Continuing the story of how the book Dinotopia came to be....
What should Arthur Denison’s journal look like? To find out, I traveled to the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C. and asked to see their collection of nineteenth century explorer’s sketchbooks. (This photo was taken after Dinotopia was published.)
Most of them were executed in pencil and watercolor, with cursive script for the written notes. I took an old book in my collection and mocked it up with a fake cover to look like my own copy of Denison’s journal.
Early mock-up of Denison’s Journal
Evoking that sketchbook look meant developing a lighter, more transparent technique than I was accustomed to. I wasn’t comfortable enough in watercolor, so I came up with an unusual way of working in oil paint for the vignetted illustrations, something that would look more improvisational and show the pencil drawing underneath.
In contrast to the sketchy vignettes, I wanted a few pictures to be more finished and to completely spill over the edges of the pages. Paintings like Dinosaur Boulevard required several weeks to produce. Creating such a picture was like directing a single frame from a Hollywood movie.
I based my approach on methods that I gleaned from the Golden Age American illustrators and the academic painters of Europe. I studied everything I could find about artists such as Lawrence Alma Tadema, Adolphe-William Bouguereau, and Jean-Léon Gérôme, who faced similar challenges creating detailed, realistic paintings of worlds they couldn’t observe firsthand.
Friends as models
For my references I used ordinary things that I found around me. I made charcoal studies from costumed models, or I photographed my neighbors and friends posing in small groups. They wore theater costumes that I bought from a rental company in New York that was selling off its dilapidated stock.
The girls in the parade posed with artificial flowers, bought at the five-and-dime store in our small town. Sometimes I dressed up in a costume and acted out a part in front of a full-length mirror. I made three-dimensional maquettes of dinosaurs and architectural details using clay, tissue paper, cardboard, and dowel rods.
Set of homemade maquettes
I made a miniature skybax from a combination of toothpicks, wire, leather, and polymer clay. For the wing membrane I used my wife’s discarded pantyhose. I set up these models in natural light conditions to observe how the light and shadow played across the forms. A typical day might find me building a cardboard hat, pacing around snarling like a Tyrannosaurus, and helping my two boys with their own studio projects.
The process of writing the book began with a fifteen-page outline, which laid out the overall story structure and character arcs. Then I planned the composition of each page spread by means of a complete storyboard, drawn in pencil on pre-printed pieces of card stock.
Unused art: "Saurian Pageant"
The next step was to create the finished artwork. This was by far the most time-consuming part of the process. I completed the art out of sequence, sending the paintings off in batches to be photographed for the publisher. Parting with finished artwork before the book was finished made continuity difficult.
I resolved the final text only after all the artwork was finished. I typed out the story on a manual typewriter and attached the columns of text with a paste-up waxer alongside photocopies of the artwork on layout boards that were the same size as the finished book. I rode my bicycle to the copy store in town, photocopied these layouts, and mailed the copies to the publisher so that they could prepare the book for printing.
More at these Links:
The new official Dinotopia website
This "making-of" story, illustrated with photos and sketches, is published in the Afterword section of the new 20th Anniversary Edition of Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time
"Origins of Dinotopia" series on GurneyJourney:
Part 1: Childhood Dreams
Part 2: College Obsessions
Part 3: Lost Empires
Part 4: Dinosaurs
Part 5: Treetown
Part 6: The Illustrated Book
Part 7: Utopias
Part 8: Building a World
Part 9: Words and Pictures
Part 10: Canyon Worlds
Part 11: Putting it Together
Part 12: Book Launch