James Gurney at SCAD-Atlanta

Saturday, September 22, 2012

After about three years of failed attempts to coordinate schedules, we finally found a narrow window of opportunity to bring in a true Modern Master, James Gurney.

The above painting, called "Dinosaur Parade", was the seed from which grew the "Dinotopia" series of books and video productions. By the way, in Chinese, Dinotopia translates to "Terrible Lizard Happy Dream Kingdom"... wordy, but right on.

James's lecture was about his approach to achieving his trademark "imaginative realism". He began by citing his influences, like Andrew Loomis, E. G. Lutz's book "Drawing made Easy", the early Disney animators,  Howard Pyle and the other Golden Age illustrators like Dean Cornwell, Haddon Sundblom, J. C. Leyendecker, Norman Rockwell and others. He also showed how he has his studio set up; his palette and brushes, the studio lights and camera, and the C-stand which holds his maquettes at any angle.
The process involves these elements:
1. Research; really knowing and understanding your subject before you try to depict it. Gurney studied archaeology at the University of California at Berkeley before he went to art school, so he knows his subjects well.
2. Preliminary sketches, or thumbnails. Capture the essence of the composition, and work out the lights and darks to establish a rhythm through the piece.
3. Building Maquettes; Gurney often builds models of his subjects using polymer clays and other materials. He then paints them with acrylics, lights them appropriately, and photographs them or draws and paints from the model directly. This is the only way to get the shadow shapes just right.

This is an original oil painting alongside the maquette that he built and referenced for the painting. It was great to see the original; I had anticipated that the paintings would be much larger, which speaks to the precision he achieves in his paintings.
4. Posing Models: have your friends and family pose in costume to establish the correct body language as well as the shadow shapes and other details that may be missed if attempting to invent the figure from your imagination.
5. Plein Air Sketching; Gurney says that painting real things in natural light is the only way to gain a thorough understanding of how light and color behave under various conditions. He and his wife Jeanette were in Savannah a few days before the Atlanta visit and did some sketching there. He carries a small pack with a pan watercolor set, watercolor pencils, watercolor brushes and "water brushes", which have a tubular shaft of soft plastic that can be filled with either plain water or tinted water that can be squeezed into the bristles of the brush, eliminating the need to have a separate water container as you sketch.

After the lecture, James graciously signed his books for the students who either brought their own copies or bought at the lecture. Each signature was accompanied by a cool sketch of a dinosaur.

Jeanette Gurney chatting with the students.

He closed with a list of websites to organizations that students can visit to connect with professionals in their chosen area.

1. Guild of Natural Science Illustrators (GNSI)
2. Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI)
7. Fantasy art conventions or masterclasses (Spectrum LiveIlluxconIMC)
8. Animation (CTN Animation Expo)

After the lecture in Events Space 4-C, we moved down to the Illustration classrooms for a sketching demonstration. James went into more detail about his materials and methods, and showed lots of examples of the approach he takes when setting out on a sketch trip.


Gurney did a sketch of me, using a variety of watercolor pencils, watercolors and water brushes. The process was projected to the screen with an Elmo camera. 

This is the finished sketch, which represents about 25 minutes of work.

Lots of very happy, very impressed students.

Many thanks to James and his lovely wife Jeanette for spending time with us and sharing his prodigious
talent with us this week. Hope you can come back soon!

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