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The Artwork and Imagination of Ted Nasmith

An introduction to the Illustrations in the 2010 Tolkien Calendar and Diary, by Ted Nasmith.

Ted NasmithWith kind permission from the artist, we are delighted to be using Ted Nasmith’s Tolkien captivating images on our website. Ted is a Canadian artist, illustrator and architectural renderer, best known as an illustrator of J. R. R. Tolkien’s works. Read his article on the inspiration behind these imaginative artwork.

For most fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s two most popular novels, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, the vivid descriptions of landscapes, weather, flora, and fauna are among its chief secondary pleasures (the primary appeal being the characters and their adventures); such that it isn’t surprising that it captures the imagination of artists as compellingly as it does.

Upon first reading The Fellowship of the Ring as a teenager, I still clearly recall the warmth and nostalgia I felt. Other authors have well developed descriptions of the lands their characters move through, both real and invented worlds alike, but somehow the combination of Faerie Tale structure wedded to a distinct delight in the minutiae and moods of nature has raised Tolkien’s fantasy to a level few authors achieve. Some have even commented that the landscape constitutes a character of sorts, and this may be partly due to the tendency of Tolkien – in fine faerie tradition – to blur the lines between his characters and creatures and their environment.

‘Green Hill Morning’

Green Hill Morning

Hobbits, the first people we meet, are hole-dwellers after all, and it doesn’t get earthier than that. As The Hobbit progresses, one of the first situations the company faces is an encounter with a trio of nocturnal hill trolls, but this is overcome as Gandalf instigates a quarrel which distracts them long enough for the sun to rise and turn them to stone.

Further along the way, the theme continues as the land proves tricky. They become disoriented and wander, both in the wilds west of Rivendell, and later within the semi-malevolent forest of Mirkwood. Also, the valley of Rivendell opens up quite suddenly ahead of the company, to emphasize its hidden location and implied magical aspect, while in the Misty Mountains there are Stone Giants fleetingly seen amid the fury of a rain storm, and great Eagles command the air and rescue the company from evil Wolves and fire.

‘Eagles to the Carrock’

Eagles to the Carrock

Their next encounter is with a wild man who shape-changes into a great bear each night. Clearly nature and animals interact with ‘people’ repeatedly as a central motif in Tolkien’s invented world, and since nature has long been a universal source of artistic and creative inspiration, visual artwork inspired by Tolkien’s works would not be satisfactory without making sure that illustrations also integrate the characters with the settings.

The works chosen to illustrate the 2010 Diary and its related Calendar were assembled to demonstrate this enduring theme in these two best-loved books, set as they are near the end of the Third Age of Middle-earth.

I’m often asked how I go about creating the paintings. As an illustrator who enjoys the challenge of attempting to ‘flesh out’ the passages in Tolkien which place characters within a resonantly described landscape, I have come to develop a method which works more or less like this: Initially, I like every other reader, ‘see’ the setting in my mind’s eye; nothing out of the ordinary there. But of course I then sketch this impression out, maybe repeatedly with variations, until I feel it looks ‘accurate’. This is an altogether subjective process, but the excitement for me – just as true now as it was in 1970 when I first read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit– is that I try to make the kind of pictures I want to see.

From initial thumbnail sketches I move into larger pencil drawings, and soon to one or more colour studies. Like most realist illustrators, I support my concepts with resource material; photos, clippings, diagrams, maps (some self-drawn), and technical information gleaned from myriad esoteric books and articles on special topics in order to achieve the realism and detail I pride myself on.


The following are a selection of examples of my process of development. For Across Gorgoroth, a scene requiring depiction of the forbidding terrain within Mordor itself, I used paintings by Frederick Church as a guide. His painting of a Mexican volcano across a barren plain suggested its applicability to Tolkien’s Mount Doom, and I noted in particular the way the plume of ash seems to disperse laterally, and tends to hang suspended like low lying cloud.

‘Across Gorgoroth’

Across Gorgoroth

Although in my mind’s eye Mordor was nearly as dark as night under the oppressive overcast Sauron unleashed, artistic license demanded hints of a brighter sky in the background. This allowed for more effective cloud and contrast and paradoxically intensifies the sense of pervasive darkness.

I delighted in devising suitably broken and chaotic stone, fissures sending up toxic gases, craters, and vast emptiness, all in accord with the author’s descriptions. Into this terrible tableau–which could not be in greater contrast to the distant Shire–I placed the figures of Sam and Frodo like tiny insects, with Sam stooping to help support a weakening Frodo. In the cloud of steam at far left the figure of Gollum is seen, lurking behind the two hobbits at a distance. Emyn Muil (aka No Way Down) also attempts to capture the loneliness and impossibility of the quest, with Frodo and Sam lost (if not quite alone…) upon the windswept heights of this perilous escarpment, and getting their first view of distant Mordor.

The Last Sight of Hobbiton and The End of the Age are linked thematically. Being the first and last works, respectively, as published in the Lord of the Rings themed 2002, 2003 and 2004 Tolkien Calendars (each representing one volume of the trilogy), they were designed to ‘book-end’ the collection of illustrations. In the former, we see Frodo, Sam, and Pippin as they are about to pass out of sight of their beloved Hobbiton, having decided to walk cross-country by night on Gandalf’s advice to leave the Shire secretly. It’s among my favourite passages in the novel, and there is nothing quite as enchanting as a full moon with gossamer clouds passing in front of it on an autumn night.

‘Last Sight of Hobbiton’

Last Sight of Hobbiton

Similarly, the latter depicts a scene of departure, and as with so much of the novel, underscores the theme of change, loss, and yearning, as the last of the Elves and Bilbo (discernible on a pony) journey to the Grey Havens at the close of the Third Age. As we know, Frodo himself joins them, taking with him an age of enchantment and legend, but this time must leave his beloved friends, especially Samwise, behind. Depictions of scenes set in the Middle-earth night have always been a special pleasure for me, and attempting to capture the subtle qualities of moonlight in its narrow tonal and colour range, is the tricky part.

With First Sight of Ithilien, my challenge was to try to capture the evocative description by Tolkien of the early spring, dewy splendour of this now-neglected former garden-realm of Gondor. Again there are wonderful passages describing the variety of herbal plants and trees and their redolence in the southern air, and yet immediately to the east the forbidding mountains of Mordor rear up. Here, nature in its most sublime guise is juxtaposed with the terrible and imposing Fence beyond which lies its opposite; a land of poisons, death and aridity. My job was to depict these contrasting aspects while nonetheless leaving a mostly sublime impression. As with Across Gorgoroth, the figures are placed unobtrusively within the vast landscape they must find their way within.

‘First Site of Ithilien’

First Site of Ithilien

The Fair Valley of Rivendell, here published for the first time, is a new version of Rivendell (Tolkien Calendar 1990). Every so often I feel a desire to revisit a work or subject in order to reinterpret it, and as something of a signature subject for me, Tolkien’s Rivendell has been close to my heart. It, and much of Bilbo and his adventures in The Hobbit, was conceived, according to those who study Tolkien’s sources, on the diaries of William Morris during his excursion into the Icelandic hinterland in the late 1800s. Deep gorges such as Rivendell is described as being, do indeed seem to appear suddenly ahead of those exploring the desolate highlands of Iceland. For an author seeking a suitable secret valley for a remnant of Elves, it was ideal. Canada with its vast North has similar geography in places, giving Rivendell an additional significance for me. My artistic inspiration in 19th century landscape art has been documented, but along with my debt to Frederick Church, Maxfield Parrish or Albert Bierstadt, I’ve more recently been inspired by August Cappelen , the great Norwegian artist, and Andreas Achenbach, the phenomenal German landscape artist who precedes Church, and is surely one of the greatest experts on cloud play I’ve ever seen. It is these two giants who chiefly inform my newest take on Rivendell, seen from the viewpoint of the valley floor this time. The house itself presents conceptual dilemmas, too. In Tolkien’s drawings (admittedly underdeveloped) it appears to be very humble and not in accord with the impression of something more elegant or sprawling. My object then was to depict it as ‘homely’ or humble, blending into its surroundings (also emphasized by the author), but yet elaborate enough to accommodate the events and scenes described in The Lord of the Rings.

‘Fangorn Forest’

Fangorn Forest

Many years ago in my high school years, I was assigned a project in the illustration course, known as ‘two kids lost in the woods’. We were free to interpret the phrase, but generally it suggested a faerie tale. It was to be rendered in pen and ink, and in my case I attempted a comic treatment, but was vaguely aware of its deeper resonance. Something of that survives in Fangorn Forestwhere again we have two diminutive figures set within a forbidding landscape. It’s interesting that the Tolkien drawing that inspired this work was itself used interchangeably as either ‘Turin Finds Beleg in Taur nu Fuin’, or as ‘Pippin and Merry in Fangorn Forest’. Few subjects give such undiluted pleasure as a traditional, mossy, damp, rugged old forest of northern folklore, and this small painting remains a personal favourite.

‘The Pillars of the Kings’

The Pillars of the Kings

Finally, let me draw your attention to The Blue Wizards Journeying East. Using the brief published material in Unfinished Tales, we learn a little about the order of wizards to which Gandalf belonged, called the Istari, sent to Middle-earth as agents of Valinor in order to help in the resistance to Sauron’s aggression. We know only that among the five wizards there were two, known as the Blue Wizards, who travelled out of memory and history to parts unknown. For my painting of them, I had a rare opportunity to invent a place I imagined they might pass through, a lonely, rugged and mountainous country of no particular fixed location. For a real world model, I used pictures of distant Patagonia as inspiration. (If pressed, I’ll suggest that the lands shown on the map of Middle-earth near the Sea of Rhun are perhaps the place seen here).

‘The Blue Wizards Journeying East’

The Blue Wizards Journeying East

Thank you for sharing my love of the imaginary Lands of Tolkien’s fantasy. And like those Blue Wizards, I intend to continue my artistic journeys!

Ted Nasmith

Ontario, 2009