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
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
organisms for richer but less artistic classmates... at 50 cents
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
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
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
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.
This text is taken from "Myth
& Magic", HarperCollinsPublishers, 2001