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Glasgow, United Kingdom
An illustrator and games artist living and working in Scotland. I have various hobbies: coding, travel, art and games; and I enjoy writing about them.

11 December 2012

Jon Hodgson Interview: Part 1

I've always tried to follow the idea that each image has a massive stack of reference used - not simply in the coarse sense of "photos I copied", but in terms of a lot of reading, a lot of understanding about what you're drawing and why it looks the way it does.
Not long ago an extremely talented illustrator and a great art director Jon Hodgson agreed to do an e-mail interview with me.
Thus far Jon has made over 200 pieces of card art for collectable card games, solo illustrated 15 books with 30 plus illustrations each for Warhammer Historical, has provided cover art for some 30 gaming books as well as numerous pieces of packaging art, made illustrations for the biggest roleplaying game in the world - Dungeons and Dragons, as well as for some of the smallest. At one point he was a story boarder for the children's animated show Bob the Builder
 Needless to say, I was excited and anxious to tap into that well of experience and talent.

Without further ado, here's the transcript of the first part of the interview. More parts will be posted as the replies appear in my inbox. Unfortunately, due to health issues Jon won't be able to reply for a while, thus I hope to treat you with the next part of the interview after the holidays. Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

A: The images from The One Ring section on your website have a great sense of place to them. They feel very authentic. Can you tell me how you achieved this quality, and perhaps some of the inspirations behind these works?

Jon: It is very gratifying to hear you say these pieces have a sense of place.  This is something I really strive for in my work.  This drive tracks back to the purpose of these illustrations, which have the implicit purpose of making the viewer feel like they are in some senses "there".  Whilst of course this is in many ways a cheap magician's trick, that's the business we're in.  And it's a trick I enjoy watching myself!

I'll probably talk in circles a little bit about this topic to pin down the route to achieving this.  First up I'm always still learning.  I've been full time for getting on for 15 years now, and I probably feel I know less truths about making images than I did in year one.  I believe that a few years back I reached a place with my work where the day to day scramble to pay the bills was somewhat alleviated.  Of course that never goes away completely, but you do get to a point where finding clients takes up less time.  With a solid client base to draw from there's less self promo to be doing.  Which in turn let's you focus a little more closely on what you paint and what you want to paint.

To find answers to the questions about what I wanted to do, I looked to what I like to look at myself, what inspires me, what I'd like viewers of my work to feel or think about.  The escapism inherent in fantasy art, and the solidity of place in Tolkien's writing were both big influences on the need for these pieces to convey that feeling.

There are a lot of roads into this for me: I've always obsessed about light and location, not that it necessarily comes out as the most obvious feature of my work.  This is something that I think prior to beginning the One Ring work I was beginning to think about more closely.

Getting the chance to illustrate Middle-earth, a defining presence in my interests since childhood, really kicked a lot of things into stark focus for me.  As well as looking inward to find some answers to what I wanted to do, I also constantly look around me.  I had found a general feeling of uneasiness with the dominant way of doing things in the fantasy art field.  I had been working for the biggest clients, but wasn't satisfied on a personal level with the work that it was necessary to produce.  Growing up in the UK, and never really being into US comics I found a lot of the US comic tropes needed an uneasy fit.  It took a very long time to pin down why I wasn't happy, and these are well paid, prestigious jobs, so one is always wary of being too critical of the hand that feeds.  However to be happy in my work, and thereby make the best work I knew I needed to follow a different star for a while, if that makes sense?  

So getting a chance to make these wide open, landscape based pieces that showed the "where" rather than being dominated by the "who" was highly fortuitous.

Equally living where I do, in the heart of Scotland, and being lucky enough to have a pretty epic view from my home it is no surprise that stuff needed to come out.

So that covers something of the drive to make pieces like this.  How I actually went about it is probably more difficult to talk about.  The easiest things to say are about technical issues.  Making sure you're describing a place with the illusion of 3 dimensions.  A level of internal consistency that suspends disbelief.  This is very important - "realism" is a complete red herring, but internal consistency is very important.  There are some simple devices at work like loads of overlapping so that we want to enter into the scene and look around, lots of implied detail in the areas which are not key focal points: This is a careful balancing act of giving enough to engage, but limiting the supply of information in other areas so that we want more.

Other entry points to imparting a sense of place were the use of 3D modelling software - so many of the buildings and locations were simply constructed in 3 dimensions, so that I could try out a lot of different view points to find the best one.  This I find a highly useful tool that provokes a lot of questions - where are we as the viewer?  What do different view point of a scene bring to it in terms of the look of the final piece and the usefulness of it.  For example, a really brooding atmospheric shot will have different framing than one that is all about showing the layout of an iconic location.  In general on The One Ring we've tried to balance these two things.

Which leads into another part of the topic - the utility of a given illustration.  Within a gaming manual illustrations can serve any number of purposes, often more than one.  With something like Middle-earth it seemed worthwhile to create a lot of illustrations that showed locations in a "useful" way, so that the players in the game could share a collective idea of what a location might look like.  That seems really useful, adds a lot of value and offers a springboard for play.  The end users might not instantly recognise this aspect, but it is something that has to be deliberately employed on the part of the creatives involved.

When it comes to ideas of authenticity this was all about the research. I was already hugely invested in the history of the period Tolkien was drawing on - crudely put "The Dark Ages".  For me effective fantasy always has one foot in "reality" in one way or another.  So using real world cultures, clothing, buildings, and adding the smallest of twists to make them fantastical was the way to go when showing Middle-earth.  I've always tried to follow the idea that each image has a massive stack of reference used - not simply in the coarse sense of "photos I copied", but in terms of a lot of reading, a lot of understanding about what you're drawing and why it looks the way it does.

Huge thanks to Jon for writing such an elaborate and indepth reply. Hope to hear from him soon!