Did you study art in college?
I went first to UC Berkeley and 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. However, most of what I have learned has been self-taught.
How did you teach yourself?
I developed my own curriculum of self-teaching based on The Famous Artist’s Course from the 1950’s, 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.
I had never really painted up until this time, so I felt like I was starting from square one. All this self-teaching from books was combined with daily outdoor sketching, which became such a passion that I ended up coauthoring a book on the subject for Watson-Guptill called The Artist’s Guide to Sketching in 1982.
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, Tom Lovell, and Howard Pyle.
What were your first jobs like?
As a high school student, I learned how to do hand-lettered calligraphy, and made my first income from designing wedding invitations. I got a job doing engraved line illustrations for ring ads in the newspaper. It wasn’t paying the bills. My 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.
How did you break into the illustration field?
I didn’t really start in the freelance illustration 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.
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.
How did you get the idea for Dinotopia?
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 Paradeand 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.
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. The countertops are covered with dinosaur models and toy robots and the closets are full of costumes and props. I have a pet parakeet named Mr. Kooks 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.
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 of the time is spent in the preparatory stages. Each Dinotopia book takes me about three years to write and illustrate.
What is your favorite medium?
All the pictures are painted in oil. Oil is my favorite. 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.
Could you describe the research and reference process?
I start with small thumbnail sketches in marker or pencil, sometimes dozens. If the painting requires scientific or historical accuracy, I consult with experts at every stage of the process and incorporate their suggestions. 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.
After all these studies, I work up the line drawing—and sometimes a full charcoal drawing—and finally begin the final painting. The place to really see the process is in my book, Imaginative Realism.
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.
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 “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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks again for the great interview, James, and for saving me the time of coming up with questions, ha ha! For more of James Gurney's stuff, visit his blog:
All images belong to James Gurney and are from his blog.