Sunday, April 3, 2011



James Gurney Interview

Tell me a little bit about yourself, about your life? What helped prepare you to become the artist that you are today?

I was an archaeology major at UC Berkeley, and then I went to Art Center in Pasadena for two semesters, where I picked up a good perspective class. I took a summer off and rode the freight trains across America, doing two-dollar caricatures of people in bars to pay for food. That led to writing a book called The Artist’s Guide to Sketching. When I got back from that crazy trip, I decided to teach myself all the things that art schools weren’t teaching at the time, especially animal anatomy, so I got a membership at the zoo and the natural history museum and drew there almost every day.

What are some of the things that you have worked on?

My first real job was as a background painter in animation. Ralph Baskhi and Frank Frazetta hired me to paint the backgrounds for an animated sword and sorcery film called Fire and Ice. I had to produce about 600 paintings in a little over a year, at a rate of about 11 per week—and that was on top of all the writing and sketching for Artist’s Guide to Sketching. That job was where I learned to paint, but it was sort of an experiment in sleep deprivation.

How do you go about drawing, and what goes through your mind, from start to end?

Wow, that’s a pretty broad question. Let’s see, I start with small thumbnail sketches in marker or pencil, sometimes dozens. If it’s an architectural subject or a creature character, I’ll often build a little maquette to establish shadows and angles. If necessary I get models to pose in costume, usually friends or neighbors. I either take photos or do tone paper sketches of the models. I also have a scrap file of color magazine photos that I use for texture and form ideas. If the painting requires scientific or historical accuracy (like the paintings I did for National Geographic) I consult with experts at every stage of the process and incorporate their suggestions. After all these studies, I work up the line drawing—and sometimes a full charcoal drawing—and finally begin the final painting.

As far as what’s going through my mind, not much, usually. Sometimes I listen to books on tape the whole time and I’m just going on automatic pilot. In a weird sort of way I do better when I don’t think too much when I’m actually painting or drawing.

What is a typical day for you, and who are the people you work with?

There really is no typical day. Sometimes I spend a whole day writing or storyboarding or sketching or painting or splitting firewood—it all depends on what stage a project is in and what needs to be done. I work at home with my wife as my colleague and sounding board. We keep to a pretty regular schedule, walking every day.

What are you working on now? (If you can tell us)

Lately, I’ve been writing a lot. I just finished writing three introductions to books I’m really excited about. One is the upcoming 2011 memorial exhibition book about the American illustrator Howard Pyle, where I wrote the chapter on Pyle’s working methods. There will be a great exhibit on Pyle at the Delaware Art Museum coming in fall 2011. Right now I’m writing two introductions for Dover reprints of classic books: Solomon J. Solomon’s book on painting and a lettering book by J.M. Bergling. I’m also working on some concept art for Blizzard Entertainment that I can’t talk about. And I’ve got two other illustrated book projects of my own that I’m working on.

Who are some of your favorite artists out there?

When you say “out there,” I assume you mean in the ‘eternal beyond.’ Where should I start? I’ll give you the first ten that come to mind: Norman Rockwell, Winsor McCay, Alphonse Mucha, Adolf Menzel, John Singer Sargent, A.B. Frost, Ilya Repin, Rien Poortvliet, Heinrich Kley, and Diego Velazquez.

Could you talk about your process in coloring your art, as well as the types of tools or media that you use?

For drawing I’ve been using regular pencils and water-soluble colored pencils. I carry the sketching stuff around with me all the time, and you can see all the gear at “What’s in My Bag,” a BoingBoing feature.

For painting, oil is my favorite, though I didn’t begin painting in oil until I was in my 20s. I often start with transparent washes over a line drawing that has been sealed with acrylic matte medium. I generally use just turpentine and Liquin for the medium. All the Dinotopia paintings are done in oil. I often work on heavy weight illustration board, and sometimes on oil-primed linen canvas. I use a mixture of bristle and sable brushes.

What part of painting is most fun and easy, and what is most hard?

Most easy: Cutting the board to the right size. Most hard: everything else. Honestly, the work comes easier if I do the planning steps, and solve the problems one at time, rather than diving into a painting and hoping to pull it off. Very few of my painting come easily. Almost all of them involved some rethinking, rubbing out and reworking.

What are some of the things that you do to keep yourself creative?

I find creativity comes from just putting in the time at the drawing table and solving a specific problem. There’s no mystery to it and no shortcuts. Of course I’m inspired by comics and movies and art books and exhibits, but to really be creative I have to put them away and find the answers in my own head.

What are some of your favorite pieces of artwork that you have seen?

I was bowled over recently by a painting by the Danish artist Peder Krøyer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was a scene in a dark bar with shiny tables. Some fishermen are talking in the far end of the room and there’s this one tired guy in the foreground, painted with incredible sympathy and power. Just about every time I go to a museum I get blindsided by a painting or a drawing I wasn’t looking for, or by an artist I wasn’t that familiar with.

What is your favorite subject to draw and paint? And why?

I really don’t have a favorite. I love to draw and paint literally everything, but almost always from observation: flowers, horses, old diners, jets in the airport, waterfalls, vintage cars, and fast food signs. But most of all I like to sketch all sorts of people—conductors at a classical concert, Irish musicians, people talking on cellphones. Sometimes I write on the front of my sketchbook: “REPORT FROM PLANET EARTH.” The idea is that I’m an alien visiting this planet for a weekend, and I have to capture as much information as I can to report back.

What inspired you to become an Artist?

There were no artists in my family. My dad and grandfather were engineers. So I grew up building model airplanes and boats. Most of the drawing I did as a school kid was to plan 3D workshop projects. My first actual freelance work was in high school where I did hand lettering for wedding invitations. I also became fascinated by animation when I found Preston Blair’s book in the early 1970s. I set up an animation stand with a Super 8 camera and did a few short films.

What are some of the neat things you have learned from other artists that you have worked with or seen?

I had a chance to meet and correspond with one of my heroes, the illustrator Tom Lovell. He used mirror studies for his illustration—the same thing animators have always done, where you put on a costume and pose in front of a full length mirror to get the action and expression right. So that means I’m often drawing and painting while wearing a cape or a doublet. That can be pretty funny if I’m the only one home and I answer the door for the FedEx guy.

What are some of your favorite websites that you go to?

Because of the time I put into my blog and email, I don’t have much time as I’d like to surf around. I know there’s a lot of great stuff out there, but I’m still pretty book oriented and and just don’t get a chance to explore the Web much.

What wisdom could you give us about being an artist? Do you have any tips you could give?

When I was just starting out, I had the chance to meet Eric Larson, one of Disney’s Nine Old Men. He looked at my portfolio, where I had some lame drawings of a dog that were obviously based on the photos of Muybridge. He said that he and Milt Kahl and all the guys looked at a lot of photos, but then they put them away and drew from what they knew and imagined. That gave me more confidence in my imagination. And if there’s a tip to be shared, it’s that we should gather all the reference we can, but let the mental image drive the process.

If people would like to contact you, how would you like to be contacted?

The best way to see more of my work and to find contact information is on my daily blog, GurneyJourney. People can ask art-related questions is on the blog comments. My other websites are and People can send me traditional mail via PO Box 693, Rhinebeck, NY 12572.

Finally, do you have any of your artwork for sale (sketchbooks, prints, or anything) for people that like your work can know where and when to buy it?
Besides the Dinotopia books, my best stuff—pictures and information—is in my two books Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter and Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist. People can order signed copies from my website store at

James Gurney Gallery