CHRISTOPHER HUTSUL – Staff Reporter for the Toronto Star writes”: For a teenaged John Howe — a geeky kid who liked to draw “high fantasy” — there was no luminous epiphany that he would become the definitive Lord of the Rings artist.

In fact as a youngster Howe, whose LOTR illustrations were the visual basis for the hit films, was more confused than moved by the books.

“The first book in the series was always signed out at the school library, so instead of waiting, I started with the second book,” admits Howe, on the phone from his home in Switzerland. “I read The Fellowship of the Ring last, so you can imagine, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

Luckily for J.R.R. Tolkien fans, moviegoers and director Peter Jackson, Howe later reconsidered his approach, and eventually forged a bond with the books that begat a lifetime of LOTR artwork. In designing the visual element of the movie, Jackson relied heavily on Howe, who’d been illustrating Tolkien’s world since the ’70s.
Unless you’re a hardcore fan who has been collecting the illustrated LOTR volumes, calendars and other paraphernalia, including Howe’s new book Myth & Magic, The Art of John Howe, it’s very possible you might have missed the artist’s finely rendered illustrations. But that will change for audiences attending the Kitchener Waterloo Orchestra’s performances of Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings Symphony. The concerts — June 4 in Kitchener and June 5 at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto — will be enhanced by large projections of Howe’s work.

The concerts are just one more helping of exposure for Howe, who’s come a long way since his days as a fantasy-obsessed kid in rural British Columbia. In those days, he and his buddies scavenged for paperback fantasy books with cover art by Frank Frazetta, the “ultimate painter of action.” For Howe, who was enchanted by the likes of Conan The Barbarian, drawing fantasy was empowering.

“I suppose it was because I was thin, and wore glasses, and wasn’t any good at sports and was painfully shy — all the stuff that makes you not particularly popular in high school,” says Howe. “Drawing was one way I could express myself.”

His family moved often, and Howe didn’t settle into an art class until his senior high school years. But after graduating in ’76, he knew he had the skills to make a go of it in art. He studied it in Europe and one of his first gigs was to contribute to a Lord of the Rings art calendar.

As the years went on, Howe began to see the richness of Tolkien’s world, and developed a deep understanding of not only the physical world he’d created, but cultural layers that existed within it.

“LOTR just seemed to have an authenticity that you rarely find in fantasy,” says Howe. “Tolkien writes in nothing but images. Every sentence has an image in it, and every landscape has a symbolic weight that you rarely find in a lot of writers.”

One of Howe’s favourite passages in LOTR is when Legolas, Aragorn and Gimli arrive at the city of Edoras and find the tombs of the Kings of Rohan, engraved with names of an ancient language.

“It’s like the Anglo-Saxons and Normans,” says Howe. “You realize this isn’t just a fort with a bunch of guys and horses, it’s got depth and density. So many texts that you illustrate limit you because they’re limited in themselves.”

Though Tolkien himself did a series of drawings depicting the characters in his books, Howe’s paintings are, interestingly, considered to be more accurate depictions of the writer’s creations. Tolkien, says Howe, actually never wanted his drawings published and preferred to see his books published free of illustrations.

“Tolkien’s drawings are quite lovely, but I find them to be interesting as sources of information, not so much inspiration,” says Howe.

“There’s an element of draughtsmanship and rendering involved in depicting these things. I can line up two words together, but I certainly can’t write. Tolkien’s illustrations are a kind of visual shorthand.”

Unbeknownst to Howe, Peter Jackson and his team covered their office with prints of Howe’s art while working on scripts for the movies. When the film got the go-ahead, Jackson had no choice but to bring Howe onboard. By then, Jackson’s vision of Tolkien’s work was married to Howe’s imagery, and he’d need his input to tell the story in three dimensions.

Howe wasn’t entirely surprised to get a call from Jackson. “I’d heard rumours that something was in the works,” says Howe. “One day we got this phone call. Peter and his wife, and the producer … I couldn’t interrupt. I had to wait and listen to their sales pitch … And I thought, what a marvellous opportunity.”

He was whisked off to New Zealand to join artist Allan Lee on set.

“Peter didn’t want Hollywood design — the stuff that’s plastic and historically inaccurate and that wouldn’t work outside the movie set,” says Howe, who spent a year and a half on the island. “We were trying to work toward something that would feel more real.”

For Howe, who is married and has a musically inclined 17-year-old son, the most rewarding part of working on the film was having the resources to execute his vision on a grander scale. After two decades of toiling over watercolour paper in a studio, he was suddenly directing huge teams of craftsmen in the construction of weapons, sets and costumes.

“Rendering something on paper is all very nice, but what you’re really striving and yearning to do is depict the dimension you can’t have,” says Howe, who has since been involved in designing the upcoming animated adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. “It was like seeing drawings come alive.”