We are very fortunate to have had the opportunity to interview Ted Nasmith, renowned illustrator, scholar, and musician. Best known for his works portraying the Silmarillion and the Lord of the Rings, Ted has allowed Radio Rivendell to delve into his creative world. Thanks for agreeing to this, it is a great honour!
Radio Rivendell (RR): On average, how many hours does it take you to complete a piece?
Ted Nasmith (TN): I don’t really the count hours I put into my paintings, to be quite honest. I suspect I might be surprised at how many it takes for an average artwork, because before I even begin painting I’ll tend to ‘lose myself’ in making the drawings and corrections and variations involved in the preliminary stage. Once I’m ready, I’ll do at least one colour sketch in gouache, and only then is it time to begin the final piece. At a guess, I’d say about 2 weeks to create a mid-size illustration such as “Luthien” or “The Shores of Valinor”, and over 4 weeks for a larger work such as “Entering Mirkwood” or “Beorn; Lord of the Wild”.
RR: Could you describe the process, from imaginings to finishing touches?
TN: Some of the previous answer informs this question, but I start with small pencil ‘thumbnail drawings’, which I tend to vary and experiment with, trying different arrangements of its components. I commonly lay trace paper over a drawing in order to change and amend things as it seems right. Eventually I consolidate all of that into a firm composition, and enlarge it either by freehand drawing, or using the photocopier/scanner. As I progress, I’ll gather pictorial reference in my files or on the internet and study details of (for instance) costume, architecture, animals, or landscape as needed, depending on the image.
After the colour sketch establishes the colour palette and shading (see above), I cut a piece of illustration board, and transfer the full size drawing onto it, then begin the process of painting a final version. Forgive me for not getting into the technical aspects of the painting process itself, though, which might take up a number of pages!
RR: When did you decide that you would like to become an artist?
TN: Although I have been a natural ‘drawer’ since early childhood (it was a talent first recognized in kindergarten), I never explicitly dreamed of becoming an artist when I grew up, oddly. It wasn’t until I was on the brink of entering high school at age 13 that I was informed about a commercial art program specifically for potential artists like me, and once I enrolled in it, I quickly discovered my true calling and never looked back.
RR: Your style reminds me of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Did this, or any other style influence you, or did it just come naturally?
TN: I was somewhat aware as a boy of different types of illustration and art, but only in high school as an art student did I begin to absorb the influences of other artists and develop a roster of favourites. I was exposed to the Pre-Raphaelites, Maxfield Parrish, the art behind Disney animated films, and various other established illustrators. These included Art Fitzpatrick, whose 1960s Pontiac car illustrations fascinated me, so much so that I was inspired to imitate his work and dreams of working in that field grew.
Buick Skylark convertible (1972)
Once I read The Lord of the Rings around late 1970 and felt hugely inspired by it, I began to take more of an interest in landscape art and fantasy illustration, leading to the identification with Tolkien I eventually gained renown for.
RR: Have you always been a Tolkienite, and if so, how has it affected your life?
TN: I think my discovering of Tolkien as a 14-year-old probably qualifies as almost a life-long passion. As a boy I did love faerie tales (nothing unusual), and took an interest in myths, but I was also big on science fiction, adventure tales, cars and airplanes. The effect on my life of Tolkien is pretty extensive, leading to as close to a career in that specific field as could be imagined, countless acquaintances and some key lifelong friendships, much travel, and a personal ‘anchor’ in the values of Tolkien which has helped guide me though life’s joys and tumults.
RR: You are one of the lucky people to have had direct correspondence with the great man himself, J.R.R. Tolkien, when you sent him one of your illustrations a year before his death in 1972. How did it feel to get feedback from him?
TN: It’s hard to overstate the excitement for an impressionable youth at having a little bit of feedback from your hero, and it’s something I will always cherish. It only added poignancy to the gesture when I learned he had died the following year. The photos of the gouache painting I sent him were mainly of The Unexpected Party, my first attempted illustration. I was careful to include all the Dwarves, Gandalf, and Bilbo; the latter rather childish looking, though, as author Tolkien pointed out. The map was carefully detailed to look exactly like the one from the book.
"The Unexpected Party" (1972)
RR: When you illustrated the 1996 hardback release of the Silmarillion, was it difficult to choose which scenes to illustrate or did the choices come easily?
TN: The illustrations were selected from a series of colour thumbnails I compiled over several months, and were narrowed down to the ones published in a process of discussion. I applied a set of criteria to the selection of the ones I most favoured, criteria such as an emphasis on scenes of ‘faerie’, on compelling images generally, a variety of subjects, and limits on depiction of the tragic to help counter the impression that the book was too somber. It was hard having to eliminate good scenes due to the limits, yes, but once it was decided, I simply concentrated on the approved ones and put my best effort into them. A subsequent calendar (2000) allowed for a few more paintings, and then the decision to add more illustrations for the 2004 re-issued edition opened it up even wider, nearly doubling the artwork. I still have ambitions of continuing to produce ‘QS’ paintings, both ones I’ve long conceived of (such as Earendil and the Battle of Eagles and Dragons or Glorfindel and the Balrog), and others which well deserve creation.
Tuor Reaches the Hidden City of Gondolin (1996)
RR: How did collaborating with Christopher Tolkien affect your work?
TN: Working with Christopher was highly gratifying in the main. He imposed certain boundaries, and in some cases objected to or wasn’t comfortable with my ideas, but throughout he was respectful of my skills and authority as an artist. It felt very cordial to work with him, and he was always intelligent and professional in his role as consultant and guide. It was never particularly onerous to bend my conceptions towards his preferences, and he overwhelmingly gave me room to follow my best instincts.
RR: Describe your studio, does it look like a Hobbit hole?
TN: It is not underground (!), but it is no bigger than it needs to be, a cozy space filled with my books, sketches, supplies, files, and the computer desk. It’s often quite cluttered with the materials necessary for work, but all the chaos is in the service of the artwork-in-progress on the drafting board I use.
RR: Are there any pieces that you are more fond of than others?
TN: Yes, of course. The Fair Valley of Rivendell is a re-make of earlier versions, and satisfies my desire to express its grandeur as though you were next to the river. Entering Mirkwood, with all 13 Dwarves and Bilbo, is me at my ‘Hobbit’ best, a detailed, moody forest painting. The Kinslaying at Alqualonde is among the best of my Silmarillion works, integrating architecture, a battle scene (never easy), ship designs, and exotic lighting. The Wrath of the Ents is also a favourite, involving Tolkien’s wonderful Ents, the Tower of Orthanc, and a sprawling scene of destruction. I also feel quite fond of A Conversation With Smaug, which recreates the JRR Tolkien watercolour ‘realistically’ (always an interesting exercise). There are several others, because each scene I choose (as opposed to ones commissioned by others, generally) is rendered with much love and exuberance, and unless it leaves me unsatisfied--not uncommon for such a perfectionist--I tend to be quite fond of it. I always wanted to create the kind of Tolkien art I didn’t see anyone else producing, you see; detailed renderings of his world and characters in a romantic, ‘anachronistic’ style in accord with the pre-modern style of Tolkien’s epic fiction.
The Kinslaying at Alqualondë (2004)
RR: Although you are best known for your Tolkien inspired artwork, you have illustrated many other works including The Dream of Aengus, and children’s books. Do you enjoy getting a variety of projects?
TN: Yes, I do. A quick browse of my website at www.tednasmith.com shows a variety of illustration, and although it can be stressful when I’m dealing with more than one job within the same general time-frame, I welcome the variety of ‘genres’ I may be called on to work within.
RR: You are working on a series of illustrations for the George R.R. Martin series, A Song of Fire and Ice. Can you tell us more about this?
TN: I was first approached by George about 15 years ago or more to illustrate a deluxe edition of one of the Ice and Fire novels—one yet to be written. I had no acquaintance with the series, but soon got up to speed reading Vol. 1, 2, and 3 respectively. However, before the sequel I was originally meant to illustrate was published (nominally intended as A Dance With Dragons. But we all know how long this took Mr. Martin!), I was asked to create the series of castle paintings in 2007 for the still unpublished ‘Complete Guide to the Ice and Fire Universe’. In the interim, Random House commissioned the 2011 Ice and Fire Calendar, using most of the castles. Then, about this time last year, I agreed to illustrate a re-issued deluxe edition of A Game of Thrones, which brought things full circle. I am currently working on that project, and expect to be involved in it for most of the rest of this year.
The Red Keep at King’s Landing
RR: You are considered quite the scholar, being involved with the Tolkien Society, The Mythopoeic Society, and Mensa’s Beyond Bree. Are there any papers or presentations from you we should look out for?
TN: Although ‘scholar’ is too generous a description when compared with actual university graduates or professors who follow rigorous discipline, I am well enough acquainted with the fiction works, and well enough read in the various scholarly books about Tolkien to have some authority on it all, yes. I will be reviewing my artwork devoted to The Hobbit this summer at The Return of the Ring in Loughborough, UK, but I won’t be giving what might be considered a scholarly presentation so much as an artistic one. I have been known to write the occasional article, it’s true, but none are planned currently.
RR: You are also a musician! Is there no end to your talents? Can you tell us a bit about your 2007 release, The Hidden Door: Songs in the Key of Enchantment?
TN: Haha—thank you; the ‘end’ of my talents is mainly the limits I have on time itself! I’d love to write and record music almost full time, but I would be a labour of more love than lucre, I suspect. I concentrate of art b/c it’s my true calling, leaving music as an unofficial secondary career’ really a hobby in practice. That said, The Hidden Door was a long anticipated foray into capturing some of my ‘faerie’ inspired songs so that there was something more than home made tapes or CDs roughly recorded on small mixer units. I devoted a day each week over several months to the recordings, and funded it from savings. Each song was chosen to reflect the best ideas and ‘crowd favourites’ from the many live renditions I’ve sung at gatherings.
The Hidden Door: Songs in the Key of Enchantment (2007), also played on Radio Rivendell
RR: You worked on Beren and Lúthien: A Song Cycle with Alex Lewis. Did you enjoy bringing this tale to life through music?
TN: Yes, very much. At first progress on this ambitious project was slow, as I got familiar with my small 8-channel mixer-recorder, but in time I gained skill and confidence, and the later recordings—all of it recorded over a 4 year span—were particularly successful, considering the limits. Alex Lewis had sent me the lyrics he’d worked out for most of the songs, but as I wrote melodies and arranged them, I edited as it seemed best to the needs of each song. Later, Alex shared the rough tapings of these same lyrics with his own suggested melodies, and after hearing these, I integrated some of them into the scheme, and rejected my own settings or adapted them. I feel it is a considerable accomplishment in my music-writing, and the songs all use certain unifying motifs while varying tempo, key, and style. It remains a labour of love of sub-professional quality, but until licenses for musical projects are permitted by The Estate (currently prohibited), it cannot be marketed.
RR: Do you listen to music whilst you paint, and if so, what sort of tracks inspire you?
TN: Although many artists claim to work by music they find inspiring, it is not a normal part of my creative process. Oddly, I prefer the general patter of a news and cultural affairs station on the radio (CBC1). They do feature music of many kinds often, but obviously the choices are theirs. Now and then I will work to music of my choice, but inspiration has never depended on it. I think that may partly be due to the years I spent doing architectural renderings, both in a studio with others (1970s) as well as after I entered my freelance stage in the 80s.
RR: Can we expect to see any more musical releases from you?
TN: I’m hopeful! But I’ve no longer got a fund to draw on, and the recession is proving a challenge to me. Pressure to earn a living has forced musical projects to the sidelines, though I do belong to a rock band lately with Bruce Nasmith, my brother and the accompanist on The Hidden Door. We will soon write some originals, probably, but at this point we are a cover band doing heavy metal and pop classics, mainly.
RR: Finally, just for fun, we'd like to play a little word association game with you! Tell us the first word or thing that pops into your head when you see the following words:
RR: Thank you, Ted. We wish you all the best with your work.
Official webpage: www.tednasmith.com
Ted Nasmith's music: The Hidden Door: Songs in the Key of Enchantment
Departure at the Grey Havens (1996)