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, 28 October 2011

Around the table with...Alan Lee. Part 2

H – Alan, you could have been a gallery artist, but you chose to go into illustration instead. Your art is almost always linked to stories: to text by authors like Rosemary Sutcliff or J.R.R. Tolkien, or to Greek, Celtic, and Arthurian myth. When you're not illustrating a particular text, do you still view your individual pictures as telling a story? You talked about capturing the essence of a landscape. Does this 'essence' always tell a story?
A - I think so, yes. When I draw something, I try to build some kind of history into it. Drawing an object that has a certain amount of wear and tear or rust; or a tree that is damaged. I love trying to render not just the object, but what it has been through.
H - So you are trying to capture time, in a way?
A – Yes. For instance, when you're drawing an old tree, you’re finding the story of that particular tree, where a limb may have been chopped off at one point, and the bark has grown around the wound. . . or a willow has grown so top-heavy that it has fallen and the trunk is lying on the ground, and the branches have started to shoot up again. You're drawing what you're seeing in front of you, but you are also drawing something that has been there for a hundred years or so. . .and I just find that fascinating. I spend quite a bit of time in my garden, just looking at trees. I spend a lot of time day-dreaming, actually. Sitting on a river bank, and drawing the river, or a bit of tree where a flood has come and lifted it up so you see the roots. And I just love that. It's almost like an excavation of the landscape.
H – One of the reasons that I like the Devonian landscape is that it has a sense of what I would call 'process' going on in it: you see the roots of the trees in the banks, gripping layers of earth and stone accumulated over time; it’s really magical. I can’t define why, it just seems magical. I guess it’s because crumbling walls and gnarled roots lead to the places of the imagination. In shamanic practice, there is that idea of finding a hole in the ground down which you travel into the spirit world or the depths of the psyche. Those holes provide access to a level of imagination and consciousness....
R - The lower world.
H - Yes, the lower world. 
A - There are certain places that I keep going back to. There's a stretch of river, not far from where Brian Froud lives, that I keep going back to. There was one little tree that had fallen, and some shoots that had started to come up from it, and I photographed it, and did some drawings of it. Then I went back five years later, and those little shoots had become saplings. Then five years later, they were trees. I have been drawing that particular tree, that meter square area over the course of 30-odd years.
H - It’s like a time-lapse illustration!
A – Yes! I can get really happy just looking at a weed or a sapling  growing in a crack in a wall....
H - Me too. There is a sense that life just ... is. It will always find some way to exist.
A - It's nature's momentum towards diversity and growth.
R – Well, if I see little bits of weed in a wall, I just pull them out. They make me really angry! Like graffiti.
H – So weeds are nature’s graffiti, eh, Rex?
R – Yes, and it's wrong! It's entirely wrong.
A - You can stay out of my garden then!
H - Getting back to the relationship of art to landscape:  Alan, you’ve spent a lot of time in New Zealand over the past several years. Has that started to affect your work? Is your art still rooted in Devon, or is it being influenced by the new landscape?
A - The strange thing about being in New Zealand: It's a strikingly beautiful landscape, particularly the South Island with its mountains, and I’ve been photographing a lot, and putting those landscapes into the films, but I haven’t been inspired to do any watercolours based on the New Zealand landscape.
H - Is that because you don’t have the time, due to rigours of the film schedule?
A - It's not only that; it's also to do with the medium. Watercolour is such an English thing, perfect for capturing the wet and sodden, and clouds scudding across the sky. . . but I find that cameras are much better at capturing New Zealand.
H - Watercolour is your main painting medium?
A – Yes. The other mediums I like to work in are pencil and charcoal – but I find they don’t really work for capturing New Zealand either. British hedgerows, for example, are so rich and diverse, but in New Zealand a hedge is just one kind of plant that’s been put there by farmers as a wind block. There are wonderful views and forests in New Zealand. . .but there is something so rich about the landscape here in Devon, where I know the history. People have walked down these same paths for thousands of years.
H – I used to travel a great deal with my theatre company, and I find that when I travel I change a lot. I am a very different person when I go to France; and another different person when I go to Spain. Perhaps that's because I am an actor, and I just transform into someone else. I exist in different ways within different cultures. So it’s interesting to me that you don’t go to New Zealand and say: “I’m determined to paint in watercolours, even if the medium doesn’t work here.” Using a camera seems to allow you to find a different part of yourself to explore.
H - Have you ever tried oil painting?
A - I've tried oil and acrylics. I find my automatic process makes me treat them as if they were watercolours --
R - I can see how that would be problematic!
A -  -- so I tend to work quite thinly and build up in washes. But I love oil painting. I do have a bit of a problem with the smell. I get quite giddy.
R - That’s all part of the process.
A - The interesting thing is that watercolour would generally be thought of as more immediate, and temporary, whereas oil would be reserved for a major painting. So you might do an initial sketch in watercolour and then paint in oil. But I do it the other way 'round quite often: I’ll do a sketch in oil for a watercolour painting. And the reason is that very often I find myself drawn into the same habits; I’ll reach automatically for the same colours, whether its oil paint or watercolour, and then I'll go through the same process each time, so they tend to end up the same. In order to find a way of getting to something different, starting off with a rough sketch in oil -- where you work out the various tones and composition -- gives you a model you can work from in watercolour. 
H - So, if you start with a medium that you don’t use all the time, that automatically makes different ideas come out? 
A – Yeah, it adds a kind of uncontrollable random factor. . . which is certainly present anyway in watercolour, to a large extent, which is what I like about it. It’s a kind of conversation with the medium, rather than forcing the medium to obey your will and conform to the image you have in your mind. With watercolour, you put on a pool of colour and splash water into it, and it will flow in a particular way that suggests the next action. . . so there is that intuitive automatic element that I like. But still, being able to break habits is a good thing to do occasionally. So sometimes I’ll do a rough in Photoshop, for example.
H - That was the next question that I was going to ask, because another topic that has been coming up in our conversations is about artists working directly on computer. Do you do that?
A - Yes I do, particularly if I'm working on a film. In film, you're dealing with photographic elements, so there just doesn’t seem to be any point in producing a watercolour painting, which would then need to be turned into digital form anyway. So when I was working on Lord of the Rings, I picked up Photoshop. It was a very steep learning curve, because I'd never owned a computer, or even sent an email.
H - And you found you were happy with it?
A - Yes, I picked it up very quickly. Mainly because I was doing it all day, every day, for about three years.
R – Wow. Very proficient.
A - And I quite enjoy it. I enjoy the way that you can change things without committing to anything, which appeals to my indecisive nature. You can put on an extra layer, then take it off. It is also a nice way of doing a rough that is going to end up as a watercolour, so you can arrive at something that is slightly out of your comfort zone. Then when you do apply the skills of watercolour, it is just that little bit different, and fresher.
R – I want to introduce a new subject, and I know it's one you'll like. What about tango, Alan? Are you still dancing out in New Zealand?
A - Yes, very much so. It’s a huge part of my life now.
R – When you were talking earlier about story and myth, I was wondering if you relate tango to these things -- because Argentinian tango is a very improvisational dance form, isn’t it? Do you find you are telling a story when you dance with a partner. . .or am I just being fanciful?
A – There is a storytelling element in there. The tango form is a little like the blues in that you have a kind of structure. It’s not as rigid as twelve bar, but it's very much a storytelling medium -- and there’s an element of call-and-response, and a particular arc in the musical form, that suggest a story. It's about being in the moment, with the music; and responding to your partner, and the particular feeling and momentum in her body in any one moment. It’s a very concentrated thing; you can’t think about anything else while you are doing it. If you try to hold a conversation, it just kind of falls apart. The music was what really drew me into tango. Everyone knows a few of the more popular tango classics, but once you get into it, there’s such a rich field. It’s astonishing, this kind of miraculous musical form that developed in a very small locality: two cities on either side of the River Plate, in Argentina and Urugauy. It started in the 1880s or '90s, and there are all kinds of mysteries, myths and stories, about how tango started and developed. It was first of all considered really low-life, almost reptilian. Something to be avoided and not talked about. And then it became this word wide phenomena. . .and I could go on talking about tango forever. . . . 
R - I knew you enjoyed it. As an artist, everything feeds one’s art, doesn’t it? I'd assumed that was the case with you and tango, and you have just very eloquently shown me that I was right. It’s exactly what I'd imagined, that sort of trance-like state that you achieve when you dance.
A - Yes, but its also to do with movement. I try to get that into my pictures: a sense of movement, something flowing through. A while ago, I realised how much I'd been drawing dancing figures in the corners of my sketchbooks for years before I discovered tango!
H – It seems that tango combines two things in your art that we have touched on in this chat: First, you've talked about drawing a tree and having that sense of oneness and essence, and you clearly find in tango too. You've also talked about trying to draw swirling eddies in a stream, trying to capture that movement. It is almost like that oneness and movement has come off the page and into your life in the form of tango. You are famous around here now probably as much for your love of tango as for your art….
R - I’d say notorious.
A - Notorious? That sounds good to me.
H - Alan Lee, notorious for your love of tango! That seems like a good place to end, I think. Thank you, Alan.
A - Thank you.

Alan Lee.


  1. 'I can get really happy just looking at a weed or a sapling growing in a crack in a wall' - that quote has just brightened my day! x

  2. I love the idea of tango as a story-telling medium. Never looked at it that way before....

    Thanks for another great "Around the Table" discussion, with much food for thought (excuse the pun).

  3. wonderful to read this interview, thank you! art and tango.... well that is a good life. what i love about tango is that one leads with their heart... well that is a grand way to do everything. Wonderful art, I love all the details, expression and skill.

  4. Wow thank you for such an inspiring rave!

  5. My day just got smilier. Hooray, hooray, for Mr Lee, and you Barleycorn gents too :o).

  6. Inspiring stuff! I'm fascinated by this very close relationship with the land of your ancestors...I guess I'm a little jealous because I don't have that relationship here, it's a very different dynamic when your ancestors arrived quite recently as colonists (and as exploiters no doubt). And also the strong idea of storytelling. Storytelling seems to be emerging as a theme for me at the moment, everything I read or see links to it!

  7. oooh lovely! Thanks guys, another awesome interview :)

  8. Thanks, all, for yet another wonderful around the table talk.
    I love the idea of drawing the same tree and its tiny patch of land over three decades. What a beautiful way to see and know and grow with the landscape.

  9. A gem of an interview, gents, thank you very much.

    I particularly liked Alan's choice of the term 'connection' to describe 'spirituality' (from Part 1 of his interview, last week).

    Enjoyed right clicking on the illustration links to enlarge and view. Wow!

    Signed: The Real Anonymous

  10. I love Alan's work, Thank you very much for interviewing him, read this article so many times, I find it very inspiring =)