John Howe

That Extra Dimension

Or Imagining, Subtracting and Adding: the Arithmetic of Painting and Sculpture

Well, they’re back!

Several months after being officially released, Smaug the Golden and Eowyn & the Nazgul are available again. The real thing (in real bronze with a hardwood base) is back as well: Smaug the Golden & Eowyn and the Nazgul.

Originally, we had hoped to offer one-piece hardwood bases with all the statues, but this proved impossible, so wood bases with a wood veneer seemed the next best thing. Unfortunately, the veneer peeled and bubbled, and Weta honorably stepped in, warned those who had pre-ordered, offered to refund or otherwise compensate, and has now re-issued the statues with individualized polystone bases.

Some things take a while. Back in 2002, when I was slowly getting my web site furbished with images, I wrote, as a caption under the illustration of Eowyn & the Nazgul: “This is a painting I would love to see become a sculpture. The whole fell beast would of course have to rest on something, but that’s the challenge…”

At the time, that was wishful thinking, out-loud daydreaming. Now, nearly a decade later, it was a question no longer of day-dreaming, but attempting to write coherent copy for a booklet to accompany the statues. Here is an excerpt, with the kind permission of Weta:


The more deeply an author touches his or her readers, the more intimately and subtly it evokes our world and culture, the harder it is to provide images for. Or at least those images that feel somehow “right”. More superficially felt or expressed worlds, or worlds which have little in common with our own experiences and past, can accommodate an outside view, a strong vision that does not come into conflict with the reader’s vision, because the reader has few images of his or her own.
Illustrating the words of an author of the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien is more akin to archaeology than illustration. Somewhere, buried deep in the strata of mingled and superimposed references: historical, artistic, personal or mythological, are the keys that will unlock the imagination and let images happen.

Not all authors are visual authors. How many times have I struggled through manuscripts that simply give me nothing to illustrate, no straws at which to grasp. They can be devoid of all references, except the annoying second-hand ones that send you no farther afield than ‘60’s cloak and dagger B movies. Tolkien’s writing is paradoxically sparing in actual description (despite his love for maps and his scrupulous recording of distances) but incredibly rich in ecphoriae. (Of the three Muses, Mneme is perhaps the one best invoked in Middle-Earth, though Tolkien would perhaps have preferred Aoide.) Few authors I have read have made so many images leap into my mind.

Much of what is needed to illustrate Tolkien is not found in his novels and stories (unless it is between the lines), but in museums and art galleries, in collections and studies of myth and legend, or in old stones and landscapes where the traces of man’s passage are many and slow. All of these places contain hints, elements, atmospheres and details, and most importantly, a sense of time and history. All of these things help make pictures happen.

Tolkien himself was reluctant to see his work illustrated, though he did paint and draw images himself, a natural enough desire when creating worlds and the frontier between lines that make letters and lines that make pictures is blurred. (Tolkien was also a competent watercolour artist, and enjoyed drawing and painting.) In the end, I agree with him, the imagined image is always far superior. On the other hand, illustration is my profession, so I am condemned to deal with my imagined images by painting them on paper, with their imperfections and all.

Leaving the imagination sufficient elbow room in a finished picture is as important as detailing those places the eye searches out naturally in a composition. It is part of the imperfect illusion offered by illustration – something the eye and brain do naturally in the real world by picking out those things that have meaning through movement, colour, proximity or simply interest. Illustrating Tolkien means leaving the spectator to complete the image, providing an illusion of thoroughness and leaving as much as possible up to the imagination. Too much detail leaves the viewer before a solid wall, too much detailing leaves a curious impression of emptiness concealed. Leaving things out (and thus to be imagined) is a careful and intuitive process, often far more effective than putting them in. This is why I feel so strongly about making things “work” in an image, containing the visual energy while releasing the narrative energy. This is why I have so long wished for the dimension illustration does not offer.

Naturally, any image proposed is only a suggestion, a proposition; nothing is engraved in stone. Dexterity is all very fine, adroit painterly effects are pleasing to the eye, but they are empty unless underneath there is something more, something of the approach to an archetype, as imperfect or tentative as it may be. Approaching Tolkien through sculpture means abandoning clever effects and the artifice of colour, leaving only the substance of form and movement. A little lost, much gained.

Of course, I didn’t do them myself. The real work was done by a talented team of sculptors from the Weta Workshop, and I was given the incredible privilege of strolling by every day or two and saying “a bit more here, a bit more there” but usually I was just making admiring onomatopoeic noises, the sculpting was so exquisite. I had the privilege of being able to see the other side of what I had painted, and the satisfaction that it actually worked. I got to draw Smaug’s wings, which aren’t on the original painting, and best of all, to draw his tail curling down the reverse face of the pile of coins upon which he is perched. I had to grit my teeth and avoid the temptation to redesign all those little things that I would paint differently now, in order to remain faithful to the original artwork, although we did allow ourselves a little fantasy with Eowyn’s shield boss.
It was quite an experience, exciting, sobering, and, at least for me, unique. But now that they’re out, I’ve realized, much to my chagrin, that we have no mantelpiece to put them on. That will be my next project.

Hope springs eternal, or at least perennial, and I still haven’t given up the hope of continuing with newsletters. Admittedly, that may transmute to the familiar feeling of desperation as deadlines loom.