Among his many accomplishments Alan Lee has received the Carnegie Medal for his illustrated edition of the Iliad. And in 2003, he was rewarded for his extraordinary efforts in set decoration with an Academy Award for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I had the opportunity to first speak with Alan Lee last year while he was still in New Zealand finishing work on the expanded version of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King for DVD and video. A few weeks ago we were able to complete that interview.
How did you begin your career in art?
I began in early childhood, I was captivated by illustrated books, especially those connected with myths and legends. I was able to specialize in art at the age of thirteen, and went on to Art College (Ealing School of Art) when I was sixteen. I studied graphic design, but spent most of my time illustrating Irish and Scandinavian myths. After I left college I worked as a gardener in a park for a few months and then managed to get some book covers to do. I’ve been working as a freelance illustrator ever since.
Besides Art College, have you had additional art education?
I hadn’t learned enough about drawing from life when I left college, and so, I took a course in anatomy and life drawing with a wonderful teacher, Louise Gordon. It was just one morning a week, but I found it the most valuable educational experience I’ve ever had.
Tell us about your illustrated book Faeries with Brian Froud.
Faeries was quite a big break. Up to that point I’d been relying on paperback covers for most of my income, but the success of Faeries enabled me to concentrate on book illustration. The idea for Faeries came from Ian Ballantyne. He had just published the book Gnomes which had done very well, and wanted to follow it with something along the same lines. The fact that Brian Froud and myself were living in the same house at the time — and both doing work for Ian and Betty’s Peacock Press — led to us being asked to do it.
Do you have a favorite work?
The Mabinogion is still my favorite work from that period, but I think I like Black Ships Before Troy even more because of the way I was able to integrate the text and the pictures.
Do you have a favorite artist?
Many; Rembrandt, Turner, Giovanni Bellini, Van Eyck , Leonardo, Tiepolo. The most influential are probably Albrecht Durer, Breughel and Hieronymous Bosch . I’ve got a big print of his The Temptation of St Anthony above my workspace. I never get tired of looking at it, even though its subject matter is a poor hermit trying not to be distracted by all the visions that surround him.
What is your favorite medium?
Charcoal and watercolors.
Alan Lee© - Minas Tirith
Have you tried your hand at digital art, and if so, what was your impression of that media as an art form?
I started to use Photoshop while working on Post Production on The Lord of the Rings movies, so that I could design backgrounds for effects shots, and to speed up the process. I found that I enjoyed it, and now use it in book illustration and design. There are a lot of excellent illustrators working digitally now. I think I’m seeing more exciting and adventurous work being done on computers than in traditional media at the moment.
What are you working on now?
I finished work on the extended edition of The Return of the King last April and moved back to England. Then I was out in New Zealand again for a couple of months last summer doing a little bit of design work on King Kong. I’m now working on a book project — The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook — and some preparatory work for future books. I’ve got quite a few ideas for books I’d like to do, some of them have been hanging around for so long, that it almost feels as though I’ve done them! They are all connected with myth in one way or another.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by; ancient cities and landscapes, beautiful music, art galleries and museums, and the countryside around my home in Devon.
What advice would you give a fledgling artist?
Draw all the time. Draw from life and from the imagination. If you are an observer as much as a dreamer then what you invent will be more believable. I think of drawing as another form of storytelling, and if each picture contains hints of what has just happened, or what is about to happen, then it will be more intriguing.
What would you like to say to your many fans worldwide?
I’ll get that website going one of these days!
In closing, would you share some final thoughts in retrospect from the Lord of the Rings experience.
The experience of working on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies was an extraordinary adventure, shared with people I became very close to over the six years I was in New Zealand. I’m very thankful for all the “making of” documentaries, though, because I didn’t have time to keep a diary while it was all happening. I think my fondest memory is of two days spent in a helicopter, during post-production on The Return of the King shooting stills for the backgrounds. It was just myself, Craig Potton - a very good landscape photographer- Libby Hazell, who was keeping track of what we were getting, and Alfie Speight, the pilot, flying over the most wild and remote parts of the South Island. We had some great location recces during pre-production as well, but that one really sticks in my mind.
All images are copyright
by Alan Lee, and published by permission. Images cannot copied,
April 4, 2005
I first saw Mr. Lee's art when I walked into a comic book store and saw a poster size illustration of a newly released book called "The Mabinogion". I was stunned by the beauty and detail of his watercolors that richly grace its pages. Many of the borders of the paintings are paintings themselves of characters or intricately detailed celtic knotwork. Just how he did the knotwork, I'll never know. I should mention that Mr. Lee spent TWO YEARS of his life producing those paintings. I begged the store owner to sell to me that poster, but alas he would not part from it. sigh I purchased not one, but two, copies of the book.
Wonderful interview, fantastic artist!! I have "The Return of the King" and "The Fellowship of the Ring" editions illustrated by him...someday, I hope they will be signed by him! I was so excited to learn that he would be doing some of the artwork/effects work on the movies..I knew they would be absolutely marvelous!
If you are lucky enough to catch him at a signing, I'm sure he'll be happy to oblige. I had the pleasure to do just that, and I must say what an interesting speaker he is in addition to being just a wonderdul artist. And so genuine and friendly as well.
ell here goes attempt 2 to post here.. First off...thanx for doing the interview to both of you, Vicki for assembling the whole shebang and Alan for so generously givig of his time and the sharing of his vast experience. "Draw all the time. Draw from life and from the imagination. " is the best advice I've seen in print. Thanx again for the inrterview and we wait with bated breath for you next amazing work peace Bobby Stahr
I've admired his work for a looooong time... and have a signed & numbered print in my dining nook, the LOTR set, and a bunch of art books. The attention to detail and plausibility is amazing, and a great part of what makes his fantasy images compelling. One of the few things which gave me hope for the latest adaptation of Tolkien's work to film was that Alan Lee would be creating the visuals. Please thank him from all of us, for making such splendid and varied worlds come true. Carolly
I've had the great pleasure of meeting Alan Lee on two occasions, at a booksigning in San Francisco in December 2004 and at a booksigning in Corte Madera in October 2005. Alan is a kind and gentle man as well as an extraordinary artist. I am still anxiously awaiting the opening of .