Thursday, May 2, 2013

Interview with Artist: James Gurney

Today is a real treat!  I had the great pleasure of doing an interview with one of my all time heroes in the field of not just paleo-art but art in general since I was a tiny kid, James Gourney! 

James Gurney is the author and illustrator of the New York Times bestselling Dinotopia book series. He designed the World of Dinosaurs stamps for the U.S. Postal Service and has worked on over a dozen assignments for National Geographic magazine, painting reconstructions of Moche, Kushite, and Etruscan civilizations. He has won the Hugo, Chesley, Spectrum, and World Fantasy Awards. Solo exhibitions of his artwork have been presented at the Smithsonian Institution, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the Norton Museum of Art. He has recently been named a “Grand Master” by Spectrum Fantastic Arts and a “Living Master” by the Art Renewal Center. His most recent book, Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter (2010) has been Amazon’s #1 bestselling book on painting for over 100 weeks and is based on his daily blog

Question 1: At what age did you become interested in dinosaurs?  Were they always a subject of your art?

JG: When I was about eight years old my parents took me to a science museum where I was a life-size skeleton of an Allosaurus. I was bowled over to see such a fantastic and scary-looking creature and to be told it was real. But dinosaurs were just one of my interests as a kid. I also was keenly interested in sailboats and ships. When I wasn’t actually sailing, I built working scale models that I sent on voyages across a duck pond in Palo Alto, California where I grew up. Since I was the son of a mechanical engineer, most of my drawings were in the form of plans for working models of boats, airplanes, and kites that I built from scratch.

Giganotosaurus illustrated by James Gurney for National Geographic.

Question 2: What medium do you most prefer to use for your art?  Any particular reason why?

JG: I work mostly in pencil, watercolor, and oil. All the Dinotopia pictures are painted in oil, except for the lettering and the maps, which are done all by hand with a dip pen. Oil is my favorite because it’s the most versatile and forgiving. I often use oil in transparent washes over a line drawing that has been sealed with acrylic matte medium. I like working traditionally not only because I prefer the results that I get that way but also because I like having a physical result that I can exhibit in a museum or eventually sell to a collector. 
My method is based on the nineteenth century academic approach: thumbnail sketches in black and white and color, studies or photos from costumed models, plein air sketches, and lots of reference photos filed away in a set of filing cabinets. I explain this process in detail in my book Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist. 

Question 3: Is there any particular artist who inspired you growing up?  How about today?

JG: I was bitten by the dinosaur art bug as a kid, thanks to the Zdenek Burian illustrations in the Time/Life book on evolution.Those pictures looked as real as photos to me, in fact I thought they were photos somehow, and it really made me want to learn how to make paintings look real. I also fell in love with Golden Age illustration at an early age, as a result of reading the old adventure classics by Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne, especially Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. I would look forward to each of the glorious illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. I was also completely floored by seeing original paintings by Norman Rockwell and lithos by M.C. Escher as a 12 year old.
It’s hard to pick one artist who inspires me now. Should I choose from the world of landscape painting, figure work, natural history illustration, caricature, animation, comics, or concept art? There are so many great artists that spring to mind. Most of the time I’m looking at artists from a hundred years ago or so. If you read my blog GurneyJourney, you can get a pretty good idea of the artists I admire, both living and not living.

Patagonian Dinosaurs illustration by James Gurney from National Geographic.

 Question 4: When did you decide to pursue a career in illustration?  

JG: I always wanted to be an artist, and started freelancing as an illustrator in high school, but I took time first to go to college to sample from all the other subjects that interested me: paleontology, astronomy, history, and geology. At UC Berkeley I majored in archaeology, a subject I 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 some very helpful material about perspective. But I got hired out of art school to work as a background painter in the animated film Fire and Ice with Frank Frazetta and Ralph Bakshi. Most of what I have learned about art has come from sketching from life and from studying art instruction books that were 50 or 100 years old.

Tyrannosaurus by James Gurney.

Question 5: Have you ever received any negative feedback on any of your work?  How do you respond to that?

JG: I have received all sorts of feedback and I try to learn from it all. Obviously some of it is more informed or constructive than others, but I’m interested in everyone’s view, and people are experts in different things. I once was working on a picture of the inside of an attic and showed the preliminary sketches to my contractor, who pointed out how I got the window framing wrong. Luckily I caught that one before I went to the final painting.

One of the many beautiful worlds created by James Gurney for Dinotopia.

 Question 6: Art and illustration is such a diverse field.  It has also changed dramatically within the past decade or so.  What advice would you have to give an aspiring artist today?

JG: Yes, it has changed, especially now in the way content is distributed and monetized. Fortunately in the long run those changes are going to be in the creator’s favor. For advice, I would suggest to forget about style and concentrate on the fundamentals of perspective, anatomy, light and color theory, and all that. There’s always a demand for people who can paint realistic images of imaginary scenes. The field of illustration is competitive but not cutthroat. Nearly everyone I’ve met in the paleoart field, both among scientists and artists, 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. I believe that desire and hard work are worth more than talent. Genius, as Thomas Carlyle once said, is the infinite capacity for taking pains.

Question 7: In addition to your dinosaur illustrations, you are also well versed in many other subjects when it comes to painting such as portraits of people and modern landscapes for example. What do you use for reference when painting extinct dinosaurs since there is nothing alive today like them? 

JG: My specialty is painting realistic scenes that can’t be photographed, either for paleoart, historical illustration, or fantasy/science fiction. Regarding dinosaur illustrations, every artist has to do a lot of analogous or lateral thinking. So I sketch live hatchlings in a robin’s nest to get ideas for what dinosaur hatchlings might look and act like. And I paint from observation in swamps and conifer forests to get a sense of how a paleo environment might look and sound and smell like.  In my sketching life, I draw EVERYTHING. In one week of a recent sketchbook I’ve drawn a goat, a jet airliner, a Renaissance doublet, a lady’s braids, and a salt shaker in a diner. I also paint everything: portraits, landscapes, and animals. One of my greatest heroes as a draftsman is Adolf Menzel, who also drew everything around him. I recently wrote a book about him that will be coming out from Dover this fall.

Question 8: Blending the themes of scientifically accurate dinosaurs with human civilization in a fantasy setting is something you have seemed to have mastered through your work with the Dinotopia franchise.  Was this difficult to achieve visually at first? If so how did you ultimately get it to flow so well?

JG: Thanks. I worked for many years as an illustrator for National Geographic. I was exposed to those magazines when I was a kid. I would tiptoe out in the hall at night to read about great explorers like Hiram Bingham discovering Machu Picchu. My ambition in third grade was to find a dinosaur or a lost city. I started excavations in my backyard and had my friends helping me until their mothers told them they couldn’t come over anymore because they always came home with their pockets full of dirt.
 One of my first assignments when I became a professional illustrator came from National Geographic. they sent me on assignment to reconstruct the world Etruscans, so I got to poke around some recently discovered tombs in Tarquinia and use some of my archaeological training. They also sent me to Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem, and I worked with a lot of archaeologists and paleontologists. 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. Those initial steps into fantasy were with the same kinds of images I was doing for Nat Geo, so it came naturally.
For the full story of the making of Dinotopia, please check out my 13 minute video on YouTube: "Dinotopia: Art, Science, and Imagination."

Question 9: The Dinotopia series has many unique and creative concepts in it with regards to humans and dinosaurs working together in a civilized setting.  What normally fuels your ideas for these concepts?  Did you draw inspiration from real civilizations and cultures?

JG: When I’m brainstorming new ideas, I dive into piles of books and images, I go to zoos, I sketch in museums, I gather costumes, I sculpt maquettes, and I read a lot. Basically everything and anything feeds into Dinotopia.

Question 10: What did you think about how your ideas translated into a TV series back in the early 2000s?  Did they do your renderings of dinosaurs justice?  Was there anything you would have changed?

JG: I wasn’t involved with the production, but I think they did a good job in many respects. The rights rolled over from Columbia pictures, which was developing it for a movie, to Hallmark Entertainment, which created the TV version. I did get a chance to visit the set on a day of the filming.
Considering everything, they did a pretty good job. The show won an Emmy for special effects. Framestore (Walking with Dinosaurs) did a very good job with the CGI. At first I was surprised that the producers departed so much from the books by setting it in the modern day. But in a way I’m kind of glad they did, because now I don’t have to think about the faces of any particular actors when I imagine my main characters.
There has been a lot of interest recently in film versions of Dinotopia’s origin story, the period covered in the book Dinotopia: First Flight, which has a lot of drama and conflict and moral choices that would render well into the film medium. But the story and the execution has to be just right.

Jack Horner and James Gurney discussing Maiasaura.

Question 11: You also do a lot of scientific paleo-illustration.  What kind of research do you do in order to make sure your subjects are as accurate as possible?  Do you work closely with any paleontologists?

JG: Yes, I’ve been grateful to work with people like Jack Horner, Scott Sampson, and Paul Sereno on illustrations for articles in Scientific American, Discover, The US Postal Service, and National Wildlife Federation. When I painted the World of Dinosaurs stamps for the postal service, I had the help of several paleonotologists. And I just recently completed a set of dinosaur stamps for a foreign government (can’t say which yet) and had the privilege of traveling to work with the paleontologist in that country.
Michael Brett-Surman of the Smithsonian was a great help with Dinotopia since the very beginning. I was honored when he curated a one-man show of Dinotopia at the Smithsonian back in 2002, and after that we had a museum show of original art called “Dinotopia: Art, Science, and Imagination” at the Norman Rockwell Museum and at several natural history museums. If there are any natural history museums interested in hosting a future exhibit, please contact me.

Question 12: Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum I know) were the movies I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs. What was your most memorable movie?

JG: I always loved Fantasia, not just for the dinosaurs but also for several of the other segments. Jurassic Park came out right after Dinotopia, and was sort of the polar opposite view of dinosaurs--more as scary monsters rather than possible allies. It was very well executed, and I had a chance to visit the set and see the animatronic T. rexes with the sculptor Mike Trcic during principle photography.

Question 13: Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures. Why do you feel dinosaurs continue to fascinate us?

JG: Prehistoric animals live at that magical intersection between fact and fantasy. We can only know so much from the fossils and footprints, and after that we have to leap off the cliff of imagination. And new forms are constantly being discovered. Who needs to dream up fantasy creatures when you have Therizinosaurus and Microraptor? The recent material coming out of the Liaoning province in China has really inspired me, and Journey to Chandara includes many of the new small feathered theropods. For research I sketched a lot of birds, not just for ideas on how to draw feathers, but also to understand the display and preening behaviors that avian dinosaurs have developed. I have a pet parakeet who sits on a perch beside me when I’m painting, and he’s become kind of a key advisor on such matters.

Question 14: What is your favorite time period?

JG: If you mean geological time period, I’d love to go back to anytime in the Mesozoic. I could be safely
disguised as a bush or something, I’d want to see what happens alongside a watering hole in a dry region in the Jurassic. I’ve always wondered how sauropods drink water, and I’d love to see them wade and splash around and maybe catch a crocodile sneak attack. I’d also love to be in Liaoning, China during the courtship season just to see how the feathered dinosaurs looked in full display. I’d give one eyeball away if the other one could see the coloration and the movements of those creatures.

Question 15: Do you have any other hobbies or interests besides art?
 JG: I don’t have too many non-art hobbies lately, but when I get some free time I have enjoyed building and flying radio controlled gliders, making rustic furniture, splitting firewood, constructing stone walls, and kayaking. 
I ride a unicycle, own a parakeet and make videos. Check out “unicycle painter” and “parakeet artist” on YouTube.

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