Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Question: Age Range for Dinotopia

Blog reader James Jones asked: "I'm a college student in Idaho studying to become an elementary teacher. I was just wondering, when you created the world and artwork and subsequently the story of the Dinotopia series, did you have a specific age range in mind for the series? I personally discovered the books in the 4th grade and have loved them ever sense, but I was wondering if they were meant for a slightly older audience."

Hi, James,
I don't buy into the "target age range" mindset of contemporary publishing. I wrote Dinotopia fundamentally to amuse myself as a 30-year-old adult who was rediscovering dinosaurs and utopias. I was also a new dad when the idea came to me, so I was aware of the magic that picture books have for young kids. And I was thinking of making the kind of book that I would have enjoyed when I was 10 or 12. At that age I didn't really like very many children's books, but instead loved the old illustrated adventure books by Twain and Stevenson and Verne.

A book should be like a swimming pool, with a shallow end and a deep end. The few "children's" books that I did like when I was young, such as the Winnie the Pooh books or The Little Prince, had layers of meaning that fed me as I got older. I don't see why a book can't have meaning for a person at different stages of their lives.

In fact, I was deeply touched yesterday to receive a letter from a young filmmaker who has carried the book along with him overseas as he has grown from child to adult. He says:
"Dinotopia began as the favorite book of a little boy fascinated by dinosaurs. It later evolved into a personal inspiration for a young man just starting to dream about how he might make his mark on the world. I'm now happy to report that, as I approach my thirties, it has evolved into professional encouragement for how to keep that childhood spark alive while pursuing a creative career....and all the discipline, terror, heartbreak, exhilaration, and wonder that come with it. Thank you for that gift; I hope that some of my work can one day provide just just as much inspiration to even one little child somewhere."
Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time 


Mary said...

Hello James, I discovered Dinatopia in my 70's. Have all the books and escape every now and then....

Thank you for those wonderful trips and adventures, and you thoughtful blog.
Mary Leakey

DPetersen said...

Perfectly put James! I'll be referencing this blogpost (especially the swimming pool metaphor) when doing panels or posts about all-ages material (which for some reason has been translated to be a term meaning: "for kids" rather than "for everyone")

Don Gates said...

I discovered Dinotopia when I was 23. I had just gone through a really nasty breakup with a girlfriend, and it felt like there was very little magic left in the world at the time. To kill time on a rainy afternoon I wandered into a card and gift shop and just saw the book laying there by itself, like it was meant to be seen by me. I jumped right in with both feet and I've loved it ever since.

Dan said...

Hi James,

I have a question I've been meaning to post to you here, and although it's not directly related to this blog post, the pictures you posted reminded me of it.

The question in short is: "How much realism is enough, versus too much?"

I admit it seems like an odd question, but let me explain. I've noticed that among realist painters there is a range of actual realism in their work. Some reproduce every little nuance of each subject, so you really feel as though you could reach out and touch them. (Example: Bouguereau.) Others, even in the academic realist schools, employ less literal realism in the fine details. (Example: Waterhouse.) Works from these latter artists feel more "painterly." Some would call the former "hyper-realist" (implying excessive or extreme realism), or even "photorealist," which is to me kind of absurd, because there is really nothing "photographic" about the works of these academic masters, except perhaps the degree of realism they achieved.

Looking at the pictures you posted here, your work, which is called "imaginative realism," is somewhere in the middle between a very literal and exacting realism and a loose, painterly, fantasy illustration style, looking to my eye somewhat less literally realistic than most "academic" painting styles. These particular pictures, though, are obviously not completely representative of the range of your work, which I would say is quite substantial.

But I've been meaning to ask your views on this subject. Do you believe there is a "sweet spot" sort of somewhere between loose impressionism and so-called "hyper-realism"? If so, how would you define it?

Many thanks as always!


James Gurney said...

Dan, interesting question. I gather from the way you define "realism" that you don't mean a photographic look necessarily. And it sounds like you mean something a little different from a polished "finish." In the case of Bouguereau, there's a sense of polished finish in the skin tones, but if you look at his originals, the backgrounds are quite simplified and often allowed to show the ebauche (underpainting) stage. By contrast, think of Millais' Ophelia or Holman Hunt's Hireling Shepherd, which carries detailed, observational realism to its practical limit. In the case of most Dinotopia paintings, I tried to bring up the finish in areas that were important, but to allow less important areas to be simplified--otherwise I'd never finish all the paintings. In the book Imaginative Realism, I try to define various related words such as naturalism.

Thanks, Don and Mary for sharing your perspectives.

DPeterson, Your graphic novel "Mouse Guard" is a perfect example of a work that can speak to all ages, and I bet you get all sorts of ages of readers at your signing.

Dan said...

Thanks James. I guess by realism I mean reproduction of the finest details of the subject in the most accurate way possible, with the goal of creating the most complete illusion of looking at something real. In this regard, Bouguereau seems more extreme to me than Millais and Holman Hunt. But I must admit that I have seen only online reproductions of the works of these artists.

I'm looking at Bouguereau's Soeur Ainee from 1886. You can sense the veins under the skin in the older girl's hands and feet. It seems that even in his day, some of his critics praised his genius, while others were bored or repulsed by what they felt was a certain overperfection in his work.

In the examples you gave, I see what appear to my eye as attempts to make every detail in the picture as resolved as the next, with equal contrast and sharpness all over. To me this actually somewhat diminishes what I would call the realism, because it weakens the illusion. In Bouguereau's case, the lower resolution of distant elements heightens the illusion of depth. In Ophelia there is nothing in the picture that's very far away. In Hireling Shepherd the distant elements don't look as realistic to me as the path and foliage in the background of Soeur Ainee.

Thanks again for sharing your views. It sounds to me like you're saying that you work to achieve as much realism as is necessary to make your paintings "work," and then leave it at that, mainly to avoid a lot of unnecessary work in the less-important details. I was wondering whether there is specifically a level of realism that you would consider to be excessive, or whether your goal is as much as possible within the constraints of how much time you want to spend on a painting.


James Gurney said...

Dan, you framed the issue well. For my part I'm not always interested in realism. It depends on the kind of work. I think caricatured or cartoon worlds should to be believable, but not realistic in the observational or objective sense. Proof of that is Bert Untooned.

When done well, animation or cartoons or puppets can resonate with us and seem alive, drawing as they do on deeper psychological archetypes. After all, we don't see with the eyes, but rather with the mind.

Dan said...

James, couldn't agree more. Among my greatest inspirations are Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli films. This is art that resonates deeply with me, and feels very honest, without needing to be highly realistic. Ditto for Jim Henson, and his work with Brian Froud, etc. (since you mention puppetry). A highly realistic illusion is not necessary for a work to be very effective. In fact, I personally prefer Brian Henson's Muppet Christmas Carol to Disney's recent animated version, though the latter is very impressive in terms of the realism achieved in the CGI animation.

On the other hand, though, I'm a great admirer of Bouguereau, and this is partly because the extreme completeness of some of his illusions really strengthen the impact of some of his work. A cartoon cupid can't compare to Bouguereau's L'Amour au Papillon, and I think this is precisely because Bouguereau gives us a more complete vision of what Cupid would look like if he were real, with actual blood flowing through his veins and real wings that almost look like they could actually lift him.

I think in hand-drawn animation or serial work, simplification is unavoidable if you want to finish the work within your lifetime. Your Dinotopia work, with full-color painted illustrations, must have been a mammoth undertaking in terms of effort, such as a neophyte like I am can hardly imagine.

But the bottom line to me is that realism, no matter how far you take it, is only a good thing as long as it has been placed into the service of your imagination.

Annie said...

Once in a workshop, Uri Shulevitz critiqued a very short story of mine and its illustrations. He felt that the somewhat realistic animal characters I'd drawn didn't work well with the lively story because they "slowed the story down." I revised and liked the results much more. I think it had to do with a sense of humor in this case.

Paddy Schmidt said...

Dan, this is an interesting conclusion to your question regarding realism. I really am not on your level of artistic understanding, nor can I articulate some thoughts as well. But as I understand: There first is the intension of the artist to take it as far as possible. Of course, stopping earlier, deciding to leave out or simplify would mean leaving more to the viewers imagination. Which is good or bad... ? As a piece of art, even hyper-realistic paintings must serve a purpose. For they were initiated by a conscious decision. At some point of the process, though, as I would argue, it starts to become rather a feast for the eye than your imagination. Upon seing several examples, one might comment: 'Wow... the detail is incredible! Looks just like a picture taking!'... but would you say: 'This is beautiful!'?

Hopper12 said...

Wonderful post and comments. Images- and picture books that are quality, should resonate with all ages.

Dan said...

Paddy, great point about what is shown versus left to the imagination so as to engage the viewer. But the imagination can be engaged on different levels. Take my example of Cupid (who was a favorite subject of Bouguereau's). A cartoonish drawing of Cupid might leave it to the viewer to imagine what the real Cupid looks like. But a very realistic painting of Cupid might leave the viewer imagining what Cupid eats for breakfast, and whether his mother Venus scolds him when he fails to wash behind his ears. Which is really more stimulating to the imagination?

As far as I can see, representational art is making something of a comeback as fine art, which is a great thing. But high levels of finish and realism are still balked at by many people due to the perception that complete realism is somehow boring. Perhaps the idea is that in order for art to evoke fantasies, it must not look like reality. And then animation, video games, and fantasy illustration styles have each had a major influence on perceptions and tastes, as well as on each other.

If just "leaving more to the imagination" were the goal, it should be the case that standard-definition television is more interesting and engaging to the viewer than high-definition, because it leaves more to the imagination. Obviously, there's more to it than that.

Of course I don't wish to say that more realism is always better, not at all. But it seems to me that there is at least a place for it in the world. Returning to Bouguereau, in his day he was often criticized for his perpetual tendency to "improve on nature." I think his "peasant girls" are truly beautiful, and the more so because of how alive and real they look. Sure, actual peasant girls walking the streets of Paris weren't always so lovely, but it was not dishonesty, nor a mere desire to make pretty pictures, that motivated Bouguereau to portray them as beautiful. He was making a deliberate statement about the beauty and innate value in people that his society too often looked down upon.

David Glenn said...

I was introduced to Dinotopia when I was around 9 or 10 by a picture I saw in a restaurant. It took me a few more years to lay my hands on a book of Dinotopia. I loved it as soon as I laid my eyes on it. It was the ultimate fantasy world for me because it was a place where I could see people living alongside dinosaurs. It is definitely a place that can entertain anyone if they will let it.

Paddy Schmidt said...

Dan... you really make me think about this stuff! Remember the first Hobbit movie, which was released with 3D, the 48 fps, and so on... technology? Did you like it? I really did not. It was supposed to get you into the movie. But what really happened, at least to me: It was too close. As if I was standing right by... the soap opera effect. I wished for the wishy washy old movie screen, because I could not get into that fantasy movie feeling from say LOTR.

So, maybe you can draw the comparison to the question 'How far do you want to go with your realism?' in paintings and what do you want to really achieve? And does it not sometimes backfire at some point?

This part in your answer: 'major influence on perceptions and tastes', I agree with you, too. Maybe it is a question of time, of century. What was it like, when there were no such things as TV or photographes? Didn't want people artists' drawings more life-like? Wouldn't that be a reasonable effort for the artist him or herself, too? On which time-frame did the artists start to turn away from that idea and got loose? And another thought (sorry, if this might sound irrational), on an emotional level, what looks more realistic to you, comparing a 3D render of a mammoth or a drawing of the animal in a cave? Today, with digital photos for example, does it make sense to try to appeal with a photo-realistic drawn painting? Or is it really just boring to look at for the Used-to-that-look viewer nowadays? (All things that popped into my mind this morning)

People always wished to dream and feed their imagination. And I just believe that now, it is getting harder and harder to achieve with trying to go more realistic in any media. In the end, I guess, it comes down to what you, as an artist, loves to do, loves to spend your time on doing.

Funny, just this morning I read the newest National Geographic Mag. It had the best photographes of the last 20 or so years in it. On another page, there were some birds drawn beautifully with watercolor supporting some scientific result. Guess on which page I stayed longer ;)

Mark Vander Vinne said...

OK, that's got to be one of the best letters ever! Well deserved for all you've given to us.

Dan said...

Paddy, thanks for the reply. All very good points and food for thought.

LOTR was, IMHO, spectacular in its realism. Gollum is an example of a CGI character who is almost completely believable as real, and a highly complex character as well, in terms of his emotions and motivations. To me the major value of the LOTR films was precisely that they allowed me to visualize the story with nearly total realism, and at the same time the director's (and other participants') vision of the story was close enough to mine that it felt like paying a visit to Middle Earth. The story is an epic worthy to go down in history, but a few of my favorite moments in the films were little things, where the vision presented of them was just so grand. For example, when the company, floating down the river, passes between the giant statues of ancient kings.

That kind of realism, again IMHO, requires a great deal of artistry to achieve, on the part of many, many people. It's not the technology that makes it realistic, it's all that artistry in employing the technology to bring an epic to life.

The Hobbit, IMHO, fails to attain anything like that level of realism, and personally I think that this is not so much the fault of the technology as of the creators. The Hobbit does not get better if you watch it on a standard-def television.

I have to concede that I think the 48fps digital capture used in making The Hobbit does a poor job of creating an illusion of reality. In fact, my personal opinion is that real film is still the best medium for creating that illusion, and this may have nothing to do with pixel fidelity. It may have to do with the visual artifacts of film, similarly to how some people (including me) feel that music reproduced on vinyl often gives a better illusion of being there than the same music reproduced in high-resolution digital formats. This is a big subject, and perhaps this isn't an appropriate forum for it.

At the end of the day, though, when discussing realism, I think it's important to bear in mind that realism means the completeness of the illusion of reality, and that technological specifications of resolution and fidelity are not the same thing as realism. It's obvious (to me anyway) that the most mathematically accurate technology often does not create the most complete illusion of reality. In audio (a field I have professional experience in), we have measurement microphones that are flat across the spectrum to plus or minus a quarter of a decibel (which is to say incredibly accurate). They are pretty much only used for acoustic measurement. The microphones that allow musical sounds to come across with realism generally have much worse fidelity in their transfer response characteristics. This is but one example of many.

By the same token, I think a great artist can achieve a better illusion of reality than a camera, in general. And at the same time that artist can depict scenes that it would be impossible to photograph, scenes from his/her imagination, giving us, the viewers, the pleasure of contemplating the realistic vision of some fantasy from the mind's eye of the artist. It seems silly to me to think that the realism in such a picture detracts from its effectiveness. That would kind of be like saying that the 1978 animated version of LOTR was more powerful than the Peter Jackson films because it employed less realism. (And high levels of realism were actually a goal of the animated version, to which end they used rotoscoping extensively.)

Sometimes art communicates a complex, novel, and enlightened idea brilliantly without high levels of realism. An example is Miyazaki's film Kaze Tachinu (The Wind Rises). Sometimes, on the other hand, art takes a thing that we might understand on a more abstract level and allows us the pleasure of contemplating it in a completely realistic way. And I think Peter Jackson's LOTR is a good example of that in the medium of film.

Paddy Schmidt said...

Dan, again, much appreciated and thank you for bearing with me. Even for the short time since I have been introduced to James' work, not only his posts on this blog but also the comments have proofed a precious resource of knowledge. Thank you for that!

Dan said...

Paddy, thank you. It was a very interesting discussion.