Jay Johnstone – the iconographer of Middle-earth

Jay Johnstone, one of the most innovative and recognizable painters of themes from J.R.R.Tolkien’s universe, agreed to give us an interview about his love of the Professor’s work, his paintings and the ingenious techniques he uses. Very generously he permitted us to publish some pictures of a new series of black and white Middle-earth paintings he is working on currently, as well as some previously unpublished material. But let us allow him and his paintings to talk to us!

  • When did you first read a Tolkien book and which one was it?

My first encounter with Tolkien was in 1981. A couple of my friends were discussing the name of Sam‘s pony, I was never a great reader and only held a book during some torturous English lessons at school and so had no idea what they were wittering on about. “It’s a great book -have you never read it? “A week later I was gifted the book, “The Fellowship of the Ring”, and reluctantly turned the cover and that was that. I don’t think I stumbled into Tolkien, it was more like I fell off a cliff and once started I couldn’t stop. I did most of my reading on the bus traveling to Newcastle where I studied at Newcastle College of Art.

  • Is there a character in Tolkien’s world that you would call your favourite?

The ‘characters’ that have constantly reappeared in my work are Luthien & Beren. An extraordinary tale of salvation, honor and faith. Their struggle to overcome the monumental obstacles in their way makes it, in my opinion the greatest of Tolkien’s sagas – It is simply the most beautiful and moving story I have ever read which why they are my favourite characters.

Beren and Luthien by Jay Johnstone
  • Have you done any illustrations exclusively depicting religious themes?


  • In 2012 you stepped for the first time in the Tolkien Society. How did you come to participate in such an exhibition and was 2012 a milestone for you and the course of you artistic style and choices?

I was never a follower of Tolkien groups and societies believing them to be full of stuffy old academics or weird incense burning hippies. So for most of my Tolkien life I worked independently because none of my family or friends that I knew were interested in Tolkien. In 2011 Rene Van Rossenberg from the Tolkien Shop after seeing some of my paintings suggested I contact the Tolkien Society about exhibiting at The Return of the Ring event in Birmingham in 2012. This event proved to be an epiphany for me, I realized there were other Tolkien enthusiasts in the world – just like me, I had found a new home. There followed several interviews  for press and TV and a busy 3 years exhibiting in the UK Holland, Germany – one of the highlights was exhibiting at The Oscars Party In L.A. hosted by theonering.net

LotR Manuscripts by Jay Johstone
  • How did you decide to give us momentous scenes from the books in manuscripts pages?

The initial concept came from a recurring dream where I found myself in a Celtic church, attending what I believed to be my wife’s funeral. Walking down a corridor, I discovered an altar covered in icons and illuminated manuscripts. One of these icons appeared to be an image of my wife. However, the icon contained Tengwar script, instead of the typical Greek lettering of Christian iconography. At that point, I realized in the dream that the other icons nearby also contained the same Tengwar script. When I focused my attention on these icons, I realized they actually portrayed Lord of the Rings characters, including Éowyn, Aragorn, Gandalf, and Arwen, painted as if to suggest recognizable iconic figures such as the Virgin Mary, Christ, and Moses. The question I asked myself in the dream was did J.R.R. Tolkien incorporate the visual aspects and their core characteristics to portray the key personalities in Lord of the Rings, the answer I concluded was yes. After waking from the dream, I planned and then began painting ‘The Hall of Théoden” which was the  manuscript I had seen . However, after several days I left the work half done, it wasn’t completed til 3-4 years later after the dream re-occurred. For these initial icons and manuscript I can claim no credit, they were just hazy copies I dreamed up,  but from there I was inspired to explore further thoughts and ideas of Middle Earth.

Theoden – Head by Jay Johnstone
  • The first thing that comes to mind when we mention Jay Johnstone is his unique technique when it comes to painting and fantasy. Which were the art movements that inspired you the most and why?

I am not inspired by specific art movements, however the art styles that I enjoy working in are iconographic, illuminated manuscript style and renaissance portraiture. I have a particular love of the works of Gustav Klimt with use of gold leaf, the figurative art of Odd Nerdrum has also impacted on my paintings and the beautiful simplistic story telling of Pauline Diane Baynes.

  • In Tolkien’s work his morals and ethos are prominent. Could this have driven you to a religious depiction of his characters?

In Tolkien’s work, the eternal struggle of good against evil may have influenced my sub conscious and resulted in the religious depiction of the icon characters.

  • What would you answer to someone claiming that this style is controversial or even sacrilegious?

It is not my intention to be sacrilegious or controversial in my paintings. I just paint Tolkien, initially the style came from dreams but once I started thinking about how would artisans and artists have depicted the Tolkien stories had this been an ancient myth then these would have been the format and styles that would have been used.

Galadriel, charcoal, oil and gold-leaf on wood, by Jay Johnstone.
  • You also made a great job on “Game of Thrones” themes as well. But on those illustrations we can see a slightly different style and certainly we recognize the lack of your Byzantine style. Is this a new style you are working on, or do you want to declare your emotional differentiation between these two different “fantasy worlds”?

I had the pleasure of interviewing several of the cast from Game of Thrones for the scifiandfantasynetwork.com and I thought it would be interesting to paint their characters. Painting them in a renaissance style seemed appropriate so I spent a little time researching and refining the technique and off I went. They proved very popular and I enjoyed doing them but Tolkien is too strong a draw therefore I’ll stick to Middle Earth.

  • Some members of the Greek Tolkien Society had the privilege to meet you and admire your work at the Tolkien Thing in Germany, in 2013. At this event you were escorted by your son. What is his relation with Tolkien’s work?

My eldest son Jack is 19 now and at University, international business and economics are his thing, Tolkien hasn’t bitten him yet but there is still time. His younger brother Oliver is an exceptional painter and studies art and design at Newcastle College. I have very high hopes for him and believe another artist in the world is a wonderful thing.

Nazgul at Rivendell by Jay Johstone.
  • Is there something in Tolkien’s books that you haven’t yet worked on and you would like to do so in the future?

At the Tolkien Society’s Oxonmoot Event in Oxford in 2018, I was lucky enough to attend a private viewing of the Tolkien Exhibition. It was amazing to see Tolkien’s work first hand and I was astounded by the intricate nature of some of his paintings with very fine attention to detail and some produced at such a small scale. This led to my latest project where I am currently working through a new series of black and white paintings inspired by the question “If Tolkien would have painted other scenes from his books, how would they have looked?”.

Bilbo-(naughty-little-fly). From a new black and white series by Jay Johstone.
  • Will you give us some more of your artwork based on different epic fantasy literature, or maybe from other authors with different writing style?

There are many other authors I enjoy reading but I always come back to Tolkien.

This interview was conducted by members of the Prancing Pony Administrative Council.