John Howe: Fantasy Illustrator by Neely McLaughlin

John Howe Interview

John Howe

While Howe has enjoyed his time working on The Hobbit films, he looks forward to having more time for his own work. Photo by Kim Sayer

Are you excited about the latest Hobbit movie’s release this week? We are too, and I’m happy to share this excerpt (below) from our interview with fantasy illustrator John Howe. Howe has worked as a concept artist for all three Hobbit films, his illustrations inspiring the look and feel of each movie. You can read the complete John Howe interview by Neely McLaughlin in the 2015 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market or on Artist’s Market Online.

Keep creating and good luck!


John Howe: Fantasy Illustrator by Neely McLaughlin

For the past five years, illustrator John Howe has been based in New Zealand, where he has been immersed in creating the fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkein, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, for director Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films. “I’m sort of concerned about that because it’s been five years where I haven’t actually worked,” he says. While he may not have had much time for what he characterizes as his own work, he has certainly been busy. The complexity and time pressures of film production have kept him fully occupied, though he does have breaks, about six weeks a year, in which to return home to Switzerland. “We rushed from winter to winter for five years,” he says ruefully. “I figure I’ve got five summers on credit that I need to collect, but I’m not entirely sure how.”

The Hobbit Illustration by John Howe

Howe’s books on Norwegian medieval churches formed part of his inspiration for Bag End, an illustration for “There and Back Again: The Map of the Hobbit.”
Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Ltd. @2000 Brian Sibley

Working on the Hobbit Film Series

John Howe illustration

Howe’s The Drowning of Numenor is an original vignette to illustrate a map of Numenor. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Ltd. Copyright 1999 Brian Sibley

Although he has worked on projects in the meantime, Howe’s recent work has been primarily on the Hobbit films. Howe sees working in fantasy as developing cultures and visual vocabularies for those cultures. “What we’re trying to do as best we can is to design a believable culture each time,” he says, “so it needs to make sense from a point of view of history and art history, architecture, decorative arts.” For the Hobbit films, for instance, “We worked very hard on Dale trying to make it a believable place even though we’re talking total fantasy,” he explains. “They built this set up on top of a hill, very close to where we work. It was a huge set. You could get lost in it. We tried very, very hard to make it convincing.” The hard work paid off, and the set was believable. “People would go and visit the set and be reminded of someplace they’d visited once,” Howe says. Interestingly, no two people were reminded of the same place. From Howe’s perspective as a creator, the goal in creating any place is to find a set of motifs or design elements that sum up and define the culture. Once that basis is established, “you can build an infinite number of variations which make it convincing.”

. . . .

Projects and Processes: Intuition and Deliberation

Howe’s energy is focused on whatever projects he is working on at a given time, and he stays busy. He has been involved in a wide variety of projects during his career. He has illustrated many fantasy books as well as other works such as Beowulf. Howe has also created instructional art books focusing on fantasy art, dragons, and sketching. Recently he worked on an adult coloring book and was involved in a television series during a break from Hobbit-related work. “I just participated in a five-part miniseries for French [and] German television on the sources of Tolkein’s inspiration,” he notes. “They came here to New Zealand last year to shoot, and we’ve been shooting all over England, France, and Germany over the two months’ break I had at Christmas.” This project, like some of his earlier projects, involved drawing in front of a camera, which Howe describes as “a bit unnerving.” “You know what you’re going to do, but you never get it perfect in the half hour you have. But I didn’t ruin anything,” he concludes. Drawing with the constant pressure of being recorded is a skill Howe believes he has improved with practice and time. “I’ve had more experience,” he says.

Beowulf illustration by John Howe

Howe originally drew “Beowulf Battles Grendel’s Mother” for a Beowulf board game. Illustration by John Howe from “Beowulf,” published by Templar Publishing.

. . . .
In all of his work, from the countless aspects of the multiyear Hobbit film project to his work on small projects like a film festival poster, Howe seeks to balance precision and deliberation with intuitive freedom. “We have all of these imperatives for any illustration work, which are quite clear,” he says. These imperatives depend on the client, the job, the medium, the artist’s affinity for the project, and the time allotted to it. Howe believes that the artist, always consciously aware of these imperatives, must strive to limit their power. “To have that conscious awareness actually dictate what you’re going to draw would be a shame. So there’s one area where you want your intuition to be free: in whatever’s left.”

Neely McLaughlin is a writer and assistant professor of English at the University of Cincinnati, Blue Ash, in Cincinnati, OH.


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