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 John Howe  (1957 - )

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Lived/Active: British Columbia / Switzerland/Canada      Known for: Lord of the Rings movie trilogy fantasy illustration

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Ad Code: 4
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
The Cygnet and the Firebird, paperback cover illustration, 1993
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is text from Myth & Magic, published in 2001 by HarperCollins.

On the living room wall there was a pencil rendering of the Castle of Chillon, near Lake Geneva, done by my grandmother at age 19, before she embraced the more acceptable career of schoolmistress and never did another picture in her life... ?I can't remember ever not drawing. My mother would do her best to help with the more ambitious renderings, but around primary school age, her draughtsmanship was no longer up to my expectations. I remember bursting into tears of frustration when we both failed to draw a cow the way I wanted.?

School itself was a mixed blessing; it seemed we always moved house at just the wrong time of the year, and l ended up in power mechanics, hating every minute, because naturally, all the non-academics too dull even for metal shop were already parked in art class... It was a handy skill in biology, though, where a friend and I would do rapid and rather creative rendering of microscopic water organisms for richer but less artistic classmates... at 50 cents a shot.?  I collected paperbacks for the covers, and even read what was inside.

Frank Frazetta assumed demigod status, and was the object of dozens of copies in oil pastel. This was before the Ballantine editions, so his paintings were only available on book covers. No musty second-hand paperback pile went unturned. Around the same time, Barry Smith's Conan and Bemi Wrightson's Swamp Thing meant going into drugstores where I wouldn't run into anyone I knew, buying kid's comics too far into adolescence.?

Around that time I read The Lord of the Rings, first The Two Towers, and then The Return of the King. It seemed that everyone who started the first volume never got any further, as it was by far the most borrowed of the three. I had to wait months to get it. The real spark came from the calendars, which showed me that it could be illustrated. I went through the Hildebrandt calendar, doing my own versions of the same scenes. Mercifully, none of these have survived, although there is a very dusty box under a bed somewhere...?

A year after graduating from high school, I was in a college in Strasbourg, France, and the following year in the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs.? The first year was spent not understanding much, the second at odds with what I did manage to understand, and the third eager to get out, although in retrospect I certainly owe whatever clarity of thought I possess to the patience of the professor of Illustration.?

Otherwise, my first years in Europe were a constant overdose on all forms of art and architecture, everything being simultaneously ancient and novel. All that catching up to do. Nothing I did from those years has survived, thank goodness, as scrupulously put it all in the trash at term end before heading back home to the summer job that would pay next year's fees. The only exception must be The Lieutenant of the Black Tower of Barad-dûr, which, if not my first published piece, must certainly be the earliest.?

It seems to me that a lot of my early commissions were nightmares - political cartoons, magazine illustrations, comics, animated films, advertising - starting one cover seven times, redoing sketches so many times there was nothing of mine left in them, wondering just how the devil I’d ended up in this profession.  In the attic there is a huge box taped very tightly shut and marked DO NOT OPEN (EVER!!!) in wide-tip felt pen. I honestly feel no real urge to do so.? The other day we took a friend to visit the Castle of Chillon. It's easy enough to find the spot to stand in my grandmother's drawing. I wonder if we ever really make any choices of our own - so many years and miles to end up in a picture that was always there on the wall.

Bestowing a level of integrity on any fantasy world means accepting aspects of it that you may never explore, constructing an alternative art history, creating artefacts and costume styles, accepting inconsistencies and blank spots, finding the best way to make it appear as a realistic universe. Something of a contradiction, perhaps, but the necessarily empirical approach involved - if indeed you are provided with the excuse to return to any given world - weaves these inconsistencies into the fabric of the place. It all comes down to 'getting it right'.

But how do you make a cloak look convincing? When is a sword blade too long or too wide? How is the grip constructed? How do helmets stay on heads? Between the neighbours in a sheet secured with a safety pin and a character wearing half a dozen square meters of natural wool sewn into a proper cloak and fastened accordingly, there is a huge difference, and probably more of it sneaks into a picture than you would think. So, how do you draw a proper sword? Once again, the willing neighbour holding the yardstick is fine, but it's still second best.?The real answers to these questions are to be found in archaeology, and then getting your hands on it. Of course, you can’t (always) pick up museum exhibits and you certainly must not wave them about, but a conscientious reconstruction of an object, one that you can use, abuse and repair, wear and carry around, can be exceedingly instructive.

If it can’t be real, it should be realistic. This is hardly the place to discuss the relative merits of historical re-enactment, but the principal aims of serious living history are just that, trying to 'get it right', with the full awareness that 'right' one month may be considerably modified by new research and finds the next. While it is an exercise in applied imperfection, the path followed by like-minded individuals is in their forays into history. This is an exceptionally useful one for the artist. There is so much to see along the way.?As they no longer exist, nearly all of the items used in living history must be recreated, thus I find enormous satisfaction in making objects. It seems so much more concrete than pushing colours around on a flat piece of paper, and it must be therapeutic in some way; I try to do as much of this as I can. More importantly, the nature of the materials used will lead the hand and mind to designs inaccessible to a pencil on paper.

?Our garage and attic are consequently piled high with shields of every period, with lances, spears and bits of armour, old tools, tree roots – all the flotsam and jetsam of sudden inspiration, which usually rises quickly and then slowly ebbs, leaving dozens of half finished artefacts above the tide line. Gandalf wears a sword I own, the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk a costume belonging to a friend, Lancelot's armour is in another friend's attic. While they may end up gathering dust, they are often propping up some notion of reality somewhere in a painting.

This text is taken from Myth & Magic, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2001

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