Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Illustrating Tolkien: Ted Nasmith Interview

Posted by • Jan 1st, 2009

Ted Nasmith is an artist best known for his illustrations depicting scenes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. His first published Tolkien pieces appeared in the 1987 Tolkien Calendar, and he has continued to contribute to these calendars in subsequent years. (The calendars in 1990, 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2009 featured him as the sole artist.) He also provided the artwork for the first illustrated version of The Silmarillion published in 1998, developing a strong working relationship with Tolkien’s son Christopher during that project; the second edition containing even more of his paintings was published in 2004.

Randy Hoyt: When did you first encounter the works of Tolkien? What impact did they have on you?

Ted Nasmith: My older sister gave me a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring when I was 14. It hit me really strongly, as it does so many people. I just loved it right from the start. It was set in the distant, romantic past, amid traditional English-style landscapes, and it was all very nostalgic, fairy-tale and storybook material. It really grabbed me. I was an art student at the time, and I started to draw pictures inspired by the book fairly quickly. That was a big turn for me: I had been drawing spaceships, cars, and all kinds of more mechanical stuff. Tolkien was a big new element in my artistic imagination.

RH: How did you get started publishing your Tolkien illustrations?

TN: The first Tolkien calendar came out in 1973. It contained Tolkien’s own artwork, but then calendars with other artists’ work quickly followed, which greatly impressed me, since it demonstrated that The Lord of the Rings had struck a resounding chord of artistic inspiration with others, too. I had already accumulated my own paintings and drawings through high school and into the ’70s. The calendars in theory provided a way for me to get my stuff in front of the publishers; it proved to be a process that required persistence, but that eventually bore fruit. My work started appearing in the calendars in the late ’80s, fifteen years after I first sought its publication.

RH: When did you first encounter The Silmarillion?

TN: I read The Silmarillion as soon as it came out in 1977. It was not nearly as enjoyable as The Lord of the Rings, but it was more of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. More images came to me through these ‘new’ legends. I deliberately included something of Beren and Lúthien or one of the other major stories for the calendars, in order to integrate more of Tolkien’s legendarium into my growing body of paintings.

RH: I imagine many people seeing those calendars would have been familiar with The Lord of the Rings but possibly not The Silmarillion. What did you hope your art communicated to those who did not know the story you were illustrating? Obviously you lose some elements like dialogue, and you are limited to a single, frozen moment: but what extra elements can artwork use that make it more powerful?

TN: Hopefully they convey the sense of enchantment, the otherworldliness and remoteness, or simply the romance and nostalgia, or the poignancy and sadness — all those things and more you can convey using color, mood, shadow, etc. Someone looking at these illustrations who is unfamiliar with The Silmarillion can definitely see there’s something going on. Even if you know the story depicted, a work of illustration can still speak to you at a deeper level. Images are powerful. Tolkien dealt with archetypal material, the stuff of dreams, and through visual images that material can tap into the human subconscious in ways that augment prose.

As I would start drawing a scene based on the written description, I would notice visual associations that I didn’t really intend or appreciate originally. These associations emphasize the sub-text or the background ideas a bit more, filling them out and amplifying them. They definitely seem to complement the written part of it. I’d often think, “This really has a life of its own, a separate validity to it.” Sometimes a person will get a strong reaction to a work of art and they will say, “That’s what I saw in my head. How did you know?” That’s an amazing compliment to an artist. If you received a comment like that once in a blue moon, it would be enough to make you feel like you were achieving a level of success, but I actually get comments like that fairly constantly in letters from fans; it’s really, really flattering.

RH: You mention images coming to you. Many authors, Tolkien included, describe their stories as something that they discover more than something they invent. Do you find that to be the case with your paintings?

TN: Yeah, I definitely understand why they would say things like that. There have been times where something just sort of came through me in a way. I didn’t overly deliberate on it: I just got out of the way and let it come onto the page. So yeah, I really relate to that kind of creative description of what happens. It is a bit of magic, for sure.

RH: Do you have a favorite piece of all the ones that you have done?

TN: That’s a question I get often. I could probably narrow it down to ten or fifteen or something. There are so many individually that are successful, for one reason or another.

RH: My personal favorite is The Kinslaying at Alqualondë from the 2004 illustrated version of The Silmarillion. Would you include that one in the list?

The Kinslaying at Alqualondë. 2004. View larger image »

TN: Yeah, that came to mind. There are a couple of things I wanted to show there. Firstly, it’s an opportunity to show a glimpse of the lost city of Alqualondë and the wonderful culture of the Teleri. The ships are described as the Teleri’s greatest work (Tolkien 86). I imagine they would have been so beautiful that no artist could truly have captured this accurately — but it’s my job and fascination as an artist to approximate it as best I can. I couldn’t imagine them any other way than each having its own character, for instance. Compositionally, the curving wharf portrays a more feminine and dynamic setting. The battle taking place was difficult; scenes with many figures interacting are not my strong suit. But you just get down and you work on it much more to make sure that it’s up to the standard level of the other parts. I used to work mainly as an architectural renderer, so I have a facility for architecture; it was interesting to try to envision Elven architecture of the First Age. What would that be? Certainly it would be exotic, all carved, elegant and otherworldly.

Then there’s the problem of lighting; the scene is under starlight with no sun and moon. The text mentions lamps on the quays and piers (Tolkien 77), so that gives you something. I played a bit with the color of the water to make it almost luminous. When you try to do as realistic art as I do, you get caught sometimes thinking you have to do it according to all the laws of physics. But this is fantasy. I have learned to take liberties to convey more than just the hard facts and the surface of things, and not to worry about someone saying, “Hey, that isn’t real.” None of it is ‘real’, although it is famously realistic to a high degree, and thus presents tantalizing dilemmas.

RH: I saw on your web site an earlier image you did of this scene, which you called a “sketch.” I thought that sketch was excellent. What’s the relationship between that sketch and the image from the book?

The Kinslaying at Alqualondë. Sketch. Source »

TN: That first color sketch was based on a thumbnail drawing of a raw impression of the wharfs, ships, and the battle. Christopher Tolkien worked with me in choosing illustrations, and I was encouraged that he expressed great praise for this initial rough image. I tried to preserve what was good about the sketch but make it more sophisticated.

RH: The scene in the sketch felt like it took place at night, but in the final illustration it really feels like it took place before the sun and the moon, before day and night existed. I often forget that the sun and moon hadn’t appeared yet, and I often picture these scenes as if they were in daylight. This illustration really drives that home.

TN: I’m glad. It’s difficult. That’s often the way you draw a scene, with that daylight impression. It may make for a nice picture, but isn’t accurately illustrating it. I used to wonder why there weren’t more great illustrations of the Fellowship traveling through the countryside as they came south to Moria, but it’s because they traveled mostly at night! The Peter Jackson movies showed the Fellowship against these wonderful landscape shots — but in the daytime. The Tolkien illustrator is often left with a serious limitation. Take Bilbo and Gollum and the riddle game: it’s pitch black except for Gollum’s eyes — not too great for an illustrator! You’ve got to take a little license on some of these things.

RH: A big theme I see in Tolkien is the interaction of beauty and sorrow, which this illustration captures really well: the beauty of the ships on the left and the sorrow of the battle here on the right.

TN: Right. That was an important part of it for sure. Somehow you’ve got to underscore this terrible kinslaying scene, the violence and obscenity of it. Paradoxically, the beautiful is that much more tragic because of the incongruity of something terrible and violent juxtaposed with it.

RH: What new projects are you working on and what new artwork should we expect to see from you in the near future?

TN: I provided all the artwork for the 2009 Tolkien Calendar, featuring landscape images from the First and Second Ages of Middle-earth from The Silmarillion. I’m also doing various commissions, mostly new Tolkien paintings; projects done recently or upcoming. Last year, I did the scene with Frodo, Sam, and Pippin meeting Gildor and the Elves in the Woody End. I always loved that scene, right from the first time I started imagining and creating the illustrations. I never found a chance to illustrate it earlier, though; I never felt I was in the right moment or something. Yet it was an immediate hit, and I was commissioned to do another version of that same piece because the first one sold quite quickly at the exhibition!

Elves in the Woody End. 2006. View larger image »

I’ve also been fortunate enough to get involved with George R.R. Martin, another amazing fantasy author. I’ve done a lot of new work in ‘Westeros,’ his imaginary universe, for an upcoming big-format reference book on his fantasy novels [see examples]. I’ve also recently accepted an offer for the 2010 Tolkien Calendar, which will feature landscapes of the Third Ages.

You can learn more about Ted’s work by visiting his web site, The 2009 Tolkien Calendar featuring Ted’s paintings of landscapes of the First Age of Middle-earth is available from HarperCollins at and other booksellers.


  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. Christopher Tolkien, editor. Ted Nasmith, illustrator. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

4 Responses »

  1. I love elves in the woody end.

  2. Great interview– great article!

  3. Ted’s work is excellent, especially when you get the chance to see the workings alongside the finished piece. Ted will be attending an Art Exhibition, alongwith all his current work in the UK in March 2010, so feel free to come along and enjoy an excellent three day FREE ENTRY event where you can meet other Tolkien artists and artwork as well: Ted Nasmith, Jef Murray, Ruth Lacon & Peter Pracownik, and also see a whole Victorian hall full of Tolkien artwork and artifacts, music, talks, quiz and masquerade. It also happens to be the Launch of the new biography of Hilary Tolkien: “Wheelbarrows at Dawn”, with the editors and Chris Tolkien (Hilary’s grandson) signing books. Not far from the Art Exhibition you can also visit the Four Shires Stone – used as basis for Three farthing Stone, and the Rollright Stones – upon which The Barrow Downs were based.

  4. I love Ted Nasmith’s work! He is my favorite Tolkien illustrator. Thank you for this interview.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie :)