Friday, September 14, 2007

Landscape Maquettes

How would you go about painting a realistic scene of a sand dune or a snowy mountaintop? Short of scouting real locations, you might browse through stacks of photos of the Sahara Desert or the Himalayas. I tried that, but came up short. There was a specific composition and lighting idea that I had in mind for each scene and I couldn’t find anything like it.

I knew that if I tried to invent the whole thing from my storyboard sketch, it wouldn’t be convincing, because the key to realism is lighting. Whenever I base a painting on a real form in real light, I notice little accidents of truth that I could never imagine.


Artists (and animation studios) often use maquettes, or reference models, but they’re typically created only for characters or vehicles. Maquettes are just as useful for landscape elements. Maxfield Parrish collected jagged rocks, which he photographed as reference for his rocky mountainscapes.For the sand dune painting I used a light tan modeling clay, or plasticene, warmed up in the oven and shaped into a dune. I then arranged a small plastic model of a Brachiosaurus and photographed them both in the same lighting condition.
The combination of references gave me what I needed to paint “Skeleton Dune.”

To create a maquette for a snow-covered mountain, I made a rough base from styrofoam, then draped some plaster-impregnated burlap over the base. I then built up a very rough model of an alpine castle from modeling clay and cardboard.


This was the work of no more than three hours--and I threw it out when it was finished--but it gave me the information I needed for the painting “Thermala: Alpine Hideaway” in Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara.

6 comments:

Stephen James. said...

Very cool.

I so respect people with a talent for realistic sculpture. So I take it this is pretty rare step though?

Bill said...

Great method. Do you have an opinion on 3D modeling? I started painting long before I got into 3D, and I found that what I had learned from painting applied to the computer and vice versa. It can be very handy for reference when you don't have the time or materials to build something in real life.

PS, I love your books and have enjoyed them since I was a little kid.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Bill and Stephen,

About digital 3D modeling, you tell me! A lot of my friends swear by it, but I rely completely on hand-made maquettes, just because they're quick and cheap--and I like burning my fingers with the glue gun!

Can you get organic forms (like rock or tree bark) with the 3D programs? And do the light rendering programs give you reflected light as well as simple light and shadow?

Colin said...

"Skeleton Dune" reminds me so much of that scene in Star Wars when C-3PO is wandering through the desert and finds that krayt dragon skull...

Michael said...

It's so amazing to see the processes of the images that captured my attention when I first picked up Dinotopia. Its funny, but I usually use models or some kind of physical maquette for many of the drawings I do of either creatures or objects. It's something about how natural light hits it that, just like you said, makes it convincing. I guess digital is no replacement of the real thing sometimes!

K_tigress said...

You can do pretty much any thing in 3D. All you have to do is import custom textures and pattern if the ones in the program aren't provided.

Sometimes inspirations for interesting imagery for illustrations come from the strangest places.
I found one at work one time. I looked at this one old building that was across from work. The roof was I guess pretty bad because vegetation like little trees and other things was growing on top. For some reason when I sketched in to my book I had to make it into like this wild place in a jungle like setting. I made the building look like it was built in to a cliff side. Then put in like a sunken garden thing in parts of it and below the buildings built into the cliff there is a river that in reality was the road. I think eventually I will have to fix up the idea and paint it up. Then you'll know what I pictured for sure.