Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Tolkien Paintings

In 1994, I entered the 10th grade and signed up for an elective art class. It was great. The teacher passed around hand outs on art history and we took a few obligatory quizzes, but for the most part, class time was spent working on our projects.

My parents were not enthusiastic about the cost of art supplies, but ultimately shelled out for a cheap set of acrylics and a couple 16x20 inch canvases. I was excited about working with "real" paints, but when I got to class with my first blank canvas, I was completely stuck. I had no idea what to paint.

Eventually, I settled on a character from one of my favorite childhood books, J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit." In the novel's latter chapters, Bard the Bowman heroically defends a town from a terrible dragon. I decided to paint a picture of the hero, standing on a dock before the serpent's deadly attack. In retrospect, it was probably not the best choice of subjects for a beginner, but it's all I could come up with at the time.

The painting turned out absolutely lousy. I had yet to learn about techniques like under-painting. Threads of the white canvas peeked out from coats of dark colors. Bright colors were slathered across the canvas, never blending into subtler shades. I tried to render a heavily stylized, hellish sky while keeping my subject subdued and understated. The result was a sloppy and garish hodgepodge of colors that did nothing for each other. My sense of perspective and proportion were wretched. If there was a mistake I didn't make, it was only because I didn't think of it at the time.

In the years since, I've come to appreciate my picture of Bard the Bowman for it's novice failings. I should have trusted the world of fantasy to more skilled artists. However, nearly a year after my struggle with Bard the Bowman, I once again mined "The Hobbit" for inspiration. This time, I tried depicting a scene in which the wizard Gandalf and his companions climb trees to escape murderous wolves and their goblin masters.

Tolkien writes:

"Gandalf, listening to their growling and yelping, began to be dreadfully afraid, wizard though he was, and to feel that they were in a very bad place, and not yet escaped at all. All the same he was not going to let them have it all their own way, though he could not do very much stuck up in a tall tree with wolves all around the ground below. He gathered the huge pine-cones from the branches of his tree. Then he set one alight with bright blue fire, and threw it whizzing down among the circle of the wolves."

The resulting painting was not a great success, but was a vast improvement over my first effort. The brush strokes were sloppy and the perspective poorly chosen. I was still not blending colors well, but at least was choosing them more tastefully. And this time, there was a very small bit of action in the painting. My aesthetic was gradually improving. Even today, I still like the pine cone set ablaze with blue fire.

Though my paintings of Tolkien characters were some of the earliest depictions I derived from pop culture and literary inspirations, they would not be the last. I went on to create uninspired portraits of movie stars, rock stars, and even a painting of Michael Jordan. The Jordan picture was a poor likeness with the ball looking about the size and firmness of a Nerf basketball in His Airness's hands. Even so, a classmate gave me twenty bucks for it. I never took a picture of it and it was the only painting I ever sold.

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