fuel-jg04-150x150Of all the illustrators alive today, there has been one man whose work has been a constant fixture throughout my life. I was one of those strange girls that would rather be outside excavating dinosaur bones in my backyard, getting my hands and knees dirty, than inside with a dollhouse. I spent countless hours pretending to be a world-famous archeologist, discovering hidden temples and pretending I had stumbled upon portals to other worlds. My favorite book reflected this: Dinotopia by James Gurney. I poured over those books, taped print-outs of his paintings on my wall, and I still have my first copy of The World Beneath on the bookshelf – now with the spine taped together because of the many times that book accompanied me into the woods. When I graduated high school, as my gift, my parents drove me hours away to a tiny museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin where James Gurney’s Dinotopia paintings were on display. They are even more incredible in person. My favorite painting? The Black Fish Tavern from The World Beneath. The use of light and detail in that painting is incredible and I remember walking around the last corner of that gallery and there it was, sitting on an easel as you walked out the door.

For those who don’t know him, James Gurney is a writer and illustrator, best known for Dinotopia and his work for National Geographic Magazine. “He specializes in painting realistic images of scenes that can’t be photographed, from dinosaurs to ancient civilizations.” In fact, one of my favorite art guide books is Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist, an excellent book for anyone interested in fantasy illustration. You can learn much more about James Gurney and his work by visiting his website, which was recently redesigned by his talented son, Dan. Check it out and take a look at his gallery. Thank you again to James for this fantastic interview. Enjoy!

On with the Dinosaurs! …I mean Interview!

fuel-jg03

As a kid, dinosaurs played a huge role in my everyday imaginary adventures. How were you first introduced to dinosaurs and the different civilizations that make appearances in Dinotopia and when did they begin to appear in your sketchbooks?

I was bitten by the dinosaur bug as a kid, thanks to the Zdenek Burian illustrations in the Time/Life book on evolution and a few trips to natural history museums. I was also fascinated by lost civilizations. I grew up with a bound set of old National Geographics outside my bedroom door. I’d tiptoe out in the hall at night to read about great explorers like Hiram Bingham discovering Machu Picchu. My ambition in third grade was to find a dinosaur or a lost city. I started excavations in my backyard and had my friends helping me until their mothers told them they couldn’t come over anymore because they always came home with their pockets full of dirt.

I majored in archaeology at UC Berkeley, and then worked for many years as an illustrator for National Geographic. They put me in an early grave, you might say, by sending me on assignment to Etruscan Italy to poke around some recently discovered tombs in Tarquinia. They also sent me to Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem, and I worked with a lot of archaeologists and paleontologists. Around 1988 in my spare time I started doing big paintings of lost empires and I came up with the idea of drawing a map of an island and telling about it through the journal of a Victorian explorer named Arthur Denison.

Does your artistic process differ when you’re working on paintings for your fictional books in comparison with work for instructional art books or commissioned pieces?

Not really. Both my Dinotopia paintings and my scientific illustrations are imaginative work, meaning there’s no photo to copy. The idea is to do a realistic painting of something that isn’t visible in front of me. For both science and fantasy paintings, I have to do lots of sketches, and maybe pose models or build maquettes. If it’s a commissioned illustration, I might have to resolve the sketches a bit more than I would if I was doing a Dinotopia painting. The artistic process does differ of course for my plein air work, where I work on oil primed panels, drawing the subject directly with a brush.
fuel-jg02

In your experience, what was more beneficial in helping you grow as an artist: formal art education or your personal travels and learning on your own?

For me the most beneficial thing was learning on my own and traveling, simply because most art schools weren’t teaching the good stuff 30 years ago. You had to dig it out from the old art instruction books that were 50 or 100 years old. Doing that felt like having Norman Rockwell or Harold Speed or Andrew Loomis as your teacher. Many art schools are better now, and are offering a good skill-based foundation. Still, I’m a real believer in learning through direct observation of nature, which means carrying a sketchbook around constantly, and painting outdoors.

Imaginative Realism is a fantastic book, but for those who haven’t read it – how do you go about creating your paintings of creatures that no longer exist? What steps must you take for the creatures to look as real as they do?

I work completely in pencil and oil. My studio is upstairs in my house, and it’s crammed full of art books, maquettes of architecture, old theater costumes, and sculptures of dinosaurs. My method is based on the nineteenth century academic approach: thumbnail sketches in black and white and color, studies or photos from costumed models, plein air sketches, and lots of reference photos filed away in a set of filing cabinets. The really elaborate paintings can take as long as six weeks, but an average painting goes together in about six days. During my lecture tour this fall I’ll be doing presentations at several different art schools and studios in LA and Ohio. People can find out the list on my blog under ‘Upcoming Appearances.’
fuel-jg05

Your blog is an amazing resource for all sorts of traditional artists. What is the biggest piece of advice you could give to a blossoming illustrator?

Thanks for the compliment. As far as advice, I’d start by saying: don’t worry! Professionals in the business often complain about the headaches of stock art, photo-illustration, lousy contracts, and disappearing clients. There’s no doubt: it’s a tough time right now to make a living as an illustrator. But it has always been a changing business, whether you were working in 1905, 1925, or 1955. In many ways, this is the best time ever to enter the field. We live in a more visual culture than ever, and never before has fantasy and science fiction been so central to our culture.

I’d also recommend balancing imaginative and observational work. Sketch from life and sketch from your head. And don’t worry about developing a style. Just observe nature faithfully when you’re young. The style will come naturally.

We have more resources at our fingertips – tools, references, printing technology – than any of our artistic ancestors ever dreamed of, and there are unlimited opportunities if we can just try to rise to the high ideals and standards that they stood for. Illustration is a proud calling. We should never forget how lucky we are to be able to conjure dreams out of thin air.

And finally… in one word, what “fuels” your illustration?

Probably the same thing that has fueled artists all along – the desire to tell a story, to bring a character to life, to create a doorway into a world that no one had ever imagined before. I’m constantly reminded of the impact that still pictures can have over us. I got a letter last week from a young woman who is an art student in Germany. She said she found her old copy of Dinotopia after it had been misplaced for many years, and she remembered something her father said about it. He told her that it was a magical book, and that every time she opened it up, there would be a new picture hidden somewhere in its pages that she had never seen before.
fuel-jg01

You can learn more about James Gurney here:

I don’t really bake cookies with Neil in this post. I’d like to. But I didn’t – I just liked the title. (Neil, if you’d like to bake cookies with me, or would like me to send you some cookies, just tell me your favorite kind and you’ve got it.)

I spent most of this weekend in my pajamas. Yesterday, I finally got up, got dressed, and ran errands with Ash in town, but as soon as we were home, I was back in my PJs. (Honestly, I think if more people spent weekends in their PJs, we’d be a happier humanity.) Despite the happy PJ time, my spirits were low.

In fact, I’ve been moping for the past few hours about Things That Suck when, out of nowhere, while reading Mr. Neil Gaiman’s Magical Tumblr, I felt this brilliant moment of clarity, as if a breeze had blown the clouds across the sky and a bright star (or possibly Venus) had suddenly winked into existence and brought with it a shining, glorious epiphany. An epiphany that lit up my mind and the night like a million fireflies and then. And then. Well. Then it blinked out. Just as quickly. Unfortunately I wasn’t really able to decipher what the epiphany as a whole was about, but I could see, just around the edges, words. And THAT meant something to me.

You see, ever since I was laid off in April, I have been slowly (and quickly), embracing many of my old hobbies. Things that at one point in my life, made me ME. Painting is one of them. I’ve been painting and drawing and sketching again and it’s ALL I ever want to do anymore. Oh I’ve missed it. I’ve also been baking. Cookies, brownies, yummy little chocolate chip bars oozing with caramel, goodies that will clog your pores and leave you guzzling milk from the carton. And I’ve been gardening. We have fourteen happy little okra plants in the front yard and a brand new garden bed in the back ready for planting. I’ve been playing video games, catching up on cooking shows, hanging out with Ash. So many wonderful things to bring me back to ME, but I have yet to do what I spent five years of college doing in order to get my Creative Writing degree.

Write.

I’m constantly jealous of my friend Meg of Bow Ties are Cool because all she does is write. She writes and writes and writes about writing and she’s wonderful at it and I wish I had her dedication and enthusiasm. But why don’t I? Why is that I sit here and wish it but don’t do it? What’s stopping me?

NOTHING.

And it’s that NOTHING that came to me while reading Neil’s many insightful responses to people asking him writing advice all the time. (Was that the epiphany? Maybe…) Neither him nor Meg ask for permission from anyone to write. They just do it. I’ve been sitting here waiting for someone to tell me that it’s okay to just sit and write. My fear is in the sitting part I think. I hate just sitting because I’m scared that it will look like I’m not doing anything. Like I’m just sitting. Staring at paper. Or a blank computer screen. And don’t ask me why I feel that doing design and development work is different – it just is. It’s for other people, at least that work. Even painting is for others – it’s for my shop. But writing? It’s not for anyone but myself. Even blogging is for the most part. It’s writing for myself, my thoughts, my beliefs, my stories. So it gets pushed away. Even as I write this, it has taken two days to write because I feel guilty writing it and keep stopping to do something else.

So how do writers stop feeling guilty for doing something that’s mostly for themselves? How do you get over your fear that people will think you aren’t a proper, productive member of society if you just write?

In school, I had classes that I was SUPPOSED to write in. And it made me happy. I was supposed to do it. Nobody could stop me, so I let myself just sit and write and the world was good and I was happy because I was MAKING THINGS UP and that was my JOB. Now? Not so much. So despite all the activities I’m doing to be ME, I’m still not entirely ME. Does this make sense? See, now I’m just writing to write. Because I like it. Blah blah blah I’m writing and nobody is in the room to stop me. Blah. WRITING.

Alright. So there’s my question. And there are my thoughts. All written down nicely for you. Now, I’m feeling guilty and unproductive so I’m going to go bake. Cookies. For Neil. Or Meg. Or for my girlfriend because she would probably be the one most likely to eat them considering she’s the only one in Texas. Go me.

THE END.