While the overall concept of orcs draws on a variety of pre-existing mythology, the main conception of the creatures stems from the fantasy writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, in particular The Lord of the Rings.
"But of those unhappy ones who were ensnared by Melkor little is known of a certainty. For who of the living has descended into the pits of Utumno, or has explored the darkness of the counsels of Melkor? Yet this is held true by the wise of Eressëa, that all those of the Quendi who came into the hands of Melkor, ere Utumno was broken, were put there in prison, and by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in envy and mockery of the Elves, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes. For the Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Ilúvatar; and naught that had life of its own, nor the semblance of life, could ever Melkor make since his rebellion in the Ainulindalë before the Beginning: so say the wise. And deep in their dark hearts the Orcs loathed the Master whom they served in fear, the maker only of their misery. This it may be was the vilest deed of Melkor, and the most hateful to Ilúvatar."
The Silmarillion, chapter 3 "of the coming of the elves and the captivity of melkor"
Orcs fascinate me; the perpetual foot soldiers of Evil, inherently cruel, nasty creatures that are ultimately the end result of horrendous, deforming torture, both in origin as a species, and, I would imagine, on an individual level by the cruel, brutal nature of their societies. Do orcs love their children? Their parents? Are they capable of having friends even amongst their own kind? All questions that Tolkien leaves largely, frustratingly, unanswered; nowhere in either his books or in the jackson films do we ever get to see orcs as anything other than these horrible all-purpose antagonists, fighting, growling, and just being generally unpleasant, but I would think, just like humans or any other type of creature, that the vast majority of their actual day-to-day existence is spent just kind of getting through life; breathing, eating, sleeping, shitting, having sex where they can get it, sitting still, walking around, letting their minds wander. who knows where those minds go? if they sometimes, in a quiet moment, rise out of the squalid meanness that seems to be their psychological fallback position?
Physically i wanted these to have the feel of debased, devolved creatures; their bones and muscles bent and warped away from the greek perfection of their elvish progenitors. tolkien's world doesn't seem to operate by evolution - both humanity and all other living things in middle-earth simply springing to life, garden-of-eden style, more or less fully formed - but the orcs (and other evil humanoid creatures like trolls/giants) seem a good opportunity to draw from a lot of the physical traits of pre-humans, or of our cousins in the ape and monkey families, to give them the feel of having basically evolved backwards. There is strong and, to me, very convincing theory that a lot of the mythology of trolls and goblins and such are a leftover from early-modern man's interactions with the then-dwindling race of neaderthals, and certainly this seems to have influenced the physical portrayal of fairy tale monsters throughout history, right up to the classic illustrations of John Bauer and Arthur Rackham, and i wanted to keep these in that fairy tale goblin tradition, while taking them through perhaps a more serious, conscious biological lense; weather-beaten faces and bodies, long arms and torsos, short bow legs, bunched, narrow shoulders, crooked necks, big hands and feet, prehensile toes, rough, feral body hair distribution.
A couple orc faces in gouache with photoshop touch-ups; this was my first time experimenting with gouache (one of my first experiments with photoshop as well) and I find a lot of the time it helps, when trying out a new medium, to fall back on a familiar subject matter. These came from my recent (and umpteenth) re-reading of the "Uruk-Hai" chapter in the two towers, in which Tolkien, for the first time, gives us a look at the orcs from a little closer than the point of a sword, and orcs are pretty fucking scary up close and personal, especially when you're in their power as Merry and Pippin find themselves; their lives dependent upon some tenuous orders of Ugluk's that seemingly half of the company are just chomping at the bit to worm their way around, leering at the hobbits with their horrible faces and prodding at their soft flesh with harsh, clawed hands. The whole chapter has the feel of a prison rape in the making.
In many ways Tolkien's orcs seem to represent this all-purpose parody of society's "lower elements" especially as reckoned in Tolkien's time; like the weasels in "the Wind and the Willows" they speak in cockney accents and generally come off like grotesque exaggerations of crude working-class ruffians, best dealt with with a stern hand (usually one wielding a sword in Tolkien's world). Especially in the figure on the left, I'd hoped to somehow convey a distinct englishness to his face and expression, similar to how I might depict Mr. Hyde or some of the really bad pirates from "Treasure Island", while drawing out his features to horrible, inhuman dimensions; his face and head jutting from his shoulders like a living gargoyle, culminating in that leering (and dangerous looking) set of choppers. I imagine this is perhaps the yellow-fanged guard poor Pippin wakes up to. The way I see them, the orcs should be sort of like those post-Darwin political cartoons or phrenologist theories come to life; the ones in which just about any type of perceived social undesirable (the poor, the "criminal element," the chinese, blacks, the irish, ect) were painted as depraved ape-monsters.