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Interview with Ted Nasmith



1. What is your opinion on the role of an illustrator in context of author´s descriptions? Should the illustrator make his works with high fidelity to the writer´s instructions or maybe he is an artist who has a right to his own vision of some characters or views? How does your opinion on this subject affect the look of your works?

I personally feel the artist ought to do his/her best to reflect the author´s intentions; that the reader wishes to see a thoughtful approach to the artwork, and one which accords with their sense of what was intended by the author, too. I see the artist as an intermediary between reader and author, but at the same time the artist´s sense of vision and his/her skill can be seen as reflecting their own unique personality, too, and be appreciated as such.


2. What are your main inspirations in art and literature (except Tolkien) and how do they influence your image as an artist?

I love the romantic, realist landscape art of European 18th and 19th century tradition, as well as its corollary in American luminist tradition. I also love the best of late 19th and early 20th century illustration. My reading tastes span a wide range of non-fiction mostly (eg. E. Velikovsky; Paul Watslawick; C. Lascsh; Paul Davies; Elaine Pagels; Marina Warner; many others) , and I´ve enjoyed various fantasy or Sci-fi authors over the years, too (eg. Michael Bishop; Joan D. Vinge; Frank Herbert; Guy Kay; George R.R. Martin, etc.). All in various ways inform my sense of things around me, but I´m not sure there´s time here to analyze the ways they may or may not inform my artwork in any general sense.


3. And what is so unusual in the works of Tolkien himself that makes them one of your main sources of inspiration?

It seems to be the combination of various qualities, such as a sense of melancholy, but also magic and adventure; ´Englishness´; nature and invented landscape (of course); and the general moral, decent, chivalric sensibility Tolkien brings to his world; it´s blend of Christian, Pagan, Celtic, Norse, and other influences. And the simple, breathtaking beauty of his prose and story structure.


4. Whom among other Tolkien illustrators do you like the most and the least? Why?

Because these are in some cases respected colleagues, my views on likes and dislikes of their works is a sensitive subject I prefer not to comment on. Each of us has his/her strengths and weaknesses.


5. Can you describe us your ´adventure´ with Tolkien books? I mean how (and when) has it started and in what way has it changed your life.

I think it´s obvious to anyone acquainted with my work that Tolkien has had a profound effect on me personally and professionally since I read The Lord of the Rings as a teen. I?m fortunate to have eventually found a vocation in Tolkien (something that grew over a period of some 15 years until I was first published), and to have found a very receptive audience in fellow fans. It is simply the way the life-changing inspiration that all who love Tolkien experience has manifested itself in my creative life. A few of us who go through that go on to establish a very meaningful professional interest in Tolkien, happily!


6. When and in what circumstances did you decide to create a serie of illustrations to Tolkien´s works? Which of your works was the very first one? Were you satisfied with the result?

It came about somewhat gradually. I just began compiling illustrations for my own amusement, and soon this ´pet project´ involved a desire to illustrate as many scenes of Tolkien as I could, and receiving much encouragement from others, I soon felt a sense of mission. I certainly felt that Tolkien´s world had not been adequately depicted by the illustrators I´d seen at the time (1970s), and decided I would try to satisfy my own sense of ´how it ought to look´. The first piece was The Unexpected Party (1972), showing Bilbo and the dwarves at Bag End. I was happy with it at the time, but it was amateurish, and I later began exercising a gift for the landscape of Middle-earth.


7. When and in what circumstances did you become a proffessional illustrator? Did the fact, that illustrating Tolkien became a work of yours, changed your attitude towards him and his literature?

I began working at a studio in the early 70s as an architectural renderer, answering an advertisement. It was also rather accidental; I had no previous ambitions in that direction, but nonetheless found that it suited me well. It became my ´work´ while Tolkien was the art I created for ´play´. Despite becoming professionally associated with Tolkien, I´ve always remembered my sense of delight in his books on first reading, and have somehow succeeded in not letting it become "over-familiar".


8. You were one of the special guests in the Tolkien convention in Birmingham this year. Can you tell us something about it? I mean the way it was organised, your feelings about it and so on.

I think many people have commented on the rather disconcertingly ´institutional´ setting at Aston University, but I agree with those who nonetheless found it terribly inspiring as a gathering of so many international Tolkien Societies, friends and luminaries. I hope such meetings will be repeated; we all benefit from making contact among our fan--and scholarly--communities! And I commend the organizers on a very fine job overall.


9. There are lots of Tolkien books and calendars illustrated by you. I wonder how does the work upon them look. Do you paint what you are told to or it is rather the press that takes what it is given? ;)

The publisher may influence the choice of scene between choices I offer, but in the main I choose the scenes to illustrate. These calendars are truly my own expression. The Silmarillion was a collaborative effort with Christopher Tolkien, and he had significant input, but overall I was still in the driver´s seat when it came to the chosen scenes and their interpretation.


10. As I see you have created a huge amount of works inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien. Can you shortly describe, how do you usually work upon them? I mean the period of time that one illustration needs to be created, the way in what you decide which scene to draw, the best place where you can work and so on.

I work in a small studio in rented space apart from my home. An illustration generally takes about 2 weeks to create from earliest ´thumbnails´ to full size final. I draw ideas from a body of established sketches often, compiled over the years. And it can take years at times to get around to painting some scenes. Other scenes weren´t necessarily planned far in advance, but I just find an impulse to try to depict it and move quickly.


11. Which aspects of your illustrations make you especially satisfied? What still needs to be corrected?

All artists tend to be driven by a desire to refine and improve, and are never entirely satisfied. I like capturing certain moods of weather and setting (the trends are obvious in looking through my body of work), and trying to depict ´magical´ phenomena (Sauron rising over the Black Gate, for instance) realistically, as well as mythical characters and creatures. I try to bridge the dreamy world of Faerie and the ´Real´ world in my art, too.


12. What do you think is the most important feature to succeed in making a good illustration? Do you see it in your own works or you are rather critical towards them?

(see question 1. [13?])


13. Which illustration of yours is the one that you would call the best of them? Why?

It would be hard to single one out. The criteria which determines a successful scene in one instance won´t be the same for another. I have cases of gaining satisfaction by overcoming criticism of, say, my up-close figure work, where in another case I may have successfully expressed my landscape talents especially well, or depicted a mood, magical feeling, or exotic setting. And sometimes the satisfaction comes simply from depicting a scene no one has shown before, from a less obvious corner or scene in Middle-earth.


14. Which illustration of yours is the one you have the greatest sentiment to? Maybe there is some history connected with it - it would be great if you could relate it to us.



The painting Lady Galadriel is a promise fulfilled to immortalize my then girlfriend (who I will discreetly not name). Just as Tolkien is a heartbreaking blend of beauty and sadness often, this woman was the greatest in my life, and the closest I´ve come to the sublime but highly perilous experience of archetypal romantic love.


15. Which event in your career as an illustrator was the most satisfying to you? What is the thing you are endeavouring nowadays?

I think the illustrating of The Silmarillion (2004 edition) has been a high point among high points; and the illustrating of 3 successive Tolkien-LotR calendars comes a close 2nd. I am currently working on new LotR scenes for a spring art show in England, as well as recordings of my original Tolkien songs.


16. Which characters and scenes from this legendarium moved you to the deepest emotions? Why these ones?

Turin comes to mind, and Samwise, as well as Eowyn. Turin is a terrifying but sympathetic character both, and leaves you considering the tragic results of his dark "fate". Unlike other characters, Turin is a more complex and resonant character, and I suppose he is also a cautionary figure in his way. Samwise is the guileless everyman who walks wide-eyed into adventure out of friendship and curiosity, but who in the end finds almost super-human strength and courage. He is a person I think Tolkien met many times during The Great War, and admired. Eowyn is the complex, fatalistic heroine who embodies a lot of his own unresolved darkness, I believe, and in many ways I think she is a window into the depths of our own fears of an unfulfilled sense of purpose. The scene of her and Faramir on the walls of Minas Tirith is as poignant and personal an expression of Tolkien´s own reverence for his lost mother as any author has expressed, too.


17. Which book about Tolkien - his life, phenomenon or work - do you concern to be the best? Why?

There are several good ones available, and the list is growing, but I believe John Garth´s recent Tolkien and the Great War is among the greatest. It gives us a very well written and intimate account of the most important and formative experience of Tolkien´s life, and articulates the gradual process by which Tolkien developed from obscure beginnings as a poet with a questionable talent and ambiguous focus, but with a genius for invented languages and a passion for medievalism and England, into one of the greatest Faerie Tale-makers ever.


18. And what do you think about Tolkien as a human?

I like him very much, and like anyone who is such a great talent and a complex human, there always seems to be more to know and appreciate about him. He especially deserves respect for living such a consistently passionate life dedicated as he was to his profession, his wife and family, his friends, and his fiction (and later its growing fans) above all.


19. What is your opinion on the Peter Jackson´s adaptation of the Lord of the Rings?

It is a hugely important cinematic achievement, adapting one of the most beloved novels ever, with all the challenges that entailed, and Jackson has deservedly been commended and awarded. At the same time, it has an uncanny feeling of emptiness for me at times, as though the attempt to propel us as an audience into a live-action experience of Tolkien ultimately can never match the otherworldly yearnings his novels evoke so intangibly on the pages. I just had a sense at times of wanting more of Tolkien as he presented ideas and plot, and less Jackson and his editing and adaptation. A subtler and less all-out spectacular film treatment would have been my preference, I suppose.


20. What do you think about writing Tolkien fanfiction? Do you think it is a form of art, or rather a form of plagiarism?

I think you ought to respond to creative impulses, even if they are inspired to expand on or even distort/satirize the original material. The legal system will limit the exploitation factor commercially, by and large, and it is up to fans and critics to evaluate the worth or lack of it of these products as they are circulated among fans or any wider readership. They are a normal outgrowth of a legacy like Tolkien´s after all. A work of plagiarism can still be artistic and inspired, of course, but to me it is a tainted creation in the end, and I´m personally not terribly interested in story-writing/art/music, etc. which is too far removed from the beauty of Tolkien´s own.


21. What was the funniest experience you had had during the work as an illustrator? And which one was the most emotive?

I was in London in the 80s, and had left some original paintings with George Allen and Unwin publishers, after having my first, thrilling meeting with their editors. The paintings were in a specially built wooden carrying case, but unfortunately it proved to be very cumbersome and the small wheels attached to the bottom soon broke apart on the uneven flagstones of London´s sidewalks.

Having left the artwork to be photographed at G.A. & U., and then going off touring for a few days, I was mortified to realize upon my return to London - and with only a day left before flying home---that I had not left them the key to the padlocked art case! I remember panicking, with visions of a disastrous outcome to my dreams of publication of my art, until I learned, to my infinite relief, that the resourceful editors at Tolkien´s publishers had simply found a screwdriver and removed the entire hasp and lock!

One of the most emotive experiences was the cheer that went up at the Birmingham convention in 2005 when my name was announced as we all took our places on the stage at the Opening Ceremonies, and continued as I heard the names of so many international Tolkien Societies announced.


I'd like to thank you for your time and attention.



You can see the ilustration by Ted Nasmith on his official vebsite www.tednasmith.com

The Questions were prepered by Adam and X from www.tolkien.cyberdusk.pl



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