In 1983, soon after I had begun as a published illustrator, National Geographic magazine took a chance and hired me to paint a picture of the explorer Alexander von Humboldt on the Orinoco River.
The assignment was followed by many others, including reconstructions of the legendary voyages of Jason and Ulysses, the kingdom of Kush in Nubia, and the civilization of the Etruscans in Italy.
West Bank, 1987
During those years, National Geographic occasionally sent its artists to meet with the archaeologists on location. A research trip in the summer of 1987 brought me to Rome, Athens, and Jerusalem, which gave me a visceral sense of the weight of time and tradition.
My first glimpse of an actual lost city came at the end of that trip, when I arrived at Petra, the capital of an ancient Arab kingdom hidden in a red sandstone canyon in southern Jordan.
I climbed up to the top of a cliff and sketched the dwellings carved from solid rock. Petra was regarded by Europeans as a myth until 1812, when a Swiss traveler named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt disguised himself as a Bedouin and discovered its secret location.
As I got to know the research archaeologists, they told me of their dreams of making a discovery as significant as Machu Picchu or Ninevah. It occurred to me that I could paint a reconstruction of an imaginary metropolis, building on the tradition of the classic utopias, such as Atlantis and El Dorado.
In between illustration commissions, I sketched ideas for a city built into the heart of a waterfall. I combined two things that didn’t seem to fit together: Niagara Falls and Venice.
I painted Waterfall City in 1988 in my basement beneath a banging steam pipe, while I played phonograph albums of waterfall sound effects. I had only a vague idea of where I would go with the ideas I was stirring up.
Waterfall City led to several other large panoramas that I loosely classified under the heading of “Lost Empires.” One, called "Palace Above the Clouds," portrayed a temple on a mountaintop with a pedal-powered blimp hovering nearby.
This series of essays is adapted from the illustrated afterword 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 -------
Here's a selected list of articles I've illustrated for National Geographic. Links take you to previous GJ posts:
March 2006 Battle of Hampton Roads
Dec. 1997 Patagonian Dinosaurs
Nov. 1990 Kingdom of Kush
Feb. 1989 Attic Scene
Oct. 1988 Moche, Peru
1988 Attic Scene
May 1988 Wool
June 1988 Etruscans
July 1987 Soybeans
June 1987 Eskimos
Aug. 1986 Ulysses
Sept. 1985 Jason
Sept. 1985 Humboldt