Interview with James Gurney

Today’s palaeoart interview comes courtesy of James Gurney (there’s lots more in the palaeoart section). He’s almost certainly most famous for his enormously popular series of Dinotopia books (an island where the dinosaurs survived the KT and live alongside humans), but James also does more traditional-type palaeoart. My thanks for him not just for agreeing to do this, but for getting back to me in just a few hours! Right, I’ll shut-up and let him take over. As ever all images etc. are courtesy of James, and oh yeah, do check out his blog too. We’ll start with a familiar pair of crania….

How long have you been an artist?
I’ve been drawing and painting since I was thirteen, and supporting myself as an artist since I was in high school. Back then I was doing calligraphy and pen and ink illustration. But I was drawing animals all along, especially our family’s dogs.

How long have you been producing palaeoart?
I was an archaeology major at UC Berkeley. My first taste of paleoart came in the late 1970s when I was in college during an undergraduate course on paleontology taught by J.A. Robinson, the plesiosaur expert. She had to leave class in the middle of the term to fly down to investigate that rotting carcass that the Japanese fishermen had pulled out. There was a rumor it might be a plesiosaur carcass, but it turned out to be a long-dead shark. We were all pretty excited, and then disappointed.

Anyway, in her class, I did a summer field workshop digging up extinct mammals on the Black Hawk Ranch. For my school project I drew charcoal drawings of all the fauna we found.

What first got you interested in dinosaurs and art?
I came at dinosaurs through a fascination with lost worlds and archaeology. I had been working for National Geographic all through the 1980s painting archaeological reconstructions for them, while also painting paperback covers in the science fiction genre. I combined those interests with my love of Jules Verne by coming up in my spare time with a series of lost world panoramas. One of them was called “Dinosaur Parade.” The idea was to reimagine dinosaurs not just as monsters or dull sluggards in the swamp, but to pick up on what Bakker and Horner were proposing about caregiving and warm bloodedness. One of the first paleontologists to help me out was Mike Brett-Surman of the Smithsonian, who, like many scientists, shared my love of both the science and the science fiction. Later on I was thrilled when Mike curated the Dinotopia exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History.

What is your favourite piece of palaeo art that you have produced?
I’m always a bit dissatisfied with my own work, but one that really came together was a painting of Titanoboa for the National Wildlife Federation (shown above). It was a tough challenge because it’s hard to convey the amazing size of a 10 meter snake without any obvious scale references. If I could have painted him eating a Wall Street bank executive, it would have been easier. The key to both scale and drama was to imagine him wrestling with a crocodylian. There are some YouTube videos of caimans and alligators in similar match-ups, but the action usually takes place underwater. I had to model the whole scene in miniature to figure out the dynamics and the lighting. I was moving fast on that one, and only had about five days from start to finish. I was thrilled when it was used as the poster for the recent exhibit “Focus on Nature,” which includes a lot of work from the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators.

Who is your favourite palaeoartist or piece of palaeoart?
Somehow, I missed Charles Knight when I was young, so Z. Burian was the paleoartist I first looked at. I loved the paintings he did in the Time/Life book Evolution, and like Mark Hallett said of Knight, I assumed that they were some form of photos. Although the scholarship has moved on since his day, his paintings have a sense of mise en scène that still holds up. Of course I admire all my fellow paleo painters and sculptors of today, but I also draw inspiration from wildlife and bird painters such as Raymond Ching, Robert Bateman, Carl Brenders, and Lars Jonsson, as well as the great animal painters of the past such as Rungius, Barye, and Landseer.

What is your favourite dinosaur / archosaur?
I love Mei long, and wanted to use my painting of the little sleeping dragon on the cover of my newest book Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter. I spend a lot of time looking at photos and videos of birds, and sketching chickens and ducks at a nearby farm, and watching my own parakeet for clues about their non-avian cousins. I always wondered why I never saw renderings of small theropods sleeping on one foot. My friend Mick Ellison already owned the sleeping position, so I decided to try the standing pose, basing the color and light in my painting on photos I had seen of spoonbills and flamingos (pictured above).

Is there any animal you would like to paint but have not?
I was thrilled to get a chance to paint Sinornithomimus recently for Scientific American. There are a bunch of creatures I’d love to paint, such as Concavenator, Anchiornis, Xixianykus, or Raptorex. I’m equally interested in mammals, fish, and invertebrates.

What do you think is the most important part of good palaeoart?
Naturalism. Believability. It’s a sum total of the morphology, the surface covering, the lighting, the color, and the composition. I feel it’s just as important to spend time painting landscape studies and sketching living analogs in zoos as it is to study the skeletal morphology. Animals have to fit naturally into their environment, and behave convincingly with each other. I’m always trying to go beyond the obvious scene of the dinosaur running with their mouths open across dry lake beds (OK, I’ve done my share of those, too). I’m also interested in going against the knee-jerk media marketing of dinosaurs as ruthless monsters. There haven’t been enough images of dinosaurs hidden in camouflage, or sleeping, or regurgitating food, or preening, or playing, or scratching an itch. The best paleo paintings haven’t been done yet, and maybe a high school kid reading this will be inspired to paint an epic image that hasn’t yet been seen.

17 Responses to “Interview with James Gurney”

  1. 1 dmaas 03/06/2011 at 9:21 am

    Great interview, thanks!
    Gurney’s fantastic Dinosaur Art tips also belong linked here, me thinks:

    @James: Love your palettes and compositions!
    minor aside: that microraptor’s legs look so wrong!

  2. 2 Brian Choo 03/06/2011 at 9:37 am

    Many thanks James for you awesome insights and awesome art!

  3. 3 Mad Ness Monster 03/06/2011 at 4:21 pm

    Wonderful interview! Thanks for sharing!

  4. 4 John Stone 03/06/2011 at 4:47 pm

    Very Nice! Good Read.

  5. 6 Zhen 03/06/2011 at 9:26 pm

    Great interview. Thanks for sharing. I own a few dinotopia books myself. Too bad the ones I own only comes with the illustration on the cover.

  6. 7 Tom 04/06/2011 at 1:38 am

    That Mei long painting is stunning. Too bad its manus is so inaccurate, because it’s amazing otherwise.

    • 8 Paul 05/06/2011 at 3:14 am

      Tom, I think what you think is a pronated manus is Mei long’s other foot, being held off the ground.

  7. 9 mattvr 04/06/2011 at 1:44 am

    James is an outstanding painter and illustrator by any measure.

    The Dinotopia books have made a standout contribution to maintaining palaeontology in the public imagination while portraying prehistoric wildlife as accurately as possible in what is otherwise a fantasy setting.

  8. 10 Mark Robinson 04/06/2011 at 7:03 am

    Another great interview. One thing I like about the Dinotopia books was the way that the art and writing fitted together like a package. One of the benefits of having them done by the same person, I guess, but also because attention was paid to making the art look and feel believably real.

  9. 11 gray Stanback 06/06/2011 at 7:13 pm

    Much as I LOVE the Dinotopia books, there are some aspects of them that I couldn’t help but point out. One, Quetzalcoatlus should be stalking prey on the ground like a stork rather than flying like a condor or albatross (and on an isolated island with no predators, like Dinotopia is supposed to be, they’d probably become flightless). Two, a number of dinosaurs are referred to by obsolete names. For example, a Troodon is called a Stenonychosaurus and a Centrosaurus is called a Monoclonius.

    • 12 David Hone 06/06/2011 at 7:42 pm

      You’re being too literal, not to mention that this logic doesn;t really work. The stork hypothesis of Witton and Naish was published after any of James’ books, so that hardly fair comment. And none of his dinosaurs have ‘evolved’ as it were, so why should the azhdarchids become flightless, but it doens’t bother you that none of the others have changed. And as for the names, how was it that these even ended up with the same names on the island as in the rest of the world?

      It’s a fantasy book not a documentary.

  10. 13 gray Stanback 08/06/2011 at 6:39 pm

    True, but it just struck me as odd that someone who takes drawing accurate dinosaurs as seriously as James Gurney does didn’t put much effort into realistic ecological “world-building” when he created Dinotopia.

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