In the 2000's, Howe has appeared in many documentaries and has produced two of his own "fantasy workshop" books on drawing and design methods.
John Howe was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. One year after graduating from high school, he studied in a college in Strasbourg, France, then at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs.
He became best known for his work based on J.R.R. Tolkien's world. In 1999, Howe and Alan Lee were chosen as the lead artists of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Howe also re-illustrated the maps of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion in 1996–2003. His work is however not limited to this, and includes images of myths such as the Arthurian legend or Beowulf. He also illustrated many other books, amongst which many belong to the fantasy genre (Robin Hobb's books for instance.) Howe also contributed to the film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. He is an expert in medieval armour and weaponry.
He contributed art to the HarperCollins paperback editions of The History of Middle-earth series, and for Unfinished Tales. Fantasy Flight Games' Lord of the Rings board game and the War of the Ring board game (2004) also feature art by Howe.
In 2006, Myth and Magic: The Art of John Howe was written and compiled by himself alongside Peter Jackson, as the first published portfolio of his paintings and sketches.
Writer Brian Sibley has collaborated with John Howe many times for map-book productions of Middle-earth: The Maps of Tolkien's Middle-earth (1995), There and Back Again: The Map of The Hobbit (1995), The Map of Tolkien's Beleriand and the Lands to the North (1999), The Road Goes Ever On and On: The Map of Tolkien's Middle-earth (2009), West of the Mountains, East of the Sea (2010), and There and Back Again: The Map of the Hobbit (2010). These feature maps and accompanying illustrations by Howe, and commentary by Sibley.
Howe became the chief appearance in Oliver Simonnet's 2014 documentary series Looking for the Hobbit, in which he explores and tours both the film set and real-life locations that inspired Tolkien's literary creation, such as spots in Germany and Iceland.
In October 2018, Howe saw the publication of A Middle-earth Traveler: Sketches from Bag End to Mordor, a 176-page anthology specifically of his major Middle-earth illustrations, equivalent to Alan Lee's earlier The Lord of the Rings Sketchbook.
Howe is criticized by some for pushing a medieval look on Middle-earth: whereas Tolkien's Middle-earth, a world filled with descendants of a once-great empire (Númenor) in many ways resembles more ancient Greece or ancient Egypt in their waning days, John Howe's Middle-earth is visually based primarily on medieval Europe. This look was incorporated partially into Peter Jackson's movies. It can, however, be argued that Howe's interpretation is quite accurate, since Europe's medieval period also followed a great empire (the Roman Empire). The world of Middle-earth contains other anachronisms, most importantly the Hobbits' almost Edwardian lifestyle.