Dinotopia: An Interview with James Gurney

Craft & Design


James Gurney in Studio.sm
I’ve had the intention to cover and post about my favorite artists for a long time now, finally getting off my lazy butt to do it. No better way to kick it off, than with a living legend, James Gurney. James is best known for the Dinotopia series, where he combines an amazing world of fantasy, and the prehistoric natural world, sparking the imagination of millions of kids and adults alike. Gurney’s not only a creative genius, but also a true master of light, composition… he’s just a bad ass painter, I don’t know how else to say it. His books are among my favorites, where he shares his secrets sauce. His approach, breaking down of the basics, to advanced painting techniques and theories, are simply invaluable.

On top of it all, he’s got this amazing blog. It’s a constant stream of inspiration and insight. It is one of my favorite blogs, and he updates it regularly! If nothing, subscribe to his youtube and blog, you will thank me.

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I was lucky enough to get some Q & A with Mr. Dinotopia himself, and here it is!

IH -There are not many artists that I’d consider to be a living master, you are one of mine. Who is your living master?
JG  – Wow, thank you for the compliment, which means a lot coming from you. Who is my living master? Well, besides my wife, it’s hard to say. How could I pick one person? Should I choose from the world of landscape painting, figure work, natural history illustration, caricature, animation, comics, or concept art? There are so many great artists that spring to mind. If you read my blog GurneyJourney, you can get a pretty good idea of the people I admire, both living and not living.

IH – Your work has reached and inspired so many. Of everything that you have done, what is the one thing that you are most proud of?
51OBUYU1vvL JG  – I’ve been lucky, really, and have been helped by people who had faith in me. I got my first book published when I was still in art school (The Artist’s Guide to Sketching), thanks to Watson-Guptill taking a chance on 23-year-old talent. Then sort of by chance I met a publishing mentor (Ian Ballantine) to help launch my idea for a fantasy story (Dinotopia). I have no illusions about that one being successful, because in the wrong hands it could have been overlooked. And since then I’ve sort of fallen into art instruction through the blog and my books Color and Light and Imaginative Realism. I have earned a living through my paintbrush and I have put two kids through college solely with my income as an artist. I don’t know if “proud” is the right word, but I guess I’m relieved to have survived a lot of seismic changes in the art and publishing worlds. My only strategy has been to commit to crazy ideas and make them work.

61QcBfiROpLIH – Outside of art, what are your other interests and passions?

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.

IH -Have you ever tried, or considered digital medium? why/why not?

JG  – I’ve tried it and considered it, but I haven’t pursued it. 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 3D 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 demands 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.
15 Photographing Maquette
IH -You use and build sculptures for reference for your paintings, hack up models, and rig up lego camera rigs to record video of yourself etc. Obviously you are a tinkerer and maker of things. Of everything that you’ve hacked together, modified, made, or frankensteined together, what are you most proud of?

 JG  – My maker pieces are nothing compared to yours. The things I make are either expedients to solve a problem, a cheapskate’s way out of buying the right equipment, or a way of using up the junk in my basement. But I have made a few purely whimsical contraptions, including a aeolian chime powered by a bicycle wheel anemometer and a tabletop circus run by a single 4RPM gear motor.

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IH – You’ve achieved so much so far, what’s left? what’s the next big goal for you?

JG  – I want to develop some of the other fantasy worlds I’ve got in my head, and I’ve got some big paintings I want to do. I also want to continue with digital publishing and video. That, and to clean up my studio.

StrutterMaquetteIH – You work is amazingly prolific. On average, how much time do you put in your studio daily?

JG  – Everyone says that, but I’m not as prolific 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. How many hours a day? That’s a bit hard to answer. I don’t punch a clock, and it’s hard to divide productive time from time just goofing off. But I suppose I think and talk about art most of my waking hours. Just ask my wife.

IH – Do you get artist block? if so, how do you break out of it?

light_on_the_waterJG  – Not often (knock wood) because I have trained myself to overcome obstacles by working through them from every possible angle. All problems yield to effort. The only jams I get into come from skipping necessary groundwork.

IH – What sort of work do you turn down and why?
JG  – I accept only the work that I feel I can do a good job with. I also want to feel OK with having each piece forever associated with the rest of the things I’ve done. In the age of the Internet, everything you do chases you around forever, for better or worse. I also turn down perfectly wonderful job offers in order to work on my own projects.

IH – What is your favorite, and least favorite medium, and why?
JG  – I keep coming back to oil, watercolor, water-soluble colored pencils and ordinary pencil. I have returned recently to gouache and pen and ink, which were my first media. There are several media that I have never really tried, such as pastel, encaustic, and lithography.
IH – What is something that is surprising about you, that you wouldn’t mind sharing with the world?

JG  – I ride a unicycle, own a parakeet and make videos.

IH – You put so much into your blog, it’s a constant stream of insight and inspiration. Obviously you love sharing and embracing your fans. As a mega fan, let me just say thanks for the invaluable resource, and thanks taking the time to answer my questions! 

JG  – You’re welcome. I’m grateful to my readers. They keep me doing what I’m doing.


Well there ya go, what can I say? This is how I see the man: Dude rides a unicycle, with a parakeet on his shoulder, general goofing around. Once in a while, he decides to make some art  Which just happens to be masterpieces. He’s written several books, ya know, no big deal. He’s a blogger, a maker, a master of too many things, and doesn’t get artist blocks. Not impressed yet? He’s made official US stamps. Yeah, the dude made freakin’ dinosaur stamps! Enough said.
James Gurney Links:
Blog:  www.gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/
Dinotopia Website:  www.dinotopia.com
James Gurney Website:  www.jamesgurney.com/
Youtube channel:  http://www.youtube.com/user/gurneyjourney
Books:  http://www.amazon.com/James-Gurney/e/B000APEZHY/

All images Copyright James Gurney

This post originally appeared on I-Wei Huang’s blog CrabFu.

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