The (not so) gothic art of John Blanche
All hail the King
In the grim darkness of the far future or the Mortal Realms, there is no name as well known as John Blanche. With forty years of work on the worlds of Warhammer, the artist Games Workshop jokingly describes as its “Visionary in Chief” has inspired thousands of miniature enthusiasts and artists across the globe.
For John, it all began at the age of three, when his kin congratulated him for the innocent drawing of a wedding ceremony. A child of the working class, John grew up dreaming about being an artist, an ambition nourished by his love for miniatures. At eight, he paints his first toy soldiers, a bunch of sparkling knights. We’re years away from the nightmarish universes of Warhammer, but little John is hooked, for good. So he’s painting, easel and miniatures alike. Unlike most of us, even his student years won’t stop him. A Fine Arts graduate, John Blanche is already respected for his romanticism, but his teachers believe he would never make a living out of his art. But he doesn’t seem to care. He manages to find his first job in a museum, where he spends his time working on ever-growing paintings. Strange castles, massive battle scenes and the like.
In 1976, he’s now a freelance artist, lucky enough to meet the right people at the right time. When Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson open their first Games Workshop store, they ask him for a few drawings. They will soon adorn the cover of White Dwarf, Games Workshop’s official magazine. Here begins a collaboration that is still very much alive today, although John Blanche has changed positions over the years. For the worlds of Warhammer, he has been an illustrator and a concept artist. He even managed the art direction of these two universes during several years. It is under his reign that now-legendary artists like Wayne England, Adrian Smith, Paul Bonner or Dave Gallagher were recruited. All inspired by his vision, they did, in turn, bring life to the worlds of Warhammer.
But what vision are we talking about, exactly? Is “gothic” the right word? Yes and no, according to the man himself. Gothic is a bit tired. Gothic fits every occasion, from Victorian architecture to Warhammer miniatures. John prefers “baroque”, a style known for its excess of ornamentation, much like the suit of armour of a Space Marine, or the shield of a soldier fighting for the Empire. This exuberance is characteristic of Blanche’s art, where tableau storytelling meets punk brushstroke. A unique melange inspired Europeans masters like Rembrandt, Albrecht Dürer or Jérôme Bosch. Just like Blanche, they don’t use much blue. But back in their day, the colour was rare, fleeting and quite hard to capture. Nowadays, it’s everywhere, and John finds it boring. That’s probably why his paintings are full of browns, reds and yellows, the shades of mud, blood and explosions. The colours of war, in short.
At seventy-two years old, Blanche still lends a hand to Games Workshop, once in a while. You can even see the master at work in theses episodes of Stormcast and Voxcast, the company’s official podcasts.
Some of John’s most famous pieces for the worlds of Games Workshop
Advertisement, covers and paintings from John, beyond the worlds of Warhammer
Concepts from John. Warhammer fans will surely recognize some of their favourite miniatures
For John, miniatures and art always went hand in hand. His paintings have inspired some of Warhammer’s finest kits, including recent ones, like the mighty Belisarius Cawl. And in turn, these kits have been tuned to his style by hundreds of miniature hobbyists around the world. They all share a passion for Blanche’s unique take on Sci-Fi and Fantasy, where characters are usually covered in browns, odd and most importantly broken, a bit like Fagin, Oliver Twist’s antagonist. Much like Dickens, one of his idols, Blanche always had a knack for creating new archetypes. These have been explored since August 1987 in a White Dwarf column, Blanchitsu. More than thirty years later, this name is a banner under which miniatures enthusiasts meet and develop hellish warbands, zealot courts, inquisitorial suites and other fascinating creations that couldn’t be more different from your typical Heroic or Space Fantasy heroes.
John’s miniatures over the years, including a few Chaos Space Marines published in White Dwarf
What is Grimdark anyway?
“Grimdark” is another portmanteau word often used to describe John Blanche’s art. It actually comes from the famous tagline of Warhammer 40,000 that I used to open this article. And sure, it captures the intense imagery of this universe alright. But when it comes to Blanche’s style, I think the word, just like gothic or even baroque, might be a bit reductive. To me, his work always felt weirdly realistic, because of its imperfections. Never hidden, they’re bringing life to the paintings. Much like their characters, they are crippled. Yes, the colour is bleeding, the stroke is exposed, the details are infectious, and not everybody likes it. But if you go beyond this overwhelming first impression, you soon understand the ink stains are actually birthmarks. You start to see the vigorous pen and brushstrokes as battle scars. And before you realise it, you’ve spent hours looking at a single painting, both disgusted and fascinated by it. In my humble opinion, it is this body horror feeling that makes John Blanche’s art so intriguing and timeless.