"Bag End" by Alan Lee © 1991

Pathways Through Enchanted Lands:

The Art of Alan Lee

by Terri Windling

 

     "I have a very clear memory of my first encounter with myth," recalls British artist Alan Lee, "sitting in a mobile library and travelling, at the same time, with Theseus on the road to Athens. By the time we'd met, and disposed of, the pine-bending giant Sinis, I'd become completely entranced. Within a few months I'd read every book on myths, legends and folklore in our two nearest libraries."

     The young boy entranced by ancient tales never lost his taste for magic and myth, and grew up to become one of the finest book illustrators of our time. His distinctively elegant watercolor paintings — adorning Greek myths, Arthurian legends, and other mystical tales — have earned him a world-wide following, the prestigious Kate Greenaway Award, and the deep respect of fellow artists and writers in the publishing field. Like Arthur Rackham or Edmund Dulac from Britain's Golden Age of illustration, Alan's work imbues imaginary landscapes with such startling reality one can almost step inside the paintings to travel beyond the visible horizon. Walking into Alan's studio, filled to the brim with paintings and books, is to cross a portal into the Otherworld of a master artist's vision, a place where stories come to life in pencil strokes and washes of color.

"Forest" by Alan Lee © 1988
"Forest"
by Alan Lee, © 1988

     Alan was born in Middlesex, Engand in 1947, and decided at a young age that art would be his life's vocation. After studies at Ealing School of Art he became a freelance illustrator, working in the fields of book publishing, advertising and film. During these early years, his London work space was shared with a number of other artists — including Brian Froud, a painter also drawn to myths and legends. These two friends teamed up to create Faeries: a book exploring the rich tradition of faery lore in the British isles, reaching past our modern image of the creatures (sweet little sprites with butterfly wings) to capture the faeries of the old oral tales: earthy, wild, mysterious and capricious as a force of nature. Published in 1978, this ground-breaking book became a best-seller, as well as a highly influential text for a whole generation of artists, writers and film-makers to come.

     Just prior to the creation of Faeries, Alan, his family, and Brian had moved from London to a small village in Devon. The mossy woods with their twisted trees, the ivy-clad lanes and the rolling moor all had their effect on the art for Faeries, as well as on Alan's subsequent work — revealing his core as a landscape artist, directly inspired by the lines, tones, and forms of the natural world. Dartmoor proved to be the perfect setting for an artist of Alan's temperament — a land of great and varied beauty, richly steeped in ancient tales; a land of Bronze Age ruins and standing stones on the wind-swept hills. In Arthurian lore, Merlin (the great magician of Arthur's court) retreated to the Forest of Celydonn after the Battle of Arderydd, living an elemental existence alongside the wolves and the deer; it was only after this retreat into nature that he came fully into his magical powers (an initiatory process echoed in myth cycles throughout the
"Rivendell" by Alan Lee © 1991
"Rivendell"
by Alan Lee, © 1991
world). For Alan, the move to Devon was his own retreat into Celydonn. Wandering through Wistman's Wood and the winding paths by the river Teign he came into his full powers as an artist, a magician upon the page.

     The success of Faeries allowed him the time to pursue a project dear to his heart: paintings inspired by the Mabinogion, the great myth cycle of Wales. These magnificent tales are firmly rooted in the soil of the Welsh countryside, and so he followed the threads of the stories to Dyfed and Snowdonia, grounding himself in the colors, forms, and spirit of that Celtic land. Returning to his Devon studio with reference photos and sketchbook notes, he created exquisite paintings to accompany the Jones & Jones translation of the text. The result, published in a small edition by Dragon's Dream in 1982, remains one of Alan's finest accomplishments to date.

     Over the next several years he continued to chose book projects with mythic resonance, such as Castles (an art book of imagery drawn from myth, romance and magical literature, with text by David Day), Merlin's Dream (a beautifully rendered book of Arthurian tales retold by Peter Dickinson), and two children's picture books: The Mirrorstone (using holograms as doorways into the magical realms, with text by Michael Palin) and The Moon's Revenge (a gentle, wistful fairy tale by Joan Aiken). During these years he also exhibited art across England, Europe and the US, and worked on the designs for magical films such as "Legend" and "Eric the Viking."

     In 1988, Alan was approached by J. R. R. Tolkien's publisher to create fifty new paintings for a lavish new edition of The Lord of the Rings, celebrating the first centenary of Tolkien's birth. This work took the artist two years to create and was published in 1991 — a stunning achievement which beautifully captures the unique magic of Tolkien's world. (More recently, he completed illustrations for The Hobbit, published earlier this year.) Speaking about this massive undertaking, Alan says: "I first read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit when I was eighteen. It felt as though the author had taken every element
"The Mirror of Galadriel" by Alan Lee, © 1991
"The Mirror of Galadriel"
by Alan Lee, © 1991
I'd ever want in a story and woven them into one huge, seamless narrative; but more important, for me, Tolkien had created a place, a vast, beautiful, awesome landscape, which remained a resource long after the protagonists had finished their battles and gone their separate ways. In illustrating The Lord of the Rings I allowed the landscapes to predominate. In some of the scenes the characters are so small they are barely discernible. This suited my own inclinations and my wish to avoid, as much as possible, interfering with the pictures being built up in the reader's mind, which tends to be more closely focussed on characters and their inter-relationships. I felt my task lay in shadowing the heroes on their epic quest, often at a distance, closing in on them at times of heightened emotion but avoiding trying to re-create the dramatic highpoints of the text. With The Hobbit, however, it didn't seem appropriate to keep such a distance, particularly from the hero himself. I don't think I've ever seen a drawing of a Hobbit which quite convinced me, and I don't know whether I've gotten any closer myself with my depictions of Bilbo. I'm fairly happy with the picture of him standing outside Bag End, before Gandalf arrives and turns his world upside-down, but I've come to the conclusion that one of the reasons Hobbits are so quiet and elusive is to avoid the prying eyes of illustrators."

     As these new editions of Tolkien's work are received with acclaim all around the world, Alan's luminous paintings are now inextricably woven into the fabric of Middle-earth, seeping into the dreams of travellers to those lands for generations to come.

     In 1992, Alan began a journey into a very different landscape when he agreed to illustrate new editions of The Illiad and The Odyssey, re-told for young readers by Rosemary Sutcliff. He'd retained his
"Bag End" by Alan Lee, © 1991
"Bag End"
by Alan Lee, © 1991
childhood love for these tales — and yet, he says, "I was apprehensive about the prospect of spending so much time on the battle plains of Troy, when my natural home, and main source of inspiration, had long been the woodlands and sodden hillsides of Dartmoor. I'd rarely attempted to paint a landscape that wasn't at least as wet as the watercolors I worked in. I travelled to Greece, for the first time, with a copy of Pausanias as a guide and weighed down by paints, sketchpads and camera. I know that most of the action takes place in Turkey, but I'd heard that there wasn't a lot to see at the site of Troy and thought Mycenae would be a good substitute. I visited all the sites and museums I could, drawing artifacts and large crowds of Greek school children. I fell in love with all the Korai at the Acropolis and, best of all, went to Delphi, which had nothing to do with the story I was illustrating, but is set in one of the most remarkable and beautiful landscapes I've ever seen."

     Alan describes this research process as a way of "priming the pump," filling oneself with ideas and images before one actually sits down to work; thus, though his art is intuitive, flowing from the imagination, it is grounded in the real: in landscape, history, and artwork of the past. Armed with reference photos, sketchbook notes and the rich visual impressions of his travels through Greece, Alan began to create a vision of a magical Greece that never was, half-way between myth and history, halfway between Homer's world and the gods. He recruited family and neighbors to model for the extended dramatis personae of the tales; I recall coming into his courtyard at the time to find a dying Hector laid out on the picnic table, Andromache swooning above him. Sadly, Rosemary Sutcliff died before this beautiful art was completed; she would surely have been thrilled to see her words (and Homer's) brought so splendidly to life in "The Black Ships of Troy" (winner of the Kate Greenaway Gold Medal) and "The Wanderings of Oysseus."
"Denethor, Son of Ecthelion" by Alan Lee, © 1984
"Denethor, Son of Ecthelion"
by Alan Lee, © 1991


     With the completion of the Sutcliffe books, Alan left the clear, bright light of Greece to return to the misty land he loves best, rendering the Devon countryside in paintings, drawings and etchings. "I spend as much time as I can sketching from nature," he tells the young art students who seek him out for advice. "Dartmoor contains such a rich variety of landscape, as many boulders, foaming rivers and twisted trees as my heart could ever desire. . . . When I look into a river, I feel I could spend a whole lifetime just painting that river." He is famous in the small village where we both live for his long rambling walks through the countryside, often with sketchbook in hand — absorbing color and qualities of light, "priming the pump" for his work. Alan's studio is built into a rose-covered barn made of grey Devon stone. It is a magical place, with a hushed silver light and a sense of calm and tranquility (despite the perpetual book deadlines looming). In the main room upstairs, the walls are covered with etchings, drawings and printers' proofs; the shelves hold rows of black sketchbooks filled with sketches, whimsical doodles and notes; the drawers are packed with paintings created through three decades of steady work. Jazz plays on the stereo, or blues, or perhaps a June Tabor tape. Downstairs, an etching press sits among paintings boxed up to ship to exhibitions. Outside, in the courtyard someone else is often working: Alan's daughter creating sculpture from fimo, or a neighbor making puppets, or masks, or music. The courtyard is, inevitably, a popular neighborhood gathering place where tea, gossip, and ideas are shared; where creativity is a tangible presence; where the Muse hovers in the rafters watching as magic foments below.

     "I like to work in watercolor," Alan tells me, "with as little under-drawing as I can get away with. I like the unpredictability of a medium which is affected as much by humidity, gravity, the way that heavier particles in the wash settle into the undulations of the paper surface, as by whatever I wish to do with it. In other mediums you have more control, you are responsible for every mark on the page — but with watercolor you are in a dialogue with the paint, it responds to you and you respond to it in turn. Printmaking is also like this, it has an unpredictable element. This encourages an intuitive response, a spontaneity which allows magic to happen on the page. When I begin an illustration, I usually work up
"The Tower of Cirith Ungol" by Alan Lee, © 1991
"The Tower of Cirith Ungol"
by Alan Lee, © 1991
from small sketches — which indicate in a simple way something of the atmosphere or dynamics of an illustration; then I do drawings on a larger scale supported by studies from models — usually friends — if figures play a large part in the picture. When I've reached a stage where the drawing looks good enough I'll transfer it to watercolor paper, but I like to leave as much unresolved as possible before starting to put on washes. This allows for an interaction with the medium itself, a dialogue between me and the paint. Otherwise it is too much like painting by number, or a one-sided conversation.

     "I've been strongly influenced, in technique as well as subject matter, by some of the early 20th-century book illustrators — Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac in particular, Burne-Jones and other Pre-Raphaelites, and the Arts-&-Crafts movement they engendered. I'm continually inspired by Rembrandt, Breughel (I've wondered whether his brilliant "Tower of Babel" had inspired Tolkien's description of Minas Tyrith), Hieronymous Bosch, Albrecht Durer, and Turner; it's not necessarily that they influence my work in any particular direction, more that their example raises my spirits, re-affirms my belief in the power of images to move and delight us, and shows me how much further I have to go, how much is possible. Having visited Venice and Florence for the first time, I am besotted with the Italian Renaissance artists — Botticelli, Bellini, da Vinci and others. Their work is calm, controlled, and yet each face and landscape contains such passion. In Botticelli's paintings, every pebble and every leaf is rendered with a religious devotion; there is reverence inherent in paying such close attention to every stone, turning painting itself into a form of worship, an act of prayer."

     I ask Alan whether he too sees painting as an act of communication with something beyond our human ken — God, Mystery, call it what you will. "Perhaps in a more mythological sense than the religious orientation of the Renaissance. To draw a tree, to pay such close attention to every aspect of a tree, is an act of reverence not only toward the tree, and toward the earth itself, but also our human connection to it. This is one of the magical things about drawing — it gives us almost visionary moments of connectedness. Every element — hair, wind, rocks, water — is portrayed with one material — graphite, ink, paint — which binds it all together, bringing out the harmony we know exists in nature (created as it is, as we all are, by particles that have existed since the dawn of the universe.) This is
"Castle of the Enchantress" by Alan Lee, © 1984
"Castle of the Enchantress"
by Alan Lee, © 1984
the power of myth as well, binding us to the natural world. There have always been mythic tales of figures whose function is to act as an intermediary between humanity and nature — the shaman, the shape-shifter, the trickster. . .an embodiment of creative powers who appears in myths, fairy tales and medieval legends all around the world. Often they have a touch of "divine madness" — like Merlin, during his years in the wild through which he gained his divinatory powers. It is interesting to me that in our century it is often artists who fulfill this function. And who, in popular stereotypes, are given the licence to be a bit mad. . . . Look at Picasso, a trickster figure if there ever was one.

     "The power of both myth and art is this magical ability to open doors, to make connections — not only between us and the natural world, but between us and the rest of humanity. Myths show us what we have in common with every other human being, no matter what culture we come from, no matter what century we live in. . .and at the same time, mythic stories and art celebrate our essential differences." When Alan first encountered Greek myths as a child, the stories "provoked a degree of excitement that can't be explained by their value as adventures, however great that may be. Though they were new to me I felt a sense of recognition, and my response, in particular to the more Otherworldly elements, suggests that they were meeting a spiritual need that was barely touched by the dull lectures and repetitions of the school and church acts of worship I regularly dozed through. I'm not suggesting that I wanted to sacrifice a bull to Zeus or consult a Sybil — I didn't known any Sybils — but that I found, unconsciously, a wider and deeper context for my hopes and fears, gained a sense of continuity and communion with the people of the different times and cultures that I read about, and an enhanced and more imaginative relationship with the natural world."

     The intersection of myth and art does indeed produce a quality of magic — as evident in the timeless beauty of Alan's illustrations of classic tales. The wandering paths through Middle Earth, the green valleys of ancient Wales, the vistas over the plains of Troy, and the twisted trees of the Devon woods create a spell as potent and lasting as any conjured by Merlin himself. Yet the quiet magician behind the paintings seems unaware of the power of the magic he creates with pencil, pen and brush. "I keep drawing the trees, the rocks, the river," he says. "I'm still learning how to see them; I'm still discovering how to render their forms. I will spend a lifetime doing that. Maybe someday I'll get it right."




"Camelot" by Alan Lee © 1991



About the artist: Alan Lee has achieved international acclaim for his book illustrations and film design.

Author the author: Terri Windling is a writer, artist, editor, and founder of the Endicott Studio. Visit her website for more information.

Art copyright © 1984 — 1991 by Alan Lee. It may not be reproduced in any form without written permission from the artist. Text copyright © 1997 and 2002 by Terri Windling. It may not be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author. A condensed version the article first appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine.





Return to the JoMA Gallery Archives