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Interview: John Blanche, The Seminal Art Director of Games Workshop

6 November 13 interview: Penny Reeve
photos: Dom Henry

A seminal artist who has defined the look of Games Workshop from its inception, art director John Blanche is worshipped by legion. Since joining the company in the late-seventies he has produced innumerable pieces of work that have sold millions of copies around the world. We talk reds and browns, small lead figures and how glam rock influenced him...

How did you first get involved with Games Workshop?
Going back to 1977, it was two brands: Citadel Miniatures and Games Workshop. At the time Games Workshop was essentially importing American games and selling them on, and Citadel Miniatures, which started in Newark, was making miniature figures. I knew Brian Ansell, who was behind Citadel, before it started and I also knew Ian and Steve when they started Games Workshop. I was a freelance illustrator so it was a fairly natural thing that they commissioned me to do some pieces.

It grew quite quickly as a company too, right?
In the early eighties I was doing three days a week for them and then they grew to the the extent that they could give me enough work to keep me going all the time. It just evolved, Citadel Miniatures became the dominant force so we stopped importing American games and started producing our own under the Games Workshop brand. It quickly grew to a point that none of us expected. It was fantastic.

How does it feel to be part of Games Workshop now?
I feel proud. I’ve developed a sense of responsibility for all the staff we employ.

Where do you see Games Workshop going in the future?
We’re all getting older and want to establish a legacy for the rest of the staff to carry on with once the old guard has gone. But I don’t see it moving away from our core business of making model soldiers, that’s what we do.

You don’t think Games Workshop will branch out into online stuff?
Not at all. We licence products out to gaming companies. They’re two separate things. People that play computer games also play model soldiers and also go to the cinema, it’s part of a genre. But we don’t need to do all that ourselves.

Why did Games Workshop decide to stay in Nottingham and not try its luck in the capital?
Games Workshop was in London, but because Citadel miniatures was the dominant money making force and was already established in Nottingham, why would we move it? We’ve got shops all over the world so it doesn’t matter where our headquarters is based.

Do you have a miniatures collection yourself?
A very small one.

But you have a whole empire at your fingertips to choose from...
I tend to enjoy the doing of it, rather than the amassing of it.

So what do you want people to take from your art? Is there a specific feeling?
I like that word, dystopian. If you take a typical poly-war Star Wars thing, it’s all very clean and shiny and squeaky, but Warhammer’s grim and dirty and people chop you into bits. I liken it in my mind to a lot of late-Victorian imagery, Dickens and the like, it’s all quite dark and not very nice.

What kind of advice would you give to anybody who is starting out and wants to get into illustration?
It’s not a big industry and people in England tend not to be taught the disciplines of drawing. The last two artists I employed were from Madrid and Singapore, they’re highly educated people but that kind of education just doesn’t happen in this country. Most of the skills and talents within the fantasy art industry are going into computer games. If you really wanted to work for Games Workshop, first and foremost, you’d have to make yourself as good as the people that we employ, which is a very high bar and it takes focus, determination, a lot of hard work and to go through the college system with a singular mindset.

So you won’t be tapping up any of our illustrators then?
LeftLion and the arts scene in this country is not fantasy art illustration, I go to Nottingham Contemporary and I never see anything I like, it depresses me. I don’t feel connected to the art world. But all the things I love, revere and like are past art movements. Show me someone who can paint like one of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood now. I don’t think you’d see many.

So you don’t call yourself an artist?
I’m an illustrator if I’m doing a series of illustrations, I see them as a series. And the ones I’m doing for myself, when I’ve finished them, I’ll mount them in a book and when the book is finished it’s a work of art that is an artistic statement. The individual illustrations are just illustrations. I never saw myself as being anything else, right from the age of about three.

Did anyone take you seriously when you were younger and said you wanted to do this for a living?
I was fifteen and the careers officer came round and said, “Right, make queues: one for Raleigh, one for Players, one for Boots.” I didn’t want to do any of that, I wanted to go to art college and he didn’t know anything about it. So I went to Nottingham Art College with all my drawings in a suitcase and they said that they’d take me but that I needed GCEs. So I went to college and went back two years later. I then went on to study graphics at Loughborough University, because a graphics course was the only place that also did illustration.

So you bucked the trend of the expected route of going to work in a factory?
On my interview at art college I was told that my art was too romantic and they would knock that out of me - they didn’t. Then, while on my foundation course, I was told to forget all about drawing mad, fantastical things as there was no living to be made at it - well that was wrong in my case too (laughs).

What influences you nowadays?
There’s a whole raft of them but in particular turn of the century illustrators; Arthur Rackham, Edmond Dulac, Kay Nielsen and Aubrey Beardsley.

You once worked as an assistant taxidermist in your youth; is that something that influenced you in any way?
I worked for the school’s museum service, which was a unit that sent exhibits around to schools and I did many things in that place: illustration, display work, exhibits in cases, helping the taxidermist. I did that for about six or seven years and I learnt an awful lot which gets fed back into all the art I do.

Do you ever get artist’s block?
Oh no, never. I’m painfully aware that I’ll probably not survive what I want to achieve. I find if I do one thing, it generates four, five or six other things in my imagination and if I do any of those, they also generate the same again.

Your use of colour can invite a bit of controversy, why do you choose the dark reds and browns?
It’s a war pallet. I find it very emotive. If you look at the work of Arthur Rackham, people like that, they’re using lots of sepias and virtually to the exclusion of other things. A lot of colour is a bit cheesy, too in your face. I tend not to use blue because it’s very fugitive, which means it fades, so if you draw a picture and come back to it ten years later it’s all gone and that’s quite distressing. Greens are very cold. I like illustrations to be hot and vibrant.

So your art portrays a kind of grim, industrial utopia?
It’s a kind of social comment, if you want to intellectualise it. Games Workshop is dealing with two universes: there’s a fantasy universe, which is very dark and Tolkeinesque and there’s a science fiction universe that’s set 40,000 years into the future. Although the latter is science fiction, it’s more medieval fantasy in a futuristic setting. The inspiration for that is all around me, it’s everywhere, it’s in the architecture in Nottingham, mansion houses, gardens, tudor panelling. I very much live in the old.

Your Amazonia Gothique from 1986, was that a comment on the industry sexualising and exploiting the female form?
It wasn’t a commentary at all except for on the fashion of the day. I was hanging out with lots of glam rockers at the time, it was all big hair and leopard print.

Do you think sexualising the female form is still abundant, is there more or less of it than there was then?
There’s not a lot of it at all, but there is some. When we’ve got female death assassins in a skin-tight bodysuit, it’s you know, it’s what we do.

So what’s your favourite of your own work?
It’s the one I’m going to do next, always. If I look at old work, I essentially get embarrassed and think, “Oh god, that’s horrible, that’s shit”, so I want to get on to the next one.

What part of you is now artist and what is director?
Games Workshop has recently separated the sculpting department away from making paper product; the rules and the background and stuff. We’ve amalgamated that department with another one called the Black Library who produce novels and such to make Games Workshop Publishing. I’ve moved across with sculpting and more or less left the art director bit behind.

You’ve inspired many people. How does it feel to be a role model?
I belong to a community of people, rather than being some sort of icon. I’ve played games at the weekend with people who were still at school when I started with Games Workshop, so they’ve kind of absorbed everything I’m about. They’re the people that bought Games Workshop products, they’ve kept me going. I remember being at the big football stadium in Paris and I think there were about ten thousand people there and we were giving out prizes and things and the guy introduced me and everybody stood up and clapped and I was just like “WOAH”. It can be very humbling at times.

Conversely, some people are quite negative about your work. What would you say to them?
Some of my art is quickly drawn, it’s very expressive and I tend to draw like that primarily to put over ideas. I’ve got different styles but it’s that style in particular that seems to wind people up. It’s almost like abstract expressionism, it can disturb people, they tend to like the more digital, tighter, more considered type of art and that’s not what I do. They’re missing the point.

What inspired the cover you’ve done for this issue?
It’s a statement about the arts. The lion is symbolic of Nottingham and the skulls on sticks are the Janus masks. They are not just the smiling and grimacing faces of theatre, but they are also death’s heads; it all comes to death in the end. The Roman god Janus is looking forwards into the future and backwards into the past at what is to come and what has been. At once it is energy and it is entropy; one skull is wreathed in red roses which signifies the growth of creation and there you have the first and second laws of thermodynamics which govern all creation. The cherubs flit around it holding scrolls of texts, illustrating music and art. It’s interesting that it’s all on paper scrolls. The actual illustration is done on paper and drawn and coloured in traditional ways; the art world seems to be getting more and more digital but I’ve left all that behind, so I’m becoming more connected to entropy as I get older. Yet I still create which is energy. This is a bit intense I suppose, but it’s all meant. Life can be weird at times.

Do you see yourself stopping anytime soon?
I’m 65 this year, but I’m not retiring. When I was three I was drawing pictures and playing with toy soldiers, and I still am. I’ve never changed, I’ve never done anything else. It puts me in a very privileged position.

Games Workshop website

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