John Blanche, art director of UK based miniature wargames company Games Workshop, does not have a typical day. He may draw or visualise layouts, discuss projects with the art manager and art team or create concept art for miniature design. Whatever the task, Blanche is adamant that his work is created to inspire, to open up new doors of thought, not to prescribe. He is not subjected to schedules; in fact, no one tells him what to do. Instead, he feels an enormous responsibility to the Warhammer hobby.
‘I’ve been doing the Games Workshop thing for a number of decades now and have found that I have so much experience and such a vision for the Warhammer universes that I operate on a level I would have never seen myself doing,’ says Blanche. ‘I’m driven, maybe obsessed. When I was three, I played with toy soldiers, and now I’m nearly sixty-three, and still play with them. I have the best job I could ever wish for.’
Blanche prefers small, intimate meetings where he can project his vision and bounce ideas around without the distractions a large group would bring. ‘I find that the more people involved, the more opinions fly about; all I’m interested in is the hard information that enables me to visualise art and design, the creation of a visual grammar and original extensions of our IP. Glorious art.’
Such is the passion that drives the man responsible for the dark, fantastical aesthetic of both the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 universes. It has been this way for Blanche for over thirty years, and along with the other two figures in the holy triad of the Warhammer machine - game designer Rick Preistly and intellectual property manager Alan Merret - has been hugely responsible for Games Workshop’s success, both as a cultural influence and an industry leader in miniature wargaming.
The particular stylistic blend of the Warhammer universes is about artfully reflecting reality, creating a truer form of fiction than the average fantasy setting, and ultimately understanding and taking control of well-entrenched archetypes to take them in new directions. For Blanche, it’s been a lifelong pursuit, something that has been steadily added to, corrected, enhanced and discovered along the way. It is, in many ways, an amalgamation of the loves and experiences of Blanche himself.
‘As a family, we loved visiting ruined monasteries, castles, manor houses and especially gothic arts and crafts houses, of which there are a good few in England,’ says Blanche. “The work of early twentieth century illustrators such as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Aubrey Beardsley, Harry Clarke and Kay Nielsen; I grew up with a lot of this in the hippy era.” Indeed, many of these illustrators enjoyed a revival in popularity in the 1960s. This proved timely for the young Blanche, creating a foundation of sorts, the influence of which is clearly present in his work, past and present.
The inspiration and influence from artists Blanche admires ebbs and flows, but some remain almost eternal, namely Ian Miller, Rembrandt, William Turner, even Jackson Pollock. Others have left indelible marks at points in Blanche’s artistic development. Renaissance artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Albrecht Altdorfer, Matthias Grünewald and Pieter Bruegel the Elder prove especially influential. Various nineteenth century artists also add to the mix; Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Burne-Jones, John Martin, Gustave Doré, Claude Monet and Ilya Repin.
Blanche also credits literature; Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Mervyn Peake remaining at the forefront. Early Ridley Scott films The Duellists and Blade Runner remain powerful influences, as well as the original 1933 King Kong. But Blanche maintains that ultimately all of life is inspirational. While art remains important, it’s often the simple things that deeply affect him. “Nature, weather, moss, rust, hair, clouds. The surface of paint to the swirling film of soap on water… the list goes on.”
A sense of depth, of something more to be discovered, is a common element in Blanche’s varied, yet focused, taste. His devotion to electronic music since the late 1960s through the Basic Channel stable of artists, particularly Deepchord and Echospace, offers the same effects. “The music is like weather, which is just like looking into a Rembrant, Turner or Pollock; multilayered with an atmosphere that evokes a very tangible emotional response in me.”
Look at what arrived in the mail today. Published in 1979 by Martyn and Roger Dean's publishing house, Paper Tiger.
JB: The Prince and the Woodcutter was my first professional work. Roger gave me a monthly retainer set against royalties which allowed me to give up full time employment as a graphic designer/illustrator/display artist and become freelance. About ‘78, I think.
I have yet to read the actual story, but naturally have gone through all of the illustrations. They are striking, meticulously rendered, transporting.
There were many, many pieces I had never seen before. If you’re a Blanche fan you might want to nab yourself a copy on Ebay or Abebooks.