Alan Lee, Illustrator of Middle-Earth

September 11, 2012
When I first read The Lord of the Rings, it was a worn-out, waterstained paperback that was thoroughly read by my parents previously and one of my brothers simultaneously. I'm sure you've seen these paperbacks; they have pictures from the movies on the cover, no other illustration or decoration, and ink that smudges when you touch it.

A couple of years ago, we got beautiful hardcover copies of the trilogy and I was enchanted by the beautiful illustrations by Alan Lee. His imaginings of Middle-Earth are very different from mine, but I love them all the same.

Alan Lee works primarily in watercolors and pencil. He clearly loves landscapes with vast expanses of space and color. I've noticed that a lot of the people in his paintings are small figures. In a way, this fits in really well with the epic tone of Tolkien's stories. The characters are all at once so important and so small, set against a backdrop that they influence. If that makes sense. :)

With the Elves. From The Fellowship of the Ring, illustrated by Alan Lee.  image via
In addition to creating illustrations for the books, Lee worked with John Howe as a conceptual artist for the movies! He's in New Zealand working on the Hobbit films at the moment.

Bag End. From FotR illustrated by Alan Lee. image via.
Random fact: Alan Lee has several cameos in the movies. He was one of the Nine Kings of Men in the opening scene, and was a Rohan soldier in the scene where Aragorn and Legolas are talking to each other in Elvish!

image via. 
But honestly, I couldn't tell you which one of these soon-to-be-Nazgul is said awesome illustrator...
image via
Alan Lee is the farthest to the left.
All of his drawings are insanely complex and detailed, right down to thousands of tree branches and leaves, each drawn with great precision.

Bilbo's Trolls. I'm pretty sure this is from FotR, illustrated by Alan Lee. Image via.
Frodo looking into Galadriel's mirror. Artwork by Alan Lee. image via.
In the above picture you can see his eye for design, too. Just look at that tree-like table! (I wonder why it's Hobbit sized?) Apparently he and a few other concept artists helped to design much of the architecture, weaponry, and other pieces of craftsmanship for the films.

Edoras. Also, celtic knotwork and horse tessellations. By Alan Lee. image via.
Lee's color palettes tend to be muted and pale, with lots of white (rather than black) left as outlines. When I first saw this style when we got the hardback books, I wasn't very fond of it, but it's grown on me-- a lot. I think his style is reminiscent of Edmund Duclac's illustrations.

Unfortunately, I've been unable to find any comprehensive gallery, portfolio, or even fan-curated collection of artwork by Alan Lee. It's a pity, I wanted to find more... I know he's done thousands of illustrations, and for many many more things than Tolkien's works.

I love so many things about The Lord of the Rings movies, so it is hard to single out favorite parts, but one unusual thing that I love from The Return of the King is the credits-- the haunting song Into the West by Frank Walsh, Howard Shore, and Annie Lennox coupled with pencil sketches of all the main characters. I always tear up at that part, it's silly, I know, but the story is just SO. GOOD. and I can never believe it's over!

image via
My dad was convinced that the drawings were somehow photoshopped pictures of photographs (argh, everyone believes that photoshop is some kind of omnipotent magic!) because they are so realistic. In fact, they are actually drawings by Alan Lee! According to Wikipedia, the idea was suggested by Ian McKellen, who played Gandalf, which only makes the credits even awesomer.

Here's an interesting interview with Alan Lee. It's mostly about his illustrations of The Children of Hurin, but there are other little artsy and stylistic details that I love hearing about...

And in the Hobbit movie vlog #4 (at around 8 minutes) he talks about 3D work for the upcoming films! Does anyone else think that the hand-drawn 3D concept art is CRAZY cool?

And in another vlog (at around 6:30), we learn that he and John Howe have done a couple thousand drawings each. Wow!
update: I found this blue version
which I like even more!

I wonder which is more like
the original...

If you'd like to see more of Alan Lee's work, I found a neat Tumblr blog that features artwork by him and John Howe, many of which I'd never seen before, and I also found a Pinterest board dedicated to Lee's illustrations!

There is also a Lord of the Rings Sketchbook featuring his art for the films. I really, really want to get my hands on a copy of that...

I have to close with one of my favorite illustrations, The Grey Havens. I'm not sure why I love it so much. I normally don't even like lavender! But the starlit, bittersweet elegance of the Elves is nicely portrayed in this monochormatic ship sailing for Valinor...

image via.
 This post is a part of my Inspirational Artists series and the 2012 Tolkien Month blog party!

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  1. I agree with you on all points: Lee's vision of Middle Earth is somewhat different from mine, and I didn't start off liking his style very much but boy does it grow on you! I saw a glorious hardcover, gilt edged, illuminated chapter headings copy of The Hobbit with his illustrations at Barnes and Noble the other day and the only thing I could think was "Don't TEMPT me, Frodo!"
    Also, judging by the picture of him as a Rohhiric soldier, I'd say he's the second king from the left. (The viewer's left.)
    Love you!

  2. I have never read the books but I have seen some of the movies....this however kept my interest and has made me want to get the books. :0)

  3. Yes I agree that it is the second from the left!! (:
    BTW I just found your blog and am loving it!! (:
    I am a huge Tolkien fan (as in I read LotR 57 times in the last two years! and I have also read almost all of his other books..(: )
    and it is nice to find someone else who appreciates him (: (:


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