Anke Eissmann is an illustrator and graphic designer. She teaches art, and her many illustrations include depictions of Troy, Alexander the Great, Beowulf, and of course the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Her website, also given below in the conclusion, ishttp://www.anke.edoras-art.de
by Anke Eissmann
IntroductionThose expecting an academic essay about Tolkien-inspired illustration I fear I mustdisappoint. Looking at the articles of the “real” scholars in this forum, I feel rather unqualifiedto contribute a work in this fashion. Therefore, I will keep my piece personal and, you mayexcuse, quite subjective, and write about my own art.
“Escaping from the Black Riders”, 2000, watercolour, 40 x 22,5 cm
I started reading Tolkien in 1992 after watching the Bakshi movie of The Lord of the Rings,and I haven’t stopped reading his works since. From the very beginning of this extraordinaryexperience I’ve also been creating artwork inspired by the Professor’s books – again with noend in sight. Some of my works have by now been published on the covers of books (mostlyby Walking Tree Publishers) and in calendars, and have been exhibited at meetings ofinternational Tolkien Societies and on the internet. However, when I first started drawing andpainting images of scenes and characters from the books I did not consider possiblepublication at all. Far from it. I created them for my own pleasure, to try and pin down thepictures the writing created in my imagination, to find an outlet for the strong urge to createsomething related to this secondary world, to give shape to the creativity sparked by thestories. I think many people feel the urge to create “fanworks” (although I cringe at the word,as it seems to belittle one’s own creativity in the process of producing derivative works).Anyway, creating artwork presented a way to cope with my raving fascination for the booksand also to share my passion about them with others. Rather than putting my thoughts intowords, drawing pictures seemed an easier way to communicate about the stories that hadmoved me so profoundly. In a way, this has remained my chief motivation to this day.
Generally, I prefer to let my images speak for themselves, and people to make up their ownminds about them. However, because of certain questions which I get asked repeatedly, someconcerning the look and content of my artwork, others my artistic techniques and choice ofmedium, I will try and delve into my thoughts and illustrate my working process. That way, Iwill try and describe why I love to illustrate Tolkien’s works and why they inspired me in thefirst place, where lie my artistic sources of inspiration, why I prefer the depiction of certainscenes and characters over others, and why I like to paint in watercolour and mostly in aparticular format. To illustrate my points, I am going to include samples of my artwork, fromrough composition sketches to finished watercolours. Certainly, it would have been helpful toalso include samples of the art I list as my references and sources of inspiration, but Irefrained from doing so for copyright reasons, and to keep the article a manageable length.But do feel free to contact me if you are have questions about the artists and worksmentioned, and I will gladly point you to relevant sources.
Why Tolkien?I have been asked what exactly drew me into Tolkien's works many times. What makes themso appealing to me as a reader and inspiring as an artist still remains a mystery to me, but Ithink part of the reason is that they contain and combine many features I have foundfascinating in narratives since childhood. There are believable, sympathetic but alsofascinating characters, there is a good grasp of pacing and suspense, appealing humour, andboth epic scope and attention to minute detail in the descriptions. An underlining warmth, anda strong love of nature are also present. Also, there is the convincing secondary world Tolkiencreated, based firmly on the foundations of older myths and stories, but blended with a gooddose of his own creativity as well as evidence of attentive observation of people’s talk as wellas aspects of nature. His writings, despite their fantastical elements, right from the beginningfelt very familiar to me, and at the same time fascinating, strange and exciting. They provideescapism in the best sense of the word – needless to say I don’t hold with the negativeconnotations of the term.
Fact is that The Lord of the Rings has moved me like scarcely any other book I have read sofar. Already the first read caused me to create artwork, which generally is a good sign for anypiece of fiction, book, film or even TV-series. I found that the book provided me with a“frame” for including and practising many motifs I had been interested in over the years:depictions of humans and animals (mainly horses – hey, I was a teenager at that time), nature,architecture. I could experiment with lighting and composition, practise proportion and thedepiction of surfaces and details. Actually, whatever I wanted to draw, I could easily find amotif in the books, meaning that despite different subjects all works were relatedthematically, making it easier to monitor developments in style or improvements in artisticskill, and thus to keep track of my own progress as an artist. Also, in time, the thematic frameand the fact that it was of a kind many others knew and recognised, provided me with what Ihad been looking for from the start: a chance to communicate. The internet helped there, asdid the many contacts and friendships in Tolkien fandom that developed over the years.
My artistic journey in Middle-earth started back in 1992 with a series of drawings in colouredpencil. The very first was a version of Frodo, Merry and Sam leading their ponies through theOld Forest I drew for a friend who was also reading LotR at the time. This was followed bymore pencil drawings that then were turned into ink drawings with watercolour washes. Thistechnique was partly inspired by David Wenzel's comic version of The Hobbit. In time, Imoved away from these coloured drawings to more sophisticated watercolour pieces thataimed at a higher degree of naturalism.
”Frodo grieves for Bilbo”, 1997, watercolour, 30 x 40 cm
“The Trek of the Dúnedain”, 2010, watercolour, 40 x 30 cm
Sources of inspirationA number of artists have inspired my own take on illustrating Tolkien, some of themillustrators, others from different fields of the artistic spectrum. It would be impossible toquote a comprehensive list here as it is ever changing, but I will mention a few whose workshave had particular influence on my own, be it in style, technique or medium, or choice ofsubject.
An illustrator I greatly admire is Alan Lee. He is a true master with watercolour, and anexcellent draftsman. I first noticed his work in Faeries, then in the centenary edition of LotR.I like his subtle approach to illustration, and the obvious care and research that flow into hiswork, and his love for trees and nature he seems to share with Tolkien – and myself. Hisartwork for LotR comes closest to my own imagination, which may explain why I find it soinspiring. Personally, I prefer his earlier illustrations for Tolkien’s works, though, not those hecreated after working on the LotR-movies. The former seem more genuine. My favouritepieces of him, however, are no Tolkien-inspired artworks but his illustrations for TheMabinogion.
It is difficult to list all other Tolkien illustrators whose artwork I admire. John Howe isbrilliant at dynamic composition and lighting, Ted Nasmith always puts me in awe with hislandscapes and depictions of sky and weather. Katharina Chmiel does excellent ink-drawingsof characters, especially Boromir and figures from the Silmarillion. I like Cor Blok’s artwork,too, because it is a unique take in its simplicity and degree of abstraction.
Speaking of illustrators, quite a lot of inspiration I receive not only from Tolkien-inspired art,but from the images created by "Golden Age" illustrators like Arthur Rackham, Ivan Bilibin,Audrey Beardsley, Edmond Dulac and others. Often when contemporary illustrators are askedfor their favourites, names of these and other artists from the late 19th and early 20th centurycrop up. Due to refined printing-methods new forms of illustration developed, especiallythose including colour, and lavishly produced books where published, often versions ofclassical fairy-tales or mythological subjects. Apart from their aesthetic value, theseillustrations show a high mastery capturing poignant moments in the story, in conveyingemotion and atmosphere through exquisite line-work and masterful composition, often incombination with ornamental frames or inclusion of calligraphy or typography. Colour is usedincreasingly, vibrantly in Bilibin’s case, in more subtle, subdued tones in Rackham’s. Eventhough my own style differs from most of these illustrators in that I do not put as muchemphasis on clear outlines, I nevertheless often refer back to their work in terms ofcomposition – or simply because I enjoy looking at the images.
Another undeniable influence on my work is Tolkien’s own art, which is often overlookedwhen his works are mentioned. He did not consider himself an artist in the first place and wasnever trained as one, yet his drawings and watercolours add another vantage point to theenjoyment of his creative genius. Personally, I find them very appealing for their simplicityand the mastery especially of the watercolour paintings – a difficult medium to work in. Theiroften stylised, ornamental depictions contain elements of Art Nouveau and the AestheticMovement, and show influences of the “Golden Age” illustrators mentioned above, forexample in the patterned friezes that frame many pieces, the ornamental organic shapes, aswell as the colour-scheme reduced to bright, contrasting hues. Even though my own paintingslook very different, I often refer to Tolkien’s art for patterns and ornaments. Moreover, Isimply enjoy looking at it for its simple aesthetic value, and the insight into the author’screative process while writing the books it offers.
Many of the sources Tolkien must have had for his art I share. Apart from the illustrators ofthe late 19th and early 20th century my own work, to a greater degree than Tolkien’s, has beeninfluenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers like John William Waterhouse. Eventhough I do not aim at such a high degree of naturalistic depiction artists like Millais or Huntwere famous for, what interests me about Pre-Raphaelite work is their attention to naturaldetail, like in Millais’ “Ophelia” (1852) and Waterhouse’s “The Lady of Shalott” (1888). Itseems very fitting for illustrating Tolkien’s works since there is a like attention to be found inhis descriptions of nature, especially botany and trees. Moreover, given the fascination someof the Pre-Raphaelites had with Medieval Romances like the Arthurian Tales, it is interestingto imagine what they would have done had Tolkien’s works existed at their time. ImagineMillais, Rossetti or Burne-Jones creating artwork for LotR or the Silmarillion – an intriguingidea. Speaking of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of his watercolour pieces served as a directinspiration for me: his painting “Dante drawing an Angel” from 1853 greatly influenced mydepiction of Faramir, my favourite character from LotR.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti: “Dante drawing an Angel”, 1853, watercolour, Ashmolean
“A pert servant”, 2005, watercolour, 40 x 30 cm
Both from the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement they formed a part of, as well asthe Art Nouveau which developed out of the latter, I took stylistic inspiration, favouring amore linear approach which tends to accentuate clear outlines to a more painterly wherevisible brush-strokes and heavy layering of colour produce three-dimensional effects. Whilestill trying to retain a certain naturalism and depth though shading, as well as perspective andoverlaying, nevertheless my paintings tend to remain rather flat. Watercolour lends itself wellto painting “out of focus” areas, and I have been experimenting with this feature, in contrastto highly detailed depictions of foreground vegetation or patterns and draping of clothing.Both these patterns and the strong presence of flora are partly inspired by Art Nouveau.
“Lúthien prepares her escape from Hírilorn”, 2001, watercolour, 40 x 22,5 cm
In terms of composition and especially lighting I often refer back to the works of Jan Vermeerand Edward Hopper, two of my favourite painters. Even though their style and choice ofmedium (oil) is different from mine, I very much like the way they compose and light theirscenes (mostly interiors), thus creating a sense of privacy and quiet. Their subjects appear tobe lost in thought, and through framing and composition the viewer is made an observer of asubtle moment in the lives of the portrayed. This effect I find very appealing if applied toillustrating Tolkien’s works: the idea of suggesting that the viewer of the scene is present, butnot noticed by the characters, like a stills photographer at a film set. In a way, that is how Isee myself, as someone present at the time to record what happened, but unseen by thecharacters and not interfering with their story.
Since especially the works of Edward Hopper have inspired filmmakers in the past, and givenmy own interest in films and especially cinematography, it’s not surprising for me to count itunder my inspirations. My list of favourite films is long and ever evolving, but generally whatI value in a “good” film, apart from a good story and believable characters and setting isatmosphere, because that’s what remains with the viewer and makes one watch films over andover again. What I also look for, because it is indispensable for creating this atmosphere, isgood cinematography. It has to be sophisticated in terms of composition, lighting and colour.I greatly prefer natural light over artificial lighting, and appreciate if a camera-person ordirector took the effort to wait for the right weather for the shot. Also, I prefer detail-shots andclose-ups with out-of-focus areas and depth of field to all-focus wide shots which seem toincrease in recent cinematic productions (perhaps to ensure that all the expensive CGI-effectscan actually be seen on screen). Some of these aesthetic preferences can be seen in my art,which often “zoom” in on characters and their immediate surroundings, instead of offeringwide vistas of epic scenes.
“Beren recovers a Silmaril”, 2001, watercolour, 40 x 22,5 cm
In order to create a certain realism which I find in Tolkien’s descriptions both of nature andcharacters’ clothing and weapons I do extensive research into historical costumes, especiallythe early Middle-Ages (Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Saracens) and costume making,weaponry, historical Reenactment and archery. It’s very helpful to have actual chain-mail touse for reference, or know how it feels to draw a bow and what happens inside the body whenyou do so. Also, it gives one a feel what characters need to be outfitted with in order to lookrealistic. Where would they put their belongings if their garments have no pockets? Whathappens to a cloak if you wear a rucksack on top? What do you wear underneath a mail-shirtto prevent it from chafing? Even though one could argue that Tolkien’s Middle-earth is afantasy-world, the way it is described creates a high sense of realism which does not seem tocomply with fantastical armour or costumes, but leans more to depictions based onarchaeological fact. This is what I aim at in my artwork, too.
“Isildur’s last counsellor”, 2009, watercolour, 40 x 30 cm
Another great source of inspiration which has already been mentioned frequently is nature,and here in particular botany which Tolkien was very knowledgeable of. One only has to lookat his description of Ithilien and his loving attention to trees in many of his stories. I try todraw from life as often as possible, and when it is not I rely on landscape photography, eithermy own or by others. I found particular inspiration in some of the photographs commissionedby the National Trust, as well as works by Ansel Adams.
Characters and scenesScenesThose who are familiar with my artwork may have noticed an absence of certain scenes thatare often depicted by other Tolkien-inspired artists: the moments of great action and dramasuch as the Fellowship’s encounter with the Balrog in Moria, or Eowyn's fight with theWitchking. The reason for this (apparent) neglect is simple: the scenes have been portrayed,and portrayed very well, too often, making me doubt I could produce anything new.Personally, I feel more drawn towards quieter moments in the stories, towards characters andscenes overlooked by others where the focus lies on character interaction, mood, detail suchas particular vegetation, lighting or features of costume.
For this reason, I have also drawn and painted scenes from less well-known stories, such asthose collected in The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, as well as parts from The History ofMiddle-earth, most notably the Lay of Leithian.
“The Fox”, 2004, watercolour, 40 x 30 cm
“The Ring has moved on”, 2006, watercolour, 40 x 30 cm
CharactersEverybody has their favourite characters, and I am no exception. A glance at my artworkshows clearly that while there are series dedicated to Túrin, Tuor or Lúthien, and a number ofpieces depicting Hobbits, one character is featured far more often than others: Faramir. Don’task why him. I don’t know. I just like him, I guess. Oh, and yes, I hate what the Jacksonmovies made of him, both character- and lookswise. It is better not to get me started on theLotR-films, so I will leave them out of this, since they had little to no influence on my artwork– unless one counts a strong desire to paint after watching them, to find a way to return to mypersonal “movie” in my head, and to “get things down correctly” on paper.
So, unsurprisingly, there are a great number of images of Faramir: countless sketches, andmany paintings, often of similar scenes which I like to revisit over the years, to see if I can dobetter than last time. I sometimes get asked if I have a “model” for him. I don’t. My depictionof his face developed somewhat over the years, although the basic “look” never changedmuch. It is firmly based on his description in the book. As mentioned above, Rossetti’spaintingalso served as inspiration.
Sketch of Faramir, 2008, pencil
This is my approach with all characters, by the way. Their look somehow established itselfover time without me basing it on particular faces – okay, the Hobbits do look quite a lot likemyself, especially Frodo, but that is perhaps because I have the right hair and eyes. Smallchanges occurred, of course, but those were mainly due to my improved drawing skills andmy attempts at making them look more lifelike. I am still working on that.
Medium and formatMediumEven though occasionally I veer into fields like printmaking, charcoal, ink or colouredpencils, my preferred mediums are pencil for drawing and watercolour for painting. Even mystudents know me as a compulsory draftsperson who always carries a sketchbook anddrawing utensils around with her. This sketchbook is mostly used as a documentation andcreative exploration of ideas, concepts and moments of inspiration, therefore containingcomposition sketches, studies of characters, lighting, draping, nature, architecture, and, whenI find the time, life drawings. Only rarely I turn these sketches into more detailed, refineddrawings, complete with shading. Most of the time they remain more or less rough scribbles,but as such they serve their purpose: mainly to help me visualise and organise my ideas and toexercise and hone my drawing skills.
Composition sketches and characters studies for a yet unfinished painting of Faramir in Ithilien, 2010/2011, pencil
Watercolour painting arguably takes even more practice in order to get the paint to do whatthe artist wants. Despite all mastery of the painter it nevertheless retains a degree ofunpredictability. Often water, paint and the paper's surface react in ways beyond one'sinfluence. For me, this is part of the special appeal of the medium. One can work with a finebrush in incredible detail, but one can also leave the elements to interact freely by paintingwet in wet. This way, one can suggest moods and atmosphere. For illustrators this means theycan suggest rather than dictate and so leave room for the reader's imagination. Even when awatercolour painting is highy naturalistic, it is still recognisable as a painting, and I think thisfact makes it easier for the reader to accept it as one possible, but always subjectiveinterpretation of a character or scene, whereas a photorealistic illustration may not have thesame effect: since it inevitably clashes with one's own mental image while at the same timeseemingly claiming "truthfulness", the reader is torn. Text, mental image and illustration donot correspond the way the should.
Also, using watercolour harks back to the "Golden Age" of book illustration as mentionedabove. I think it important in this increasingly digital age to preserve traditional techniquesthat involve a certain amount of "risk-taking", which is particularly present with watercolour.Even though I consider software like Photoshop indespensible for my work as a graphicdesigner, when it comes to my Tolkien illustrations I am a purist. The only digital treatmentmy drawings and watercolours undergo after scanning are slight corrections of brightness andcontrast to make the files match the original artwork.
FormatEven though I started out painting in the classical vertical format one has come to associatewith book-illustration, around the year 2000 I decided to alter it by switching to a horizontalformat loosely based on the 16:9 ratio used in films. To this day, I have more or less stuckwith the latter, only reverting to other formats for particular projects like illustrations forposters, magazines or book-covers.
The switch to 16:9 occurred for several reasons. As has been mentioned above,cinematography is one of my undeniable influences. I often take ideas for the composition ofscenes, for the placing of characters or the angle a scene is viewed from films. The sameapplies to lighting. The horizontal, fairly long format allows me to apply these techniques tomy art. I can decide whether to “zoom” in on a scene or take a wider “shot”, to look over acharacter’s shoulder to show what they see, or to hide my “camera” behind foliage to addsecrecy and suspense. Moreover, the extreme horizontal format invariably causes cuts.Characters are not shown in full, suggesting that like in a film there might have been a fullshot before, and that the one the viewer sees is just another shot, a small moment in the story,and thus part of a longer narrative – like one frame out of a comic or storyboard. Even thoughmost of my paintings can stand as self-contained pieces, in fact all of them are part of longerseries. Lastly, the 16:9 format allows for more dynamic compositions because of the fact it’sless harmonic in its proportions than others.
ConclusionIn the course of this article, I hope to have shed some light on what brought me intoillustrating Tolkien, and how I go about it. Of course it serves only to scratch the surface, butthose interested I cordially invite to contact me, and ask what else they would like to know.Most of my Tolkien-inspired art since 1997 can be found on my website at www.anke.edoras-art.de, with new ones to follow in the near future, as this is an ongoing project. Perhaps oneday some of my earliest pieces will appear there, too, for laughs. Also, there is plenty ofinformation about other projects, some related to the work on Tolkien (such as my illustratedversion of Beowulf and the Dragon), others set in a completely different field.
Thanks for reading.
Literature• Borchers, Elisabeth. Russische Märchen. Frankfurt a.M.: Insel, 1994.• Crane, Walter. Of the Decorative Illustration of Books Old and New. London: Bracken,1984. First published 1896.• Düchting, Hajo. Jan Vermeer van Delft. Erlangen: Karl Müller, 1996.• Hamilton, James. Arthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration. London: Pavillion, 1995.• Hammond, Wayne G. and Christina Scull. J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. Boston andNew York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.• Heyl, Anke von. Jugendstil. Königswinter: Tandem, 2008.• Hofstätter, Hans H (ed). Jugendstil: Graphik und Druckkunst. St. Gallen: Otus, 2003.• Levin, Gail (ed). Edward Hopper 1882-1967. Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 1981.• Tolkien, Christopher. Pictures by Tolkien. London: HarperCollins, 1992.• Tolkien, J.R.R. Letters from Father Christmas. Edited by Baillie Tolkien. London:HarperCollins, 1999.• Ulmer, Renate. Alfons Mucha. Cologne (et al): Taschen, 1993.• Wood, Christopher. The Pre-Raphaelites. London: Phoenix, 1997.
Edited by: Lord of the Rings
It is laden with history, leading back into the dark heathen ages beyond the memory of song, but not beyond the reach of imagination.