Thursday, June 7, 2012

"I threw down my enemy..."

-By Donato

Zirak-zigil abstract   2" x 2.75"
A few weeks ago I shared the preliminary rough drawing for this piece as I was preparing for Spectrum Live!.  Created as a drawing in a Limited Edition leatherback version of my Middle-earth book, this image was not intended to be turn into a final oil painting, rather it was an exercise and exploration in the medium of pencil, chalk and toned paper.  Beginning and ending all on the same page.

Obviously this image spoke to me beyond that page.  Part of the wonderful process of creating detailed preliminary drawings is to test the waters of inspiration.  Is this image worthy of investing weeks of time to be executed as a major oil painting?  Or shall it join the ranks of other competent works, well loved, but not inspired enough for the extra labor and care necessary for weeks on end through to the completion.

Or more importantly than all that, do I have a long enough deadline to nurture this project to through the various ups and downs?!  The deadline issue is actually the greatest determining factor on how large I will create my paintings - for if I had all the time I wished for, each painting would be immense.  At this moment in my career, I now have the skills, determination and vision to create images as I truly wish them to become- it is all about having enough time to pick the right ones to bring to life.

One of the driving sources of inspiration for this work was to depict the Balrog and its confrontation with Gandalf as I saw it.  While the movie version of the creature was fascinating, for me the Balrog was a creature of fire and darkness, an enigma to contend with visually and one with very little visualization from J.R.R. Tolkien himself.  The power of this encounter was not in the details of special effects, but rather in the psychology of light versus darkness, chaos versus order, good versus evil.  How do you portray this cerebral battle yet make it visually compelling? 

It is from this lack of physical specifics that the works of Tolkien are so powerful, for they allow most any interpretation to be injected into the dialog and been seen as valid.  Did the Balrog have wings, or was its spreading shadow of darkness the wings Tolkien described?   Even if you were there with Aragorn, Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship, could you have trusted your eyes in the flickering firelight in the deep darkness of dread filled Moria?  What was it you really saw near the gates of hell?  I love these challenges!  And as you can imagine, I have plenty of ideas about how to create more paintings on the theme of Moria.

Enjoy the works below, they may not be your vision of what happened, but they certainly are what I saw!

'I threw down my enemy...'
29" x 44"
 Oil on Panel

 Preliminary drawing
Middle-earth Limited Edition Collection
8.5" x 11"
Pencil and chalk on toned paper


  1. Thank you for sharing this Donato. I always enjoy seeing your pencil work on toned paper - such lively linework, especially on the wings and the swirling shapes at the top.

    As much as I admire the preliminary drawing, I think that in this case I prefer the oil painting because I think that the Balrog's position is more dynamic and interesting with the head and upper torso twisting to the left away from the chasm where he is about to plunge. I also like the elegance of the simple design on this one. The use of negative space and the light and dark pattern form a a kind of yin & yang symbol.

    I would very much like to hear a little about your thought process as made these compositional choices.

    1. Thank you J.P. As for my thought process, it would take a book to really talk about abstraction, narration and intuitive gesture drawing. I just hope posting all the steps here might help provide you insight on how much importance I place on the small abstracts.

  2. I love how you remain true to your own vision and can steer away from other influences such as the films and previous depictions. It was great to see this in person at SFAL!

  3. It's often said, "the reproduction doesn't do it justice," but that is precisely the case here. As wonderful as it looks here, standing in front of the original leaves you literally breathless and stunned. Amazing, just amazing, Donato.

  4. Hi Donato, Fantastic perspective. I am glad you keep exploring and taking us on your journey, as each time you do a new LOTR painting there is excitement and wonderful anticipation.

    Thank you for showing your work and talking about this painting,


  5. Donato, A truly beautiful piece. I love the reversal of the typical warm/cool relationship. It gives me ideas for my Tarzan piece at IMC this coming week. Are you bringing originals? can you bring this one. I greatly look forward to meeting you and see you at work!

  6. Ditto Rick Price's suggestion!

    I think you handled this piece wonderfully. It has been a couple of years since I read this passage from the Two Towers, but I know that language that Tolkien uses when writing: that beautifully vague, but rich phrasing, giving you just enough to get every neuron sparking in your brain about "how did this really look".

    Jackson handled this scene tastefully in the film, but I think that it failed to capture this intimate "brain-game" going on between the two enemies. There is something more broad in scope about these two titans of Middle-Earth fighting it out. Something that goes back to the early days of the Silmarillion, and in a parallel to our own world, something that goes back to the dawn of the earth when the struggle against evil began.
    We will always connect with a story or painting where there is struggle, because we know in our heart of hearts it is a true story, that it is happening in our own experience. The question is, which side do we choose to be on?

    Wow, so that's what your painting said to me! Sorry to get so wordy:)
    See you at IMC soon!

  7. "...and smote his ruin upon the mountainside."

    That is one of my favorite lines from the books. Even with all the ways it has been realized it still sends my imagination reeling and I dig how you chose to present it. Gandalf seems to be in a bit more powerful position than how I imagined but I like that you are showing us what YOU see and aren't trying to pander to any particular interpretation. In particular the perspective you chose and the kind of bewildering physics make it super interesting to look at.

    Much of the Tolkien art that has come after the films is so influenced by the WETA look that instead of being inspiring it starts to edge towards stagnation. It seems to be trying to hit certain visuals cues that people now expect rather than exploring the mythology via the medium of illustration and being a lens into the creative mind of the artist.

    You rock for doing your own thing.

  8. Wow! The mood of this piece and the darkness and smoke surrounding the Balrog Is just too good for words. I would love to see this in person!

  9. I believe the expression goes "I threw down WITH my enemy, YO."
    Okay, just kidding. In terms of fresh approaches I'm afraid your Balrog is too "Night on Bald Mountain" for me, though that obscuring darkness is definitely moving in the right direction. The image that characterizes this moment for me is Tolkien comparing the antagonists to a wizened tree bending before an oncoming storm. Your composition recalls this, but your Gandalf is still too powerful.
    I know, those of us who love the character don't want to see him as weak or out-matched, but that's what's going on. Gandalf is shaken from his previous test of wills with the Balrog. Upon realizing what he faces he murmurs ,"I'm already tired', at this moment at least he really needs that staff as a physical support, and as an almost comedic diminishing touch faces the Balrog with an Orc-arrow sprouting from his hat. The only advantage the wizard enjoys is his willingness to sacrifice himself. "For no greater love has a man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends". I don't think its a stretch to say Tolkien wants a parallel with Christ's martyrdom, which of course to all outward appearances looks like a final, humiliating defeat.
    All of this is why I think Bakshi got Gandalf at this moment right, rubber gorilla mask-wearin' Blarog aside.

  10. Your LOTR concepts are the best! This is how I see the world when I read the stories.