James Gurney’s exquisite paintings have brought to life ancient and fantastic worlds, including the Earth populated by dinosaurs in his famous Dinotopia series of illustrated books. Dinotopia won fans not only for its perfectly rendered imaginative vision, but also for its humanistic storytelling, which departed from the violence and dark worldview that often characterizes the adventure/fantasy genre. Paleontologists have praised the Rhinebeck artist for his accuracy: One scholar noted his knack for “giving the dinosaurs expressions I find believable…this has probably affected my own view of them.”
But Dinotopia is just one facet of a rich and successful career. Gurney has published eight books, including two artist’s how-to guides on technique. He has illustrated hundreds of sci-fi and adventure/fantasy book covers and published paintings recreating lost civilizations in National Geographic for more than a decade. He has exhibited at museums across the US, Canada and Europe, lectured widely, and also is an accomplished plein air painter.
Born in Glendale, California in 1954, Gurney has resided with his family in Rhinebeck since 1984. To learn more about his creative process, influences and non-art interests, which include riding a unicycle, read on in this Q & A between Gurney and Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods.
Lynn Woods: You’re both a plein air painter and illustrator of fantastic and ancient worlds. These are two genres often considered exclusive of each other. How does your observational painting relate to your imaginative creations? Do you have a preference for one or the other?
James Gurney: The plein air work gives me ideas for light and color that I use in my imaginative work. For example, I traveled on a sketching trip to the Southwest desert to get inspiration for Dinotopia’s Canyon City. Much of Waterfall City is based on sketches that I did in Venice. The outer eye feeds the inner eye. Observational work builds the visual vocabulary for imaginative painting.
LW: How long does it take to complete a detailed painting?
JG: It takes anywhere from a couple of days to a month. The longest I spent on a painting was a Civil War painting I did of the sinking of the Cumberland, which had over 100 figures and two complex ships. It took two months to paint and almost two years to research.
LW: You also are a narrative and instructional writer. How does writing fit into the hierarchy of your favorite activities?
JG: I have always loved writing just as much as making art. I was co-author of a book, called The Artist’s Guide to Sketching, which was published by Watson-Guptill in 1982, when I was 24 years old. With the Dinotopia series, I wanted to write the story because the words were so intimately bound up with my visual imaginings. Both writing and painting spring from a deeper source that’s more like a dream experience.
LW: I know you’ve probably been asked this a thousand times, but how did the Dinotopia series come about?
JG: It sprang from my work as an archaeological illustrator for National Geographic. I had studied Archaeology in college and gotten a dream job reconstructing actual ancient cities for the magazine. It was a short leap to painting scenes of imaginary lost worlds. Large paintings such as Dinosaur Parade led to the idea of an illustrated book. You can see a video on YouTube called Dinotopia: Art, Science and Imagination that tells the whole story of the inspiration.
LW: Did you also study Art in college?
JG: I went first to UC Berkeley and majored in Archaeology, a subject that had always fascinated me. I then attended a couple of semesters at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where I learned a lot about perspective.
However, I am mostly self-taught. I developed my own curriculum of self-teaching based on The Famous Artists’ Course, published in the 1950s, Andrew Loomis’ book Creative Illustration and the teaching methods of the 19th-century French Academy, which involved detailed anatomy and cast drawing. The best book for learning about French academic painting methods is The Academy and French Painting in the 19th Century by Albert Boime, published in 1971.
I also did a lot of daily outdoor sketching, which became such a passion that I ended up coauthoring The Artist’s Guide to Sketching.
LW: Who were your main influences?
JG: Norman Rockwell was my childhood hero. I also always loved M. C. 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 are Frederic Church, William Bouguereau, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Tom Lovell and Howard Pyle.
LW: How did you get started?
JG: My first big break was getting a job painting backgrounds for an animated film called Fire and Ice, co-produced by Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta and released in 1983. It was a marathon of painting, because I had to paint about 600 paintings in a year-and-a-half.
LW: What is your working method when working on a Dinotopia painting?
JG: To paint a realistic scene of an imaginary world, I use a combination of methods that artists have been using since the Renaissance: preliminary sketches, maquettes or miniatures, figures posing in costume and plein-air studies. I outline the whole process on my blog GurneyJourney (search Dinotopia) and in my book Imaginative Realism.
LW: Your paintings explore worlds of vast distance, in time and space. Do you travel much? If so, what’s your favorite place?
JG: I love to travel, both near and far. Some of my favorite sketching experiences have been in Poughkeepsie and Kingston. But I like far-flung trips and have had some memorable junkets to North Africa, Ireland and other countries.