A field guide to the tatterdemalion in its natural habitat.

Gathers broken shells on beaches, pebbles with holes in them and other hopeful but powerless talismans. Goes for long walks on steep hills, spends much time watching the sea. Picks up dead leaves and tries to memorize their structure. Becomes enamoured of themes to a point beyond any reason. Works into the night, but still gets up at dawn. Never seems to do well enough. Can only look back on work that is so old it no longer matters. Knows the next painting will be the one. Wants to get it right but cannot define what right is. Hates getting it wrong (but quite familiar with that feeling, thank you.) Cannot even describe that it is for that matter. Buys useless and usually broken things because they suddenly appeal. (To what? Cannot define.) Would happily be a knight in shining armour, but rust just gets everywhere. Loathes paperwork (how terre-à-terre and quotidian). Is always busy, but never done. Isn’t at all heroic or invincible, but daydreams about it. Works hard on things that don’t matter because somehow they do. Gets lost in thought often (has no proper map). Is a little raggedy at the edges, and patched at the elbows, but patches of gold and silver. Goes to buy groceries and comes back with books. Can spend whole life drawing pictures of things that don’t exist. Occasionally peers out of hedge at the world speeding past, but knows roads are dangerous things… they can lead just about anywhere. Even to the other side of the world.

– John Howe,

A drawing is never really done.

It is simply a glimpse, at a given time, of an idea. Drawings are thoughts fixed in graphite lightly. They can be the best way to abandon an idea with no regrets, or a way to retain that fleeting something, to be revisiting months or even years later. […]

Now that it’s said and done, I’ve finally come to realize that it never really is, that pencils provide the perfect impermanence, the ultimate lightness of seeing, the line that is always between the lines in a sort of fractal meta-physicality – no matter how closely you depict an idea, there are always dozens more hidden within. [… W]hile practice makes good, perfect is always in the next sketch, that the only real line is the horizon.

It’s no coincidence that etymology provides such solace; with each drawing you draw yourself closer to two things: understanding the nature of the world around you and depicting in patient graphite the worlds you have within. Like two mirrors placed face to face, the artist is somewhere in that infinity of reflection and counter-reflection. […]

A drawing is never really done.


– John Howe,
“Drawing the Line Somewhere”

A lone man is sitting on a rock on the seashore,

immobile as if he was hardened into stone. Deep concentration has outlined the veins on his forehead. In his thick beard the pearls of water gleam in the afternoon light. The sounds of the sea fill his senses: the waves foaming not far from his feet; seagulls shrieking, gliding on the wind; the heath wheezing in golden fields behind him. But there is another sound, harder to discern, that keeps his attention fixed as if fastened to the mast of a ship. The unearthly notes of a melody alien to human ears, bringing the fascination of a desire so strong, it is bound to bring damnation. His muscles, tensed, reveal how much strength it requires to resist the call. He guards his mind and listens, to memorize the inflections, decipher the tones and plant them into human words. He sees female beauty among the waves, he sees wisdom that would satisfy his hunger, he glimpses flowers of joy reminiscent of those on the Elysian Fields. It could be his alone: no one ever saw what he sees. His eyes are hollow.

“Of Sirens and Sea Nymphs”, attributed to Imola Unger?

Seeing like an artist.

…John Ruskin, when he launched his ambitious plan to teach factory workers to draw, had no desire to fill London’s parks with labourers toting sketchbooks and charcoal, his desire was to teach them to see. For their own sakes, not to make them better artists, but to have their vision constantly refreshed. Drawing, whether in nature or from some interior landscape, is a form of meditation, an effacing of self, a suspension of time and conscious thought. The local park or the banks of the Anduin: little difference, just a question of detail.

…There is something of the archaeological in illustrating Middle-Earth. means staking out a dig, working down through strata of meaning, explicit and implicit, layer upon layer of influence and culture. […] It is, in a sense, digging in air, which has always been the business of artists.

… [Tolkien’s] drawings are drawn out of himself not from a desire to determine once and for all the visual details of his word, but to provide something tangible to satisfy an urge to see, however imperfectly, those places of the imagination that are so hard to describe in words, but are so well depicted by describing the emotions of the protagonists. Naturally, while this means facing mundane issues of draughtsmanship, perspective and colour, it provides opportunities to distil reality on another plane.

– “From Babel to Barad-dûr” (emphasis mine),
John Howe

Tree carving, Kyiv, Ukraine

We are in Kyiv, Ukraine, looking at a rich brown tree carved into the image of a warrior in the Ukrainian/Slavic tradition. In the background is a side street filled with parked cars and building fronts.
Tree carved into traditional art, on a street in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photograph credit to John Howe, 2009.

Trees have a special role in Ukrainian myth and culture, perhaps because Christianity arrived so late in the region. Our guide took us to see several that had been sculpted. When a tree dies on a city street, it is turned into a work of native art before being ultimately replaced by a new sapling. It is a delightful idea.

– John Howe, Newsletter: Catching up in Kyiv (2009)