I went to college at the University of California at Berkeley, where I sought out the professors of archaeology and paleontology.
When they found I was interested in ancient artifacts, they let me into the archives of the anthropology museum to draw Egyptian scarab beetle carvings for a scientist’s publication.
Photo by David Gurney
I took a course in paleontology taught by Jane A. Robinson, a plesiosaur expert. In the middle of the term, she was called away to the South Pacific to investigate reports of a strange rotting carcass that Japanese fishermen had pulled out of the sea off the coast of New Zealand.
Everyone hoped it would turn out to be a plesiosaur—a marine reptile from the age of dinosaurs. When she returned she told us that it was nothing but the smelly remains of a shark. More photos and full discussion here.
My fingers itched to dig in the dirt again. That summer I signed up for a fossil dig at the Blackhawk Ranch, east of Berkeley. In my little plot of dirt, I dug up knuckle bones of a ten-million-year-old camel. Instead of writing a term paper, I drew a charcoal reconstruction of the creatures I had found.
After graduating from college as an anthropology major, I studied drawing and painting at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. I soon left art school to work in the movie industry as a background painter for the animated fantasy film Fire and Ice, (Bakshi/Frazetta, 1983).
Background painting, Fire and Ice, cel-vinyl acrylic
This was where I learned to paint. My job was to create the landscape scenes that appear behind the action. I painted over five hundred backgrounds: jungles, volcanoes, and ice caves. Each afternoon, at the daily test screenings, I would see characters moving around in the worlds I had just rendered. I began to have a strange sensation that I could project myself inside my paintings and live within them. Working with Frank Frazetta gave me my first real exposure to fantasy as a genre of art and storytelling. When the movie work finished, I began illustrating covers for science fiction and fantasy novels.
Tar Machine, Marker drawing Los Angeles, 1980.
All along, I kept filling sketchbooks with direct observations of people, architecture, and animals. Before I got married and moved east, I took a trip across country on freight trains, documenting everything in a book published in 1982 called The Artist's Guide to Sketching. That will be the subject of a future series.
This series of essays is adapted from the illustrated Afterword of the new 20th anniversary edition of Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time
Previously on GJ:
Fire and Ice Series:
Fire and Ice, Part 1: Rekindled
Fire and Ice, Part 2: Frazetta
Part 3: Fire and Ice -- Tom Kinkade
Part 4: Fire and Ice -- Ralph Bakshi
"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
Art Center College of Design