For many artists, James Gurney requires no introduction. You can’t really talk about reference, color, or light without mentioning his bestselling books 'Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter', and 'Dinotopia' (a New York Times bestselling book series).
James also designed the World of Dinosaurs stamps for the Australia Post and worked on over a dozen assignments for National Geographic magazine. He won the Hugo, Chesley, Spectrum, and World Fantasy Awards.
He had multiple solo exhibitions at museums such as the Smithsonian Institution, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the Norton Museum of Art. Was named a “Grand Master” by Spectrum Fantastic Arts and a “Living Master” by the Art Renewal Center.
...and this gets even more interesting when you add the fact that he only started his painting studies at the sweet age of 22.
Not 2. Not 12. Twenty-two.
Oh, and then he dropped out of Art School.
James was extremely kind and generous with his time and shared his journey, insights, and tips with us. Ready for some time travel?
Let’s hear it from James!
Can you tell us about the time you realized you wanted to be an artist?
Starting in middle school, when I first encountered M.C. Escher and Norman Rockwell, I became aware of how art can reach people through the printed page.
I also loved science and English in high school. I was worried that if I went to study illustration right away, I might miss out on those other interests…
So I put off art school and spent four years at the University of California, Berkeley, studying a little of everything.
Do you think going to college for Archeology was a "waste of time"?
Not at all. I ended up using every bit of my archaeology training when I worked as an archaeological illustrator for National Geographic. What I really learned in college was how little I knew.
...but I found out that experts are accessible to answering questions and bringing me into their worlds of knowledge.
When I arrived in art school in 1980 at age 22, my drawing and painting skills were very rudimentary. My sketchbooks were intermittent and lame. I had never really painted in oil. But I was truly hungry to learn animal anatomy, composition, perspective, illustration history, cast drawing, color theory, and animation.
Back then, the art school I went to had a good perspective class, but they weren’t equipped to deliver the rest. I had to figure it out on my own.
...but with all the areas you can improve on (just the fundamentals by themselves are a world!) how did you pace yourself?
I broke down the task of learning into achievable bites that I could teach myself, such as animal anatomy, composition, and color theory. I also had a few friends who were good painters, and I learned just by painting with them.
I prefer to learn in an unconventional way, and felt I had a strong advantage over the students in art school, because they couldn't spend every day at the LA Natural History Museum or the Zoo, as I did, and they didn't have access to the art instruction books that I found in the library.
Instead they had to sit through a lot of nonsensical and expensive classes in order to get one or two teachers who knew anything...
Most artists think that if they don't start from a young age, then they won't be able to make a future in art. Yet, you committed to learning other areas first. Was that an easy decision to make?
No, it was a difficult decision, because I felt that I was too old to learn to paint. I had drawn a lot as a child, and was pretty good at it, but I was over 20 and didn't know much of anything about painting.
I was especially worried, as were my parents, when I dropped out of art school after two semesters.
Since then I've come to realize that learning to paint isn't that difficult. It's thinking that's hard, and I learned to think at UC Berkeley.
What mediums do you like to work with outside of work?
I haven't separated my work life and 'outside of work' life from each other. Instead I've always spent part of my time experimenting with new ideas and techniques.
As far as the various art media go, I use oil, gouache, watercolor, casein, acrylic, pencil and pen. That's certainly not all of them, but it lets me express any visual ideas that I have.
I work mostly in pencil, watercolor, and oil. All the Dinotopia pictures are painted in oil, except for the lettering and the maps, which are done all by hand with a dip pen. Oil is my favorite because it’s the most versatile and forgiving. I often use oil in transparent washes over a line drawing that has been sealed with acrylic matte medium.
I like working traditionally not only because I prefer the results that I get that way but also because I like having a physical result that I can exhibit in a museum or eventually sell to a collector.
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.
How do you seek inspiration for your work?
Inspiration comes from everywhere: nature, my reading, conversations with friends, and research.
Part of my inspiration comes from writing, too: especially blogging. I think of blogging is a daily discipline of thinking. I like being responsible for getting a basic fact across to a community of other curious people, who share what they discover with me.
A lot of times art jobs themselves have brought me into new fields of study. For example, a few years ago National Geographic asked me to paint a Civil War battle scene. I knew next to nothing about the Civil War. So I spent several months learning everything I could, reading first-hand accounts, going to museums, and meeting experts.
The art job was a doorway into a world I might never have entered otherwise. What I learned about shipbuilding led me to designing a village in Dinotopia based on retrofitted ships’ hulls.
Advice to aspiring/pro artists?
Whether they're aspiring or pro, my advice is to forget about style. That will come naturally if you concentrate instead on the fundamentals.
Try to learn directly from nature by means of close observation and humility. Don’t model your work after any other artist, especially a living artist. If you must study the work of other artists, pick heroes from the past, and look at many different ones, not just one.
Don't fall in love with technique. Try to make your art like a window to another world. Spend your time looking at nature more than art museums, websites, TV, or movies. No one wants art that is secondhand.
- James Gurney
[ Did you know? This piece below was made on The Perfect Sketchbook. James backed it when Erwin Lian launched it! We're doing a limited edition launch - not part of our Perfect Sketchbook mailing list yet? Subscribe to stay in the loop!]
Edit:The Perfect Sketchbook Signature Series are now available for purchase in our online store!
How do you pace your learning?
Too old to start? Can’t go to art school? James is living proof that with the right mindset, almost everything is possible. You just have to pace yourself...
When learning a new subject (or deciding what to learn next), how do you go about it so you don’t get overwhelmed?
Please share your tips, thoughts and comments in the comment section below!