Monday, August 31, 2009

The Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 1

For the next few days, I’ll be giving you a detailed, blow-by-blow tour of the making of a complex Civil War painting called the “Sinking of the Cumberland.” I mentioned it on the blog over a year ago when the painting was installed at the Mariner’s Museum in Virginia.

The artwork was commissioned by the National Geographic, but never published in the magazine because the article was severely cut in length at the last minute, a common but somewhat frustrating fate of art (and photos) for the magazine.

I’m very pleased that the art will be published for the first time, and at a large scale, in my upcoming book Imaginative Realism.

History isn’t a collection of facts. It’s a collection of stories. A historical painting is first and foremost a storytelling picture with a set of characters at some moment of crisis or decision. Although you can show only a single snapshot of the events, your painting can suggest the full scope of the narrative. The challenge is choosing the moment and the angle that tells the tale in the most memorable and engaging way.

Above: researching on the Constellation, a surviving Civil-War-era ship in the Baltimore harbor.

The moment I chose to portray was 3:37 p.m. on March 8, 1862, when the USS Cumberland sank in Hampton Roads, Virginia, the victim of the CSS Virginia, which went on the next day to battle with the Monitor.

The Virginia, or Merrimac, as it was known before it was converted into the slope-slided ironclad, delivered its fatal blow to the Cumberland with its 1,500-pound iron ram.

As his ship sank, Lieutenant George U. Morris gave the command for all hands to save themselves, but he remained on deck to encourage the decimated pivot gun crew, who kept firing even as the waves closed around them. Morris defied a request to surrender, declaring that they would sink with their colors flying. The Virginia sustained only superficial damage as the Cumberland’s cannonballs bounced harmlessly off its 4-inch iron covering.

Part of the research involved reading the extensive surviving firsthand accounts, not all of which agreed on the details. I then traveled to the location and met with historians, including John Quarstein, above, who pointed to the exact spot where the Cumberland finally settled. At naval history museums, I looked at the few remaining fragments of both ships, and I photographed scale models of the vessels.

Tomorrow we'll look at the first sketches to explore the composition.

Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 1A: The Backstory
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 1B: The Research
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 2: Choosing the Scene
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 3: Acting it Out
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 4: Final Art

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Jurassic Park Set Visit

In 1992, when I was in the middle of a booksigning in LA, a guy said came up to me and said, “Hey, if you’re not doing anything tonight, do you want to check out the set for Jurassic Park?”

His name, it turns out, was Mike Trcic, one of the hottest creature sculptors in the business. He worked at Stan Winston Studio and helped develop the look of the animatronic T.rex that attacks the car in the rainy night sequence.

When we arrived on set, the night crew was wielding blow driers on the inert dinosaur, trying to dry out the heavy water that the foam rubber skin had absorbed from the rain machines.

The T.rexes didn’t have legs. The bodies rested on sophisticated (and potentially dangerous) motion bases that could quickly move the upper body around. The feet were built as separate pieces used for close-ups. The digital effects get a lot of credit in Jurassic Park, but the animatronics were equally groundbreaking.

Some of the artists told me that they anticipated that much of the work they were doing would be superceded by CGI. As it turns out, animatronics have held their place in the industry, a necessity for close-ups and interactive shots.
Thanks, Mike! More about Trcic Studio.
Wiki on Stan Winston.
"How Stuff Works" about the Jurassic Park animatronics, link.
GJ post on interactivity.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Harvard Wind

Sometimes I like to exaggerate a little when I'm out sketching to poke some fun at my fellow man (and at myself in the process).

Friday, August 28, 2009

Twice Marooned

Harpers Magazine published Howard Pyle's first version of "Marooned" in 1887. The pirate is resigned to his fate, punished by abandonment on a tiny island, with nothing but his hat, a bottle of rum, and a rifle.

A wave crashes in the distance, and a second wave washes up in the foreground, making it clear that this a small piece of real estate.

Pyle came back to the idea in an easel painting from 1909, which wasn't reproduced until Henry Pitz's biography decades later. Pyle's fascination with composition shines through the refinements that he made more than thirty years after his first version.

He pushes everything to the extreme. The pirate's pose is simpler and smaller in the vast emptiness. His stuff is gathered at his feet rather than strewn across the beach. The far sea is only a sliver. A cloud of gulls flies high in the sky behind him, mocking him. His second version benefits from his lifetime of teaching and learning about storytelling composition.
More about the painting at "The Art of Storytelling."
See the original of the painted version, along with lots of other Pyles, at the Delaware Art Museum.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Eye: Simplicity and Softness

The nice thing about working very quickly is that it forces you to make decisions favoring big truths. I painted this portrait during a 20 minute sketch group session.

Because I was moving fast, I didn’t have time to see too much detail in the eye and the eyebrow. Simplicity and softness is the secret to eyes anyway even if you have a lot of time to work on them.

There's a a tiny bit of finger-blending at the outside corner of the eye and just below the lower lid. I don't like to put my fingers into the paint, but in a quick-painting session, I don't always have time to reach for the right brush.

The eyebrow is modeled in just two planes. It all looks fairly “strokey” close up, but when you back up from the 9x12 inch painting, the detail appears to be all there.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Spectrum Exhibition Opens September 11

I can't think of a place I'd rather be on September 11 than the opening of the second Spectrum Exhibition a the Museum of American Illustration in New York. The last Spectrum show was one of the most popular exhibitions in the history of the Society of Illustrators.

From the Society of Illustrators website

The Museum of American Illustration is proud to announce an exhibit featuring the top fantastic artists from around the world as seen in the annual Spectrum. Created in 1993 by Cathy and Arnie Fenner to showcase fantastic-themed art work, Spectrum is now the leading resource for art directors, art buyers, and fans of the genre. Selected pieces are chosen by top jurors in the field and images are produced in the full color book printed annually.

The Spectrum exhibit features a selection of over 120 works from both legendary artists and talented newcomers from the last four annuals. Divided into seven categories, the exhibit showcases multi-media works including original art in both traditional and digital medium, video, 3D, comics and graphic novels. Artists include Julie Bell, Kinuko Y. Craft, Eric Fortune, William Basso, Brom, James Gurney, Tony DiTerlizzi, Terese Nielsen, Yuko Shimizu, Michael Whelan, Donato Giancola, John Jude Palencar, Phil Hale and many more. The artwork will be on display from September 1 through October 17, 2009. In conjunction with the exhibit the Society will hold an Opening Reception on Friday, September 11, 2009. Tickets are $40 for non-members and $35 for members, and are limited.

Other posts on Irene Gallo's The Art Department

Yesterday at the County Fair

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Digital Bathroom Reading

Blog reader and illustrator Lawrence Roibal sent these visual commentaries on this morning's post.

He added: "It is fun to think what environmental designers will come up with to solve some of the issues people will obviously miss about the loss of print."
Visit Lawrence Roibal's non-print universe at his blog or his illustration website.

Death of Print?

This month our Smithsonian magazine came wrapped in a paper sleeve that says “Go Green.”

The marketing copy promises that any subscriber willing to quit getting the magazine and instead switch to a digital version will receive TWO FREE ISSUES.

The copywriters came up with nine reasons to dump the paper option:
1. There are those two free print issues.
2. Faster delivery than the print version.
3. Download anytime.
4. Less paper clutter. (Have they seen my coffee table?)
5. Adjustable font size for easy reading.
6. Advanced search capabilities.
7. Easy access to Web goodies.
8. Easy to search, share, and save (sounds like #6 again).
9. Help the environment.

I sympathize with the venerable Smithsonian, one of the best magazines out there. Surely they’re facing the same financial crunch every magazine is dealing with: declining advertising, declining subscribers, and rising print and distribution costs.

But it makes me wonder. Is Smithsonian’s print-to-digital special offer one we’ll see repeated at other magazines? Is this just a one-time move to siphon off screen-friendly subscribers, or part of a wider strategy to phase out the print version entirely? (Their FAQs don't say). Do those nine incentives make you want to switch away from paper?
The Smithsonian’s GoGreen campaign
Sample digital issue, link.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sunday, August 23, 2009


English has perfectly good words to describe a "painter," "sculptor," or "animator." Why don't we have an ordinary word for someone who draws?

(By the way, these hands are by the supreme drawdiddler John Sargent.)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Pan Progress

Some of the students in my recent class on Creature Design at Woodstock School of Art have been finding time to work a bit more on their Pan/satyr figures, based on our study of goat and human models, and since you asked to see some of the work, here it is!

Lester Yocum painted this image of his goat lady "Doris," based on the maquette he built in class.

Shawn Fields created a scene where the father Pan reads about Humans to his two sons. To get the mood and atmosphere of the crepuscular swamplight, he took his maquette into the flooded forest behind the school, braving clouds of voracious mosquitoes.

Eric Millen has been working up his Battle Pan in Sculpey. He looked at magazines on heavyweight wrestlers to get ideas for poses and muscle groups. Could you imagine stepping into the ring and facing this guy for a bout of ultimate fighting?

Mike Marrocco did a self-portrait as Pan, using our ram skull Flynn as a model.

Maureen Rogers painted this watercolor of her Pan, a bon vivant living at home and enjoying a glass of wine, surely a gift from his friend Bacchus.

It's really inspiring to me to see how people took the idea in so many different directions, and to see how the character of Pan took a different shape with each person.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Lehigh River Video

Here's a short video showing steps in a plein air oil study two days ago.

The early stages show the subject drawn with a brush, large tones scrubbed in, and the details of foam saved for last.

The oil painting is 9 x 12 inches, and took about six hours.

Here's a shot of the final painting.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Stoddartsville Sketch

We're staying for a couple of days in Stoddartsville, Pennsylvania. Our little cabin is right next to the Lehigh River, where we've been painting and rafting every day. Yesterday we met 91-year-old John Butler, who presides over a whole settlement of historic buildings.

On his front porch during a summer shower he told of his 25 years in the Navy and his hunting adventures in Alaska.

One of his fondest memories was driving a dogsled down the frozen Matanuska river by the light of the moon.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Gurney at LAAFA October 10

On October 10 at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art in Van Nuys, CA, I’ll be doing three different illustrated lectures back to back.

The first one is about how to paint a realistic picture of an imaginary scene. The second is all about color and light, and how to use them effectively in your artwork. The third is about the history and technique of plein air painting and informal sketching. They’re all new lectures, with some of the best stuff from the blog.

Sign up soon. The space there is limited, and it’s first come-first served.

Registration for the Gurney lectures at LAAFA.
Added later: hopefully the links work now!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Reverse Storyboarding

I recently watched the DVDs of HBO's Rome on my laptop. I stopped the action every once in a while to make super-quick storyboards of the screen compositions.

It was a fun and painless way to think about shot composition and lighting. The technique is fountain pen, watercolor pencils, and brushpens.

(Thanks for the recommendation, Mike M.)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fade Test

On May 11, a little over three months ago, I put a few stripes of color on a piece of card stock. I cut the paper in half. One half went in a cool, dark drawer and the other half in a south-facing window. When I restored both pieces, it was possible to see how much each color faded.

The Caran d’Ache water-soluble colored pencils fared surprisingly well. But the markers faded considerably. The newsprint paper went from a light gray to a yellowish brown.

The Sharpie Accent highlighter went through a strange transformation. It started out a light fluorescent yellow. A few weeks later it darkened as it lost the component dyes that convert ultraviolet light to visible light. Eventually the yellow color disappeared entirely.

The Sharpie Permanent marker turns out to be not very permanent.

Today I made up a bunch of new swatches with oil, watercolor, pastel, marker, dyes, colored pencils, ballpoint pens, fountain pen inks and inkjet printer inks. Anything else you’re curious to see put through the test?

A few months from now I’ll let you know how they come out.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

ABC: Big Ugly

The 15th of the month is the day for a group sketch game called "Art by Committee." The way it works is I share an excerpt from a science fiction story and you come up with a picture to go with it.

This month the quote was about running into a big ugly something-or-other:

I love the range of solutions people came up with. There are some pretty strange things out there to run into! Check out more about the artists at their linked blogs and websites.

Austin Madison, blog

Andrew Wales
Link to art:
Link to blog

Patrick Waugh, blog

Andrew Walker

Mei-Yi Chun, website

Dave Lebow

Here's the solution from the coffee shop gang that I was hanging with a while ago.

Thanks to everyone who participated.

Now here’s the quote for next month: "He stood and held his arms out before him, pulling the chains taut. The muscles in his shoulders and his chest bunched, standing out in sharp relief, and a moment later, the chains snapped cleanly."

Have fun! Please scale your JPG to 400 pixels across and compress it as much as possible. Title it with your name, send it to: jgurneyart(at), subject line ABC. Please let me know in your email the full URL of the link to a larger image or your blog or website so people can see your image in all its glory and learn more about your other work. Please have your entries in by the 12th of September. I'll post the results September 15.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Caption Contest Finalists

It was very hard to narrow down all the great captions you provided for this Dinotopia Deleted Scene Caption Contest. Instead of three finalists, I have kept six, all of whom will receive an Imaginative Realism poster.

1. Kid: Dag! What's in this stuff?!! Look what it did to my Corgi...

2. Just a little farther and I'll be one step closer to having those dino-feet for the back of my chair too!

3. If this painting wasn’t so bad, maybe this food would taste better!?

4. "Timmy! No! That's how you lost your left hand the last time!"

5. Gee Johnny. If one cake turned you into a dinosaur, maybe another will turn you back.

6. Dinosaur: Why can’t I have a knife and fork?

Boy: The iron age hasn’t arrived yet!

Note: The poll is now closed, and #4 is the winner.
Daroo, Mark, GooGoo, Ted, Advantageous, and David: please email me your mailing address so that I can send you the poster, and, depending on who wins, the extra grand prize poster.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Real or Photoshop?

There’s still time (until 9:00 p.m. Eastern time) to enter yesterday’s caption contest.

Meanwhile, blog reader Jason Peck sent me this image with the following question:

This is a pretty neat photo, but I really can't figure out exactly what I'm looking at. I know it’s an illusion, but I can’t figure out how it works. Something tells me its Photoshopped, but I could be wrong. What do you think?

Let me turn the question over to you first. At 6:00 p.m. Eastern time I’ll post the answer I came up with.
Added at 6:00.
I can hardly add to the perceptive explanations in the comments, explaining that this is a real object. I agree, and here's what I said to Jason:
These three dimensional illusions do exist as real objects, and I believe this one is real. They're only viewable from one angle. In this case the horizontal piece coming across the middle is actually in front of the right hand vertical bar, but it is beveled in such a way as to look like it is tucked behind.

The giveaway is the cast shadow from that central horizontal bar. It travels diagonally down the figure and then across the floor grid and stops just to the left of the watch, proof that the horizontal leg is unattached.

Blog reader Jay Meinhardt actually created the figure in his CAD program. That's awesome. Thanks, Jay, and thanks everybody for your great explanations.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Caption Contest

This drawing from 1989 is an early experimental (and failed) attempt to work out the technique for Dinotopia.

But it needs a humorous caption. So I'm inviting you to contribute one in the comments below. Either the dinosaur or the kid could be talking.

The deadline is tomorrow, Thursday at 9:00 p.m., Eastern time. I'll pick three finalists, each of whom will receive as a gift a signed, two-sided poster for Imaginative Realism (the book itself will be published in early October).

On Friday you'll be able to vote on your favorite of the three caption finalists. The grand prize winner will receive an additional Dinotopia poster and a hand-drawn remarque.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Insect Vehicles, Part 2

Beetles in flight are as amazing as butterflies or dragonflies. They have to lift their rigid wing covers and position them forward of the flapping wings.

The sketches below are of some insect-based aliens for a science fiction universe with sentient flying robots. I looked through lots of photos of insects, trying to dream up different ways to use the body plan of a beetle or a fly as a starting point.

A vehicle would require many of the same functional elements as a natural creature, namely: optical sensors, landing gear, external armor, wings and wing covers, fuel intake tubes, and offensive and defensive weapons systems.

The design assumption we’ve had until recently is that the manufacturing process would lead to artificial beings with an industrial geometry of straight lines and circles.

But recent advances in computer-aided design and manufacturing, and even computer-aided evolution suggests that vehicles of this kind might begin to mimic the organic lines and surfaces of real insects, like the longhorn beetle Callipogon armillatus, which is a marvel of natural engineering.

An entymologist friend gave me this amazing 5-inch-long specimen, which I love to study when I’m trying to imagine new kinds of vehicles. To learn about exoskeleton engineering, I also gather up parts from crabs and lobsters that wash up on the beach.

Image of pine beetle in flight from the NSF, link.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Insect Vehicles, Part 1

A few weeks ago, we took a brief look at a vehicle based on a butterfly design (link), but I thought it would be fun to explore the topic of flying insect-based vehicles a little more.

Throughout the history of transportation design, engineers have looked to nature for design analogs: fish for ships, tortoises for armored vehicles, and birds for aircraft. From the time of Leonardo da Vinci onward, many of the concepts for ornithopters were based on birds. Today many of the new semi-autonomous spy drones come from the study of insects.

The dragonfly is an ancient natural design, and it’s a powerful and agile flier. The two sets of wings beat out of phase with each other, making for a smooth ride. Each wingbeat is controlled by a separate nerve impulse, unlike flies and bees, whose wingbeats depend on a pulsating vibration of the upper plates of the thorax.

Recent high speed photography has revealed the secret of how insects fly. They take advantage of minature vortexes in the air to get extra lift—you can feel this effect by moving your hands in “wingbeats” underwater. But in an air medium, insect designs only work at a small scale, for the physics changes as you scale everything up.

This ornithopter maquette is from Dinotopia: The World Beneath. It’s based on the extinct dragonfly Meganeura, with some steampunk elements. I built the maquette with a pine fuselage and cardboard wings, which were mounted over armature wire, much like I did with the Utopiales Lepidopter, so that I could pose them at any angle.
Photo by Robert Seber: link. (Canon 30D, 300mm IS ISO 1600, 1/1600, f/8)
Building the Utopiales maquette, link.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Illo 2

Dan Zimmer is best known for the beautifully produced ILLUSTRATION magazine, which is about the history of American Illustration. He also publishes ILLO, a book-length spotlight on the contemporary illustration scene.

He has just released ILLO 2, which features interviews with Michael Cho, Nancy Stahl, and Zina Saunders. Somehow I got lucky and they included me, too.

It’s hard to convey how extensive the coverage is on each person without actually seeing the whole issue, so here's every page. Go to a newsstand and pick one up so that Mr. Zimmer can keep making future issues. There are a lot of other deserving illustrators that he still needs to cover.

ILLO main website, link.
Purchase ILLO 2 or subscribe directly from Dan Zimmer, link.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


When you’re drawing or painting a stream of smoke rising in still air, here are a couple of things to keep in mind.

The column of smoke begins as a fairly uninterrupted column of less dense gas. As it rises, the column begins to interact with the surrounding air by forming a curling vortex.

Each vortex usually spirals outward from the central line and breaks up as it gets higher. The most unexpected shapes happen higher up.

It helps to think of the smoke column as a three dimensional semi-transparent plastic bag, with some parts seen edge-on and therefore more opaque.
Two of these images are by Irene Muller. They all come from the image collection “Dark Roasted Blend.”