Thursday, 7 January 2010

John Howe Interview

When you hear the name John Howe, your first thoughts will probably link him to the world of Tolkien. But, I think that is a shame because John Howe is more than just a Middle Earth Illustrator.

In his books, John Howe reveals that he knows a great deal about ancient myths, dragons, lost civilizations and the fantasy genre as a whole. This is of course understating his knowledge greatly.

His words are eloquent and his paintings awe inspiring, more than enough to make you feel greatly inadequate but he never drops his often apologetic modesty. He is truly a talented artist but to call him that, I think he would blush (not that you’d see it behind his awesome beard!) and politely disagree. I think it is worthy to note that I have never met him in person but I have had a few email conversations with him in the past and this is the impression I get of him.

From information on his website and as you’ll see in an answer below, he confesses that he is terrible at keeping to deadlines and claims to be very unreliable but I wrote this interview and sent it to him by email at midnight on the 8th of December only to have it fully answered the very next morning. Unreliable? I’m not so sure. In the past I have told him he is more unpredictable, only to get this as a reply:

Best wishes,


With that said, it was a pleasure to research and interview John. I find him to be a fascinating person. The sort of guy you’d like to have a ‘phone a friend’ on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. His creativity greatly inspires me in my own art and some day, I’d like to be as unreliable as he is.

Beowulf's Funeral. John Howe - 'This image is a mix of the thoroughly researched - the helmets and that costume - and the completely made up, though I did spend time staring at viking furniture, imaginging how a seventh-century carpenter might have constructed the bier.' Caption taking from John Howe's Fantasy Art Workshop Book.

The Interview:

Lloyd Harvey: Through your work, your love of medieval history and ancient myth really shines through in the level of detail you depict. I have noticed that your portfolio is a little light on science fiction art though. Is sci-fi something that doesn’t greatly interest you or is it something for John Howe of the future to explore? Is it something that you have yet had the opportunity to work on?

John Howe: True, I am dismayingly ill-represented in the sci-fi department, principally because although it’s a genre I quite enjoy, I get few commissions for it. For example, I would jump at the chance to do some serious steampunk should the opportunity present itself. This said, there are other categories of work I would seek to add to my portfolio before sci-fi.

What are these other genres that you would like to add to your portfolio then? What sort of projects would you like to try?

I’d be very tempted by more work in sculpture form, as well as landscapes, but with a more self-contained narrative. I have a good number of sketches, often whole series of them, on themes I would like to explore.

When working on commissions, the final piece you produce is, more often than not, completed in water colour paints. Do you ever get requests for the end painting to be done in a different medium, say digital or in oil perhaps?

Yes, I do get frequent requests for commissions, which I happily accept on but provide a serious caveat emptor. I am so terribly slow doing them that most clients usually give up in frustration and disgust. My last commission was a huge Mickey Mouse themed image several years ago, but the client was long gone when I finally got it done, and in the wake of that debacle I’ve become even more hopeless at honouring deadlines. I occasionally get e-mails from distressed and weary would-be clients. Not a very good businessman, am I? Otherwise, I very rarely sell my originals.

A Mickey Mouse themed picture? That is quite interesting considering your notoriety in the fantasy art arena. Can you tell us any more about that piece?

It was a curious commission, I think perhaps it was because I made the error of accepting an advance and then was very slow delivering. I eventually repaid the advance, and then lost the details of the person who had originally commissioned it. Have never managed to find him or her again. Of course, because it’s a Mickey Mouse theme, I can’t do anything with it, except put it on my web site.

I do have a fair list of requests, though as I said, I do tend to leave them far too long in abeyance to really expect people to wish to have them when they do get done. I don’t mind, as it is often an excuse to touch on a subject I wouldn’t normally seek to depict. (Especially that silly Mickey image.)

Mickey the Barbarian. Lloyd Harvey - 'Although the subject matter isn't classical of John Howe's work, you can still tell that this is a painting of his. Just look at the attention to detail in the Celtic knot work motifs.'

For the Lord of the Rings films, you collaborated with fellow illustrator Alan Lee. Was there anything that you learned from him during your time together? Did you maybe teach him a thing or two?

How to maintain his Olympian and phlegmatic calm in the company of a jack-in-the-box office mate would be what Alan might have learned, perhaps, a sort of mithridatizing by proximate agitation, in sum. From Alan, I learned to take a more instinctive and intuitive approach to pencil work. I used to let my mind get far too far ahead of my pencil, which can be productive, but removes the serendipitous switch of direction when the pencil and hand discover an idea the mind’s eye had missed. Drawing at the right speed is a sort of graphic contrapposto providing what I’d be tempted to call an “intuitional resilience” unobtainable with more energetic methods. I very much enjoyed working with him, a situation of symbiosis between enthusiasm and despair, the former because his work is just so good, the latter because his work is just so good. He is hard to keep up with, but then I believe he says the same of me. He is a dear friend and a wonderful artist. (Another Leo too.)

Working in collaboration can be a very rewarding experience. Is there any other artist in the world alive today that you would like to have the chance to work with? What would the ideal project entail?

Yes, there are many, but I’ll spare them unwelcome embarrassment by not naming names.

I won’t press for names. I love your dragon book and the passion you have for the creatures’ is infectious. The way you lovingly craft them is just magnificent! If you had the opportunity to do another dragon book, would you take it? Would you explore Asian dragons more?

Yes, I would happily do another one, though I am indeed a lot less familiar with Eastern dragons, so it would perhaps take a more carefully pondered approach to make it worthwhile for readers. I am quite slow to learn things, and even slower to understand them a little, so it takes me quite a while to absorb a culture or a subject to the degree where one can pass from simple regurgitation of motif to real creation within a more or less well-defined set of cultural references. I was very taken by Chinese myth and folk tales during a recent trip to Beijing, and of course had my breath taken away by the Great Wall. That trip may provoke a few pictures when I can manage to find the time. Right now, I’d like very much to do some work involving New Zealand landscape.

I wonder if that has anything to do with the Hobbit movie.

Do you consider Godzilla to be a dragon?

Not really, I see him as a creature of science fiction, but not specifically a dragon. Godzilla is a little too anthropomorphic for my taste, and rather closer to cryptozoology than myth.

Cernunnos. John Howe - 'Like any admirer of Celtic myth, I was eager to have a go at depicting Cernunnos, the antlered god. I often sit with one of my many books on the subject and look in awe at the reproduction of the Gunderstrup Cauldron, on which he appears.' Caption taking from John Howe's Fantasy Art Workshop Book.
Green Face. John Howe - "Green Faces' or Green Men' are one of the most fascinating, inscrutable and enduring motifs in medieval art, from Celtic forest spirit to high Gothic flamboyance.' Caption taking from John Howe's Fantasy Art Workshop Book.

Questions I ask every artist

What has been your career highlight to date?

Still waiting. (I’m patient, though.)

What was your big break into the illustration industry?

Still waiting. (No, I’m kidding; perhaps the first Tolkien calendar commission, way back in the late ‘80’s.)

What was the best piece of artistic advice you have received or can offer?

Still waiting. Now there is a question that requires two answers! I dislike giving advice, and am always very careful to find out what the person needs to hear (not necessarily wants to hear; the two usually have little in common) before venturing into that territory. I’m sure I have received much good advice, but can only recall the bad.

What do you think is the most effective way you market yourself and your work?

By working. That is a more serious answer than it sounds. If your work reflects not only your technical skills, but also who you are and more importantly what you have to say, then it will do the talking in your stead. I agree that networking and meeting people is very important, but a foot in the door doesn’t always stop it closing.

As an artist, what are your biggest challenges that you face?

Just getting it right. That’s another serious answer, by the way. I think the constant contact with the mediums one uses is an anchor, occasionally an irksome one, but precious nonetheless. Hundreds of illustrations accomplished with brio in past years are no solace at all when a picture is going badly. To lose that immediacy and proximity would be a shame.

Gandulf Returns to Hobbiton. Lloyd Harvey - 'No interview with John Howe wouldn't be complete without one of his Lord of the Rings paintings. I said to John to select paintings for the interview that he thought best represent him and this selection is what he chose. Except for Mickey the Barbarian, I asked for that one. In this piece, I love the leaning tree in the background and the lush greens used to paint the foliage.'

John Howe’s Random Questions

What was the last book you read and was it any good?

“Moon Lore”, by Reverend Forgothisnameimmediately, first published in the mid-1880’s, a delightfully racist, anti-Catholic, unscientific, rambling and bigoted essay on lunar myth and legend. (My only excuse is that I bought it used off amazon.) It was very bad, but contains some very useable bits to highlight a survey of 19th-century opinion. The book I read prior to that was far more satisfying, by the way: “A Sense of the World”, by Jason Roberts, the story of the once-famous but now unknown “Blind Traveller” James Holman.

If you were stranded on a desert island, what book and luxury item would you liked to be stranded with?

Just one book? Hardcover? Paperback? Seriously, I think I’d take any one of dozens of titles, as long as I had a little apparatus that would make me forget I had read it the next day. Perhaps Russel Hoban’s “Riddley Walker”.

What film can you watch over and over again?

None. Once or twice a decade is my limit. Are we still on the desert island? I’d likely be far less picky in that case.

What was the last thing that made you laugh so hard you cried?

Still waiting. No, actually, now that you ask, I can’t recall the exact phrase and situation, but it was extremely funny. Sorry about that.

What is your favorite sound?

The sound of a Mac booting up. No, seriously, certainly the sound of rainstorms or the surf.

To see more John Howe, you must
visit his website at: and I strongly suggest getting hold of his books. 

John Howe, thank you again. 

Also see:

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