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 Thingmeant 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.
This text is taken from “Myth & Magic“, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2001