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Full Color Tolkien: An Interview with Artist Jef Murray

Jef Murray is a world-renowned Tolkien artist. His works have appeared in many publications, and he is a frequent guest at Tolkien conventions. An Atlanta native, Murray also publishes an excellent monthly newsletter where he reflects on art and spirituality. You can visit Jef at his website, Mystical Realms. Jef and I met at Dragon*Con, where he gave an excellent talk on being a Tolkien artist and art influenced by spirituality. He graciously allowed me to ask him a few questions.

Grasping for the Wind: What was your first encounter with Tolkien? What is it that keeps drawing you back to his words for inspiration?

Jef Murray: I recollect my mother reading us The Hobbit when I was in second grade. I seem to recall something about a “follow on” book at the time, but The Lord of the Rings was not considered a children’s book so we never went on to read it. I eventually tackled it in high school, but even then was, in my opinion, too young to appreciate it fully, although I loved it. I remember spending long summer days in the idyllic setting of my high school (Berry Academy in Rome, GA) reading about Hobbits and wondering whether Tolkien didn’t know something about the nature of reality that had escaped the rest of us.

Many years went by, and when I eventually heard about the filming of the movies, I pulled the book out again and reread it. At that point, I was well into my 30s, was married, and had become a convert to Catholicism. And it was at this point that the book really had a major impact. I had not remembered it being so poignant, nor had I remembered it being so deeply philosophical. Yet, I once again had that feeling from high school that Tolkien “got” something about the nature of reality that the rest of us tended to ignore or to miss altogether.

What brings me back to Tolkien, from an artistic perspective, is that Tolkien’s works are rather like the Bible. That is, they do not tell you so much about the characters in the stories as they tell you about yourself. Each time you reread The Silmarillion or The Children of Hurin or The Lord of the Rings, you are encountering Middle-earth as a different person. And how you react to the stories says much about where you are on your individual journey.

C.S. Lewis said on many occasions that every moment of our lives offers a choice. And we either choose the light or the darkness, so that at the end of our lives, we are the accumulation of those things that we have chosen, day in and day out. Middle-earth is a place where the Thomistic virtues of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty are honoured. That’s why, I believe, so many people are drawn to it. And each time I return to Middle-earth, I get a sense of how my love of these virtues has grown, or has diminished, since my last sojourn there.

GFTW: When did you know you would become a professional artist?

JM: I don’t suppose I ever knew I would become one until I did so. Like so many aspects of our lives that seem directed by a Hand other than our own, the progression was natural and almost imperceptible.

I have drawn since I was very young, and took classes in drawing and painting in college while preparing for a very different career in engineering. But even during my “corporate years”, I was always the one developing logos for friends’ businesses, drawing cartoons lampooning the corporate world, etc. I left engineering in 2000, not because my artwork had taken off, but because I was burned out. Yet, I had begun painting seriously again in 1999, and never stopped. My work began primarily with wildlife images, and I like to joke about my paintings progressing up the evolutionary ladder, from insects, to crabs, to fish, to amphibians, to reptiles, to mammals…and eventually to men, hobbits, elves, and angels.

GFTW: What is your primary artistic medium and why?

JM: I begin all of my work with graphite, that is to say pencil, sketches. After that, if I proceed with colour, I will almost always use oil paints.

Why an artist uses the medium he uses is a tough thing to answer. Everyone has likes and dislikes. I know John Howe and Ted Nasmith never use oils, although they’ve both tried them. Likewise, I’ve tried watercolour, gouache, and acrylic, but respectfully dislike them, especially acrylic.

Graphite and oils are very forgiving, allowing me to work an image until I’m satisfied with it. I intensely dislike the notion of time breathing down my neck, and with water-based paints in particular, I’m always watching the clock. Sub-creation should be immersive…you shouldn’t have to be rushed or harried.

GFTW: In addition to your fantasy works, you also paint religious imagery and animals. Why do these particular subject matters interest you?

JM: Tolkien, Christian religious imagery, and wildlife all have in common the pursuit of reality. That is, the desire to understand the nature of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. I rather think of all of my works as religious, just as Tolkien himself confessed that The Lord of the Rings was “a fundamentally Catholic and religious work”. And whether I’m trying to understand the nature of this marvelous world we inhabit through God’s creatures, or through Christian imagery, or through mythology, all of these represent a deep religious searching.

For more on Jef’s musings on the Catholic faith and church read this article he wrote at Speaking of Faith.

GFTW: Your artwork contains a lot of bold, vibrant colors. Why is your work so richly colorful, as opposed to the more subdued hues more common for other Tolkien artists like Ted Nasmith?

JM: A more extreme difference between my style and that of others might be seen by comparing my paintings to Alan Lee’s, since Alan tends to be very subtle indeed with his use of colour, whereas Ted can get pretty bold on occasion. But a lot of these differences can be attributed simply to style and preference.

In general, I think I like drama. I like to push colour past normal bounds because, on some level, most of my paintings are about exploring the boundaries between worlds. Bold colour sometimes helps us see how amazing the world around us really is. Rather like the character played by George C. Scott in They Might Be Giants, there’s a part of me that thinks that we’ve all been hoodwinked; that paradise is, in some respects, all around us if we only had eyes to see it. And an artist’s job is, from my perspective, to help us cleanse the dirt and grime off of our senses and really see what is all around us…perhaps for the first time.

GFTW: Rather than painting intricate detail, you tend to use general outlines and solid color. Your work is more akin to the impressionists than the realists. It this an effect of the medium, or do you choose to render your art in broader strokes rather than intricate detail?

JM: The more you delve into detail, the more there is a tendency to tighten up your work; ofttimes the end result is that the painting becomes lifeless and stilted. One can paint with oils and achieve superb detail, but that requires great patience and/or technical skill, as oils dry very slowly. And the sort of planning involved in that case takes a process that should be profoundly sub-creative and turns it into more of a technical exercise.

On the other hand, if you like to play with the paint and to try different techniques before committing to a finished look, oil paints are a great medium. Oils lend themselves to a looser style, and there’s a muscularity to them that allows you to obtain incredible colour and texture; they can be painted thinly as with watercolour, or can be used straight from the tube to facilitate nearly a sculpted effect. Moving the paint around on the canvas becomes a conversation, and the end results can be very different from what you expected or intended. It’s this dance with one’s Muse that I most enjoy about painting, and if I lose detail in the process, I think I more than make up for it in life and movement.

GFTW: Why are blue and its different shades more common in your art than other colors?

JM: I expect it must mean that I love blue ;-). This wasn’t a conscious choice, and in fact, I would never have told you that blue was my favorite colour when I first started painting seriously. But it is certainly true that it seems pervasive in my work….

GFTW: In your landscapes, and some of your other art, the rising or the setting sun is often prominent. Is this a result of the parameters of the text, or is there a particular meaning in it for you?

JM: Again, it’s not a conscious choice. It is certainly true that colours are most intensely sensed by most folks at sunrise and sunset. But, philosophically, these are also important times, as they, too, represent boundaries between worlds. It is in the gloaming that we are neither fish nor fowl, neither day nor night. That certainly intrigues me….

GFTW: What sort of reaction or emotion do you want viewers to have from viewing your paintings?

JM: This will differ depending on the painting, won’t it? Some of my work is about longing, some about fulfillment. Some images speak to fears and others to hopes. The only bad reaction to any artist’s work, I’d suggest, is indifference.

GFTW: What do you do when you find yourself stymied by a particular piece, or feel a sort of artist’s block?

JM: The easiest thing to do is move on to something else and return to the work later. Just as I mentioned that you’re a different person each time you read The Lord of the Rings, you’re also a different artist each time you approach a canvas. And the artist who could not see a way forward with an image one day is never there the next. Each day, as I mentioned, we’ve made choices, we’ve learned or unlearned lessons. Each day, we’re a slightly new creature. And I think that God often stymies us to teach us humility and patience. Artist’s block is not a bad thing; sometimes it’s exactly what we need most in order to allow us to go beyond ourselves and break out into something new and unexpected.

GFTW: What advice would you give to aspiring artists?

JM: Do the work, and all else will follow. That is, paint or sketch or sculpt those things that are most meaningful to you, whether or not you ever think you could make a living from it. If you paint those things that you love, if you try to express what’s most important to you, others will see that, and they will respond to it. Never, never, never put brush to canvas because you think a work will earn you a nice fee; your Muse requires attention, love, and joyful collaboration, and she will leave you very quickly if you do not attend to her.

Another artist friend of mine, Michael O’Brien, once told me that he knew of many very gifted artists who had sought acclaim and fortune, only to have their gifts and vision vanish.

Madeline L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, is also purported to have described the sub-creative process as a “holy act”, and one whose nature we ignore at our peril. If you can draw, or paint, or sculpt, or write music, or write poetry, or dance, then you have a gift that has been given you by the one Creator. To use that gift well is to pay homage to that Creator; to use it strictly for profit is to profane the Good that has been granted you. Choose carefully.

GFTW: If I wanted to purchase art from you, how would I do it?

JM: You can see more of my work than anyone likely would want to by going to my website at http://www.JefMurray.com . Some of my original works and prints are available directly from my website, but all of my Tolkien images are handled by ADC Art and Books in England. You can access their online catalog by going to http://www.adcbooks.co.uk/.

All images &copy Jef Murray. All rights reserved. Used by permission.