James Gurney: Making the Past Come to Life
by Paula DiSanto Bensadoun
Come July we will be able to travel to Dinotopia guided by the words and images that James Gurney will share with us. With him we will explore what one admirer has referred to as a "rich world of Jurassic proportions". He will be discussing his experiences in creating the third in his series of books about Dinotopia and display some of the 150 original oil paintings he created for his latest book, Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara.
His own personal adventure started when he traveled to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome on assignment for National Geographic. There he explored Etruscan ruins, ancient tombs and old cities and dreamt about discovering a lost city like Machu Picchu or Troy. He realized that he could paint such a lost city and bring it to life. Indeed he did using his unique gifts of a fertile imagination, a gifted hand and good scientific information and unflagging energy. He decided to draw a map of an unknown island and came up with the idea of a Victorian explorer, Arthur Denison, who discovers the island and maintains a journal of his explorations. Gurney discovers these journals, written in 1869 and in Denison's own hand telling of his travels as he trekked across Dinotopia, a prehistoric place richly populated with humans and dinosaurs living in peaceful coexistence.
His talk will take us behind the scenes in the creation of Dinotopia and describe "the nitty gritty" of his work, his source material, his medium and method as well as his interactions with scientists (very important in making his creatures accurate and believable). His work is a captivating culmination of art, science and fantasy that is unforgettable.
James Gurney grew up in California, earned a B.A. with Phi Beta Kappa honors in Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. He studied painting at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena where he met his future wife, Jeanette, who is also an artist. In 1984 they moved to the Hudson Valley of New York a place which is the inspiration for much of his plein air painting. Outdoor sketching became such a passion for him that he ended up co-authoring a book on the subject for Watson-Guptill called The Artist’s Guide to Sketching. Much of what he has learned has been self-taught and influenced by 19th century French Academy painting methods which involved fairly detailed anatomy and cast drawing. He builds scale models for architectural subjects and extinct creatures, uses models dressed in period costume and also refers to a photographic reference file when necessary. All of this contributes to the creation of the realistic scenes that transport us, with gusto, into a strange and different world.
We extend an enthusiastic welcome to James Gurney and in the meantime anyone wanting more information can visit: www.jamesgurney.com or www.dinotopia.com or his blog, www.gurneyjourney.blogspot.com His talk will be open to the general public.
Q: Did you study art in college?
I went first to UC Berkeley and majored in archaeology, a subject that always fascinated me. I then went to school for a couple of semesters at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where I learned very helpful material about perspective. However, most of what I have learned has been self-taught. After Art Center, I developed my own curriculum of self-teaching based on The Famous Artist's Course from the 1950s, Andrew Loomis's book Creative Illustration, and the teaching methods from the 19th Century French Academy, which involved fairly detailed anatomy and cast drawing. The best book for learning about French academic painting methods is The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century by Albert Boime, 1971. All this self-teaching from books was combined with daily outdoor sketching, which became such a passion that I ended up co-authoring a book on the subject for Watson-Guptill called The Artist's Guide to Sketching.
Q: Who were your main influences?
Norman Rockwell was my childhood hero. I also always loved MC Escher. Both artists really succeed in pulling viewers into their work. I also greatly admire the Dutch book illustrator Rien Poortvliet. Other artists I admire: Frederic Church, William Bouguereau, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and Howard Pyle.
Q: How did you break into the field?
As a high school student, I learned how to do hand-lettered calligraphy, and made my first income designing wedding invitations. I got a job doing engraved line illustrations for ring ads in the newspaper. I didn't really start in the business until I was about 20, when I started doing paperback covers for science fiction and fantasy books. I never used agents or sourcebooks, instead sending samples directly to art directors.
Q: How did you get hired by National Geographic?
I sent them samples and went in for an interview. They didn't like the samples at first (because they were fantasy-related), but liked my attention to detail, and gave me a chance. They work with their illustrators on a freelance basis, though in the past they used to have artists on staff. The magazine doesn't use much in the way of traditional illustration any more, unfortunately. I traveled to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome on assignment for National Geographic, and it was a huge inspiration to see those famous old cities. I spent time with Rick Bronson, an archaeologist who was just like Indiana Jones. He led me through overgrown jungles to find little known Etruscan ruins, and we descended down ladders into newly-discovered tombs. Sitting around the campfire at night, Dr. Bronson and I would talk about dreams of discovering a lost city like Machu Picchu or Troy. I realized that I could always make a painting of such a lost city, and that led to Dinosaur Parade and Waterfall City. After that, I drew a map of an unknown island and came up with the idea of a Victorian explorer who discovers this island and reports about it in his journal.
Q: Can you describe your working environment?
My studio is part of my house, right above the garage. There's a four-foot square skylight above the painting area, flanked by color-balanced fluorescents. Countertops are covered with dinosaur models and toy robots and the closets are full of costumes and props. I have a pet parakeet named Kooky who hangs out on a big playground right next to my painting area. My window looks out past a bird-and-butterfly garden to an oak forest, inhabited by Pileated Woodpeckers, a flock of wild Turkeys, and families of foxes. I typically work from 8:30 to 5:30 five or six days a week, listening to classical music and books on tape as I paint and draw. I usually sit down when I paint indoors, but stand up when I paint studies outdoors from nature.
Q: How long does it take to make a picture?
Some pictures only take a day; most take a week; big ones with lots of people take about a month. Most time is spent in the preparatory stages. Each Dinotopia book takes me about three years to write and illustrate. All the pictures are painted in oil.
Q: Could you describe your picture-making process?
I start with small thumbnail sketches in marker or pencil, sometimes dozens. If it's an architectural subject or a dinosaur, I'll often build a little model or mockup to establish shadows and angles. If necessary I enlist models to pose in costume, usually friends or neighbors. I either take photos or do tone paper sketches of the models. I have a large mirror mounted in the studio and often develop tone paper studies of myself posing in costume to get the basic action. I also have a scrap file of color magazine photos that I use for texture and form ideas. If the painting requires scientific or historical accuracy, I consult with experts at every stage of the process and incorporate their suggestions. After all these studies, I work up the line drawing, and sometimes a full charcoal drawing, and finally begin the final painting.
Q: Do you use any particular medium?
Oil is my favorite, though I didn't begin using oil until my 20s. I often use oil in transparent washes over a line drawing that has been sealed with acrylic matte medium. I've been using just turpentine and Liquin for the painting. All the Dinotopia paintings are done in oil. Sometimes I'll start with a pen and ink drawing or an acrylic wash-in. I often work on heavy weight illustration board, and sometimes on oil-primed linen canvas.
Q: You mix real and fantastical elements, often to make an impossible scene look believable. What is your thought process in this kind of work?
Some people have called this kind of work "imaginative realism" or "reality-based fantasy", but I think it's really what artists have always done through history in portraying scenes from myth, literature, and the Bible. Basically what I'm trying to do is to create a realistic image of a scene that could never be photographed. My guiding philosophy is the old Latin saying "Ars est celare artem", which means that true art conceals the artifice of its making. For me, creating depth and illusion is one of the most exciting goals of painting, but it's just a first step, because the higher goal is to select, accentuate, and subordinate all the elements of the picture to communicate a particular mood or feeling, and that goes beyond mere illusionism.
Q: What methods do you use for achieving this realism?
I often build scale models for architectural subjects and extinct creatures, I pose models in costume whenever I can, I refer to a photographic reference file, and I refer to my own plein-air studies for form and color ideas.
Q: Are there moments of struggle in most paintings?
I find that the early stages of the painting, when the major areas are being established, are generally the hardest to get through. The reason is that the actual painting is very far from the original vision in my head. When this happens, I try to take one area to finish, and build from there.
Q: What is your advice about style?
Forget about style. Try to learn from nature with close observation and humility. Don't model your work after any living illustrator (including me). If you must study the work of other artists, pick ones from the distant past, and look at many different ones, not just one.
Q: What is your feeling about computers in art?
I'm personally committed to traditional painting and drawing. I have a deep love of the tactile quality of brushes and pigments and the physical presence of framed paintings. Nevertheless, I am fascinated by the new visual ideas that digital artists introduced, and I have enjoyed working with digital artists who have helped translate Dinotopia into other realms. Of course image-making is always in a time of transition. Traditional painting will always be around, but it will constantly evolve to fill new niches in the art world.
Q: What is the nature of the art business these days, and what advice would you have for aspiring artists?
It is competitive but not cutthroat. Nearly everyone I've met in the field has been congenial and welcoming to new talent. Of course there is always a surplus of young (and older) artists who want to be working in the field, but there is always room for a new voice with a new song. Keep in mind that desire and hard work are worth more than talent. Genius, as Thomas Carlyle once said, is the infinite capacity for taking pains.