Interview W/ James Gurney

“Kosmoceratops” published in Scientific American magazine

If you were a kid growing up in the 1990s or early 2000s, you may very likely have had the chance of reading a book called: “Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time.” This book no doubt holds a special place in the heart of every child whom has read it, whether it was the captivating art, engaging story, or charismatic characters, Dinotopia opened the minds of children to an imaginary world unlike any seen before.

The creator of Dinotopia is James Gurney, an author and illustrator first starting his career as a background painter for the animated film “Fire and Ice” (1983) in the same period he coauthored the book “The Artist’s Guide to Sketching.” In 1992, James published his first book in the Dinotopia series, “A Land Apart from Time”, and subsequently wrote and illustrated three more installments; “The World Beneath”, “First Flight”, and “Journey to Chandara.” James has also produced several excellent painting books; “Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist”, and “Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter.” Both of which are based off of his blog Gurney Journey.

I am proud to have had the opportunity to do this short interview with James, he is a hard working artist and I appreciate that he took the time to answer these questions via email. Please Enjoy.

-Would you consider yourself someone who has always been creative?

I didn't think of myself as particularly creative. Making stuff was expected in my family. I'm the youngest of a family of five kids, and we didn't go to toy stores, and it was rare for us to go to movies. My dad was a mechanical engineer and inventor, and I grew up in a house with a big workshop and a lot of tools. No helicopter parents: if you wanted to make a kite, you had to rip the kite sticks from spruce on the table saw, and if you wanted a metal toy car, you had to make a lost wax lead casting. If you liked movies, you grabbed the 8mm movie camera and made your own animation or action flick. I made my own kites and electric-powered tugboats and hand puppets, all based on how-to books that I checked out of the library.

-Did you know from a young age that art was going to be your career path?

I'm not sure I would have understood the concept of a career path when I was at a young age, but as I say, I tried everything when I was in grade school: sculpting, model making, drawing, lettering, and painting. The thing that I had as a young person was endless patience and concentration, and if something didn't work, I kept trying. I never met a professional artist until I was about 13 years old. That's when it dawned on me that you could actually make a living as an illustrator.

-You are most well known for the Dinotopia book series. This series is beloved by so many people, both children and adults. Why do you think these books have resonated so well with audiences?

I've always believed that my best, most discerning readers are young people between the ages of 10 and 20. They don't miss a thing, and they can handle even the most abstruse philosophical or scientific concepts. I wanted to write a visual book for those readers.

The other thing about Dinotopia is that it doesn't follow the dramatic framework of other fantasy universes such as
Star Wars, Narnia, or Lord of the Rings. What I loved about all those stories was the completeness of the imagined worlds, and the ability to transport you inside them. But all of those stories start off with the basic premise of good guys on one side and bad guys on the other, with a big fight in the end. The center of every plot is the temptation of the hero by the dark forces. Even though those classic works were brilliant, to me, the good-versus-evil formula became pretty tiresome. I wanted to believe it, but I couldn’t help wondering who grew the food for the orcs, or what the Stormtroopers did when they got off work.
“Waterfall City: Afternoon Light” from Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara.
-Much of your artwork depicts scenes of natural beauty, both present and prehistoric. How has the role of "Nature" played its part in your life and creative work?

I was an outdoor kid and spent a lot of time sailing, hiking and backpacking in the Sierras. When I got home from my adventures, I read about explorers in National Geographic. I had grown up studying old copies of the magazine going back to the 1920s. Later, when I started working for the magazine as an illustrator, it was a golden era when National Geographic still sent its artists and art directors to meet the archaeologists on location. On some of my first assignments I had a chance to see Rome, Tarquinia, Cerveteri, Norchia, and Populonia for an article on the Etruscans. We visited some newly discovered tombs and many remote sites of Roman occupation. Having graduated from UC Berkeley as an archaeology major, this was food for my imagination.

Besides archaeology, my other fascination was with extinct creatures. When I was about eight years old my parents took me to a science museum where I saw a life-size skeleton of an Allosaurus. I was bowled over to see such a fantastic and scary-looking creature and to know it was real. I imagined that the creature would come to life at night, step off the platform and wander around the empty museum. I wanted to learn how to make paintings that brought these creatures to life.

-What is one single piece of advice you would give to a young upcoming artist or author, wanting to take their passion and turn it into their career?

You've got to love painting or writing so much that you can't wait to get back to it. That enthusiasm is necessary to carry you through the inevitable frustrations and disappointments that are sure to come along. Professionals in the business may complain about the headaches of stock art, photo-illustration, digital art, A.I. art, lousy contracts, and disappearing clients. There’s no doubt: it’s a tough time right now to make a living as an illustrator. But there have been tough times before, and illustration has always prevailed. Now we have to come up with new ways to tell stories with pictures. We have more resources at our fingertips—tools, references, printing technology, and audience-building tools via social media—than any of our artistic ancestors ever dreamed of. You don't have to be limited by gatekeepers. There are unlimited opportunities. Illustration is a proud calling. We should never forget how lucky we are to be able to conjure dreams out of thin air.

-Final question; What is your favorite Dinosaur and why?

I often say Stegosaurus because it’s the most unlikely looking dinosaur. It’s got a shape that no fantasy artist would ever think of. I also like Mei long (a dinosaur that was found fossilized in a sleeping position) and Microraptor (the four-winged flying dinosaur).

The great thing about dinosaurs is that new forms keep getting discovered that are more weird and wonderful than the familiar ones we grew up with. We’ve only just scratched the surface, and there are still so many unanswered questions about their behavior, the sounds they made, and the way they moved.

James Gurney.

Thanks James!

“Twilight in Bonabba” from Dinotopia: The World Beneath

James has a blog, Gurney Journey, along with a Youtube channel that he frequently updates. In his time on the internet, James has shared a wealth of free knowledge that is sure to be invaluable to the aspiring artist. But for those itching for even more knowledge, James also has paid courses available on his Gumroad.

James is a modern master, one that has inspired a whole generation of young artists. With pencil, pen, and brush, James is able to create imaginary worlds that feel tangible and real to the audience, it is one of the many reasons why Dinotopia is such an enjoyable series to read.

If you want to learn how to draw or paint realistic fantasy illustrations, create worlds that feel authentic and genuine, than I think there is no better artist to study from, than James Gurney.

-Article by Avery Nakashima.

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