Hail and well met Middle-Earthlings! Today, we bring you a special treat, a discussion with professional fantasy artist Jef Murray about the Mystical Realms in which he travels.
Viking: First, I believe that you have mentioned this elsewhere, but for those who are learning about you for the first time here, how did you come to be involved in the Middle-Earth Network?
Jef: Although I’ve been drawing and painting Middle-earth themed images for many, many years, I first recollect stumbling onto the Dunedain Radio site back in February of 2011, and I sent a note out to Maerech offering some of my artwork for use on the site. It seemed like such a novel idea; to have a radio station “tuned” to the ears of fantasy fans, and it was something I really wanted to support. That started a fast friendship with Maerech. Turns out we have a lot in common when it comes to taste in books, music, and art…and that far beyond just the Tolkien connection. I was delighted when Dunedain Radio became mymiddleearth.com, and have been honoured and humbled to find my work so enjoyed by members of the Middle-earth Network community ever since.
Viking: You mentioned in your last newsletter that you just recently went to England for a conference on Bram Stoker. Is there anything you would care to share from that trip?
Jef: Probably more than your readers would want to know! This was a conference hosted by the University of Hull in Yorkshire. I discovered the conference a couple of years back through one of the publishers I work with, Udolpho Press, and, since I’d been a big fan of Dracula since high school, I was entranced by the possibility of getting to visit Whitby, England.
For those who’ve not read the book, Whitby figures prominently; it was there that the Russian ship, the Demeter, was cast ashore, with Dracula onboard. The ship’s crew had all been killed, and the only contents of the vessel were boxes filled with earth. But, a large black dog was also seen leaving the ship, and climbing up Tate Hill toward St. Mary’s church and the graveyard surrounding it.
I’d always wanted to see that graveyard and the ruined Abbey beyond St. Mary’s. I’d also always wanted to see where the Demeter ran aground. And Hull University made that possible by asking me come as their guest; to discuss my artwork, and specifically the Gothic illustrations and cover art I did for The Magic Ring by Fouque, plus two other Gothic-themed books that should be published this year, including one by Stoker himself.
Viking: A favorite of mine and others is your regular posting of Tolkien and Lewis sketches. Is there anything in particular that inspires you to pick one subject over another?
Jef: Ideas come, thanks be to God, from nearly everywhere! Since I have Middle-earth and Narnia firmly planted in my head, I know the tales by Tolkien and Lewis forwards and backwards. But how a particular subject wends its way into my brain, I can’t honestly say. I may see a photo that reminds me of a character, or I may encounter a landscape painting in a gallery that just seems like it should have come from Rohan, or from the fords of Beruna, or the Shire. And that’s my starting point. I’ll sit down with my sketchpad and let my pencil wander until something starts happening and I find I’m getting “lost” in some magic-filled nook or cranny, or on the crest of a hill overlooking some sweeping vista.
I don’t know how many sketches, on average, I do in a week…but usually far too many to share. And they all are rather like “journeys”. I wrote a short essay about that once, during the time when I was illustrating Black & White Ogre Country: The Lost Tales of Hilary Tolkien, about the dangers of an artist entering the Perilous Realm, as Tolkien called it. I’ve wondered, more than once, if I will always be able to safely return from such travels; they take me so completely away into the place that I am trying to render(!).
But, in any event, I’m delighted that folks enjoy these regular posts!
Viking: And for the budding artists out there, what do use for those sketches?
Jef: They’re almost 100% graphite on paper (multiple hardness levels), but I sometimes augment them digitally and/or with other media (e.g. Conté crayon or charcoal). I “think”, visually, by sketching. Graphite is also very forgiving, so when something isn’t right, you can work it over and over until you finally “find” the way the sketch wants to feel. I think I may have adopted the same opinion toward sketches that Michelangelo had about sculpture: the sketch is there, already, on your sheet of paper; it’s your job as an artist to find it and make it visible to others.
But, aside from graphite, I also use other media. Most of my colour work is done in oils, and although I occasionally will use digital or Prismacolor pencils for colour, that’s rare. On the other hand, one can get some marvelous textures and unusual layering effects digitally that can be stunning…when used gently and prudently.
But, those are just the tools I personally use. Every artist I know finds the medium that “speaks” to them. I know that I’m one of the rare fantasy artists who uses oil paints; most well-known fantasy folk prefer watercolour, or gouache, or acrylic. But, we’re all different, and a part of your apprenticeship as an artist is to find what works for you and what doesn’t…and knowing, even, when to use media that you don’t generally like, simply because it will bring that particular bit of magic to the image you’re searching for!
Viking: Another personal favorite of mine is the short stories that you post. Much like the sketches, I wonder where the inspiration for the stories comes from.
I rarely “set out” to write a short story. I’ll suddenly get an urge to write something down; whence cometh that urge, I know not. One’s Muse can be fickle indeed! But, nevertheless, once I have a few lines, I start to wonder, myself, what’s going to happen next….
I’ll give an example: I was once doing something completely unrelated to writing, but I had an open blank Microsoft Word page up on my computer screen. And, out of the blue, I typed the following:
“Lucy saw the man on the street several times before she recalled that he had been murdered the year before.”
Well, once I had jotted that line down, I just had to find out who Lucy was and who this man was, and what in the world had caused her to see him on the street. Usually this, or something much like it, is how my stories get started.
Like the southern writer Flannery O’Connor, I tend to sub-create characters, put them in a situation, and then see what happens. I don’t script things out…I just “watch” to see how they interact, and where their actions, thoughts, feelings, and convictions take them. And I’m often just as surprised at the outcome as is the reader….
Viking: Do you currently have or plan on producing a collection of these stories?
Jef: Well, by the time most folks read this, or very shortly thereafter, there will be a definite answer to that. Stay tuned!
Viking: You are also involved with the production of the new movie about C.S. Lewis, The Lion Awakes. What have you been able to contribute to that project?
Jef: The whole Middle-earth Network team put an enormous effort into the first stages of the teaser trailer for this film, with fantastic input by many folks. And although not much of our footage ended up in the final release of the trailer, we did a lot to help define it. Whether or not our team, or members of it, ultimately ends up helping with the ongoing production of the film, we all support it and want it to succeed.
My own involvement was in helping with some early imagery (sketches, mostly), plus helping find some video bits and pieces that proved useful. But, my personal style of work, which tends towards a 19th century “romantic” feel, may not be a good match for the ultimate needs of the final production; we’ll see! In any event, I’d be delighted to contribute more going forward in any way I’m able. And I very much look forward to “seeing” C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien onscreen together!
Viking: What other projects do you have on the horizon?
Jef: My next immediate project should be announced very shortly, so I won’t upstage myself here
But, after that, I’m working on a couple of fantasy calendars that will include Middle-earth and possibly Narnia themed images. I also am finalizing illustrations for one fairy-tale book that is soon to be published, plus am in early stages working on illustrating another book that is Middle-earth themed. If this wasn’t enough, there is yet a third book that I may get an opportunity to illustrate that involves fairy tales translated from a non-English-speaking culture. That’s all I can say about it for now, other than to suggest that the tales are, in some cases, pretty terrifying, so it should provide plenty of opportunities for mystical “romps” into the Perilous Realm once again!
So, I’m very busy; but, it’s the best possible type of busy to be! And I owe a lot to the camaraderie, support, and encouragement of all of the members of the Middle-earth Network for the chance to work on so many of these projects.
Ours is a unique community, and one that is growing by leaps and bounds. And I’m as delighted to be able to enjoy other folks’ thoughts and insights and to appreciate their considerable talents as I am to share my own! We live in a great time for lovers of fantasy and romantic epic tales. There is so much to discover in these stories that can ennoble and sustain us, even in the darkest of times, and each of us has something unique to contribute to this marvelous mix of magic and myth! The journey has just begun!
Stay tuned to Jef’s blog as things develop as there is no doubt he will be bringing us many more snapshot of his forays into the Perilous Realm in the future!