UK-based artist Jon Hodgson started his artistic life as a traditional painter, learning the trade of the gallery artist before turning his attention to the world of fantasy art. Hodgson’s fantasy work is grounded in his own reality – his single frame stories all make sense, the characters and the settings all familiar, but slightly off. He wants the viewer involved and present for the adventure, whatever it may turn out to be.
A piece like “In From The Cold” is literally an open door to a narrative that we the audience has interrupted. There’s magic and grit in that tavern where something strange is about to unfold.
Talking with Jon I found an absolutely humble and down-to-earth craftsman, an artist willing to use any and all tools at his disposal to get the job done. As a bonus to Jon’s humbleness, he didn’t even give me a hard time about not knowing his “Cthulhu Britannica” painting was based on “The Hay Wain,” a famous English canvas by John Constable. True gentleman.
Chris Jalufka: One of the first pieces of yours that struck me was “Cthulhu Britannica,” which I didn’t recognize as a play on John Constable’s 1821 painting “The Hay Wain” until I wrote an article on your painting. I love your painting and think it stands alone without knowledge of Constable’s influence, but do you think the viewer misses anything by not being aware of the original painting it’s based on?
Jon Hodgson: Hopefully there’s enough entertainment in there without recognizing ‘The Hay Wain” but to fully enjoy it, yes you do need to know the reference. Happily it’s a fairly well known piece of work.
There’s a strong sense of realism to your fantasy work – in something like “Heroquest,” there’s a weight and reality to the scene you’ve created. That’s what makes “Cthulhu Britannica” hit how hard it does – there is a real sense of surprise and danger to it.
Thanks! Realism is a funny one. It means so many different things to so many different people. It isn’t something that especially concerns me. A sort of internal consistency does.
I like to evoke a sense of place if I can, but that needn’t be a realistic one so much as a convincing one for the moments you’re looking at the piece. I’m probably more concerned with a tight palette than I am with a realistic one. It’s all on a spectrum I guess, and where you’re coming from as a viewer has the largest impact on that.
You started your art career as a traditional fine artist before settling into the world of fantasy that you’re currently working in. Was fantasy work always the goal?
I always liked fantasy art, from a very young age. Brian Froud’s covers to Lloyd Alexander’s “Chronicles of Prydain” simultaneously fascinated and terrified me. Tolkien’s maps still make me feel a bit weird, like the sound of a lightsaber. So it’s always been in there.
I love the idea of these places and people that don’t exist anywhere else, and of an almost secret world revealed through artwork and writing.
For some reason, aged about 17 I decided doing a fine art degree would stand me in better stead for illustration than an illustration degree. My high school art teacher, who was brilliant, strongly steered his students away from begin too concerned with illustration. That might upset some illustrators reading, but I think his motives were good. Teenagers can get really hung up on tightly rendered realism, and miss a whole world of more expressive painting.
For a while I was more interested in being an exhibiting painter than an illustrator. But then I had a couple of shows and went right off the idea. I was interested in painting, not sucking up to wealthy gallery owners and buyers, which at the time seemed to be the number one concern if you wanted to get anywhere.
I enjoy the populist aspects of fantasy illustration — I’d rather fire up a kid (or kid-at-heart)’s imagination than offer investment opportunities for people with enough money to buy original art.
It’s hard to say whether that plan worked out. Perhaps an illustration degree might have taught me some more relevant skills that I’ve since had to teach myself. But I feel I have a broad base of art history knowledge because of it, and strong self-motivation. That’s not a bad thing.
Viewing your process videos, it’s incredible to watch as your colors build and how the composition is set right away. How much preparation do you do before you start on a final piece? Do you do any rough sketches or any practice color palettes? Is it mostly spontaneous?
Thanks! For commercial work there are always a lot of thumbnails and then a sketch or two for the client that lays everything out very clearly. You have to have that discipline when working as part of a team.
So often when I’m just playing around for myself I won’t use a sketch and just see what happens. Sometimes I’ll have a clear idea in my head to begin with, and it’s about drawing that out. Other times I genuinely have no idea where I’m going and I respond to what I see on the canvas.
Your work seems mostly painted digitally. Were you always digital based or did you transition from inks and paints? What prompted you to focus mainly on digital creation?
I started out in fantasy art as a traditional painter, pre-2000. I was fixing scans of my paintings in something like Apple Works back at the dawn of time, and it seemed like a smart move to get a cheap graphics tablet to help with that process. The first one I bought (a Wacom Graphire, 4×5) came bundled with an early version of Corel Painter. (Was it even made by Corel at that point? I don’t think it was!)
I quickly found I was doing more painting in the computer than on the canvas, which rendered my “originals” less and less connected to what saw print and thus unsellable to fans of the games I was working on. The move to completely digital was a fairly easy one for me to make.
I’ve always been an exceptionally impatient painter — I used acrylics for speed, but used to work with a hair dryer in one hand to speed up drying, which is pretty crazy. I also used to destroy the substrate with two much reworking (and the hair dryer probably didn’t help). Digital painting requires no patience at all, and is infinitely re-workable, which is both a huge strength and a huge weakness.
Commercial work has a high need for speed, revision, and a practical format for delivery. Back when I was just starting out all of these things were vital to eking out a living, so digital was a no brainer for me. These days I’m trying to make time to do some of my work traditionally, since I think I have more of a market in which to sell originals. I feel very fortunate to have trained traditionally, and would highly recommend it. In my 20s I spent three years painting with just primary colours and white. Which is slightly daunting to me now!
Your piece “Ninevah” takes an interesting approach to its composition. It combines quite a few different elements and textures that all support the main figure. With your workspace being digital, are you painting all on one canvas or creating the elements separately and combining them later?
“Ninevah” was almost entirely digital, but made use of some pre scanned traditional textures – having made loads of highly textural colour field paintings has its advantages when it comes to having a large library of textures at hand. So some of the elements within the painting are made 20 years apart, which is slightly mind-blowing.
With your gig as art director at the game company Cubicle 7 you’ve been a part of some awesome card games like “Doctor Who,” “World War Cthulhu” and “Hobbit Tales.” How does your approach change when doing work for a role playing game versus creating something intended to be hung on someone’s wall? Does your approach change at all?
It’s been a real pleasure to work with Cubicle 7, and we’ve worked on some amazing games.
It does mean I almost never paint anything with the first intention of it being hung on a wall these days. If I compare back to when I was doing gallery art it’s a very different process – completely different, in fact. Your concerns are totally different when you’re making “fine art” paintings. It’s much more about what you’re trying to say, or demonstrate, rather than making a small part of a larger whole.
A gallery painting is highly personal, and “the thing” is arguably complete in itself. A painting in that mode is much more like a poem, and you spent a lot of time and effort in trying not to be literal.
A piece of card art for the “Doctor Who Card Game” or “Hobbit Tales” has a specific task to complete in a different way, and is a piece of a whole. The whole dictates what the parts need to be like, and there’s much less room for unfettered personal expression. There’s a much more direct approach a lot of the time.
I enjoy the discipline of team work, and images that have a clearly defined purpose. I also have a lot of time for the idea that the first time most of my work takes a physical form is as part of a print run of thousands. It’s quite a democratized way to share art. Much like Redbubble offers its customers!
Ultimately, I think I like pop art.
There are few pure science fiction pieces in your catalog like “Rocket Age” and a personal favorite, “Blood Red Mars.” Your sci-fi work tends to be more streamlined and clean than your fantasy work. What prompted the stylistic shift between fantasy and sci-fi?
So both “Rocket Age” and “Blood Red Mars” are for an alternative-history, 1930s game, so I went with a feel that evoked the poster art of the day. There’s a much more of a graphic approach, and it was a really enjoyable change of gear.
Over the years I’ve developed a style in my fantasy art for a much more textured, grubby look. Hopefully this grounds things and works well for certain types of fantasy settings — Middle-earth for example is a worn, well lived-in world.
Your list of freelance work is impressive, but I was curious if you set aside any time to create just for yourself? How close does your personal work resemble the fantasy work you’ve become known for?
It’s been a while since I’ve had any time to work on anything just for myself. I used to make sure I did a personal piece once a month, but time has been at too high a premium the last couple of years.
My personal stuff when I get the chance gets split several ways — abstracts which I still occasionally paint with real paint, fantasy stuff that is either an idea I’ve had that no one commissioned, improvisational doodles that go somewhere and get finished, photomontage/graphics work, and a type of work that I don’t really know what to call — magic realism maybe?
Have you scanned or photographed your original abstract paintings? Would prints of those ever make it into your Redbubble shop?
You know, I’ll be honest, it’s never occurred to me! I guess thinking about it now I tend to keep that side of things very separate. I’m not sure if I’d find much of a market, but who knows? Perhaps I’ll take some photographs and try it out?
[Header image: “Eelwitch” by by Jon Hodgson]