Justin Gerard: Illustrations and Interview

September 13, 2012

Glorfindel and the Balrog by Justin Gerard

I'm not sure how I found Justin Gerard's blog-- no doubt I just happened upon it during one of those must-click-every-link-on-every-blog days-- but I fell in love with his artwork straight away. His sketches and paintings feature monsters, warriors, vast landscapes, and beautiful colors. The style is really neat-- a mix of unleashed imagination coupled with realism-- Best of all, he drew pictures of some of my all-time favorite stories, including Tolkien's works!

The Forest Troll by Justin Gerard. Some very neat in-progress shots are at his blog.

He was kind enough to do an interview with me, so I'll go ahead and be quiet and let the artist speak for himself! My questions are in bold.


I love reading the behind-the-scenes posts at your blog, with peeks at the thumbnails, sketches, paintings, and digital pieces. Can you give a quick overview of your typical process?

thumbnails for Smaug
My typical process is to first take a hike and think about the idea a bit. Then I do dozens and dozens of thumbnails that are never much more than a square inch a piece. After this I pick the best of them and will do larger drawings that are around 4 inches tall or so. I then scan this in to the computer and adjust, correct and edit it until I am happy with the design. From there I will do a few more drawings until I really nail down the characters and expressions. Then I print it all out and transfer it to some kind of traditional media, usually either bristol paper or gessoed panel. After that I do a traditional painting (watercolor, acrylic or oil). After that I often scan this in and adjust and finish it digitally in Photoshop.         

You usually finish your pieces digitally, using Photoshop as a tool integral to your art rather than something used for just touching up bad scans. It's a pretty unique approach. When did you start doing this? What is it about the combination of traditional and digital art that appeals to you? Do you find yourself overly dependent on the all-powerful magic of that shiny "UNDO" button?

I've been doing this for a long time. Before I started using watercolor as the base for my digital work, I had been using pencil or ink, so it wasn't too big a jump actually. I have always preferred drawing on physical paper to every other kind of mark making. So no matter what there was always a traditional component to the work. But I don't think it really started to work until I started taking the traditional parts a lot farther.

The best part about the combination is that it allows you to minimize the inherent weaknesses in both and maximize their strengths. For instance, keeping your lines, and also going darker in watercolor is very difficult and often yields weak results. But by laying in with watercolor and then pulling up the values digitally, you can get the range you are after without sacrificing your linework. There are many many other examples as well. They just seem to work really well together.

I almost never use the undo button. However, I do tend to throw out layers…. which might amount to the same thing. So I won't cast any stones at those who do like their ctrl+z.

Is it hard to do commissioned artwork? Do you find that illustrating something for someone else helps or inhibits your artistic vision?

It can be. Much of it depends on the abilities of the art director. A really good art director who knows what they want and how to get what they are looking for is such a relief. Sometimes it can be a nightmare when the art director just doesn't quite know what they want, or doesn't know what the editor wants and you end up in a long series of revisions. But this is part of the job. Dealing with the difficulties of sharing the artistic vision is a large part of what they are paying you for.

I also do a lot of personal projects, and that helps me cure the need for doing work that is more in line with my artistic vision.

So many of your pieces feature grand adventures, magical vistas, and creepy monsters. When did you fall in love with mythology/legends/fantasy/fairytales/awesomeness? What are some of the stories that most influenced you?

Ahhh well, artistically, my childhood was filled with disney films and video games. So at a basic level, these largely fantasy works were what provides a base for this love in all of my work. Tolkien's works have helped give it a more specific focus. The Hobbit in particular ended up being one that influenced me the most. To this day it is still my favorite work of fantasy fiction. Nothing has even come close for me in terms of adventure, magic, mystery and charm.
The Chronicles of Narnia, The Once and Future King, the old boys adventure novels (treasure island, robin hood etc) also provided a lot of inspiration for me.

Riddles in the Dark

When did you first read The Lord of the Rings?

Late high school. I couldn't put it down, and read all 3 in a week. I did a lot of really poor thumbnails for the story too. One day I hope to actually go back and see if I can't actually paint them as finished pieces.

Most of your Tolkien-inspired pictures are from the Hobbit or the Silmarillion. You haven't done much based on the LotR trilogy. Do you find that the movies affect your imagination too much?

Yes. In fact the reason I did the Hobbit was largely to do with a sad realization that after I watched Peter Jackson's version of the LorR, my own ideas about Boromir, Shelob, Orthanc etc. all got replaced. Now I saw them in my imagination as I had seen them in the movie, and this was really disappointing. It's not that I didn't like them, they were all great, it's just that I was sad to lose my own ideas.

So I decided to get down a lot of my own ideas about the Hobbit before it was too late. It turned out to be one of the most rewarding projects I have ever worked on.
I may actually go back someday and try to do some scenes from the LotR, but not until the films have somewhat receeded in my mind and I can get back to my own take on the scenes again. So I can get to a place where I can actually contribute something unique to the story and not just be redundant with what Peter Jackson and Alan Lee and John Howe and Weta and all the rest have already done so well.

a sketch of Fingorn and Glothmog from The Silmarillion

You did an entire project of The Hobbit-inspired illustrations. I know from experience that illustrating makes you study the vision-- and sometimes genius-- of the author very closely. Did you learn anything in particular about the story while doing the illustrations?

Oh definitely. For one I learned that the Hobbit is an evaluation of society as seen through the eyes of a quite country gentlemen who is forced to go through and engage with all the various strata. The interesting culmination being the interview with Smaug, where we essentially have an aristocracy which has lost any form of ideals outside of abject selfishness, and is content to sit on the wealth of the nation. You begin to get a sense for how Tolkien himself saw issues like governmental or corporate systems of control, how he felt about man's proper relation to the environment, about when war is appropriate, and how a riddle game is meant to be played. There is just so much in there and the more you really dig in, the more you can't help but be interested in the man himself and what he was truly after.

Which piece of art are you the most proud of, and why?

Probably Smaug. I think of all of the work it is probably the most original and fun to work on. Most of my work I don't really like all that much. I always love doing the work, but am not always pleased with it when I am finished. Smaug though, was just a wonderful experience through and through.

"There He Lay"
(you can see the behind-the-scenes and some thoughts from the artist here)

And which do you hate the most, or did you struggle the most with?

Most of the rest.

I would say that while I liked the Battle of Five Armies, it was the longest struggle of any piece I have ever done. It took me a month to finish and I remember being so burned out on drawing little hair men and goblins that I didn't draw anything for a few weeks and when I did finally draw something again it was only elven princesses. That one took a lot out of me, but now that it is over I am really pleased with it and enjoy showing it at conventions.

Battle of Five Armies
Lembas bread or ent-draught?

Lembas bread while I am backpacking, ent-draught for when I get back.

I love hiking actually. I am going to be doing a week long backpacking trip up in the Cascades in Washington later this month and we will be packing food that is as close to Lembas as we can find for the trip... and then when we get back to Seattle we will be off in search of the nearest Entmoot to see what we can find.

image by Justin Gerard, from his blog
It's a little strange, but my love of hiking, while partially rooted in wandering around in the forests of my childhood, is largely the result of Tolkien's own descriptions of an adventure. Of Frodo and Sam or of Bilbo's walking out their door and off into the wilderness, the possibilities of which, were endless. Tolkien instilled a desire in me to actually get out and do this. And it turned out to be so rewarding. You not only come back detoxed and feeling more clean and alive than ever before, but you also come back knowing more about yourself, heart and body. You never can truly appreciate a warm bed, or a hot shower, or clean clothes or a big greasy cheeseburger until you spend a week in the wilderness with nothing. You come back thankful for everything and I think it makes you a better human being. I think Tolkien knew what he was talking about.

I'm not sure that I would ever have had this desire without catching the bug from Tolkien's writing.

Would you rather live in the Shire or in one of the kingdoms like Gondor or Rohan?

Ahhhh…. I don't know. I love doing art, and I love traveling. I would want to be someplace that would allow for those things. But I think if you dropped me in any one of those 3 places, I would enjoy it and then want to take trips to the other places, and also go in search of Lothlorien and Mirkwood every now and again.

But I would say that I do like the countryside, and am not as much a big-city person, so if you pressed me on it, I would probably say the Shire.

Thanks so much for doing this interview, Mr. Gerard!


Here's just a few of my favorite paintings that are not related to Lord of the Rings.

St. George and the Dragon No. 8
AWOL No. 1

Lancelot du Lac

I'd really encourage you to check out his gallery and blog (which has some neat behind-the-scenes and many more paintings than his gallery).  

All images in this post are from The Blog and Gallery of Justin Gerard and belong to the artist.

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  1. Ooooooh, those are beautiful drawings. I like how he uses both digital and traditional techniques rather than just one exclusively. Cool interview.


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