When I started to draw, most of my influences were from other painters and illustrators, so I was drawing landscape at second hand, really. The trees were Rackham trees, or trees that I had seen in paintings rather than from my own observation.. And I started to feel this was a real lack in my work. Everything was too generalised, and not based on real experience. Then in 1975, after having worked for some years in London as a book cover illustrator mainly, I came down to Devon and stayed with some friends up on the moor. In the course of this one weekend, wandering around the moor, finding rivers and ancient woods, I realised that everything that I would ever want to draw was actually here. There was so much richness in the texture and forms of these fantastic trees.. And I decided in the course of that weekend to come and live here. I looked at a couple of houses, found one, and made an offer on it, all in that one weekend!
A lot of excellent illustrators are working at the moment--especially in fantasy and children's books. It is exciting also to see graphic artists such as Dave McKean, in his film Mirrormask, moving between different media. I also greatly admire the more traditional work of Gennady Spirin and Roberto Innocenti. Kinuko Craft, John Jude Palencar, John Howe, Charles Vess, Brian Froud.. I'll stop there, as the list would get too long. But--in a fit of pride and justified nepotism--I'll add my daughter, Virginia Lee, to the list. Her first illustrated children's book, The Frog Bride [coming out in the U.K. In September, 2007], will be lovely.
I have a very clear memory of my first encounter with myth, sitting in a mobile library and travelling, at the same time, with Theseus on the road to Athens. By the time we'd met, and disposed of, the pine-bending giant Sinis, I'd become completely entranced. Within a few months I'd read every book on myths, legends and folklore in our two nearest libraries.
I first read and when I was eighteen. It felt as though the author had taken every element I'd ever want in a story and woven them into one huge, seamless narrative; but more important, for me, Tolkien had created a place, a vast, beautiful, awesome landscape, which remained a resource long after the protagonists had finished their battles and gone their separate ways. In illustrating I allowed the landscapes to predominate. In some of the scenes the characters are so small they are barely discernible. This suited my own inclinations and my wish to avoid, as much as possible, interfering with the pictures being built up in the reader's mind, which tends to be more closely focussed on characters and their inter-relationships. I felt my task lay in shadowing the heroes on their epic quest, often at a distance, closing in on them at times of heightened emotion but avoiding trying to re-create the dramatic highpoints of the text. With, however, it didn't seem appropriate to keep such a distance, particularly from the hero himself. I don't think I've ever seen a drawing of a Hobbit which quite convinced me, and I don't know whether I've gotten any closer myself with my depictions of Bilbo. I'm fairly happy with the picture of him standing outside Bag End, before Gandalf arrives and turns his world upside-down, but I've come to the conclusion that one of the reasons Hobbits are so quiet and elusive is to avoid the prying eyes of illustrators.