea, no matter who it came from. So there was not really a situation in which everyone else but Peter Jackson could veto an idea. And it was up to us to simply put forward the best we could come up with, and then it went from there. And we were allowed to go in and work on the sets ourselves, and the miniatures… There was a lot of continual feedback going back and forth all the time.

Did it occur that they would shoot some scenes with a specific costume or prop, and that it didn’t quite work out so you’d have to do it all over again?
Umm… I was mostly involved in the environments and not so much involved, actually not at all, in the costumes. But occasionally you had to go back and redo everything. It’s all a question of how things work, you know they work on paper, they work as a small model but they don’t always work in full size. Things were being changed all the time.

Are you still involved in post-production, or is all of it done by Alan Lee?
(nods) yeah, it’s something you can’t do at a distance, I’d love to go back to New Zealand for it but apparently it’s not the order of the day. I’m sure they’ll manage, they are wrapping up this summer, so..

What do you think is the biggest mistake Peter Jackson made while working on the movie?
I really can’t answer that, that’s a question for him… I have enormous respect for Peter of course, I didn’t know anything about him before we went to New Zealand, didn’t have a clue about what he’d done, I’d never seen one of his movies. But the more you get to know him, the more you realise he is really a grand person, he is honestly one of the people that will go down in filmmaking history and not just as the maker of thrillers or horror films. He’s capable of making good, really wonderful drama, so whatever artistic differences we might have had are really irrelevant.

Can you tell us a bit more about how the work was divided between you and Alan Lee?
I think you’ll definitely see Alan Lee’s work, but I think no one will know which is his and which is mine exactly, because a lot of things got mixed up. Alan spent twice as much time on the movie so he’ll have a huge amount of things that look very much like his style. I did Bag End, the interior, and I did a lot of fiddling around with weapons and armoury and I also did a lot to do with Mordor, all that black, terrifying stuff. And Alan Lee basically did the other stuff, Edoras, Minas Tirith, etc. etc. And there were bits and pieces here and there. They build quite a lot of sets considering … umm… well, there’s nothing worse then these movies where you have nothing but landscapes, a typical Conan the Barbarian-movie, with all those huge landscapes and then suddenly there’s a city, there’s nothing else around for miles and miles, but there’s a city. And that’s a thing I think Peter Jackson is working hard to improve upon, because it has to look real, it has to look like it’s supposed to be there. I don’t know how much they were able to do, but Middle-earth is a place that is filled with ruins, it’s full of people that disappeared and it only has a fraction of the population it had in the second age. So there should be all these remains lying around, all these ruins and all these civilisations that are slowly declining. The Elves that are getting ready to go to the Grey Havens. And again I don’t know how often you’ll come across these things in the movie but it seems really appropriate, this whole idea that it’s the end of an age and it will never be the same again.

What part of the movie do you think will be ‘big’, will surprise everyone?
I think the battle-scenes will be, you know, never seen before. We will all see when we will go see the movies in December, but I think it will be very fast. I know all the actors were very good, there was a lot of emotion in them, I think it was a happy movie in that sense, but I think the people will be blown away by the things they least expect, and I can’t tell you what hehehe…. Peter Jackson is no fool, he doesn’t want to go down in history as the man who screwed up Lord of the Rings for the second time, so… and he’s fearless, if he wants something you might as well step out of the way because you’ll get trodden flat if he has to get past you to get it. He is an amazing man, he really is an astonishing person, and there’s this amazing set of circumstances before the film ended up in his hands, for no good reason honestly. He’s not the Ridley Scott or the John Boorman or the people you would automatically think of it to do it. When he took it on he made like what, five movies? A young filmmaker, living in New Zealand, wanted to shoot the whole thing in New Zealand, I think initially everybody thought it was a crazy scheme. But when you look, you realise that nowhere else in the world would you have the same landscapes, nowhere else in the world would you have the room to build the sets that you wanted, because where they build Edoras for example; anywhere in Europe there would be a castle on it for the last two thousand years, for as in New Zealand they had 360 degrees of wonderful landscape they could shot. So they could build the whole thing, and I mean you saw the landscape in New Zealand, it is very similar to Europe, but it’s not quite the same, it’s something, something strange, so it really is Middle-earth. And if the sets and the miniatures and all that are convincing, and I’m sure that these Kiwi’s know what they are doing, it may not be Hollywood but it is literally the next best thing and even better, and they just go ahead and did it all. And I can’t imagine now doing it anywhere else, you couldn’t do it in the States or in Europe ‘cause it’d cost ten times this much, and New Zealand turns out to be the best place after all. It was an unique chance, and Peter Jackson is so strong willed, people have been asking him to come to Hollywood for ages but he doesn’t want to, he’s just not interested, he wants to make films in New Zealand.

John Howe on Tolkien: In several interviews Howe has commented on Tolkien and how he feel about his work. From the Balrogs having wings question to How he feels about illustrating Tolkien’s work. The following quotes are taken from various sources:

Do Balrogs have wings? I don’t know if it had wings either, but I thought wings would be great! I try to make as few decisions I can of that nature, and I spent a lot of time not drawing things when I’m drawing, because I think it’s very important not to close all the doors and to draw things so, so tightly that there’s no room left for speculation. The way I see the Balrog is largely drawn on the way I find them to be in the Silmarillion. Because, well, the Balrog in Lord of the Rings is the last Balrog, so once there was a time that these things wandered around in great, great hordes. But that’s just the way I see them.

The Bakshi movie? I didn’t like it.

Favourite scene from the Silmarillion? I don’t think I have one. What I like about the Silmarillion is that Tolkien is continually going back and forth with very large stories. You see sweeping masses of people and time, and then suddenly it comes back into focus on one single person and his story and it broadens back out again. I think that’s fascinating about the Silmarillion, because Tolkien does both very well, not only is he capable of writing epic but he’s also capable of putting that aside, dropping down into the picture and find the tragedy of one person. I don’t have a favourite scene, no, it’s all so grand. I don’t think it would loan itself for a movie.

Where would you like to live in Middle Earth? I don’t know… I’d love to visit, don’t think I’d want to live there…

How do you feel being Typecast as a Tolkien illustrator? I get sold because people always want to put tags on everything. It’s very difficult, in France for instance, it’s especially bad in France, the French like to put labels on people, and a lot of my work gets done in France, and you immediately get labelled as Tolkien-illustrator. But I suppose since half of my work has to do with Tolkien it’s a label that is perfectly logical.

Do you draw on Tolkien’s art for inspiration? There is a lot of information directly available inside his pictures, but the style is very, very different from what I’m doing, so it’s not a question of actually drawing any inspiration from him. But it’s a very clear representation of what he thought, so I find that quite useful some times.

On Illustrating Tolkien “Putting to paper thoughts about Tolkien’s universe is a risky undertaking, I have rarely seen fiction – and above all fantasy – which arouses such passions. Visualisation is even more perilous.”

Interviews with John Howe:

The men behind the swords
BBC Blast
Interview with Bernard Bretonniere
Mad Movies
SFX Magazine
Interview with

Researched and edited by k.

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