Do Balrogs have wings? Does Carcharoth, the personal watchdog of the Dark Lord, have a big leonine mane? Are Gandalf’s eyebrows really longer than the brim of his hat? (That’s crazy!) Sometimes the answer is yes, but usually the answer is…only if an illustrator wants it so.
This interview started with a wolf: Carcharoth, the Red Maw, the Jaws of Thirst, is the “mightiest wolf that would ever walk the world” in Middle-earth, and he features prominently in that classic Tolkien love story of monstrous cosplay and dismemberment that we know as the tale of Beren and Lúthien. When I reached that chapter in The Silmarillion Primer, I wanted to show the dread Wolf of Angband, so I reached out to studio artist Justin Gerard because I came across his version of the beast. It was fortuitous timing, since he was just then working on another version of Carcharoth, and he even allowed me to weigh in on it before it was finished.
It took a few emails with Justin to realize that this was a guy I wanted to know more about and possibly interview for a future piece. He’s an easygoing and friendly-as-all-heck painter who’s done some excellent Tolkien—and plenty of non-Tolkien fantasy—art with a style all his own. And I’m betting some of you have certainly seen his work before (such as in the annual Spectrum anthology of contemporary fantasy art). There’s a storybook quality to his work that I struggle to articulate but love all the same. Meanwhile, we got to debut his dramatic action piece “The Hunting of Carcharoth” in that Primer installment.
This was the first painting that lured me in, and I don’t know what I liked more, the blazing Silmaril in Beren’s hand, the defiant snarl of Carcharoth, or the gruesome decor of Angband, the fortress of Morgoth, the Dark Lord of the First Age. Those chains, those carved figures, those cool stairs—they’re almost upstaging the characters. Good stuff.
So: on to the interview!
Justin, how would you describe your style? I hesitate to call it cartoonish because it’s really not. It’s like realism imposed upon a storybook reality, where proportions are exaggerated depending on the context or audience. This is especially obvious with your painting “Bilbo and the Three Trolls.” I mean, look: Tom, Bert, and William look like they’ve stepped out of old Scandinavian folklore, traipsed through both Brothers Grimm and Mother Goose children’s books, and then landed in Middle-earth…before scooping up what might be one of the most adorable Bilbos I’ve ever seen.
Justin: Hmmm… I think you actually just described it best with “realism imposed upon a storybook reality.” I really enjoy the challenge of attempting to capture a realistic lighting effect over imaginary figures and landscapes that have distinct personality.
What is your medium? Watercolor, acrylic, oil…digital? Is there anything you shy away from or want to try (but haven’t yet)?
Justin: My favorite medium is pencil for sure! But I love watercolor, acrylic, oil, and digital as well. Truthfully, though, it is always a combination of at least two of those mediums that is my favorite way of working. I probably use digital color over a traditional drawings the most. (That is what most of my client work has been done as.)
As for things I want to try: I’d like to do sculpture at some point. I’ve done a bit in the past and always really enjoyed it, but never seem to have the time or space to really sink into a large project!
Can you tell me how you discovered and/or came to love Tolkien specifically, as opposed to fantasy in general?
Justin: I never actually read any of Tolkien until I was in high school! A friend saw me drawing a knight fighting an orc and asked if I was drawing The Lord of the Rings. When I said “no” he gave me his copy of The Fellowship and I’ve been in love with the books ever since.
Friends don’t let friends not know about Tolkien. As for your orc, if it wasn’t Tolkien-inspired, what did inform your high school vision of what one would look like? Are we talking original pig-snouted orcs like from the 1977 Monster Manual back in the day?
Justin: Not really. In high school… probably the orcs from Warcraft 2! I loved the designs of essentially everything in that game.
Ahh, all right. I see that in your orcs and goblins. Even…your fighting Uruk-hai! But they’ve all been fairytale-ized, Gerard style. And, of course, all varieties of contemporary orc are descendants of Tolkien’s anyway!
Elsewhere, you’ve said that you’re inspired by Golden Age illustrators. Who are we talking about specifically? And why?
Justin: The Golden Age Illustrators who’ve had the biggest influence on me would be Rackham, Dulac, and Bauer. But Pyle, Mucha, Wyeth, and Rockwell were also early guiding lights. I have come back to Rackham and Bauer the most because of their use of line and texture to communicate their figures and forms, all of which had such personality and charm.
Can you point to any specific books you grew up with whose illustrations are burned into your mind? I personally think of Wyeth’s illustrations in Treasure Island when I think of Golden Age art. But for my part, some of your paintings also make me think of the Hildebrandt brothers’ Tolkien work, from all those calendars and even some book covers. But yours, while reminiscent of Hildebrandt, certainly look less dated.
Justin: Ah! The Treasure Island one is absolutely one of my very favorites! My library growing up was very limited as far as fantasy goes. I wish I could list some classic illustrated books that were my artistic heritage, but I grew up before the internet was a thing and in a very religious community. There just wasn’t a great deal of fantasy art around. I was almost completely unaware of fantasy artwork as a category until college. My primary exposure to the kind of work that I love now was through tabletop and video games. In particular, there were a few games that Paul Bonner (a lifelong inspiration of mine) did the art for, and I remember doing all kinds of copies of those as a kid. So probably like most kids now, I got my start copying the art I saw in games.
Oh, heck yes. Hey, I don’t suppose you have any old, old drawings of yours that you could share? For example, here’s one of mine. I was probably between the ages of seven and ten when I made this. Hey, look, the heroes are even hunting a wolf of some kind.
Yours have to be better than this. :)
Justin: I’ve looked around and I don’t have any of my early art around me right now.
Justin: But there was one I can describe in detail. It was an illustration that I drew in crayon when I was four or five years old, an image of such startling genius that I despair of ever making another like it in my lifetime. I blew everything I had on that one image, and the rest of my life will be hollow effort to recapture the sheer, earth-shattering genius of it.
I will try to describe it, but words cannot do it justice. “The Crocodile”:
On the reverse of the image (it is a two-sided piece) we see the clear black lines of a page from a children’s coloring book. Across the elegant, precise ink lines of a domestic scene involving a bear and duck, is scrawled in bright green crayon a furious pattern of concentric circles, striking out the benign expressions of the teddy bear and obscuring the bland eyes of the duck.
On the front, we find a curious scene of natural splendor. A great ocean, described in primary blue, stretches away and away to the far sides of the page, and in this ocean there swims a small fish. He is swimming away from a gigantic whale, a whale so large that he takes up almost half of the ocean. This whale is pictured with gaping jaws, fangs, and menacing eyes and is leaping from the waves to devour the small fish. But! Also leaping from the waves is a bright green crocodile who has lunged between the pair to save the small fish from the whale. The crocodile is small and his death in the jaws of the whale is a foregone conclusion. But through the crocodile’s sacrifice the small fish will escape to swim the bright seas. The sun, seeing this scene from his lofty corner of the sky, beams a line of hearts down upon the doomed crocodile. The crocodile will die, the crocodile will live forever. His act has not gone unnoticed in the great tragedy of nature.
I am more proud of this painting than anything else I have done, even though I cannot remember ever doing it. Everything else has only ever been a vague, limp-wristed failure of an attempt at the genius of this childhood scribble.
Well, if you ever do find the original, tell me and I’ll place it here! That said, it sounds like you could easily recreate it to ensure the legends of the sacrificial crocodile becomes immortalized to the rest of the world. I’m just saying.
Say, is this crocodile in any way an homage to the memory of that one?
Justin: Ha!! Hmmm… Well, I don’t think it was an intentional homage, but perhaps that is why I try to drew this crocodile with such a kindly expression? Maybe it does all go back to that original crocodile? I have no idea what was going on in my mind at the time, but I want it back whatever it was!
Anyway, if you wanted to direct any fans of your work to your idols, which artist and/or book would you point them to? What’s your go-to?
Justin: As mentioned previously, Paul Bonner is probably the artist who has been the most influential on me. His work is one of the unsung greatest contributors to narrative fantasy work there is. He does the best representations of dragons, dwarves, goblins and medieval landscapes in the world. He work is phenomenal. If I could commission one artist in the world to do an illustrated The Hobbit, it would be him.
Peter DeSeve, Petar Meseldzija, Scott Gustafson and Omar Rayyan have all been heavy inspirations for me as well. For classics, Bauer and Rackham have already been mentioned, but Leighton, Dore, and Rembrandt are also figures I constantly reference when I work.
Some good books: John Bauer’s Swedish Fairy Tales, Petar Meseldzija’s The Legend of Steel Bashaw, Scott Gustafson’s Peter Pan, Peter de Sève’s A Sketchy Past, and Paul Bonner’s Out of the Forests.
Now for a matter of some import.
You told me once that some fans haven’t “forgiven” you for giving your Balrog wings. I assume you must have been referring chiefly to “Glorfindel and the Balrog” (seen at the top of this post), which depicts the original mountain-top battle between one of Morgoth’s fire demons and and a certain badass, sword-wielding former resident of Valinor (nope, not Gandalf). And that painting is excellently prodigious, wings or no wings. Plus that demon’s wings are appropriately smoky.
Then there’s your scene of Ecthelion of the Fountain facing off against Gothmog, Lord of Balrogs, during the siege of Gondolin.
Now, I know that the criticism is a silly one—ultimately, as long as a Balrog can’t legitimately fly, it doesn’t matter if an artist gives it wings or not. There is zero mention of Silmarillion Balrogs having or using wings (indeed, it’s implied they’re truly grounded), and from the LotR text, the “wings” of Durin’s Bane are either a metaphor for its shadow-and-flame shtick or they’re simply ineffectual but still literal. Either way such appendages are incapable of keeping any Balrog aloft; from precipices they do fall, and on multiple occasions.
So what sort of grief have you been given? (And on behalf of all Tolkien fans, I apologize!) I even sometimes like to imagine that the Maiar spirits of flame could fly in the beginning, but when they became Balrogs, becoming physical manifestations of shadow and flame, they retained wings in memory of what they once were. Useless wings.
Justin: Haha, yes, there’s always somebody complaining about the wings! I love the discussions, though! I really enjoy talking with people at shows and hearing how they would have approached the scene were they to illustrate or film it.
You must realize that sounds like sarcasm. But I know it’s not!
Justin: I have found that Tolkien fans, while passionate about their subject, are always rather polite compared to other fan groups, so I enjoy the discussions, even when we disagree.
What I get the most confusion and feedback on is when I do things like collapsing several moments of a story together into a single scene. People look at the image as though it were a frame from a film and state that those figures were never in this arrangement together. The image of Morgoth and the Silmarils is one that gets me a lot of flak since of course the confrontation between Morgoth and Beren never occurred like that.
Yes! And I admit that the moment I stopped gaping at how cool that painting is, my brain started up with the questions: what scene might this be depicting? Is there actually moment where Morgoth stands above ground, amidst fire and ruin, and a Man or Elf is actually approaching him? And the answer is no, not even when the High King of the Noldor, Fingolfin, confronts Morgoth in single combat before the gates of Angband, does it play out quite like this. Nor would Morgoth be that enormous.
But it didn’t really take long to realize that this is merely a representative depiction of the whole of the book. Here we see Morgoth, before he even gets that name, reminiscent of that first time we get a description of his favorite shape in the Quenta Silmarillion:
And he descended upon Arda in power and majesty greater than any other of the Valar, as a mountain that wades in the sea and has its head above the clouds and is clad in ice and crowned with smoke and fire; and the light of the eyes of Melkor was like a flame that withers with heat and pierces with a deadly cold.
I think it’s brilliant, actually. The painting is strangely succinct, in a vast story that is anything but. And, look, he’s got wings!
So I’ve become acquainted with nearly a score of your Tolkien-based paintings, but I’d like to keep talking about some specific ones. I’m especially drawn to illustrations that depict scenes in Tolkien’s world that aren’t explicitly written about in the text but are, at least, implied to have occurred in some fashion.
In The Silmarillion, after Beren has died, Lúthien goes in spirit form before Mandos, the Doomsman and judge among the Valar (the Valar, for those not familiar with the elder days, are godlike beings appointed to govern the world). There she sings to him a lament of their plight—she an immortal Elf, he a mortal Man, and they are facing eternal separation—and it moves him like nothing else does. And so Mandos beseeches Manwë, the King of the Valar, to give her husband, the mortal Beren, a second chance to live again, to be reunited with her. It’s unprecedented—this heroic couple is allowed to return to the northwest corner of Middle-earth. They “dwelt together for a time as living man and woman; and they took up again their mortal form in Doriath.”
Now, the actual moment of their awakening back from death is not a scene Tolkien ever gave us. He gives us only broad strokes. But you have given us that moment with your painting “Beren and Lúthien Drawn Back To Life,” or so I assumed.
There is so much wonderful detail here. Beren’s ghostly hand (since his real one is gone) and the representation of the Silmaril that he’d held there—which I see you rendered here in the same visible symbolic fashion of your “Hunting of Carcharoth” painting. I love the saintly nimbus behind Lúthien’s head and the winglike sweep of her robes (a nod to her erstwhile Thuringwethil bat-costume). And the fact that Beren still looks like he carries the griefs and wisdom of his experiences. He’s being restored but he’s not forgetting everything nor is he given a fresh new or younger body. This just feels…right.
What can you tell me about this piece? Are those swirls on Beren’s arm a tattoo? The embodiment of the wolf’s poison? Tell me more!
Justin: The swirls were definitely meant to be the wolf’s poison. Working on the images from Beren and Lúthien, I was not trying to show specific moments exactly, but instead trying to collapse a series of events and moments into one scene that could kind of make sense of them all and convey the ideas, more than a literal event per se. This image does have a lot of those small symbols in it. I wanted to treat this one a bit more like iconography than photography if that makes sense. It is meant to be after Beren and Lúthien’s escape, after Beren has had his hand bitten off by Carcharoth and his life still hangs in the balance, but it is also meant to foreshadow Lúthien later singing to bring Beren back from death as well.
Oh! Cool, cool. So this piece actually takes places before Lúthien’s appeal to Mandos—heck, before the whole hunt of the Wolf—but sort of telegraphs forward as well. The title misled me! But I dig it, this “collapsing” you’re talking about. It draws me to another detail I missed the first time that fits your philosophy here. Beneath Beren we can see a part of the wolf-hame of Draugluin, i.e. the werewolf skin he wore to approach Angband in disguise, which really gets no mention again after Morgoth’s throne room.
Justin: A lot of my more recent Tolkien work wouldn’t fit with the movies because of these stylistic choices. When painting these, I like to imagine myself as a court painter in one of the great kingdoms of Middle-earth and that I have been commissioned to show this scene from their history. That the painting will be in one of the books of their histories, or a mural in a throne room somewhere. Images like these, like “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques Louis David, would never have happened in the way I’ve depicted it, but (hopefully) they reveal the truth of the history more than any one specific moment might. It is a really tricky tightrope to walk, but I always really enjoy the challenge.
I get it. You’re not the first to do this, but you’re the first I’ve noticed tackling Tolkien in this way. It serves no film nor any single moment in the books. It really is its own method of storytelling. Paintings like this could be a book representing a series of events.
In your illustration “Lúthien at the Bridge,” we see the lord and sire of all werewolves, Draugluin. (I assume that’s him? Or maybe just one of the many werewolves Sauron sent to deal with the doggie at his doorstep.) But also there is Huan, the Hound of Valinor, objectively the best dog in the whole universe. You’ve given him a short-coated, dark-muzzled English mastiff type of look, which is refreshingly different than most.
Now later, in “The Hunting of Carcharoth,” your Huan has a shaggier, more wolfhound design. I actually like seeing different versions of characters. What was your thought process on these two? You clearly know your dogs, Victorian or otherwise—so I can’t think of anyone more qualified to depict the wonderful Huan than you.
Justin: I did essentially no research when I did my first series on The Silmarillion. I went with just my pure initial impression of the story. I scribbled down sketches as I read for the first time for most of the scenes. I didn’t have an art director for it, so really it was just me having fun as I read through the book. I wasn’t worried about references or even consistency. Those early paintings were a raw reaction to the book.
By the time I was able to revisit the series last year, I had been able to spend much more time rereading the books and had also been able to read over Tolkien’s own notes and letters. I’d also had more contact with Tolkien fandom at shows and lecture events where we actually were able to compare notes on characters and scenes. Because of that, my own internal idea of the characters shifted from when I started. I like the original series, they were a blast to work on, but would of course do some of them differently if I were to do them now.
Jumping forward in Middle-earth’s chronological time, to The Hobbit…
In “There He Lay,” we see that famous moment when Bilbo first sneaks into view of Smaug the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities. Right away I have to mention that I’m just finishing up reading The Hobbit to my 5-year-old son, and I cannot wait to share this particular painting with him. That is the perfect Smaug for him, and the perfect version of Bilbo.
Seriously, the composition is striking. Smaug is menacing even in repose, but this piece is aesthetically warm and pleasing. And I can’t explain it, by one of my favorite parts of this one is the way the smoke coming out of Smaug’s nostrils curls (twice). Did you find it easier or harder to work this one up, given how many times artists have depicted this legendary scene?
Justin: Ever since I read The Hobbit in high school, this exact image had been locked in my imagination. I hadn’t seen any other versions of the image at the time and didn’t do much in the way of reference hunting. I knew what I thought the scene should look like based on the text. It was one of the few pieces I’ve ever painted that felt like it painted itself and I was mostly just watching. I had to fight and struggle with some of the others in the series to capture what I was after, but this one just came together immediately.
And by the way, props to you for illustrating Gandalf precisely as Tolkien had the first time in The Hobbit:
But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.
It’s so rare for artists to tackle that quirky description, and you’ve done it unabashedly. Bravo, sir. This should be every young person’s first introduction to the character!
So you live in Georgia—are you from there as well? Is there anything about the wilds of our thirteenth colony that helps inform the nature-focused beauty of Tolkien’s world? The Blue Ridge Mountains are in your backyard, aren’t they? Appalachia!
Justin: Not really! Haha. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Georgia, the Blue Ridge Mountains are wonderful and are probably the natural highlight of the state for me, but most of my natural inspiration comes from travels abroad. The Pacific Northwest is probably featured the most prominently as settings in my images. I’ve taken many backpacking trips around America and my favorite spots that I use as inspiration and reference are the Cascades area in Washington, The Arches/Bryce/Zion National Parks in southern Utah, and the John Muir Trail in California. Georgia is a great place to live (pleasant folks and very low cost of living!) but an even better place to fly out of for travel!
Sick burn! But great answers. Yeah, I suppose no one spot on Earth can possibly inform Middle-earth. You need to visit many places to find nature’s muse.
So you and your wife have a business! Gallery Gerard. On your website, it says you two provide illustration for “the publishing, game and film industries” and include an impressive client list. What sort of games and films have you done work for?
Justin: I’ve worked on the Resistance series for Playstation, Hearthstone for Blizzard, League of Legends for Riot, and others.
I’ve done work for Wizards of the Coast myself, so I’m right away curious where in the vastness of Hasbro’s products your art has landed! Where might folks have seen your work?
Justin: I’ve done art for several Dungeon Masters Guides and WotC cards. They have always been a pleasure to work with!
Whaaaat? That means long before I was hunting through the web’s Tolkien illustration offerings, I’ve had a bunch of your paintings burned already into my mind. You’re totally responsible for that adorably epic Great Modron March illustration on page 42 of the Dungeon Masters Guide, aren’t you? (Shout-out to old-time Planescape fans! Anyone? Anyone? *crickets*) Although WotC credits all the artists on the first page, they don’t always credit the artists beside the actual works so it can be hard to tell. What else!?
Justin: Oh yeah, I did do that Modrons piece! Haha, that was a lot of fun. I would have loved to do more of those guys. I did another scene, too, as well as a bard, an assassin, and a wizard pose also, but I cannot remember where or when. I also did a dwarf king under a dragon skull and a few other smaller ones.
I’ll have to hunt them down, then.
All right. If you were somehow able to receive an exclusive, never-before-seen description—as in from the hand of Tolkien himself—of one remote place or one lesser known character from his legendarium, where or who would you choose?
Justin: Wow! There are a lot of Elves from The Silmarillion whose stories were just hinted at that I would have loved to have heard more about. It would be hard to pick just one. I remember wishing I could have heard more about Fingon after his death in the battle with Gothmog. And his betrayal by Ulfang.
Right? Fingon’s fall is one of the sadder, more unsung battles. Stricken into the mud by those cheating, cheater-faced Balrogs and then not having his remains recovered like his dad’s were by the King of the Eagles. A noble choice to pick his fall. Ulfang’s treachery, not to mention the Easterlings who didn’t betray the Elves, really is an untapped well in The Silmarillion, isn’t it?
Now for some lighter, easier lightning-round questions. Regardless of the subjects of your own illustrations, who is . . .
Your favorite Elf of the First Age?
Justin: Still Glorfindel! But I also really like Fëanor. I have a lot scenes from Fëanor’s life that I still really want to paint.
Bold choice, Fëanor. A cool character, to be sure, and The Silmarillion’s most prominent historical arsonist.
Favorite mortal man or woman of the First/Second Age?
Justin: Beren for sure.
Ahh, that’s evident. He’s been in at least three of your paintings already!
Favorite monster of Morgoth?
Justin: Not sure if Ungoliant counts. If yes, then Ungoliant. The dynamic between Morgoth and Ungoliant is one of my favorite in all of Tolkien. If she doesn’t count then maybe Draugluin, or maybe just the humble Orcs. The Orcs are still some of the very best monsters in all of fantasy.
Hey. Ungoliant is an independent she-spider fiend who answers to no Man or Vala! But since her original corruption is attributed to Melkor/Morgoth, the judges will allow it. And yeah, Draugluin’s a good choice, because he serves a double purpose in that story, doesn’t he?
Justin: It’s hard not to like Gimli, in the books and the delightful Rhys-Davies performance from the Peter Jackson LotR trilogy. I also really enjoyed Thrain II in the books (though mostly because the whole story of Smaug is still one of the very best in all of fantasy).
Which of the Valar do you wish Tolkien had told us more about?
Justin: Oof! That is a tough one! You know, I haven’t done much with the Valar outside of Melkor. (Who is actually an Ainu, and isn’t even technically supposed to be counted among the Valar?)
Right. He’s more of an ex-Vala. Had his name taken right off their mailing lists.
Justin: But in truth, I am kind of happy that Tolkien limited his descriptions of these figures and focused more on the mortals and human-like figures of Middle-earth. It keeps everything more relatable. That said, I did love the story of the creation of the Dwarves, so Aulë would be my pick!
Dwarves feature in quite a few of your paintings, so I’m not surprised.
What are you working on now?
Justin: I am still (slowly) working through some of my favorite scenes from The Silmarillion. But my primary focus at the moment is a series called “A Plague of Dragons” that will be featured in an art book to be published in late 2019. Initially this series was just a collection of medieval landscapes with dragons. But the imagery has become more and more apocalyptic and symbolic as I’ve gone on. It’s been an incredible journey so far and I am having a ton of fun putting it together.
Thank you for your time and work, Justin! And I’ll just add to my readers that if you haven’t seen any of his posts on the fantastic art site Muddy Colors, they, too, are a delight. He breaks down the stages of a bunch of his own illustrations. Go there for rich, mural-panoramic paintings of pure fantasy, then stay for the fun intervening sketches like this one:
Wait a sec. So the guy being flung through the air while on fire wasn’t worthy of his own label and arrow, Justin? Poor bastard.
If anyone wants to see Justin’s other work—we’re talking trolls, little Goats Gruff, Entish tree-people, white whales, rideable seahorses, and of course more dragons—do go and scope out Gallery Gerard. Meanwhile, his wife, Annie, has a gallery of her own there with more maidens, mermaids, crowned frogs, baby unicorns, and winged sea creatures than you can point a paint brush at.
Top image from “Glorfindel and the Balrog” by Justin Gerard.
Jeff LaSala could talk about John Ronald Reuel and the art inspired by his legendarium all day, as evidenced by the circumlocution of The Silmarillion Primer. Tolkien geekdom aside, Jeff wrote a Scribe Award–nominated D&D novel, produced some cyberpunk stories, and now works for Tor Books. He sometimes sputters about on Twitter.