James Gurney Interview

James Gurney in Studio

How did you get started in art, especially fantasy art?

Since I was in grade school, I was always interested in drawing what was around me. No one in my family was an artist. My dad was a mechanical engineer, so I also grew up with a fascination for machines and model-building. These interests developed long before I was even aware of fantasy art. I had no contact with fantasy novels or comic books, and at the time, there really weren't the kind of video games or fantastic movies that you see these days.

Some of my colleagues who work in the fantasy field tell me they started out drawing pictures of wizards and dragons when they were in that youthful, formative phase. I was more earth-bound, sketching ordinary things like the family dog or a pile of laundry or my parents watching TV from their reclining chairs.

Did you always like dinosaurs?

I liked dinosaurs and ancient civilizations because I knew they were once real, even though I couldn't see them with my own eyes. Outside my bedroom door was a shelf of old National Geographic magazines dating back to 1915. I would tiptoe into the hallway late at night and read about pilots in biplanes flying over uncharted Incan ruins. After school I would dig excavation pits in my suburban back yard, hoping to find a dinosaur bone or maybe even a lost temple. The neighborhood moms quit letting their kids play at my house because they always came home covered with dirt. Even though I didn't find much of what I imagined, I made up for it by sculpting it out of clay or drawing it on paper.

Where did you go to college?

I went to the University of California at Berkeley, but I didn't take any classes in the art department there. Instead I sought out the archaeology and paleontology professors and asked them if they needed an artist to render artifacts. They let me loose in the vast Kroeber Museum collection. One of the things I got to do for school credit was to render Egyptian scarab carvings for a scientific publication. After participating in an actual archaeological dig, I decided to major in anthropology. I then went on to study drawing and painting at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.

What was your first real art job?

I had to drop out of art school because I got a job working in the movie industry as a background painter for the animated film Fire and Ice, (Bakshi/Frazetta, 1983). My assignment was to paint the landscape scenes that appear on screen behind the action. Over the course of a year and a half, I had to paint over a six hundred scenes—jungles and volcanoes and swamps—entirely from my imagination. Each afternoon, when I watched dailies, I could see characters moving around in the spaces I had just painted. It was like living inside a painting. I became hooked on fantasy art, and soon after, began working as a cover artist for science fiction and fantasy paperbacks.

What was the paperback field like when you started in the early 1980s?

It was booming! It was really the last remnant of the golden age of American illustration, where an illustrator was given a manuscript and along with it the freedom to come up with a unique image to summarize a story. All of my heroes in illustration are from the early decades of the 20th Century: Howard Pyle, Edwin Austin Abbey, N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, and Dean Cornwell. These artists carried on the grand tradition of academic history painting that was refined all through the 19th Century, and they brought the finest storytelling artwork to the widest public. All of them believed that an illustrator must be an artist first, meaning that he or she must draw upon a personal vision in everything they do, whether it is for the cover of a magazine, an art print for the home, or a mural in a public building.

How did you start working for National Geographic?

In 1983 they invited me to illustrate an article on the explorer Alexander von Humboldt. The assignment was followed by others, including pictures of the legendary voyages of Jason and Ulysses, and reconstructions of the kingdom of Kush in Nubia and the civilization of the Etruscans in Italy. I felt lucky to be sent on assignment and to work directly with experts. My job was to recreate a world that could never be photographed. I got to know a few of the Indiana-Jones-type archaeologists like Rick Bronson or Tim Kendall. Each of them shared the secret dream of discovering a lost city as important as Troy or Machu Picchu. It occurred to me that that I could always paint such a city, whether it really existed or not. In my spare time, I painted Waterfall City and Dinosaur Parade, which were released as fine art prints by the Greenwich Workshop in 1990.

When did you start envisioning Dinotopia?

At the time I was painting animation backgrounds and paperback covers and Geographic illustrations, I had no idea I would come up with Dinotopia. But looking back, I suppose that illustration work was an ideal training ground for the kind of visual world I was trying to develop, because I was called upon to paint all sorts of subjects: dinosaurs, ancient cities, space ships, aliens and mermaids.

After painting a few of my "lost empires," I started playing with the idea of a picture book that would serve as a kind of grand tour. Then I thought of putting all those places on a single island, and populating the island with dinosaurs and people. I tried to immerse myself in every aspect of worldbuilding, from maps to mechanics to metaphysics, making it as real and believable as possible. I tried not to think of myself as creating the world, but instead just transcribing some lost journal. This attitude really freed me up. It's easier to transcribe something that already exists rather than creating something from whole cloth. It took about two and a half years to write and illustrate Dinotopia, which came out in 1992, and the time was funded by the sales of art prints.

As an artist, what I enjoy about Dinotopia is that is provides a venue for painting all sorts of pictures, from landscapes to portraits to still lifes, and from quick sketches to elaborately finished large paintings. By the way, all the paintings in the Dinotopia books are painted in oil, even the ones that look like watercolor.

You have used the term "imaginative realism" to describe the work you do. Could you explain?

Imaginative realism is different from what we usually think of as fantasy. It's a broader term, including any scene that can't be photographed or observed directly. Imaginative realism comes into play when reconstructing a scene from ancient Rome, a dinosaur in its habitat, a battle from the Civil War, or a portrayal of the Titanic on the sea floor. Most wildlife art could be described by this term, too, because wildlife artists can't just snap a photo and interpret it in paint; they have to develop a scene first in their imagination and use their knowledge of nature to create a believable composition. What all these kinds of pictures have in common is that the artist begins with an idea in the imagination, and then works hard to make the resulting picture as realistic or believable as possible.

Do you you think of your work as fine art or illustration?

I don't really draw a distinction in my mind between "fine-art" and "illustration," or between "fine-art" and "fantasy." All of my finished works are created in the studio; all are drawn from a combination of imagination and nature; and all follow more or less the same procedure. Whether it's landscape paintings for a gallery or dinosaur paintings for a science magazine, an artist's approach can be either inspired or commercial, depending on what frame of mind we bring to the easel. There's nothing intrinsically fine about gallery work; in fact it can be more commercial than illustration if an artist becomes consumed with an awareness of which images are selling and why. It's hard not to. I've never met a gallery artist who honestly doesn't care about which of his paintings sell.

A more meaningful division for me is between observational work and studio work—or you might say: plein-air versus imagination, outdoor work versus indoor work, the outer eye versus the inner eye. Both aspects of the artistic life are essential to me, and always have been.

Speaking of outdoor work, how did you get started with sketching or plein air painting?

I've always sketched outdoors at every opportunity. After art school, a friend and I took off on a cross-country sketching trip on railroad boxcars, which led to a book called The Artist's Guide to Sketching. This was before they called it "plein-air." For me, sketching was more of a form of documentary reportage than frameable art. I lived among hoboes and drew portraits of street people. I wanted to be like Jack Kerouac, except instead of a typewriter I wanted to carry a sketch pad. I interviewed con men, lumberjacks, gravestone cutters, and cowboys. I slept on rooftops and graveyards because I couldn't afford hotels on the few dollars I earned doing cartoon portraits in bars.

This experience laid the groundwork for Dinotopia, too. The idea of an artist's odyssey across a continent became the prototype for the sketchbook journal of explorer Arthur Denison, through whose eyes we witness the lost world of Dinotopia.

What do you do with your plein air paintings and sketchbooks?.

I have dozens of pencil sketchbooks filled with studies of people that I've met and places that I've traveled. My studio is crowded with boxes full of small oil studies from far away and close to home. Sometimes the goal in a plein-air study is to capture a particular atmospheric effect or a color relationship, or to document the rapids in a stream or the unique quality of a sunset.

I do these paintings as studies, not for sale or exhibition. The only plein air works I sell are the ones I do at paint-out events. My sketches are my notes; they serve as the source of visual ideas for future imaginative paintings. For example, a painting I did recently of a building in Salamanca, Spain became the basis for a structure that appears in the background of a painting in a canal scene in Waterfall City.

How do you approach the problem of painting a realistic image of a scene that doesn't exist?

The approach I use is developed from the teaching methods of the French Academy. There was a vast body of painting knowledge and terminology that was largely forgotten and is now being enthusiastically rediscovered. When I was a student, I read everything I could find about artists like Alma Tadema, Bouguereau, and Gerome. I also pored over editions of the Famous Artist's Course from the 1950s, where great story illustrators shared the secrets of their craft. I was very curious how they painted such lifelike scenes from their imaginations. The method is rather painstaking, starting with lots of research, pages and pages of thumbnail sketches, studies from the costumed model, miniature sets for the architectural elements, and often a charcoal comprehensive study before launching into the final painting.

What do you think of the way art is taught today?

One of the reasons I'm visiting nine different art schools during the Dinotopia book tour is to explore that question. From what I've been able to learn so far from students and teachers I've corresponded with, there has been an amazing revival of excellent art teaching that stresses fundamental traditional skills as well as creative new methods and ideas, which a young artist can take in any direction.

What's your sense of the plein-air movement?

It's also an excellent development. I am a firm believer in the value of plein-air work, and believe it is one of the keys to the revival of representational painting. Plein air painting is a good vehicle for personal growth, a way of increasing the visual vocabulary for forms, light, and color. But for me, plein air work is not satisfying enough as an end in itself. I need to go back in the studio, especially during the dark winter months, and let the images dwell in my head for a while and reappear in new forms and combinations.

Which of the plein air schools in history do you identify with the most?

I really like the work before 1860 the best. People often assume that plein-air painting started with the Impressionists, but it's much older than that, going back to the late 18th Century. The Hudson River School painters, under the influence of Asher B. Durand, were the first to make a regular practice of it, and they often made more sensitive observations than later plein-air painters, because they weren't influenced by the notion of "art for art's sake." Art does not exist for its own sake. The purpose of art is not to make an aesthetically pleasing picture; it should be much more—to tell a story, reveal a character, convey an emotion, or express some truth about nature.

What's your favorite part of what you do?

My biggest joy as an artist is when the painting surface seems to disappear and I feel I'm living inside the scene I'm painting. There's a Latin quote that I have carved onto my mahlstick. It says: "Ars est celare artem," which means "true art is the concealment of artifice."

In other words, it's easy to make a painting look like paint, but it's much harder to make a painting that involves a viewer so completely that he feels the heat of sun on his neck and the sand in his shoes. I wish this effect happened more often in my own work. It never happens without a lot of sweat and struggle. I don't take all the necessary steps often enough, because I've got a lazy streak like everybody. But when I do, I'm glad, and it's well worth it the trouble.

How would you assess the job market for aspiring artists?

We're in the early stages of a renaissance. This is a more visual age than ever. This is the best time ever to be coming into the world of art. Young artists are better connected with each other and have more resources and tools than ever before. The only thing we have to do is to break down the artificial barriers between all the different genres and categories of art-making, and try to see it all with fresh eyes.