THE ALKA-SELTZER OF THE SOUL
Or Can You Get Your Daily Calorie Intake From Food For Thought?
While digestive analogies are perhaps best avoided when talking about the creative process (yuck!), one of the most consistent aspects of drawing the world is the constant need to ingest it, like some pencil-pushing Pantagruel. (Actually, come to think of it, isn’t English great, you have to draw on the world to draw it…)
I seem to spend my whole life wondering what I can do with what I see. I used to run about with my trusty Nikon around my neck, like some penitent and persisting pilgrim on the road to the Santiago of Photorealism, before finally realizing that this manic shutter-snapping was actually an elaborate set of blinders. Rather more akin to the plough horse than to the telephoto-toting mustang I imagined myself to be.
However, the problem remains the same. How can you appropriate it, make it yours? Explorers plunked down a flag and said I claim these lands in the name of… but for an illustrator it’s a bit more complicated. How can you learn a landscape? Memorize a mountain? Digest a horizon (burp) or swallow a sunset?
And more importantly, what is this imagoboulimia actually concealing, hmmm? Some incapacity to come to terms with the inner self ? A complusive-obsessive disorder? (When I heard that one, I called back half a dozen times to make sure I’d heard right.) Inability to rise above mere illustrating to do fine art? Unable to escape the prison of realism for the unfenced pastures of abstraction?
All of the above I suppose.
I plead guilty to all counts.
And one more: the incapacity to take anything for granted.
Now where DID I put the alka-seltzer?
TALKING OUT LOUD
Thought I’d pass this on: the English transcript of an interview published in the French fantasy revue Asphodale. (For Francophones/philes, you’ll have to visit the site, the publishers preferred that I not put up the interview in French: http://www.isfeditions.fr
Letís talk first about your career path: how did you choose painting and illustration?
I’ve never really had any kind of a career plan; it seems that what you end up doing is at the mercy of such an array of circumstance, chance and general serendipity that you can never really know.
My decision to go to Europe the first time was a total bit of happenstance. I might as easily have gone to a school in the US (and be famous by now, instead of being an obscure local here in Neuch‚tel…) . That there was an excellent art school in Strasbourg where I would spend three happy if somewhat bewildered years was something I had no idea of on arriving.
(The bit about my grandmotherís drawing of the Castle of Chillon is true, though.)
I have always drawn pictures, and now that I look at them with a bit of perspective, they always have been illustrations of a sort. In essence then, Iíve never really changed in any way what I do, but at some point it became a natural choice for a profession.
What is your view of Tolkienís work? Does it evolve?
Every day. Nothing is static or definitive.. I donít agree that any vision can be right or wrong, unless of course it contradicts the text. If the clues are clear, then it is an error to draw something white if the text states that it is black. However, in a realm such as Middle-Earth, Tolkien is writing to an audience with whom he feels companionship and shared culture. Heís not writing an entry for an encyclopaedia (there are more than enough people doing that now anyway, why on earth are we so avid for detail that we are willing to sacrifice anything to get it, reducing a place like Middle-earth to a guide Michelin, is beyond me…) so his details and clues are there to enhance the narrative. Heís not telling you the size of a Rohan shield, nor giving you a front and back view, but heís counting on the fact that you have knowledge of past civilizations and cultures, and that you will know what he is talking about.
How are your paintings born? What is the starting point of an image?
Any one of a hundred ways. It can come from an image Iíve had tucked away either in a drawer or in a drawer in my mind for ages, but there is always a spark of some kind to set it off. Usually the spark is in the form of a commission these days Ė Iíve not had time to do a personal piece of artwork for ages, other than in the form of sketches.
Practically, I start with a sketch if something needs to be shown to the editor or to be determined in advance. Otherwise, I start directly on the picture itself with not much in mind at all. Itís easier to do if itís just a black & white drawing ; colour renderings do require a minimum of planning.
One can say images might close oneís vision to a work of literary fiction. Do you think illustrating the works might erode their magic, or would that open new perspectives?
Too many illustrations are more like walls than windows. I loathe images which are packed with detail upon detail until the whole surface is saturated. Technically impressive, of course, but I really feel that a pathological accumulation of detail masks something deeper. An inability or an unwillingness to make choices, perhaps. I also dislike images where everything is on the surface. Itís simply not sufficient to take a centrefold from a magazine, add a few bits of armour and a sword and stick a dragon in the background. Once again, itís often slick and well done, but thereís nothing IN it, nothing there when you scrape away the gloss and the flash technique. Impressive rendering of hollow subjects are fine for posters.
Narration is much more interesting, and for narration to happen, you have to tell a story (or hint at one) rather than make a statement.
Do you work differently when for other authorsí works?
My approach of course varies with the commission, but not in any vital way. Sometimes you have a lot of freedom in how you treat a subject, sometimes there is a committee poised to go over it in detail. You never know until youíre familiar with a client (and they get to know you).
Do you have a global objective, a goal in your work?
Thatís not really for me to say. Iíd be incapable of judging if thereís any unity of approach.
In an ideal world, I would like to find an icon for everything, a tree that would contain and evoke all trees, a mountain that would sum up all mountains, but of course itís not possible. And of course itís not possible to determine a physical representation that will do the trick, but there must be something in the spirit of things that will allow it. Iíll keep you informed if I ever find the Grail…
Your work on the LotR movie must have been very different from your regular work, can you tell us a bit about this movie experience?
No, not so different in spirit, if admittedly different in execution. and technique. All we did was draw for hours and hours. It was an incredible luxury in many ways to have the opportunity to design whole environments rather than just take a snapshot of them, which is basically what an illustration is.
How did the collaboration happen with all the movie staff? What was the overall feel of the team?
The atmosphere on the project was really phenomenal, I know this sounds like the conventional bla-bla about movie projects, but without any coaching, everyone says the same thing. There was a community of spirit that carried those whole enormous undertaking along.
What are your current projects?
All kinds. More film work, perhaps, and what I usually do Ė draw more pictures.
Oh, and finish painting the house…
Interview by Lionel Davoust, © 2003
TALKING ABOUT ILLUSTRATION…
My son brought this back from school. Conversation between he and one of his new professors:
Teacher: I saw an article on a Howe in the paper the other day. Any relation?
Dana: It might be my Dad.
Teacher: Really, what does he do?
Dana He’s an illustrator.
Teacher: A cultivator? He works on a farm?
Dana: No, an illustrator.
Teacher: An administrator?
Dana: No, an il-lu-stra-tor.
Dana: Well, he draw pictures for books, that kind of thing.
Teacher: A polygrapher?
Teacher: You know, a graphic artist, newspaper ads and layouts, that kind of thing.
Dana: Yep, that’s it!
End of conversation
Illustrator, by the way, is not an officially registered or otherwise recognized profession in Switzerland (taxidermists have the same problem)... but I did lay awake half the night trying to figure out what the devil a polygrapher is…
A few months ago, I did an interview for the Fargoth World Building Project http://www.fargoth.com/ and have just been informed it is on line. I always skitter about and shy away when interviews are proposed, as I know from experience that after the warm feeling of somebody-likes-me-enough-to-hear-what-I-have-to-say has cooled and the brief moment of blithe acceptance has been forgotten, I will suddenly be faced with a sheer cliff of questions to scale. Naturally, as I always put off getting a leg up, I end up responding in a frantic burning of midnight oil, and then promptly forget once again, only to cringe upon publication at the shallowness, flippancy and sheer outright stupidness of many of my replies.
Happily, the folks at Forgoth run a serious and friendly surveillance and assistance program for wayward interviewees, and pestered me with a first draft until I actually okayed it.
(In a last-minute panic, of course…) Here it is: http://www.fargoth.com/featured_artist/john-howe/
WHAT, NOT DONE YET?
One more last bit on the net: http://www.swissinfo.org/sen/Swissinfo.html?siteSect=201&sid=4298852
JUST CAN’T SHUT UP
Boy, have I got news. But I’m out of room; it’ll have to wait ‘til next week.
Posted by John on 07/10/03 | 05:30 PM | Chronicles
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