Monday, April 27, 2009

Interview with John Blanche

Originally published in The Black Library which seems to have become defunct.

"I distinctly remember being told what I liked was all well and good, and I had a romantic spirit, but it would never earn me a living, so there was no point in doing it." So speaks John Blanche. As he is now the Art Director of Games Workshop, you can't help but think his teachers at art college might feel a little foolish now.

John's life is a strange story almost worthy of Dickens, a writer he has a great deal of respect for (like another favourite writer of his, Mervyn Peake, he was an artist too), going from working class kid with a love of toy soldiers to some kind of artistic demiurge.

Among 'shared' fantasy and science fiction universes, those of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 are perhaps some of the most evocative. As an artist and director of artists, John has played a major role in shaping these worlds, or 'alternative histories' as he prefers to call them. Partially owing to his sensibilities, these twin game worlds have become dark and dangerous places, contrary to the glossy, High Fantasy universes favoured by US writers, populated by steel bikini-clad blondes.

Though it was the emergence of role playing games in the 1970s that helped to gave birth to Games Workshop, the men of GW were soon pushing their games away from the sub-Tolkien worlds of roleplaying. Early RPG's were kind of the American dream writ large, cartoon versions of the frontier, where adventurous spirits could wrest vast fortunes from unfortunate Orcs by the application of a big axe, even becoming Gods if sufficient foes were felled. Not so in Warhammer and the science fantasy universe of Warhammer 40,000, places populated by flawed characters, where the only path to glory is dark and diabolical, and the gods are forever hungry.

"To me fantasy is much darker than American High Fantasy, certainly more violent, and more oppressive. But it's also very real," says John. "I didn't see fantasy being occupied by shiny characters, it was all very Dickensian. Fantasy denizens to me all look like Fagin. Everybody has an eye-patch and a wooden leg, dirty fingernails, and worn clothes. And thereby lies the strength of it. It is evocative, there is so much background there, the universes are so strong."

John explains that Games Workshop worlds are inspired a lot by the real world. Further, he maintains that the Games Workshop game worlds are extensions of Northern European culture. "History is fascinating. I constantly find that real life is far more bizarre, far weirder, than what you can conjure up with your own mind. In fact, the resonance isn't just history, or the history of Western Europe, but it echoes through our past, right back to Paleolithic times. It's a very Northern European thing. Skulls crop up all the time, for instance, in Northern European art. Why? These things have always fascinated me, and they find their way into my pictures. You don't see it so much in Southern Europe. If I were better with words, I might write a book about it."

Would Gothic be the right word?

"Yes, and no. Gothic means lots of things. You have the architectural style, from the Early Middle Ages, which then became something else in the Late Middle Ages, and was then reinvented by the Victorians, and they applied to all sorts of stuff. Then we have what we call Games Workshop Gothic, which is inspired by, but is none of these things." The word "Gothic" itself comes from the Goths, a group of ancient Germanic tribes, which brings us neatly back to Northern Europe. John himself is a living extension of this tradition. His major influences include Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer and Hieronymous Bosch. He even goes so far as to put altered versions of figures from their paintings into his own. "The thing is," he says, "you carry those people with you. I'm not so excited by Bosch anymore, I don't go out and look at his work, but it is part of me, I suppose, these days."

The influences are there to see. For instance, John still rarely uses blue, his works executed in the earthy orange and red tones favoured by his heroes. However, his head is not only turned by the Germanic.

"The best painting I have ever seen in the flesh, and a lot of people look at me aghast when I say this, is the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci. I was astounded because I thought it was so much bigger. It's tiny. They keep it in the Louvre, in this big box, and you have to look through bullet-proof glass at it. You have to push your way through crowds of people. But when I saw it I was transfixed, I thought, ';God that is incredible!' To the same extent I like the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burn Jones. Lawrence Alma-Tadema also. He was a very big Victorian artist, he came from Belgium, but he was actually knighted by Queen Victoria. He was one of the few foreigners to be made a Sir. And I have read accounts of them throwing away his paintings in the 1950's because they regarded them as being purely chocolate box covers! But I've seen a couple. I saw one in a Hamburg museum. You stand 15 feet away and you're looking at a photograph, and you walk up close and you're seeing paintbrush strokes. It is emotional, painterly and textural and photographic at the same time, the guy's a genius! But the person who really had more impact on me than anybody else has to be Rembrandt. He can do the lot. Again, he can paint almost photographically, and at other times he can be very loose and expressive."

This conflict, and its resolution, between emotional expressionism and the painter's craft crops up several times as John talks. In some ways, it seems to have driven his development as an artist. He says that when he was younger he was concerned mostly with photographic realism, but this has changed somewhat.

"Those painterly brush strokes express raw emotion, whereas tight controlled painting is, to some extent, just purely a visual record. To put a bit of emotion into it gives the painting lots of warmth and a dynamic that you don't get from photographic rendering. Once I started to appreciate that in fantasy art... I mean, a person I used to dislike was Frank Frazetta. I used to think, 'It's just done dead quick. He's a great artist but he just doodles them off.' And then, one day I thought, 'Actually, the guy's a genius!' After that I started to look at different things in art. I started to appreciate even some contemporary art, not all of it, because a lot of it's awful. Rather than just look at the surface, I started to look into art and feel some of the emotional values of the artist."

Strangely, neither seemed to be particularly favoured by his teachers at college, which just goes to show that while art is a fundamental part of human life, the people who define it as such are horribly afflicted by fashion.

"They tried to unteach me at art college. I was a working class lad from a council estate. I went to a secondary modern school, and I worked very hard to get into art college. When I arrived there it was full of quasi-intellectuals, and the big word at the time was existentialism. I didn't know what it meant, and nobody would tell me what it meant. I wanted to draw pictures. It was just horrendous. A lot of my colleagues had unhappy experiences at art college, because the teachers tried to steer them towards what they consider to be high art, and the craft, the exercise of rendering, is frowned upon, which is just extraordinary."

This is not something that has held back John, nor the likes of Dave Gallagher, Alex Boyd, Karl and Stefan Kopinski, or Paul Dainton, some of Games Workshop's enormously talented artists. "That leads me to my conviction. I go to a lot of exhibitions and galleries. I don't go to them all, but when I go to them I think there's work that we're producing in our studio now that can stand up alongside some of these great, great artists."

It's this reverence for the output of the Design Studio that has led to the creation of The Gallery at Warp Artefacts; an online repository for the very best Games Workshop artwork. The fine art prints available from The Gallery were personally selected by John and represent both a historical record of the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 games and are a testament to the talents of the studio artists.

Still, GW's artists are not entirely free. They can't just make their own stuff up. They are, John says, illustrators, with deadlines to meet. But they are also one of Games Workshop's primary engines when it comes to dreaming up new wierdnesses to unleash on the tabletop, a process that can also be seen at work in the fiction published by The Black Library. They help the worlds live, and more, they are part of what pushes their evolution forward.

"The push and shove of it is those technical restraints, but the pleasurable side of it, the organic growth side of it is trying to make our art visionary, make it lyrical, give it a narrative. That's my personal sort of driver, not just filling spaces in a book with pictures. Recently I went to the Turner exhibition in Birmingham. I love Turner's work, but I'd say 90-95 per cent of it was very dull. I feel I know why. Turner, like everybody else, had to earn a living, so he was doing commissions for wealthy people, classicist pictures showing their estates and their houses and the people around them. Only when Turner had the freedom to truly express himself could he let go. So I was looking at his work and thinking: 'Hey, he'd have loved to have worked for Games Workshop!'"

John now describes himself as living in the worlds he has helped to create. His own time is spent working on sketch books, explorations of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. "So I have something to leave to my family. I was seriously ill a few years ago. It really was a matter of life or death. And as I lay there I thought 'what will I leave behind?' I've done loads of work but lots of it is lost, or kept in a drawer."

Confronted with mortality, John works harder to deepen our fictional universes. A more powerful case for the lure of Warhammer you will not find. Fortunately for us, the man is a genius.