Interview with Rhinebeck artist/writer and Dinotopia creator James Gurney

LW: What makes Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter [Gurney’s latest book, published in 2010] different from other instructional painting books?

JG: There’s a lot of dogma and misinformation in the field of color theory for artists, so I did a lot of research and based the book on the science of backyard optics, chemistry and visual perception. I also did a lot of reading in books on color and light theory from 100 years ago, when most artists were painting representationally and were more interested in painting a scene to make it look real.

LW: Can anyone learn to paint?

JG: Yes, I think so. There is a lot of good teaching available now, both near (Woodstock School of Art, Barrett House and Carriage House Art Studios are a few examples) and far. And there are a lot of good resources on the Internet and in books. I’m a great believer in self-teaching. If a person sticks with it, he or she can paint and paint well.

LW: How would you characterize the state of Realist painting today? Is it possible to speak of a school? What is your feeling about working from photos?

JG: These are all big questions. May I refer you to my blog post

About the state of Realist painting, I’ll leave that to the critics and the historians, but I do talk a lot about specific painters and paintings on my art blog.

LW: What is your favorite art historical period?

JG: I draw inspiration from them all, but I keep coming back to the great era of academic painting (1870-1890) and the Golden Age of American illustration (1890-1920), the latter of which was a natural outgrowth of the former. Those artists tackled big subjects in a powerful way, and they connected with a very loyal and informed public, much in the same way that movies do today.

LW: What is the secret of your incredible productivity, as a painter, illustrator, writer, lecturer and teacher?

JG: Everyone asks me that, but I’m not as productive as people think. My pattern is to goof off and putter around for five years and then do seven years of work in a mad two-year stretch. But I suppose I think and talk about art most of my waking hours. Just ask my wife.

LW: How do you spend a typical day?

JG: There is no typical day. Work and play are so interwoven that I don’t think of it as time on or off. I don’t punch a clock, and it’s hard to divide productive time from time just goofing off.

LW: When you’re not working, what do you like to do?

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.

LW: Do you utilize digital technology in your work, such as drawing software tools? Do you see the computerization of illustration and graphic design as a good or bad thing?

JG: Let me say first that I love using certain digital tools: digital video, digital photography, digital graphic design programs and digital audio. I also admire the work of many of my fellow artists who do digital paintings, and I have learned a lot about lighting and surfaces from seeing what people are doing in the 3-D field.

But for me, when it comes to making pictures, I like to use physical materials. I can’t help feeling this way. For me the painting needs to have an embodied form, something I can hold in my hands. Otherwise it seems like a ghost or a mirage, something that might fade from sight when I look in the other direction.

I love all the tactile sensations of painting with brushes and writing with dip pens. I like the fact that you can take a sketchbook to a mountaintop or into a barn with a goat chewing on it. I also like using the same tools that artists have used for centuries. And I like the commitment that traditional media demand of me. Lay a stroke and leave it, no going back. That’s one reason I’ve been enjoying watercolor so much lately. It’s the art equivalent of wingsuit base jumping. Watercolor painting is making the best of a free fall.

The last reason is pragmatic. I have two separate exhibitions of almost 200 framed Dinotopia paintings that I send around to museums. Lately I’ve been selling just one or two paintings per year, but one day I hope those paintings will provide for my retirement. If they were all digital paintings, neither the museum shows nor the original sales would be possible.

LW: Do you paint or draw much in the Hudson Valley? What do you like most about living in the area?

JG: There are a few farms near me where I love to sketch the animals: a big challenge. And I love walking in the footsteps of the Hudson River School painters. One of the reasons I moved to this area was my love for the paintings of Frederic Church and Asher B. Durand. Another great thing about this area is that there are some other wonderful artist friends whom I can go out painting with.

LW: What are future projects? Is there another Dinotopia book in the works?

JG: I just finished some Dinotopia paintings for a group book called Nuthin’ but Mech that will come out later this year. In addition to plein air painting and sketching, I’m working on commissioned illustrations and some of my own non-Dinotopia fantasy projects. I also want to continue with digital publishing and video.

LW: What are some of the reactions you’ve gotten from your viewers? Did these ever surprise you?

JG: Here’s a recent letter, which really touched me. It’s one of many responses. I treasure them all and am often surprised by them.

Letter from Jonathan O.,
February 7, 2013, 5:07 a.m.

Mr. Gurney,
 In about ‘95 or ‘96, I wrote my first and only fan letter. I was maybe 9 years old – I hadn’t even discovered Star Wars yet, but I already had the Dinotopia trading cards, and the books committed to memory, and big palaeontological dreams. You sent me a really nice letter right away, and a signed card, and I felt like a million bucks.
Now I’m 25, married, with a couple of crappy science fiction short story sales under my belt, and I’m starting to realize just how much influence Dinotopia had on me while I was growing up. You made pacifism geek-sexy in a way that only Ursula le Guin ever matched. I was always an angry kid, but whenever people started looking at aggressive solutions (an occupational hazard in my degree program, International Relations), the voice in the back of my head was always Bix or Oriana, and those militants and proto-revolutionaries started looking more and more like the Crabbes, or dolphinbacks who didn’t quite understand.
I haven’t read the books or seen the show in years and years, but I’m just starting to realize how many of my interests were guided by your work. Last night I took my Boy Scout troop to a pewtersmith’s workshop, because Dinotopia made me fall in love with metalwork and crafting, with finicky detail and the beauty of ordinary things. The Rainy Basin and the World Beneath made me love exploration – a big part of why I’m a scoutmaster at all.
I sure don’t remember sequences of events too clearly, not when it comes to 1995, but like I said, that would have been just before I discovered science fiction and fantasy, around the time I wrote my first story. I still have that manuscript somewhere. My love affair with writing started around the time I first read a certain frame story about an amateur writer’s notebooks, and began to understand art for art’s sake. Pieces like “Garden of Hope” gave me a respect for women that I sorely needed – and don’t even get me started on Treetown.
Now I’m about to embark on grad school for Political Science, and I’m realizing just how much of a Dinotopianist I am. I even lost marks on an exam last semester because I waxed eloquent about libertarian communalism when I probably should have stayed on topic (something about Locke and Rousseau, I think). Matching minimalist government with the need for a social safety net is the ideal I always uphold, professionally and privately. If I reach my goal of becoming a professor, there’s a decent chance you’ll be cited in class once or twice.
Anyways, I just wanted to say thanks.

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  1. Queria que os livros deles , principalmente Dinotopia voltassem a vender no Brasil:(

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