I would like to introduce all of my Rabbit Room friends to illustrator, Glenn Hernandez. I discovered Glenn’s art on Instagram a few years ago, while he was working through some Wind in the Willows art, and was instantly captivated by his sensibilities. His unconventional style pays respect to his subject matter while ignoring cultural norms and expectancies concerning the given subject.
JS: Glenn, first I want to say thank you for your time, and if you don’t already know, I’m a massive fan. Could you begin by giving us a glimpse of your artistic background, then tell us about Funomena and your roll there?
GH: And thank you, Joe, for inviting me! I too am a huge admirer of your illustrations.
I started drawing and painting when I was five years old. My parents are Guatemalan immigrants who, despite the troubles they experienced making ends meet, always encouraged my desire to draw and paint. My Dad would often sit for me to draw his portrait and would supply me with whatever he could to practice my drawing. I was largely self taught until my junior year of high school when I took my first formal art classes. After high school I decided to pursue music at St. Olaf College since I was also heavily involved in choir during high school. I entered as a vocal performance major and sang in The St. Olaf Choir for three years, though by the end of my time there I had switched my major to Studio Art because Music Theory got the best of me.
After college I moved back to California and began to entertain dreams of working in animation. After a few years taking classes here and there, and constantly applying to Pixar (about eight times), I eventually landed a couple of interviews for a Character Design position there and though the interviews went very well, the timing just wasn’t right.
Fortunately, a few months after those interviews I heard about a small game company that was starting up in San Francisco called Funomena and decided to cold-email the co-founder/CEO of the company, Robin Hunicke. After a few conversations over the phone and in person, we began to work together and I officially became a part of the team in November of that year. I am now Art Director on one of our game titles, Luna. I work with a small team of artists to develop the look and feel of the game. I feel very fortunate for this opportunity, especially since I am afforded a lot of autonomy in my work on a daily basis. The leadership part of the job is new to me, but it has been a tremendous growth opportunity.
JS: First, Pixar missed out on you. Second, working on games sounds awesome. I’m sure any game with you on board will have aesthetics others do not. As an illustrator and designer, where do you pull your influences from?
GH: Anything is fair game, I draw influence from everything from nature to architecture to furniture, logo and toy design. I am especially fond of obscure Modern Japanese block print artists like Umetaro Azechi. My work is also very influenced by music, most notably by composers like Rachmaninov, Berlioz, Frederick Delius, Peter Warlock, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Phillip Glass, John Adams, Bo Hanson, Brian Eno, and Charles Mingus to name a few.
JS: Oh man, I’m a huge fan of Ralph Vaughan Williams! Sinfonia Antartica is my annual go-to for those frigid winter months. And I see a lot of those influences you mentioned coming through in the sketches you’ve been sharing. You’ve been sketching a lot lately, and posting a slew of genuinely amazing Tolkien-related art. Quite possibly the freshest vision of Tolkien since the Rankin-Bass Hobbit, in my opinion. What drew you to this subject matter, and what keeps you returning to it over and over?
GH: Thank you so much for that compliment, I love the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit! I remember hearing about The Hobbit when I was in elementary school, but I didn’t read the book until I was in high school, so my first introduction to Bilbo and Gandalf was through the Rankin-Bass animated film. My first read through of The Hobbit made me want to read The Lord of The Rings but I found it a bit dense for my liking at the time. It wasn’t until my college years that I read through the entirety of LOTR during a week-long spring break. That first experience really captured my imagination. I was absolutely transported to Tolkien’s world and I couldn’t get enough, so I read The Silmarillion, and The Book of Lost Tales, etc.
I think what keeps me coming back is the sense of mystery and wonder I get when I read the stories. Its much like the feeling I’d get as child pouring over old books illustrated by Arthur Rackham; I’d pull back the glassine to reveal these wonderful and rich Illustrations that evoked a feeling in me like the images were revealing some sort of ancient truth. LOTR evokes that for me and not just because of the philosophical subtext of the books but because Tolkien was a master storyteller and he put so much love into his mythology, making it feel authentic.
Ironically, I never thought to do my own illustrations for Tolkien’s stories until recently, though it is a particular challenge now because his work has seen a major uptick in the popular consciousness. However, this might be perfect timing for me because for a good couple of years, the over-saturation of film imagery led me to put all my books in storage. In other words I was getting pretty sick of seeing ads for Denny’s Hobbit Breakfast—no thanks! I wanted some time away from Tolkien so I could one day come back to it with a fresh imagination.
JS: I’m right there with you. How in the world could Denny’s even afford to promote a Hobbit breakfast? Customers would be sitting there eating through second breakfast and elevensies and so on. They would lose a ton of money. HA! So, as you flesh out your own vision of Middle-earth, what is your artistic mindset? You seem to have completely ignored our current, popular Tolkien culture.
GH: It is to completely ignore popular Tolkien culture. In fact, ignore it so much as to make it pretty much non-existent in my own reality. An unfortunate side effect of the films gaining so much fandom is that it has saturated many readers’ and artists’ imaginations with images from the films and for many, those images have become a sort of visual cannon. In reality, the films are only ONE person’s interpretation.
Moving forward with that mindset, the process of fleshing out my version of Middle-earth has become therapeutic. For the first time since the films made Tolkien’s stories popular, I’ve begun to reclaim my own imaginative vision, and my vision relies not on complex creature, armor, and costume designs, but on simplicity. I focus on clean and graphic shapes that evoke the spirit of the book through symbols rather than spoon feeding every little detail to my audience. Ultimately, my goal is to make my illustrations a supplement; a vision that doesn’t supplant the imaginations of those who love Tolkien’s work but encourages them to fill in the blanks and maybe even inspires them to create their own visions.
JS: You’ve been very successful at doing just that. Every time you share something new, I want to go draw right away, feeling totally inspired. Do you plan to sell prints of any of the art?
GH: Eventually I would like to. Right now I am content with it being a little passion project. I’ve been fortunate enough to have garnered a great response through Instagram, and if the enthusiasm persists then I would be open to making prints available in limited runs. I still have yet to work out the particulars, but if you follow my Instagram feed @glenndergarten then you will be the first to know!
JS: Can you tell us a bit about your current favorite mediums to sketch in? Also, do you find something unique about sketching versus final art, and do you ever prefer your sketches over something more deliberate?
GH: I am very fond of working in pen and ink, in particular a set of four Pentel brush pens that I fill with Noodlers brand ink. My favorite sketch tool right now is my Japanese retractable fountain pen. I bring it with me wherever I go. I also carry my Schminke Watercolor Pan set along with a portable water brush for quick color work. I buy a lot of my sketchbooks at a little Japanese stationary store in San Francisco called Maido. I really love the paper in these little pocket books, and I carry a few of them in my bag or in my pocket whenever I go out. I used to sketch people from life, but lately I’ve been focusing more on landscape and nature. I don’t know why that is. Maybe because creatively I like to live in my imagination, and anything that can supplement that (like a gorgeous landscape) will always trump the mundane day to day bus ride to work.
I absolutely love the freedom I have when I sketch. I feel that the work I produce when I don’t over-think things is generally better than when I plan too much. Immediacy is very important to me, but while I have evolved and become more fluent with my lines and shapes, I wasn’t always happy with the work I was producing. I learned gradually that along with getting those first 1000 bad drawings out of the way, I also had to learn to live with my bad drawings and accept them as part of my growth. As a rule, I try and remember that every piece I do is really a step towards becoming a better illustrator, so I try not to put so much weight on getting things perfect in my deliberate work. I try and keep it as loose as if I were just sitting outside sketching. I am also a firm believer in happy mistakes. Often those little imperfections are what make the difference.
JS: Mistakes can be scary, especially when you’re on the clock. But when you can make them work as an honest part of the process, it’s a special mindset and reduces stress. So, what’s in your near, creative future that you can share with us? And tell us how we can follow what you’re up to.
GH: Well, professionally I am working on Luna, and though I can’t really talk too much about the game, I can at least link you to the trailer:
Luna is a puzzle game set within a folk tale about why the moon waxes and wanes.
These days, most of my creative effort is focused on making Luna, but I try to make time to work on my passion projects. In terms of illustration, I don’t have anything immediate coming up, but my eventual goal, perhaps after I finish the game (or concurrently while working on a new game project), is to do some freelance work on the side. My big dream has always been to be a children’s book illustrator. A few years back I attempted to set out on my own and find representation, but the market was pretty tough, and, in all honesty, my work wasn’t quite there yet. It would be a dream to illustrate book covers or do a Tolkien calendar, but all that will happen in good time. I’ve found that if I stress out too much about not being where I want to be creatively, I miss the whole point. For now I’ll just keep doing what I am doing.
Folks who are interested in seeing more of my work can keep up to date by following my Instagram and Tumblr @glenndergarten. My website is out of date but I will eventually get back to it. Also in the immediate future I will be creating an art page on Facebook which I will announce via Instagram.
JS: I for one, follow you daily. Once again, thank you so much, Glenn. I appreciate what you’re up to and I look forward to seeing where it takes you.
GH: And thank you for your continued support, Joe. Likewise, keep up your excellent work!
So excited to see Glenn’s work spotlighted. I’ve been entranced by his Tolkien illustrations… and to be interviewed by the inimitable Joe Sutphin? Cool. Thanks Joe. Loved this piece. It got the creative juices flowing again.
This is a fabulous post and interview, thank you both so much for sharing what can be a very personal process. Getting the creative juices flowing is right!
One of my favorite illustrators interviewing one of my favorite illustrators. Very cool!
Way to go, Joe. You guys amaze me.
Love, love this. Thanks for the great piece, Joe. Glenn is killer.
The One True Stickman
The prospect of knowing about limited run Tolkien illustrations might sign me up for Instagram, these are really awesome! The visual style is a lot closer to Tolkien’s own art, in my opinion, which is also amazing in it’s simplicity and colours. The illustrations of The Father Christmas Letters and some of his landscapes in “J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator” (Gammond/Scull, 2000), as well as the original art for The Hobbit are some of my favorites.
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