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How an artist helped put Middle Earth on the big screen

How an artist helped create The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films

One of John's most iconic paintings of a Ring Wraith returning to Sauron's tower

In 1976, John Howe (opens in new tab) first found out he could get paid for his Lord of the Rings illustrations. In his teens at the time, he'd picked up a JRR Tolkien's LotR calendar illustrated by The Brothers Hildebrandt (opens in new tab). Like the Hobbits in Tolkien's epic stories, he was about to embark on a great journey.

Not only did John become one of the most famous Lord of the Rings illustrators around, but by 1999 he found himself in New Zealand working on the biggest fantasy project ever embarked upon – Peter Jackson's movie version of the trilogy. He returned to work on The Hobbit too.

How an artist helped create The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films

Smaug - dragons have always been a favourite of John, including Tolkien's anti-hero from The Hobbit

"It was a unique experience, very exciting, lots of fun, and loads of hard work in New Zealand," says John. "It was like being a small cog in a huge machine to help make it all trundle forward until the final movie."

John's role was to sketch locations according to briefs from Peter Jackson. These would be reviewed with the director and then translated into maquettes. After testing with a lipstick camera, they'd then either be built as life-sized sets, or as physical or digital miniatures – sometimes as all three.

How an artist helped create The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films

Can you tell who's who here? The relationship between elf and dwarf has never been so lovingly depicted

Two of his favourite experiences working on the films were the trips to Matamata, where Hobbiton was built, and to the hill near Christchurch where they created Edoras, the capital of Rohan.

How an artist helped create The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films

The homely simplicity of a Hobbit hole, captured in a painting, as they appeared in the movies

"It was really quite extraordinary when we arrived in a potential site for Hobbiton, we just sat down and started sketching things because it all seemed fit."

Working on the films has been one of the biggest projects in John's career – the pinnacle perhaps of his long standing relationship with Tolkien's works.

How an artist helped create The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films

John's visualisation of the duel between Gandalf the Grey and the Balrog

In the 80s and 90s he worked on numerous illustrations for the same series of calendars he recreated as a teenager. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and Numenor have all received John's watercolour and ink treatment.

Part of his dedication to JRR Tolkien comes through his respect for the author's style. "Tolkien has a truly astonishing gift for not really describing situations in minute visual detail, relying instead on the emotions of the characters in those situations."

Illustrations: John Howe (opens in new tab)

A true legend in the world of Lord of the Rings illustration, John has worked on everything from calendars to Peter Jackson's movies. This article originally appeared in ImagineFX (opens in new tab) issue 24.

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