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Inspiring New Realities – James Gurney Interview

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Décollage nocturne © James Gurney. Created for the Utopiales Festival.

Last summer I had the pleasure of going the Association of Medical Illustrators meeting here in Toronto. Among the speakers and session moderators, including E.O.Wilson and Jennifer Fairman, was a name familiar to anyone who is fan of illustration – not just scientific illustration, but of the art of illustration in any form: James Gurney.

James Gurney at the AMI meeting earlier this year being mobbed by fellow illustrators purchasing books to get signed. Yeah. I did too.

James Gurney has a reputation that should belong to a much older artist, and perhaps even to a different era. His body of work is astonishing, in quality, in breadth of subject and in sheer volume. He even knocks one out of the park while waiting for food in a diner. But most of all, aspiring illustrators know James Gurney as a professional who is generous with his time, patient in his explanations, and a true gentleman. This reputation comes from, in no small part, his blog, Gurney Journey.

Gurney Journey is a thinking artists’ blog. Ever curious, James Gurney studies art techniques of the past, and typically tries them out. And despite the rush of comments following each post, he spends a lot of time thanking and discussing the techniques in the comment threads. It’s even led to him coining the incredibly, immediately useful artistic term The Windmill Principle after a Rembrandt painting that he couldn’t take his eyes off of.

Dinosaurs. Art history. Lighting effects. Realistically creating things we’ve never seen.

Here’s my interview with James.

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A lot of artists while they are establishing themselves work other, unrelated jobs. Did you support yourself through other means while working on Dinotopia and starting out?

No, I’ve always lived by the brush. But I’m keeping my dishwashing skills well honed just in case. It wasn’t easy making ends meet when I was developing Dinotopia. Producing 150 paintings on spec over a two year period meant that I had to cut myself off from all my freelance illustration clients. My wife, our two little boys, and I survived on the sale of art prints and originals until the book was published.

The original Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time. Intricate, illuminating and a fully realized world. It's not just dinosaurs and humans living together, it's dinosaurs and humans doing every conceivable activity - water sports, parades, working on a farm, science experiments and more.

Your blog Gurney Journey is one of the highest quality blogs, period. The mixture of art, technique, history and science is blended in a natural way, and despite your busy schedule, you’re known for answering your commenter’s questions. A lot of illustrators I speak with say they haven’t got time to blog; how does Gurney Journey fit into your schedule?

Thanks, and that means a lot coming from you. I know what illustrators mean when they say they don’t have time for blogging. Doing a blog is more work, and it doesn’t pay. The bottom-line benefits are hard to quantify. Does it lead to jobs or to recognition? Perhaps. Potential employers or collectors will scan an artist’s entire web presence to get a feeling for their work. I suppose blogging is a form of marketing, but I don’t think of it that way very often. The practical or financial benefits of blogging are paradoxical: You give stuff away so that you can sell it later.

Festival Day © James Gurney

Nature editor and science fiction author Henry Gee once asked me this, and I’d like to ask you. Has blogging changed your life?

Yes, completely. It has made me try things out that I might not have done without the forum. I’ve met a lot of the readers of my books and I’ve also met a lot of other artists. Blogging is about comparing notes with other like-minded people, and the Internet has fostered a spirit of openness that has never existed before in the history of art.

The reason I blog is because I love to graze on a lot of new information and images. Explaining or describing some aspect of my art life forces me to understand it, and I learn even more from the feedback. Blogging helps me as a writer. I find out right away if a topic is controversial, confusing, electrifying, or boring.

Imaginative Realism is one of two books James Gurney has created based on his blog posts and commenters feedback. It's a gorgeous how-to with close to 50% illustrations.

In your book Imaginative Realism you emphasize the importance of models, maquettes and statues for references when creating things that don’t exist. Did this vision of painting develop over time? (Where did the importance of models for studying light and contour come from?)

I’ve always built model airplanes and boats, and I’ve sculpted little figures, puppets, and masks since I was a kid. So I guess it comes naturally for me. What confirmed the practice was talking to one of my mentors, Tom Lovell, who illustrated for National Geographic. He also built his own maquettes, and inspired me to do so as a young illustrator.

An example of a really rough Oviraptor maquette used for quick lighting reference" - this one isn't a keeper and gets returned to mud.

What subjects have been the greatest artistic challenges for you?

I really enjoy painting any kind of subject, as long as I can believe it’s real. I have a hard time with mystical subjects, or glowing runes and phantoms. I like tangible, earthy fantasies. In terms of the challenges of a given work, I find that the early stages of the painting, when the major areas are being established, are 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.

What’s your favourite color?

I don’t have a favorite. It’s the combination of colors that gets me excited. As Delacroix once said, “Give me some mud, and I will make of it the skin of Venus, if you leave to me the choice of the surroundings.”

Ebulon from the Dinotopia series, © James Gurney. "Mud" indeed.

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Links

Gurney Journey – one of the greatest blogs on the internet.

Facebook

YouTube Channel

Illustrating the Lost Continent – video on Scientific American

Books – where to purchase James Gurney’s books

 

 

Glendon Mellow About the Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist, illustrator and tattoo designer working in oil and digital media based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets @FlyingTrilobite. You can see Glendon's work-in-progress at The Flying Trilobite blog and portfolio at www.glendonmellow.com. Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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