Or the Uses and Abuses of Documentation
I have masses and masses of documentation. Likely enough to be convicted of collusion in the untimely death of a decent-size grove of trees.
The wall behind the computer has a daunting set of shelves containing well over 100 drawers, all filled with photos I’ve taken, photocopies and pictures cut out of books (no, NOT books people lend me, rest assured, unless of course they forget to ask for them back) and magazines of every kind.
Here, from top left to bottom right, is the whole list:
Medieval graphics, postcards, medieval calligraphy, medieval tapestry/embroidery, medieval lamps & lanterns. medieval iconography, medieval costume, men-at-arms, 1515, 1476, to be filed, mode, illustrators, food & flowers, urban landscapes, Middle Ages & Co, medieval artists & scribes, manuscripts/arts, sculpture/decoration, myth & legend, medieval gloves, medieval fun & games, medieval pottery & potters, medieval craftsmen/merchants, ships & navigation, heraldry, medieval furniture/interiors, medieval households/utensils, other places, other places, other times, other times, children, medieval folders, medieval folders, campaigning, medieval urbanism/maps, peasants, medieval footwear, objects, walls & frescos, art & paintings, all that glitters, industrial medieval, battlefields, art objects, Mythago Wood, outer space, cool stuff, faraway places, places south, deserts, the roof of the world, spiders & bugs, horseshoe crabs, bats, bulls, carapaces, machines, flying machines, ships & boats, ravens, rhinos, ruins, rust, skulls ‘n’ bones, canidae, birds of prey, birds, fishes, ursus, barnyards, felidae. animals, faces, beards & wrinkles, hair, cloth/folds, celtic, celtic, King Arthur & Co, PRB & Co, PRB & Co, Beowulf/Odin & Co, Beowulf/Odin & Co, Wyrms, trees, more trees, waterfalls & rivers, waterfalls & rivers, waves & oceans, waves & oceans, landscapes, LOTR movie stuff, Middle-Earth, Yggdrasils, brambles/ivy & leaves, horses, smoke & fire, skies/storms & clouds, skies/storms & clouds, mountains, more mountains, rocks, more rocks, yet more rocks, ice & snow, calm waters, landscapes, orcs & such, knotwork, Haut-Koenigsbourg, bridges, castles, castles, romanesques, towers, gothics, gothics, urban gothic, urban gothic, bodies: female, faces: female, bodies: male, bodies: male, hands.
Admittedly, my filing system would likely make a dedicated documentalist faint in dismay, but remember, I’m the only one who uses it; nobody else could anyway. (It is entirely visual, and I must say that only an intensely creative mind would call three successive drawers “rocks”, “more rocks” and “yet more rocks”. It is also extremely handy when film crews and photographers invade the studio: I can helpfully place around the illustration in progress a few dozen photos which have NOTHING to do with the picture at hand. “Ummm, can you tell me again Mr. Howe, about the importance of thorough documentation?” the reporter says, throwing puzzled sidelong glances at the stacks of photos of tropical fruit that surround a partially painted Balrog.)
Imagination cannot function in a vacuum. Faced with the hopless ideal of memorizing everything I see, and blessed with a squirrel-like tendancy to store things away just-in-case (ask my wife, she wants to get rid of ALL that useful trash I have in the basement) I stack my reminders away, rather like the forgetful actor knows he can count on the prompter to jog his memory.
However, it is to be used with some care.
Unless a particular photo coincides so closely with the germination of an idea that the two are intertwined, the sketch always comes first. To inverse the order is to make an error which will, if it does not compromise the spirit of an illustration, will indenture it to the document at hand and misdirect the focus.
Additionally, we are all happy picture-snappers of the “instamatic” age, where our perception of the world is often (over-)defined by the speed of a shutter. The superiority of sketching over the camera resides in the nonchalant pace of a sketch, which paradoxically stops time for the time one sketches, but permits a look which can stretch over many minutes, even hours. An out-of-time communion subject to passing clouds, the movement of the sun, failing light, it is the antithesis of the snapshot, which is why it is useful to remind the piles of snapshots we use of their place. They have a role, but a subordinate one. Their wealth of detail and colour masks the fact that they are incomplete, and can easily end up being a “hollow” background – all surface, no substance.
Obviously, the constant accumulation of imagery is not enough. Good illustrations are not done with the copy/paste function, nor does it have anything to do with a lavish laying-on of detail. The value of information and knowledge, visual or other, is the time it spends kicking around inside one’s head. Despite the mice and the abandoned nests under the eaves, the mind is not an idle place, where things are stored away collecting dust. They talk to each other, exchange information, get together, make groups and friends, and eventually are there when you are doing the one thing you can NOT do consciously – be inspired.
It’s easy to confuse information and inspiration, and it can be fatal to the latter. Sometimes, the bulwark of documentation can wall you in and kill any spark of creativity. On the other hand, one word or phrase can unlock the door to a a vastness of options. (When I think “window”, I want the FULL history of the window through the ages the world over to flash before my inner eye, I want pueblos and step gables, arrow slits and solars, from Mycenea to my neighbourhood and caverns to cathedrals; the whole lot – except perhaps Microsoft – to borrow and invent from. So many times what one draws relies on recognition and not observation, an aggregation of recognizable elements, not real invention.
However, I do know that somewhere in the drawers on mountains are the images that will take me to Asgard or Shambala, that Yggdrasil or Avalon are tucked away somewhere there also, and that if I pay attention to the pictures, I’ll get there eventually.
Somewhere in this accumulation of anecdote are the signposts pointing out the path to the universal. That’s what myth is all about.
Fantasy Flight Games will soon be publishing a new expansion for the Lord of the Rings Boardgame.
It was great fun to do imagery for, since most of the pictures were of the bad guys…
The documentary Lord of the Brush will be on television tonight. The Knowledge Network will be airing it at 11 p.m. Pacific Western Time. Sorry for the short notice, I only found out about it when I recieved e-mails about the first airing on September 12th.
Lord of the Brush
“Little known in his home country of Canada, artist John Howe is responsible for much of the design and conceptualization of the immensely popular film trilogy of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.”