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The Tolkien Inspired Art of Ulla Thynell

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Ulla Thynell 1

Leaving Hobbiton

There’s so much beautiful art out there created by the Tolkien community, and while roaming around the internet in search for more, I came across Ulla Thynell’s Deviantart page. What struck me first about her work were the wonderful use of watercolor paints and the details of nature. I knew right away I wanted to know more about Ulla and her art.

For starters, she’s a freelance illustrator living in Helsinki, Finland with her partner and daughter, and her work currently centers around illustrating children’s books. When I asked about her background in art, she responded that she’s always loved drawing and painting. At the age of 10, she learned to draw realistically with the help of thousands of pictures of horses and discovered Tolkien when she was 12. “I was a total bookworm as a kid… I think it’s safe to say that Tolkien’s writings made me appreciate and continue devouring the fantasy genre in general.”

As she grew older, Ulla started to create fantasy art and became interested in dream imagery and surrealism. I was a little shocked when I found out that though she went to a visual arts oriented upper secondary school, she didn’t study art in university. Instead she ended up studying philosophy and aesthetics. “I kept art as a hobby though, sketched a lot and worked on commissions whenever I had the chance. In 2012, just before my 30th birthday, I finally decided to start forwarding my dream of becoming a professional illustrator, and since then things have progressed pretty fast.”

Ulla Thynell 5

Lothlórien

Though many of Tolkien’s stories appeal to her in regards to illustration, she says she enjoys working from The Hobbit the most because of its good-humoured children’s storybook feel which she says suits her drawing style. As for a favorite character? She says when she first read LOTR it was Sam, as well as Frodo. “[Frodo] was the easiest character to identify with… but by the end of the last book, Sam’s character grew on me the most. He’s so sympathetic, loyal and down-to-earth.”

Ulla admits that if you asked her ten or fifteen years ago she would say she’d like to be an elf living in Lothlórien, but now? “I realise I’m much more like a hobbit: I enjoy staying at home, spending time with people I know well. I love good food and lazy days, minding my own business. I am far too keen on routines, convenient life, and my own privacy to seek power or adventures… Middle-earth has so many fascinating locations, it’s difficult to pick.” I think that’s something we can all relate to!

What she admires most about Tolkien’s works are “the thoroughness of the fictional universe and the lore that he created, and how deep you can get immersed in that world while reading. Tolkien’s were the first proper fantasy fiction I ever read, so in a way I feel his works defined that otherworldly reading experience for me. And there is always this safe, comforting familiarity in returning to those same stories, again.”

Ulla Thynell 3

Fangorn

Like I said before, one of the things I noticed first about Ulla’s work is the beautiful use of watercolors, and it turns out that her preferred medium to work with is mixed media. “I do like watercolor for its interesting textures and soft, natural tones… using pens or other tools on watercolor painting allows me more control and emphasis on the details.” When I asked her if she has a particular piece she’s most proud of, she responded that that’s tricky question. “At the moment, one my own Tolkien-themed favorites is probably ‘Fangorn’ with the two hobbits and Treebeard. I liked that mystical atmosphere in the book’s description of Treebeard’s home and in all its simplicity; I quite like how the piece turned out. That said, how I feel about my art varies a lot depending on my mood. Naturally, there’s always room for improvement.”

There are many artists who she considers her favorites. (As do I, it’s nearly impossible to only list a couple!) “Tove Jansson, Hans Arnold, Zdeněk Miler, John Bauer, Elsa Beskow, Rudolf Koivu, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Arthur Rackham, Ivan Bilibin… Oh and I’m always very inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s animations… I quite enjoy Tolkien’s own illustrations, too.”

When I asked Ulla how she would describe her style, she said, “Nostalgic storybook style with an experimental twist here and there. I like working with details, and my pieces are stylized rather than realistic.” Her pieces definitely take me into the world of Middle-earth, and make me feel at home. Especially her Shire related ones!

Ulla Thynell 3

Mirkwood

Ulla gets a lot of inspiration from nature, and it certainly shows in her art. “The endless variety and patterns of nature are indeed wonderful! Inspiration can emerge from the colors of autumn, or a cold and dark seashore during winter, or trees blooming in the spring. I remember how magical the forests and wild animals seemed to me when I was little, and how I always felt more at home when surrounded by nature. Another thing that inspires me is seeing a lot of different kinds of illustrations and artworks. Variety and experiments are good, they keep me wanting to improve.”

I was very curious to find out if any of the movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit have influenced her in any way. Because she had read both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings before Peter Jackson’s films were released, the movies haven’t been a key influence. “In general, I tend to take movies vs books as separate experiences, because they never match perfectly anyway.” In addition to PJ’s adaptations she says she also enjoys the Ralph Bakshi animated version of LOTR. Though she admits the movies don’t perfectly match up, she still enjoys the settings and costumes. “Some of the cast is also spot on (Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee, especially). But when I draw I usually try and make my pieces look uniquely my own, and refer more to the books, even if you can track some elements here and there that are similar to the movies.”

I don’t think there is just one right way to depict a story. I absolutely love seeing different interpretations by many artists. I’m always excited when an artwork offers me a completely fresh perspective to something I had previously taken for granted.
Ulla Thynell 4

Bag End

Aside from creating art Ulla enjoys the simple things in life, like quiet and solitary activities. “Jigsaw puzzles, reading books, and watching good TV shows or films on dvd. I also enjoy creative activities such as writing, crafting stuff, or decorating my home. Stargazing or astronomy has always been something that makes me happy. I already have some good night sky binoculars, but hopefully one day I’ll own a telescope. It’s amazing to realize we live in such a vast universe. It makes most of my problems seem tiny.”

If she had the chance, she says she’d love to illustrate an edition of one of Tolkien’s books. I’d love that too! I would jump at the opportunity to own a copy of say, The Hobbit filled with Ulla’s illustrations. And she’s planning on working on more LOTR related pieces! “I’ve been mulling over a couple LOTR themed ideas in my head, hopefully I’ll have the time to start working on them later this summer!”

To see more of Ulla Thynell’s art, you can visit her at the following sites:

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9 Comments

  1. Fionnuala says:

    Wow, what a unique and lovely style. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I real find.

    Very child friendly as all hobbitsy things should be!

  3. A well-deserved exposure for a wonderful illustrator!
    :}

  4. Tirzah R. says:

    What a lovely and thoughtful interview! Having followed this artist on DeviantArt, I am familiar with her beautiful work. I loved hearing about her inspiration behind her pieces in this interview. (I think her Fangorn is one of my favorites as well.)

    This is just a tentative suggestion, but there is another brilliant Tolkien artist, Jenny Dolfen (http://gold-seven.deviantart.com). I am sure she would present a very interesting interview as well.

  5. Very nice – I really like. I feel it’s the kind of art I can share over and over with my girls.

    • Becky Dillon says:

      You can, Ron. It’s charming and very well done. The images are all her own, with her own ideas about character and settings. I love the misty qualities of true fantasy!

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