The idylls of fantasy fiction have long inspired artists of every genre, perhaps none as much as J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s prose invites us to imagine, inhabit, and revel in his created worlds. Even more fascinating is that Tolkien’s own sketches and watercolors would sate an archive. He kept childhood drawings, illustrations for his books, drawings for his own children, original calligraphy, and cartography for Middle Earth. He filled scraps of paper with doodles and carefully tucked prized creations into special envelopes which he opened periodically to add captions to years later. His creativity was and is contagious.
I wondered what it is that inspires an artist today to capture a moment from Tolkien’s body of work. I’m delighted to introduce you to artist Emily Austin, her work, and her imaginative process.
CN: How did you come to J. R. R. Tolkien? Was it as a reader or artist first?
EA: My first meaningful experience with Tolkien was as a viewer, next as a reader. I saw the film The Fellowship of the Rings at age twelve, realized what I’d been missing out on, and promptly set about reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy before seeing the next movie. Tolkien’s writing and Jackson’s films became a touchstone of my middle and high school years and of my lifelong imaginative landscape. While I did create occasional drawings inspired by Tolkien during these years, it was not until after studying art and design in college that I began approaching Tolkien’s work as a visual artist on a regular basis. It became a way to dive into projects which combined my passions. Furthermore, Tolkien’s idea of subcreation—humans creating imaginative worlds as a reflection of God’s creative act—has shaped my own perspective on the value of art.
CN: What does the process of imagination to idea to sketch to finished piece look like?
EA: This process starts with an idea—oftentimes I’m struck by something while reading, such as a particularly strong visualization or a description I find intriguing. For example, the desire to paint Niggle’s Country, which depicts a scene from Tolkien’s story Leaf By Niggle, grew out of several rereadings. Leaf by Niggle explores Tolkien’s hope that vocation and creative vision begun in this life might extend into the next. In my painting, Niggle stands before his tree, representing his life’s work and sees it fully realized through a gift of divine grace. I strive to honor God with all I create, but in pieces like this, which directly explore a theology of creativity, the process itself becomes much more consciously worship and prayer.
At other times I begin with a request from a client, as in A Hobbit’s Garden. I have painted many Shire and hobbit hole scenes, and with this piece I was asked to depict a hobbit hole with a bountiful garden. It uses Tolkien’s world as a springboard, but does not depict any specific scene from his works.
Once an idea is formed, I usually reread relevant passages from the work I will be illustrating. I think about the overall mood to convey and about which details might best be included in a painting or drawing. Next come thumbnails: small sketches (a few inches wide) which help to work out composition, lighting, and value for the final illustration. At this point I may also consult reference images, which can include a combination of my own photos, other stock images, and sometimes other paintings as well. For example, in the Niggle painting I referenced images from one of Tolkien’s personal favorite trees in order to add another layer of connection to his life.
The best of these thumbnail sketches leads to a small painting which helps me to work out details and color schemes. I often continue using multiple references at this stage; in The Vale of Rivendell I looked to Tolkien’s own illustrations, along with photos of several mountains and valleys, as the visual base for my reinterpretation. If this all goes well, I begin the final painting, in which I attempt to weave these strands of development into one cohesive work.
CN: What are your thoughts on fostering holy imagination in families/children?
EA: I believe one of the most sacred qualities of imagination is the way it can help us develop empathy. Through stories we can enter into others’ perspectives and see the world through fresh eyes. My own imagination was enriched by reading and by the many heritages I grew up surrounded by in Hawaii. I am grateful for this experience and the way my parents encouraged me to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).
In a slightly different vein, I am also grateful for my family’s encouragement as I explored different interests and ideas as a child. On a practical level, my parents’ determination to give me access to art education resulted in a series of amazing art teachers through nearly my entire upbringing. I was able to absorb elements of different styles and approaches to art from each. My grandmother also spent a great deal of time with me, teaching me music and language, which helped me exercise different parts of my brain and has certainly influenced my path in life a great deal—in particular, I have continued to explore languages, which was probably another factor in my attachment to Tolkien.