Welcome to the archive of the John Barleycorn blog, produced by Howard Gayton and Rex Van Ryn during the process of creating their graphic novel John Barleycorn Must Die. As part of that process, you'll find discussions of magic, of creativity, and 'Around the Table' discussions with a range of internationally known artists, writers and film makers. The graphic novel was printed in a limited edition, so if you managed to get one, good for you! Although this project is over now, we're leaving this blog online as an archive and as a snap shot in time.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Around the table with...Alan Lee. Part 1

Alan Lee was born in Middlesex in 1947, studied at the Ealing College of Art, and worked as an illustrator in London before moving to Devon in 1975. He is known the world over for his illustrations for J.R.R. Tolkien's books, as well as for Faeries (with Brian Froud), Castles (with David Day),  Merlin Dreams (with Peter Dickinson), Black Ships Before Tory (with Rosemary Sutcliffe, for which he won the Kate Greenway Medal) and The Mabinogion. He is also a film designer, having worked on such films as Legend, Erik the Viking, Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings (for which he won an Academy Award), and, currently, The Hobbit.  When he's not on a film set, Alan works from an old stone barn in a small village on Dartmoor. His other interests include tango, playing blues guitar, and long walks through the countryside.

       H - Hello, Alan! Thank you for joining us today.
A - Hello to you both. It’s a pleasure.
H - I’d like to start today by talking about the relationship between art and landscape. It's a theme that has surfaced in many of our “Around the Table' chats -- and it's one that seems especially relevant to your art, much of which appears to be very influenced by the Devonian landscape. How conscious are you of that influence, and did it develop when you moved from London to Devon?
A – Yes, when I moved from London to Devon, it was, as much as for any other reason, to get closer to landscape. As a child, I lived on the edge of the green belt just outside London, so there were fields and trees and canals and rivers. It was quite an interesting area, but it was also a landscape that had the detritus of the town and factories spilling over into it: there were factories beside the canal, gasworks, pig farms and slaughter houses. When I look back at my work over the years, I can see there are certain things that keep cropping up. . .which perhaps is me trying to work my way through the landscape I'd lived close to as a child. My friends and I would go and hang out in an area where trees had been chopped down to make way for extra Council Houses. All the trees were piled up in one corner of the field, and they stayed there for about five or six years. It was a kind of a graveyard for these oaks, which seemed huge to me at the time. It became an area for our camps, and it felt like a slightly dangerous wilderness, where you always had to avoid other gangs of kids.
R – So Alan, you were in a gang?
A - No!
R – Ah, that’s a great shame. I was hoping you'd say you were! 
A - I was in a couple of ‘clubs’ though....
R - I see.
A - One was The Booby-trap Club. I was the prof., because the booby-traps were all my idea. The rest of the club just kind of hung out to watch me. 
H - Did the traps work?
A - Yes. Often they worked on me! 
H - What sort of traps were they?
A - Things like buckets of water poised above an archway...that sort of thing.
.R - Were they set up to catch rival club members?
A - No, just anyone.
R - Indiscriminate, then.
A – Yes...That landscape was very much to do with water: rivers, and gravel pit lakes, and canals. There was a canal just outside Uxbridge that was a resting place for narrow boats. We used to go down and find these boats: some were afloat, and some were sinking into the mud. They were just completely abandoned, so we would untie them and punt them 100 yards down the canal, and then abandon them again.
H – It makes me think of my own childhood. We lived in Gloucestershire and  we would run around as a gang of children, from the oldest at eleven, down to me at five. It was very rural, and our imaginations would be fired. There were still bomb craters in some of the woods leftover from the war, which would often make our games very war centered. When you talk about punting a barge down an abandoned canal, Alan, it makes me think of how children, left to their own devices, use their imaginations to create stories and adventures. 
A – When I was a child, it was just post-war, and there were Pill Boxes and Air Raid Shelters and a lot of cement and concrete ruins with collapsing walls. I guess they were kind of prototypes for the castles and stuff that I got interested in later on.
H – So when you found yourself drawn to myths and fantasy as an illustrator, was there a clear connection back to your childhood world? It sounds like it was a very fertile place, in the sense that your childhood landscape was imprinting images on you.
A - I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking back, yes. Certain things that I enjoy drawing now I can relate to certain things in that early landscape. When I started to draw, most of my influences were from other painters and illustrators, so I was drawing landscape at second hand, really. The trees were Rackham trees, or trees that I had seen in paintings rather than from my own observation...and I started to feel this was a real lack in my work. Everything was too generalised, and not based on real experience. Then in 1975, after having worked for some years in London as a book cover illustrator mainly, I came down to Devon and stayed with some friends up on the moor. In the course of this one weekend, wandering around the moor, finding rivers and ancient woods, I realised that everything that I would ever want to draw was actually here. There was so much richness in the texture and forms of these fantastic trees...and I decided in the course of that weekend to come and live here. I looked at a couple of houses, found one, and made an offer on it, all in that one weekend!
H – Your encounter with the Dartmoor landscape must have been a deep, profound experience. You just knew, then, that this was where you had to be as an artist? 
A – Yes. I mean there were other reasons for moving here as well, to do with being fed up with London. Just finding the litter, noise, and dirt of London getting to me. 
R – Alan, I understand that you looked at the cottage that I'm currently living in!
A – Yes, it was on sale for £5000....
R - Wow. I think my current landlord paid a little more for it than that!
H - Did you notice an immediate change in your work when you moved down?
A – Yes. It happened pretty quickly. I just started walking, sketching, and taking photographs of the landscape. Brian Froud had moved here at the same time, and we started to work on a book about faeries. Brian was finding inspiration in the landscape too. We didn’t go walking together: he would go off in one direction and I would go off in the other. Brian would just walk and walk and walk, and then hide himself in his studio to work, but I'd take a sketchbook along with me. I found that just the act of carefully delineating the form of a tree, working directly from nature, meant that when I subsequently invented a tree it was more naturalistic. It was almost like programming those elements into my inner computer, and then releasing them. I found that to be a wonderful way of working, and elements of landscape in my pictures became more based on the particular.
H – Another question that's come up in our discussions with other artists is whether they consider their art and spirituality to be linked. I wonder if you feel there is a connection between your work and your understanding of spirituality? 
       A - It's certainly true that, somewhere along the way, a spiritual aspect to the act of drawing developed...although I’ve never really thought about it too much, never examined it too closely. But there is something that is a little like...reverence...when you are drawing from nature, paying very close attention to every little detail. I think it's about the idea of there being some kind of unifying connection. The word “spiritual,' to me, means ‘connection.’ 
H - Of yourself with...?
A - With the landscape, yes.

H – I would imagine that drawing and observing something in such close detail could be experienced as a form of meditation.
A - And what you are doing with all these disparate elements, by drawing in graphite in one medium, is embodying the unity that lies behind everything...so clouds, leaves, trees, water, they are all captured in a net of grey silvery lines. Maybe it's just metaphorical, but it feels like it is capturing something of the essence of landscape. Some kind of unifying thing behind matter.
H - So when you look at nature, there is an 'aliveness' there that you are also trying to capture in the picture...?
A - Yes! And very often it's elusive. For every good drawing that I have done, there are whole drawers full of drawings where I haven't quite captured what I was feeling or seeing. I spend quite a bit of time by the riverside, just drawing eddies of water around rocks. I find I don’t look at anything properly unless I'm drawing it. I try to really look, following every single shape, every line, every form. As much as anything else, drawing is a way of getting myself to really look at something. Drawing people is the same. It's a privilege to be able to sit and look at someone for an hour; to look closely and to work out what is happening with all those forms and shapes.
R - You’ve used some people in town as models for your illustrations, haven’t you?
H – Including me, in fact! 
 R – Yes, wasn't Howard the model for the cover of J.R.R. Tolkien's Children of Hurin? Did you draw him first before creating the painting?
A - No, I took photographs of him. It’s not my preferred way of working, but sometimes it's the most practical thing to do.
R - So you’d rather work from life?
A - Yes, I’d much rather work from life, or from my imagination. I don’t really enjoy working from a photograph and trying to recreate it. 
H - Rex, I've heard you say that you draw from your head, and you have to get the picture out quickly before it disappears.
R – Well yes, Howard, that's true, but that's specific to  creating storyboards for films. When I draw a storyboard, the director tells me what to sketch: a bunch of people around a table, for example, seen from a bird’s-eye view. . .or whatever. Then I “see” that image in my head, and it doesn’t necessarily last very long, so I need to hammer the drawing out quickly, before I lose the image. So, I don’t draw with the same focus and intensity as Alan does, unless the intensity comes from the story I’m telling. It’s not about looking at something to the nth degree, it’s just about getting the story across.
H – Do you also hold a picture in your head Alan? Or, does the picture reveal itself to you through the process of drawing? 
A – Very much the latter.  I often don’t have a clear idea of what I am going to be drawing when I start, unless it is for a very specific purpose. Most of the time, I just sit down and draw a line, and it isn’t really related to anything other than this vague feeling of movement or atmosphere. That line will lead to another, and then forms will start to appear, and figures will start to appear. I usually start things very intuitively, and sort of watch the process, almost as a spectator . . . and then at some point I have to think about what I'm creating, and consciously shape it. If I am doing something for a film or book illustration, then I'm also thinking about a lot of other factors, such as composition and story-telling.
H – Another thing we've been discussing with various artists is the difference between creating commercial work, where you've been asked to do a specific job, and one’s own personal work. I suppose it’s obvious, really, that there would be a difference -- and I don’t know why, but when we first started these discussions I was surprised by this! Clearly, as an illustrator or film designer, when someone gives you a brief and says 'I want you to draw such-and-such,' it's going to be a very different creative process than when you are drawing just for the sake of drawing.
A – Yes. And sometimes it’s harder, the more specific the brief, to actually stick to it, because one is constantly wanting to go off in other directions. I can really see this when I do book covers. In all my roughs and working drawings, you see these tentative lines in the middle of the page, trying to get to grips with the composition and subject...and around the edges of the page there are multitudinous cavorting figures and completely random and surreal things going on. Sometimes there's a relationship to the central drawing, because the margin sketches will have been sparked off by it. If I'm drawing a nose, for example, there will be an array of these huge, malformed, odd noses on these various creatures around the edges of the page. So a lot of the energy that I should be putting into the brief gets spent in this kind of doodling. 
H - I sometimes have a similar problem when devising theatre pieces. Often I'll start by having my cast play games, to see how they work together -- and then, through play, we'll begin to explore images, themes, and ideas in the piece. Almost always an idea will emerge that seems far more interesting than what we're supposed to be doing – and I’ll  spend far too much time developing it before I finally, reluctantly, put it aside. I love that part of the creative process: when an image or a theme appears that you weren’t expecting. But then, in the end, you have to put it aside and get back to the project at hand.
A - That’s the story of my life...

Come back next Friday for part 2 of this 'around the table' chat.


  1. Alan says: "And what you are doing with all these disparate elements, by drawing in graphite in one medium, is embodying the unity that lies behind everything...so clouds, leaves, trees, water, they are all captured in a net of grey silvery lines. Maybe it's just metaphorical, but it feels like it is capturing something of the essence of landscape. Some kind of unifying thing behind matter."

    I've never looked at drawings that way before. What an inspiring revelation.

    Thank you for that, and for this interesting interview as a whole. I'm looking forward to Part II!

  2. I'm in agreement with Terri - that's a very interesting idea. I also like hearing about different people's creative process in image making...There are clearly as many ways as individual artists..Yes, roll on part two. x

  3. Delightful and insightful round-table discussion, as ever. A long time Lee/Froud fan I've been awaiting this eagerly. Fascinating to hear about the different ways visual artists work. Roll on part two x

  4. As another long time Lee/Froud fan, I've also been waiting for this one! I think what Alan says in the bit Terri quoted explains my feelings towards ultra-photographic realism...I can admire the skill, but it always seems something is kind of missing, especially with landscape. But a landscape rendered in pencil (or any medium actually), that ISN'T trying to recreate exactly what is out there, somehow captures both the essence of the scene, AND the essence of the artist as well. That's something I love seeing.

  5. It's great to know more about the process behind Alan's work. I remember looking his illustrations and wondering where is all this beauty and atmosphere coming from...most of all, how does it happen? Now it seems much clearer!
    I can definitely relate to that part of the creative process where ideas emerge and draw one away from the task at hand...it's so hard to maintain focus when the mind offers so much.

    Looking forward to part 2!

  6. Brilliant to read this... thanks you two as ever for keeping this fascinating series of interviews going!

    I'm particularly struck reading this by the power of this Dartmoor landscape that has drawn us all here over the years. Its call is loud eh ...
    Especially for those of us who had London's suburbs in their childhood landscapes!

  7. A very enjoyable and inspiring read. Thank-you so much.