Interview with Alan Lee (BnF, 6 February 2020) – part 2

The document below is a transcription of the interview with Alan Lee I hosted for the French national Library on 6 February 2020.

The interview was filmed and is available on YouTube here:

If you missed Part 1 and the introduction in which I explained my transcription process, you can read it here:

In this second part, we focused on the theme of illustration in general. Part 3 encompasses miscellaneous questions from the audience.


Do your illustrations evolve a lot between the sketches and the finished artworks? Can you tell us more about your technique?

I should just explain that the pictures you’re seeing behind me are taken from sketches, working drawings, when I was working on the books and on the films, and a few other projects, not just Tolkien. They do give an idea of the general working process. The Hobbit Sketchbook, for example show how [I go from] a general idea of the aim of the book through a page plan in which I’m trying to get some sense of the overflow of the pictures. To do that I just do tiny little thumbnails, not putting a lot of detail, just to enable you to do something as simple as [have an idea of each moment and] when they’re going to fall. They’re just successive drawings, trying out different ideas, different compositions, until you get to a point where you do a full-size drawing, [the size of] the finished piece, in which you work out all the little difficulties you’re going to encounter and put it down as closely as possible. [I make sure the figures are] working properly. This process can actually take quite a while, [sometimes weeks to get to this stage]. And then essentially, that gets traced onto watercolour paper. So I’ll get a sharp pencil and a thin sheet of layout or tracing paper on top of the watercolour paper, with something in-between those two surfaces that will transfer [the outline. That way I get a light, finely detailed pencil drawing] on the watercolour paper [that works as the skeleton of the image]. But at the same time I like to leave as much space to the painting as possible. So there’ll often be large parts of the painting that might be just very lightly sketched in. [Those areas are solved when I start painting.]
Watercolour has this very dynamic quality in that it doesn’t really do what you expect. [You put some water in the paint and it goes in a different direction.] And then you respond to that and you add in more [paint or more water]. It’s more a kind of dialogue [with the material], more than a specific plan.

What is the most satisfying part of your work? What do you enjoy the most when creating illustration?

Well I do enjoy that kind of planning stage, that almost feels like the most creative part of it. [It’s the stage when you come up with ideas.] And there’s a certain moment [when it’s about polishing off] the pictures, which is a nice [part, when it starts to come together]. Sometimes there are surprises. It might go into a slightly different direction. But there’s lots of anxiety and doubt in the process of [creating] a picture. It’s not a matter of being totally happy all the time. [Sometimes it’s even a] painful process. But when it goes well, when in the end it’s starting to look acceptable, that’s enjoyable. And then, holding the finished book [in your hands is probably the most enjoyable part].

What, in your eyes, makes a good illustration? How do you know you’ve made a good illustration?

That’s a tricky one. It’s just a feeling. The kind of feeling I have when I’m painting are quite similar to the feelings I remember having as a child, [… building cardboard] castles. Just that feeling of […] satisfaction and deep interest, deep engagement […]. I recognize those same feelings from the past, really. [I’ve felt the same feelings throughout my career]. When the materials are working [with you]. [That’s why I really love watercolour; watercolour responds well to what I’m trying to do.] So often you find yourself let down by the materials [… I’ve sometimes started in a certain way, had to stop and] start again with a different [medium].

When I prepared this interview, I asked colleagues if they had questions for you, and Joel Merriner, who also studies illustrations for Tolkien, had one: do you feel your illustrations may acquire a different meaning when viewed separately from their text (for instance, within a gallery or museum setting)?

I have exhibited my pictures occasionally. [I essentially create illustrations which are] tied in with a particular story. [When people are looking at my pictures,] they make the association [with the text]. I don’t think they necessarily have a lot of interest from an artistic point of view, if they’re viewed [in another context than that of the book they were created for]. Then again, there are some pictures, some approaches, that have a kind of general quality, [going beyond] a specific character [or landscape, because they represent an archetype]. And then I think people [who do not know the book the illustration belongs to, can give another meaning to such a picture. For instance, in the case of Gandalf, one could think of Merlin or a shamanic character that would have some similarities with Gandalf.]

Benjamin [Perrot] would like to ask you: have you ever been tempted to write and illustrate your own stories?

Yes! I have done little bits of writing. I did some writing in the book Fairies. And there are certain stories that I’ve been working on for fifteen or twenty years even, for some of them. [I’ll be working on them] and then a commission will come up and I’ll [stop and move on.] Hopefully at some point I’ll buckle down and see whether I can [finish one. I really like the process] of writing. [It’s a little like drawing:] I’m drawing some kind of line and a few shapes will appear and then I will decide if it’s going to be a tree or a rock, or [a cloak, a dress]. I like that there’s a slightly intuitive element to drawing [and I find that there are similarities with writing. You don’t necessarily have a plan. You start] with a few words, [even if they’re] a bit nonsensical, [and you try and see if it leads you anywhere.] So yes, I’ve done a little bit of writing. Hopefully I’ll be able to do more at some point.

When you write, do you think about illustrations?

Yes, I do. I don’t think about doing them at the same time. [I focus on writing and I leave illustrations for later].

So you don’t work like Tolkien, who wrote and drew at the same time on his manuscripts, as we can see in the exhibition?

The funny thing is, after I read The Lord of the Rings, I didn’t do any illustrations at all, but I was inspired to actually write. [Stories about] elves, and dwarves and enchanters. And then I did some illustrations [for this, later] when I was in college, [when I was around] twenty.

If you could illustrate any book, regardless of success or date of publication, which one would you pick, and why?

I think the date of publication is important [to me], because one thing I don’t deal terribly well with is deadlines. [If] I had no sense of timing, at all, no sense of pressure, that would be a pleasure. But there are [so many books I’d love to illustrate.] For example the Kalevala, one of Tolkien’s favourite books. [I’d love to do a] version of that. And I’d like to do more work with Arthurian stories. [I’d love to] illustrate Gormenghast, I don’t know if that’s a familiar [title in France, the] Gormenghast trilogy.

You seem to stick with myths and legends, fairy tales. Is there a genre you have not yet worked on but would like to try?

Well it’s funny, when I started working, the first covers I did, for five years or so, were paperback covers, hardback covers, illustrations for women’s magazines, bits of advertising. But the very first jobs that I did were six contemporary novels, [comic stories,] so they had a nice humorous quality to them. After that, I naturally seemed to gravitate towards historical stuff [and] lots of [fantasy]. But occasionally I’d do some kind of more modern stuff. […] I’d be quite interested in seeing whether I could [do illustrations for contemporary fiction. Maybe, it would free me from] the duty to be real[istic and not too strange] in the way the pictures are composed; the possibility of creating something that’s alienated […]. But I’ve never done anything like that. [I sometimes] wonder whether I could actually change my style. Somehow I don’t think it will happen […].

Are there contemporary artists whose work you particularly admire?

Yes. David [Dave] McKean, I don’t know of that name is familiar, is one of the most brilliant graphic artists [I know]. It’s mainly graphic novels. But he has got a very inventive style. He did a book recently called Black Dog, [which is a] masterpiece of novel design.
I admire him, [he’s a brilliant artist]. [He is also] a musician – total kind of Renaissance. I like John Howe’s work. In fact there are a lot of really, really talented artists [that I discover on] Facebook or Twitter. They’re almost beyond counting. But a lot of them work in […] and they’re extraordinarily gifted at [using] Photoshop. There’s some wonderful artists coming from Russia. They seem to have an unbroken art school […]. For example, Gennady (Gennadij) Spirin and a couple, Olga Dugina and Andrei Dugin who did some wonderful children’s books. [There are lots of talented artists, far more talented than me, coming from Russia.]

I’m not sure everyone here would agree… You mentioned artists working with Photoshop. What do you think about the use of Photoshop in contemporary art, versus more traditional techniques?

I personally find Photoshop [incredible], especially working in film, where you have a green screen [and you can do almost whatever you want with it. It’s very useful for a complex] scene in a film. [But using] Photoshop exclusively, for illustrations, I think what it does is it erases some of the individuality of an artist. You can look at any number of brilliant Photoshop paintings but you can’t work out who has done them. Whereas if you look at their analogue work, [their individuality shows up more].

We have a few more minutes, could you tell us about the illustrations shown on the screen? [Here Alan Lee reacted to the pictures on the screen, from 1: 09: 29 onwards in the video.]

These are illustrations for Beren and Lúthien. This is Lúthien, a wonderful heroin, she’s kind of a fairy tale princess, but [with extraordinary] qualities and powers, so she keeps on saving the day.
This is a cover for a book called The Wanderer. [It’s a collection] of Old English poems […]. I love the poetry so much. [These are poems Tolkien knew very well.] There are certain lines of Anglo-Saxon poetry which sparked some journeys through Middle-earth. I was very drawn to these [particular poems; this is one called] “The Dream of the Rood”.
And this is The Fall of Gondolin, the fight with the Balrog. It’s a real epic, [about] the destruction of a civilization […]. It’s a kind of exodus. It’s quite apocalyptic. That’s a design for the cover. I like to do pencil chapter headings and tail pieces.

I’m afraid we won’t have time to go through all the pictures. Thank you, Alan Lee, for answering these questions. We are now turning to the audience for additional questions.

To be continued…


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