All of the Tolkien artists seem to have taken a stab at depicting Beorn. He represents an interesting problem for the illustrator that I will use for my talk on character. Here is Tolkien's description. "In the middle was a great oak trunk with many lopped branches beside it. Standing near was a huge man with a thick black beard and hair, and great bare arms and legs with knotted muscles. He was clothed in a tunic of wool down to his knees, and was leaning on a large axe." He towered above Gandalf and Bilbo could walk under his legs without his head brushing the hem of Beorn's tunic. This makes him about ten feet tall. We also learn that he has bushy eyebrows, a large hall full of talking animals, and can turn into a bear. That's it. No more.
Note that many of the illustrators here have done similar interpretations of Beorn. Nowhere does Tolkien talk about Beorn the man being like an animal. He is very intelligent, with a gruff temper, but lives with magical beasts and guards a great territory. Later we read of his son, Grimbeorn. This started my own journey, for I wondered, "who would marry Beorn?" and the interpretation of Beorn by the brothers Hildebrant was so far off my own interpretation that I was inspired to do my own art. Note the common characteristics: low forehead, unruly hair, long beard. Some have long hair, others hairy arms, some blue eyes, others dark eyes.
This is my own character, who is a bear-shaper. He also shapes a wolf and a raven, but I wanted to draw a very Northern looking man who could be a Celt. I was inspired by Beorn, but rejected the unintelligent brutish look common to many interpretations of animal shapers. My character is a woodworker who built his own house. The only reason I bring up this comparison is because it is easy to get carried far from the author's intent when making up characters. And for someone like Tolkien, there are often multiple interpretations of the same personality. I don't believe Tolkien meant for Beorn to be uncivilized, only a bit of a hermit. He is generous and his house is fabulous. He does not like dwarves, but his attitude changes when he checks out their story. These are not the characteristics of an unthinking brute. I believe that Michael Hague (lower left) got closest to Tolkien's description despite the hat.
Worse, is when there is an existing film version of the character and you have to draw the actor. You may have references, but the actor may be extremely difficult to draw like William Shatner. A good actor will look different under different lighting. Shatner looked different from beginning to end of the season each year. The above covers are among the best of the Shatner paintings. Most capture his features fairly well. What these pictures have in common is a reliance on a specific photo for reference, maybe a couple. So, a slight change in lighting or color and, suddenly, there is some drift. I'm going to show you how to work with photos, especially of famous people.
Here are three actors from the same era. We already have an enormous amount of built-in facial prejudice. The face is very hard for illustrators because so much of our brain is dedicated to reading faces. You can look at these three actors and immediately make some guesses as to their personality and what kinds of parts they will play. Tim Dalton is a heroic type, but with his wide forehead and prominent eyes, he can also play a romantic type. He is athletic, but not stocky which also means more sophisticated roles. John Castle is a great actor for you can read his face all over the part spectrum from villain to hero. His face tells you so little that he's not memorable enough to be a superstar, which, for an actor, is both good and bad. Oliver Reed, on the other hand, is still a British type, but with his wider head and snub nose he falls down into the lower ranks of the social order and thus must play a villain or a lower class gent. In the States he could be a hero, not in the Islands. However, his floating eyes force him into a melancholic category, so he will always play a troubled soul. Be sure not to miscast your characters!
I used John Castle, a British actor, as one of the models for a character. Rather than just copy Castle, I did an analysis of his face. He has a Celtic nose and mouth (why I chose him.) I widened the mouth a bit and wanted more prominent, sad eyes, and took away some of Castle's jowls to make the face more narrow. This kind of face is called a diamond face, wide across the cheekbones.
I needed a "silky" villain. Ollie Reed was perfect for the part, since the character was also an alcoholic. Again, I took pictures of Ollie and studied his structure. Ollie has what is called a "bucket" head, but heavy in the lower face to indicate the lust. He also has the floating irises, a sure sign of melancholia. One way to get your writers excited about "picturing" their character for you is to ask them to pick an actor from any time that could play their character. Often, they pick personality. Unlike what people want to deny, personality does show up in faces. The character above is intelligent, but depressed, with a fatalism. The Ollie character is pure ambition, self-protecting, and always wanting to find someone to take the blame. He is an evil character. Ollie was so desperately good at playing the velvet evil that women loved to hate and men would not trust.
Another villain I had was a man obsessed by the idea that he was right and that, no matter the cost, he would force his way. He was eaten alive by envy and fear but crazy about having the power to win. He is not European, but Persian/Greek/Turkish (Akkadian) so I had to go to Bollywood to start finding types for him. Ashkay Kumar looks like he could be Italian or Spanish, showing that this Aryan type is universal across southern Europe all the way to northern India. Here are my notes about Ashkay in particular.
This says: "high zygomatics, bow upper lip, sharp, long crease under lip muscles, non-matching eyebrows, drooping eyes, high-bridged sharp nose, narrow nostrils, ear wider at bottom, straight hair line, wide jaw, prominent super orbitals, deep-set eyes, small, set back ear. Sharp philtrum, flat ear, strong temporal furrow, sharp manible, wide nasalabial furrow, low and long mentolabial sulcus. Imagine some writer saying that! Hah! If you are doing a book, take the time to make up a character from all angles and lights, you're going to draw that character until you want to scream, so the more prep you do the easier it will be.
And sometimes, you can't find a character and have to invent one from several people. This sometimes turns out very well, but the initial work is more and the mistakes can be pretty bad unless you do the prep. I've gotten to the point where I can patch together characters faster than I can search down models.
Here is another one, that is invented without much in the way of photo reference. This man's face is dominated by the American anvil chin and the british cheekbones, and almost pure Celt in appearance. He was a difficult character in that he was supposed to be a villain and changed his mind. Because I am a writer, I listened to his face and changed his story. He got his own book where he is a reluctant hero. He is a noble person who meets with tragedy. He makes a decision that gets him killed as a traitor. He also is a berserk. When I made up his face, I read all this into it. I know, strange things happen when you're writing!
Once you get used to seeing the structure of a face, you'll be able to mix and match face references, change lighting, do a shorthand on a face (not copy the photo) do outlines that suggest structure, and more. I do have a page on seeing a structure.
This character I had to draw from age seven to age twenty-seven. He is an astronomer, so not a muscle character or a "male" character in the sense of have strong male features. Yet he is obviously a boy. If your character is more generic in feature, the only really "male" thing you can do is the superorbital ridge, just as the only female thing you can do is rounding. Models and other very thin women tend to look very generic. This character also had to look like two different families. His father's family has the heavy, straight eyebrows. his mother's the cat green eyes and pointed face. But he is a combo of an Icelandic model Donovan, Leonard Whiting, Marc Warren, and Asa Butterfield. As he aged, his hair got darker. His face changes in emotional states, the nose getting pointed as the nasalabial furrow deepens in anger or grief.
This character has the most references, with fifteen, black, white, African, German, even Maori. Race is a joke. Dark skin is a joke. Most people are brown. Although people have a light skin thing, the head shape is also a prejudice. Long head types are a sign of nobility from Japan to Ireland. African features are a rage right now, but dark skin has fallen off in the States again. If you're like me, you just get tired of drawing Europeans. I try to have a variety of peoples in my books just so I don't get bored or in a rut. This fellow is about 7 feet tall, has an aquiline nose, prominent lips, dreads until his father dies and then a shaven had, wears a headband and ages from ten to forty in my graphic novel series. He appears darker or lighter depending on the lighting and background. Try to get a variety in your books. Manga is so stereotyped that they depend on costume and hair to tell the reader who people are. Western comics are almost as bad, with costume telling us almost everything.
Learn to draw variety. That will save you from growing stale. If you're doing a vampire book, draw a different vampire. Draw elves without pointed ears. Break the mold. With a camera, you're still limited, with a pencil, anything is possible! On other pages I talk about how personality affects the face and how a face can change how someone sees a story.
© 2017, A.R. Stone