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Greg and Tim Hildebrandt: The Tolkien Years
Text by Gregory Hildebrandt Jr

(Watson-Guptill, $24.95, 132 pages plus poster insert, paperback, 2001.)

In the fall of 1975, Greg and Tim Hildebrandt burst into the world of fantasy art with a calendar of their renderings of characters and scenes from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Their work was remarkable for its time in the way that cover scanthey used colour to portray incredible light and shadow contrasts, and for their vigorous depictions of the denizens of Middle Earth. And because of the huge commercial success this and their two subsequent Tolkien calendars brought them (along with the rather uninspired Star Wars poster art that, to this day, receives mixed reaction from Star Wars fanatics), the twins' style and technique quickly became among the most copied of their day.

And now, with the release of the first of the three much-anticipated Rings movies, it seems only fitting and proper that the art that brought fame and fortune to the Brothers Hildebrandt (as they identified themselves back then) should be made available for re-examination.

Greg and Tim Hildebrandt: The Tolkien Years accomplishes this with vivid reproductions of the artists' work from that era. Certain Tolkien-heads and those yearning for fantasy nostalgia from the disco seventies will appreciate that. But the real worth of this book can be found in the text written by Greg's son, Gregory Hildebrandt Jr. While he relates an affectionate, anecdotal memoir of a youngster raised in a post-hippie artistic environment, he also gives the reader an insightful and detailed look into the creative processes of his famous father and uncle.

Every one of the Hildebrandts' paintings in this volume is accompanied by the sketches and, where applicable, photographs of models used by the artists in its creation. ("The Polaroid camera was the greatest thing ever invented for artists with deadlines," comments Greg.) Opposite the reproduction of Gandalf Visits Bilbo, for example, is the original photograph of the artists' friend in the pose used for the wizard in the painting. The sketch of Bilbo's house and front property is mirror-imaged to the final piece, disappointingly without explanation. And here is where I have my only nit-pick with the book. The author seems to be too selective in giving us the creative insights of the artists. I was eager to find out why they had flipped their sketch for the painting. The answer is drowned in a sea of childhood memories.

Yet these memories are warmly enjoyable and rarely inappropriate. Early in the book, the author remembers the time when, at age five, he unwittingly became part of Father Greg and Uncle Tim's creative process:

Sneaking across the floor as silently as I could, I stepped on piles of sketches that crackled like dry leaves beneath my feet.

Drawing after drawing littered the floor. My presence was immediately detected -- I was caught!

My father turned and stared eagerly at me. His long hair and thick beard were wild and untamed, obviously a remnant of the sixties.

"Good, we were looking for a hobbit!" he shouted.

I was thrown into a set of hobbit clothes and the photo lights flashed to life. I stood alone, the wood floor rough beneath my bare feet. My body saturated in hot lights, it was difficult to see into the inky blackness that lay just beyond.

Sporadically, a hand would dart out of the darkness and grab my shirt. A fold was out of place and had to be fixed. The voices of my father and uncle danced about me as they adjusted this and moved that.

I sat on a pile of books, which acted as a tree stump. In my hand I held an old pipe. I was now Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who was smoking outside his house.

We learn throughout the text that the Hildebrandts selected models for their general body and face shape, not necessarily for specific features. And, as in most artistic communities of the seventies, there was no shortage of useful and willing friends and associates to choose from, including family members and, quite often, each other. Explaining their 1976 calendar painting, Return of the King, twin Greg says:

Tim and I are the soldiers on the far right. I remember Tim being really angry at me when I painted myself big, heroic, and holding the banner and him smaller and in the background.

(The thought came to me after reading this quote that they're identical twins, so who could tell?)

The brothers' thoughts and influences have been placed as quotes in large letters on almost every page of the book. Since the text consists of the author's recollections, the quotes are generally unrelated to each anecdote, but insightful to the process, or the influences behind each painting. Twin Tim:

I designed Rivendell to be the most ideal place for me to live. A house like this in the middle of nature is my dream. Sort of a Walt Disney take on Frank Lloyd Wright.

And while the techniques might be mundane to other artists, the Hildebrandts guide the reader through the germination and development of the ideas for each painting to the final product as though s/he were a patron.

Alas, in 1981 the twins severed their creative umbilicus and went their separate ways, each to pursue a career that best suited individual goals. Greg went on to illustrate covers for genre magazines and books, including a well received series of children's stories and fairytales. He also created artwork for collectors' plates by Lenox and the Franklin Mint. Tim created calendar artwork for TSR Games and Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern. He also illustrated covers for Starlog and Amazing Stories magazines, as well as several books by authors such as Poul Anderson and Alan Dean Foster. In 1993 they reunited to take on several commercial projects. Today they operate a gallery/museum in Hopatcong, NJ, from which they sell their own works as well as those of other artists.

Greg and Tim Hildebrandt: The Tolkien Years is a collection of classic fantasy art supported by a unique, insightful text. For me, though, it was the other way around. Because looking at these artworks again was like listening to an old Donna Summers record or watching a Charlie's Angels rerun; they're all tied inseparably to the bygone seventies. I, for one, was fascinated by the artists' explanations of how they developed their art back then. And how a young child took all of this extraordinary creativity around him as "normal". Regarding the calendar art, youngsters who're into the Rings movies will find it appealing in the main and fascinating at best. As for me, I already took this trip twenty some-odd years ago. Once was quite enough for me.

On a personal note: Towards the end of the book there are various photographs of the Hildebrandts' artist friends who posed for the painting used on the cover of the book. One face was immediately recognizable, that of the art teacher in our local elementary school at the time my sons attended. When I phoned my older son (who happens to be the same age as Greg Hildebrandt Jr) to ask if he knew of this connection, he cavalierly told me that he did, indeed; that the Hildebrandts had been in to speak to his class on several occasions; and, like most grade-school children, he was neither totally aware of, nor impressed by, the renown of his class's guest speakers.

It is a frightfully small world after all...

Review by Randy M Dannenfelser.

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© Randy M Dannenfelser 2 March 2002