(Originally posted in 2010 on the “Rifflo Presents” blog)
Jef Murray is a fantasy artist and illustrator who is best known for his Tolkien themed art. You can see his work featured in publications such as Amon Hen, Mallrn and Parma Nole and in Catholic publications such as St Austin Review and the Georgia Bulletin. Along with many other achievements, Jef was nominated for an “Imperishable Flame Award” in 2006. You can see some of his latest work in “Black & White Ogre Country: The Lost Tales of Hilary Tolkien” by Hilary A.R. Tolkien. His latest work included the much anticipated book, “Seer: A Wizard’s Journal”.
I had an opportunity to talk to Jef regarding his work, Tolkien and more.
Can you tell me about yourself and how long you have been creating works of art?
Jef: The simple answer is: a very long time! I remember loving to draw for pretty much as far back as I can recollect, and recently, old high school friends reminded me that I used to sketch and doodle in class all the time; likely when I was supposed to be listening to the teacher.
In college, I stole over to the college of architecture at Georgia Tech (I was in the engineering program) and took “visual communication” classes as electives. They were really just drawing classes. But, if they had called them that, they’d have been flooded with students from other disciplines looking for what they’d have hoped was an easy elective. The students would have been pretty disappointed, though, since the teachers there were tough! I started doing professional work as an artist part-time in the nineties, and began focusing on fantasy, Middle-earth, and Narnia-themed subjects just before the new millennium began.
What specific aspects of your approach to depicting the story of ”The Lord of the Rings”, make you unique and set you apart from other artists who have used Tolkien’s work as their inspiration. (e.g., I love in many of your pictures how small the main characters look to the vastness of the terrain they are in. Gives the impression of the hardship of the journey or the beauty they are in)
Jef: I’m not sure the artist is the best person to answer such a question, because we tend to be pretty close to our work and may not be able to accurately compare it to the work of others. But, if my work is unique, it could be for several reasons:
Like most artists, my style is defined a bit by the media I prefer to use, which are graphite and oil paints. Although a lot of Tolkien artists use graphite (e.g., Alan Lee is a master), most fantasy artists prefer water-based paints such as watercolour, gouache, and acrylics, or they increasingly turn to digital.
Oils “work” differently from all of these, and that contributes certain characteristics that may well delineate my work. These include lots of texture in the finished paintings, making them, in some cases, very “muscular”; it also includes colours that blend more naturally at times. And on occasion the results I achieve are often impressionistic rather than realistic, as oils are marvelous for capturing tone and movement.
But, I like your description of the small characters in the larger landscapes, and how that contributes to a sense of their vulnerability, and of the enormity and scope of the world and times in which they live. I’m not sure that’s deliberately chosen so much as an unconscious inclination of mine. Tolkien’s world is, indeed, a spectacular backdrop for his tales, and you do sense in his writings that sometimes his characters’ burdens are immense. If that comes across in some of my work, I’m delighted.
Tolkien spent a great deal of time and effort in creating a rich cultural feel to the different races in ”The Lord of The Rings”, what are some of the specific historical styles of art and culture which you have used to influence your depiction of the story.
Jef: I think most Tolkien artists attempt to draw from the same sources as Tolkien himself, and to do that, you need to look at what he said about the societies and peoples he developed. Happily, in his letters, he points us to some of his source materials.
Tolkien clearly intended for the Shire and Hobbiton to reflect rural 19th century England. Likewise, he described Rohan’s culture as similar to that of the Vikings. Gondor was older with a richer past, so for it Tolkien drew from medieval Italy. Númenor was older still, and many aspects of it seem to have been modeled after the ancient Egyptians.
In terms of races, there have been suggestions that the Elves were modeled after the medieval Benedictine monks, and that Tolkien acknowledged parallels between the Dwarves and the history of the Jewish people.
But, if you take these as starting points, you come up with wonderful resources for artistic embellishment in landscapes, clothing, technology, and architecture. And since the majority of Tolkien artists that I know strive for fidelity to the texts and to Tolkien’s own vision of Middle-earth, a remarkable amount of convergence has occurred over the years. That is, most of us these days can see a drawing or painting by any number of different fantasy artists and can immediately identify the place or person being depicted. And this was true even before the advent of the Peter Jackson films.
Our collective vision of how Middle-earth should “look and feel” has matured, and the diligent artist will seek to develop new works that reflect this sensibility, yet that still explore new themes and situations in original and creative ways.
It’s a difficult balancing act to achieve, but a very rewarding one.
Is there any one particular element of the books/lore which you found especially challenging to illustrate? If so, why?
Jef: Like Tolkien himself, I am not attracted to the darker side of Middle-earth. I prefer to concentrate on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, as opposed to the evil, the dastardly, and the hideous. Tolkien himself did not dwell on the evil creatures that populated the dim fringes of his world. We see them just as the heroes of his tales largely do: as distant threats that one must fight against, not knowing in detail how horrid or formidable they may ultimately prove to be.
As a result of this, I very rarely draw or paint orcs, or trolls, or the Watcher in the Waters, or any of Morgoth and Sauron’s ruined and bent minions. I can do so, but prefer not to. There is enough darkness in life not to glorify it further in art, it seems to me.
I completely agree. I always found it interesting that many Tolkien fans never show an interest in learning more about the evil races but seem to get close to, and identify with the other “good” races. Seems to speak to our desire for a better world?
What specifically attracted you to create works based on the Tolkien lore?
Jef: Simply love of Tolkien’s world, and a deep respect for the tenor and Truth (capital “T”) of his writings.
Tolkien was a devout Catholic, as am I; and his love of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty (the virtues most highlighted in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas) shines forth in his tales. You cannot help but be moved by the nobility of the characters he creates, and how, in his world, things often work out more clearly and intelligibly than they appear to do in our own. That is, sacrifice, honour, friendship, humility, and loyalty are all rewarded in ways that we deeply, down in our souls, know that they ought to be. And evil and treachery reap their own just deserts.
Tolkien wrote in the manner of the great poetic epic writers of old: the author of Beowulf, Homer, and those who penned the poetic and prose Icelandic Eddas. What touches us about all these tales is that they draw us in, as any good fairy tale would, so that we come to know the characters and understand them deeply and with a sense awe and wonder at them and at the obstacles they must overcome, often against all odds.
This sense of wonder, so deftly woven by Tolkien, gives great energy to an artist. It provides us with the fuel we need to want to really explore his world; to walk in Fangorn Forest, to ride with the Rohirrim, to rest in Rivendell, and to stand on the shores of Aman. And our job, as artists, is to do just that…to travel to these places within the realms of our imaginations, and to bring back with us sketches and paintings of what we find there.
This was truly inspirational, Jef!
If Tolkien had not written ”The Lord of the Rings”, what do you feel the impact on 20th century literature would have been?
Jef: We’d clearly all have been greatly impoverished, and that on many, many fronts. Genius spurs genius, and without Tolkien, the entire body of epic fantasy writing as we know it might never have come to pass. There might never have been a Narnia; there might never have been an Earthsea, or an Arrakis, or a Hogwarts. One can argue whether any of these other worlds even remotely approaches the depths and genius of Tolkien’s creation, but without any of them we would all be the poorer.
As per Wikipedia, Tolkien is the “Father of modern fantasy literature”.
Do you feel that the LOTR films and the upcoming Hobbit films truly capture the spirit of Tolkien’s work?
Jef: Yes and no. Since we are all anxiously awaiting The Hobbit, it’s too early to speak to it, specifically. But I have fairly strong opinions on the Peter Jackson films in general, both positive and negative.
Much ink has been spilt discussing the merits and demerits of the Lord of the Rings films, but I’d say PJ got more “right” than “wrong”, at least when it comes to the overall feel of Middle-earth. The films’ greatest strengths are in their mood and atmosphere; and here I’m most referring to cinematography, set design, costuming, and Howard Shore’s amazing score. Their greatest weaknesses are in changes made to the original storyline, many of which appear to be quite contrived, and in the emphasis placed on battles over character development and character fidelity.
But, these are just my opinions, and doubtless we could spend many a fine evening over a pint or two discussing our individual “most loved” and “most hated” aspects of the films. Suffice it to say that PJ is responsible for acquainting or reacquainting millions with the books, and for that alone we own him a great debt.
What advice would you give when creating works for a series of books/lore, such as the Tolkien stories?
Jef: My best advice is to only create works for books or tales that you feel deeply about. You can’t fake love…at least, not for long. And working on any project that you can’t put your heart into is, ultimately, a waste; for you, and for all the rest of us. You can ride the tide of passion into wondrous realms; never settle for anything less than that….
Finally, where can people find your work?
Jef: [Laughing] These days, I’m afraid it’s hard not to find my work! But, my website is at JefMurray.com . I also can be found on Facebook. In addition, I’m regularly online at the Middle-earth Network (my user name is “jefmurray”), plus I have a blog entitled “Mystical Realms”. If all that wasn’t enough, I have a newsletter that I post to all of the above in which I share thoughts and information on events and projects with which I’m involved. You can subscribe to it directly at http://groups.google.com/group/mystical_realms . Whew! Aren’t you sorry you asked?