Friday, November 30, 2007

Old Haunts

Jeanette and I met and fell in love as art students 27 years ago in Los Angeles. Now that we’re here again, we’ve been visiting our old haunts to see how they’ve changed.

When we were engaged, we moved into the Golden Palm apartments in Highland Park. The Golden Palm, or “GP” as we affectionately called it, was a favorite apartment building for students at Art Center. The top floor was occupied almost entirely by art students, and the bottom floor was all working people.

It was no beauty then and it hasn’t gotten any prettier. Our apartment was next to a dumpster. Every morning a mother would lift her son into it to fetch out cans for recycling. They’d then crush the cans at six in the morning by driving back and forth over them with an old Chevy Impala.

When we stopped by yesterday, the grass was tramped to dirt, and we saw broken furniture piled up along Benner Street. There were bars on the windows, and dented vans parked outside with bumper stickers that said “Yo Soy El Army.” Like other places we’ve seen all across America, the rich places have gotten richer and the poor places have gotten poorer.

In the old days after sketching in downtown LA, we’d grab a bite at Philippe’s, home of the famous French dip sandwiches and five-cent coffee.

We expected it would be erased by time, but it was exactly as we remember it, with the sawdust on the floor, the long communal tables, the pickled eggs, and the circus posters. There were only two changes we noticed. Now they have wi-fi and a website. And the coffee now costs nine cents.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


I was shooting photo reference for a series of games in Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara, and I had some young friends of mine posing for a game called “graces.” This was a popular game in early America. It involves launching a wooden hoop from two dowel rods.

After I shot a bunch of photos of this hoop game, the girl told me she was pretty good at making faces. Yeah, sure, I thought. Every kid likes to make funny faces, but how many are truly gifted at “gurning?”

Gurning, by the way, is the art of using your face to look completely ridiculous. I’m something of an expert on this. Being a Gurney I come from a family with genetic advantages for making silly faces (although I'm waiting to lose all my teeth to achieve the truly championship-level gurns).

My young friend demonstrated a few of her best gurns, and I realized I was in the presence of a master.

Then her brother, no slouch himself, launched into a few of his best gurns, including the famous “pig nose,” “mouth-stretch,” and “super-pucker.” These take more than just practice. They take instinct and artistry.

I had no choice but to change my idea for the picture. I discarded the idea of graces and went for a gurning contest instead. Since this was Dinotopia, there had to be a dinosaur gurning as well. I believe this is the first painting in history of a “Gurnasaurus.”

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Vulnerable T.Rex

This painting appears in Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara, but it was originally created for Discover Magazine to accompany a story on the vulnerable side of the Tyrannosaurus.

We often see this animal as a ruthless and invincible predator, but in fact its numbers were already declining due to climate changes around 70 million BP, when this scene is set, five million years before the asteroid impact. I chose a moment when the T. rex is drinking water from a receding water hole. He is accompanied by two juveniles, a herd of Triceratops in the distance, a softshell turtle, and various other creatures that are found together with T.rex in the Hell Creek Formation in what is now Montana.

I drew inspiration for the cracking mud and dead trees from a pond in the forest behind my home. The palmetto and cypress came from location studies in Florida.

My consultant was Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, here in his museum with skeletons of baby Maiasaura (photo by Tobey Sanford). Horner proposed the provocative idea that the T. rex may have been a scavenger as well as--or instead of--an active predator.
At his suggestion, I gave the creature a reddish face, similar to the faces of vultures and many other scavengers.

This painting was recently accepted into the Focus on Nature X exhibition of natural history artwork. It will appear at the New York State Museum in Spring of 2008.

Illustrated Classics

It’s hard for us to imagine the impact that illustrated books had a century ago, before movies and television commanded people’s imaginations. Back then a single new chromolithograph by NC Wyeth or Howard Pyle or Jessie Wilcox Smith was a rare pleasure, like seeing a shooting star or tasting a mango. A book with thirteen color plates was an extravagant feast. Today every time we open our mailbox there’s an avalanche of color pictures.

Like everyone else in my generation, I grew up with the TV blasting away in the background. The coffee table was three inches deep in color magazines. But somehow, by some strange magic, those illustrated classics spoke to me from their high shelf. “Take me down, savor me, I will take you to wonderful places,” they seemed to say. Each color plate sent a shiver down my spine.

Somehow I sensed the rarity and permanence of story illustrations, and I developed a hunger for them. Later, I found a paperback collection of Howard Pyle’s pictures. I bladed it and stuck the pictures all over the house. Those pictures were beacons for my imagination, a kind of steady refuge from the flickering world.

P.S. Sorry for the late post. We've been flying to the west coast today.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Bix Maquettes

When you are drawing and painting main characters you need really detailed miniatures for reference. It’s worth putting a little extra time to sculpting these “hero maquettes” until they look just the way you want them.

As reference model for the Protoceratops Bix, I sculpted the maquette above. I made this one out of Sculpey and painted it with acrylics. The head is a separate piece and attaches it with a swivel joint so that it can be set to any angle.

My favorite Bix maquette is this one (above), sculpted by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. It’s about 36 inches long (about half the size of a real Protoceratops), cast in resin from a clay original.

It has wonderfully expressive glass eyes. The Henson sculptors are masters at capturing a creature’s charm and personality.

The Henson shop also created the hatchling character “26” for the Hallmark miniseries, which was done as a remotely controlled animatronic puppet. It weighed about as much as a watermelon. They handed it to me on the set at Pinewood Studios in London, and all at once it started wiggling its feet, blinking its eyes, and moving its jaws. I almost thought it was alive until I saw two or three guys in the shadows with radio control sets.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Home: Jungle Edition

The only downside about being on tour for so long is that home sweet home turns into a spookhouse. We hit the road in early October and just stopped home for a short Thanksgiving break. But the place looks neglected. The leaves are all down. Oak branches have fallen across the driveway. The grass never got its final cut. Small trees have sprouted from the soil in our gutters.

Our Ankylosaurus keeps an eye on things. He’s looking seedy, too. The sculpt was originally made for an animatronic puppet that appeared in a Dinotopia CD Rom adventure game published by Turner Interactive in the mid ’90s. Remember when publishers had CD Rom divisions?

Hiram is our caretaker. He’s supposed to get the chores done while we’re gone, but he’s been spending all day sitting around eating styrofoam peanuts. Here he is complaining about his arthritis. Hiram is actually a full-size puppet I made from an old cardboard box. He’s a nice guy but he tends to scare little kids.

We realized we were out of firewood with winter coming on. So I got to work with the chainsaw cutting up downed wood. Franklin got the leaf blower working.

Neither of us heard Jeanette shout when she saw a seven-foot rat snake sleeping on the top of the bush where she was raking. We let the snake sleep, poor guy. Rat snakes are pretty companionable critters, and aren’t too frisky this time of year. But in summertime when they’re feeling more chipper they’ve been known to climb up the side of the house alongside the chimney looking for robin hatchlings.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Syracuse University

Syracuse University's art school has a long reputation for training artists and illustrators. Two of my heroes, Tom Lovell and Harry Anderson, graduated from Syracuse around 1930.

The campus adjoins the city of Syracuse in the center of New York State. Its hilly location gives its students lots of exercise as they travel from class to class.

John Thompson heads the illustration program. His approach is traditional and realistic. We sat in on a class as he introduced an assignment on the theme of “inside and outside” He showed slides of compositional framing devices ranging from Titian to Bernie Fuchs.

He will lead a group of students to India this winter for a sketching tour. He told me that he was in no hurry for students to learn digital tools. At the undergraduate level, the focus is primarily on drawing and painting.

Our guide Tim Coolbaugh took us throughout the rest of the art building, a modern concrete structure at the edge of the quad. Lining the hallways were huge self-portraits showing faces contorted with laughter.

The walls upstairs displayed the results of a line drawing exercise taught by James Ransome, where students used markers to draw interior scenes with figures. They used white artist's tape to erase parts of the drawings as they reconsidered their lines and explored abstract shapes.

Seniors occupied the tower rooms of the art building, which they customized with their supplies and works-in-progress.

Syracuse University also maintains the Special Collections Research Center, which has an impressive collection of artist’s papers and manuscripts, including cartoonist Roy Crane’s remarkable instructional scrapbook, assembled to guide his assistants in composition.

After my presentation, I met several of the illustration instructors including, from left to right: London Ladd, Bob Dacey, and James Ransome, and Roger DeMuth (not in picture) all award-winning professional illustrators balancing their own artwork with their teaching.
Thanks and best wishes to all at SU!

Friday, November 23, 2007

Dinosaurs Invade Elementary Schools

On Tuesday I paid a visit to the Grant D. Morse Elementary School in the Hudson Valley of New York State, at the base of Platte Clove. I did my PowerPoint and Magic Marker presentations for 300 kids in grades 4-6 and then another huge assembly of Kindergarten through third grade.

The girls from the school newspaper Just Print It interviewed me with astute questions about the creative process. They pressed me on a lot of topics, like exactly how many more books I plan to write, and then I asked them a few questions about how movie adaptations influence the way they imagine their favorite books.

Art teacher Elisa Tucci has had the students working with dinosaurs for a long time now. Here’s a wall of cutouts, drawings, and paper dioramas. There were giant T.rex footprints cut out of paper and taped to the floor of the hallways.

The kids collaborated on this spectacular panorama of dinosaurs on parade, with exotic architecture behind them.

I'd like to spotlight another teacher who has been working with Dinotopia. His name is Andrew Wales of the Lynch Bustin school in Athens, Pennsylvania. Here’a link to his blog journal, leading up to the big Dino Daze Family Fun Night day on November 30.

He says the students have been inspired by Gurney Journey to paint their own pictures, but "some students imagined a co-existence between humans and dinosaurs that was not so peaceful!" Here is one of the large dinosaur sculptures made from ingenious combinations of cardboard tubes and paper.

Time for Kids, the little magazine that comes home in school lunchboxes, also did a feature on the new Dinotopia book. Here's the link. Thanks, TFK, and my sincere appreciation to all the schoolteachers who have used Dinotopia in their classrooms.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Texture in the Halflight

One of the most common mistakes in painting dinosaurs is to make the skin texture equally prominent throughout the form.

In digital work, the appearance of overall equal texture can happen when a bumpy 2-D pattern is mapped equally over a form. The texture is rendered essentially the same way in the shadow as it is in the light, but in a reduced value or tone. Traditional painters are tempted to do the same. That way of doing texture doesn’t look real because it’s not how the eye sees it.

In fact, the textural relief is not equally apparent in the light and shadow. Texture is very difficult to see at all in the shadow region, and it’s only slightly more visible in the fully lit areas. The place to see texture is in the halflight.

The halflight is sometimes called the halftone or demi-teinte. This is the area where the form transitions from light into shadow. Astronomers looking at photos of the moon call this region the terminator. It’s the area where the raking light brings out the detail of the craters.

On this photo of a dinosaur model, I’ve marked the fully-lit areas with an L, the shadow with an S, and the halflight with an H.

Here’s another detail of a painting from Journey to Chandara, showing the halflight in comparison to the light and shadow. Note that the texture in the reflected light (RL) should also be downplayed compared to the halflight. With traditional opaque painting media, you can suggest halflight texture by dragging pigments over bumpy impastos, or in this case, canvas texture.

In more transparent media you can suggest halflight texture with a drybrush handling. This painting was also done in oil, but the paint is used more thinly.

Happy Thanksgiving. And remember, when you're eating a turkey, you're really eating an "avian dinosaur."

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Windmill Maquette

Maquettes can be made roughly and quickly, and still provide plenty of useful information.

Here’s an architectural maquette made of foam core board assembled with a glue gun. It only took about two hours to cut out and stick together. The whole thing is about six inches long, with toothpicks for the windmill spars. As a maquette, it's no beauty!

I spray-painted it gray to make it photograph better. White tends to bleach out in the photo. You can see how the bumpy texture of the paint and the ragged inner surface of the foam board really shows up in the “halflight,” or the area where the form is turning into shadow. The textural effect is strongest on the tail fin and on the side plane of the tower.

There’s also an interesting cast shadow to the right of the cluster of buildings, with cool upfacing planes, and little slivers of light on the edges of the buildings and the terraces.

This is the kind of information I needed from the maquette as I developed the final painting, even though the form and design ended up quite different.

Please check back again tomorrow, and I'll explain more about texture in the halflight, because it's the key to painting dinosaurs convincingly in direct sunlight.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Place Names

If you look closely at Arthur Denison’s map of Dinotopia in Journey to Chandara, you’ll notice a lot of place names that didn’t appear in previous editions. There are new towns with strange sounding names sprinkled across the island.

Let me reveal one of my favorite sources for these names: Merriam-Webster's 365 New Words Page-a-Day Calendar.

This curio cabinet of weird words is a daily delight in our household. When I find a word that I like, I tear it off and tuck it away in a file folder. Later I may use it to name a dinosaur, a character, a group, or a village. Here are a few of the words that I have collected and put to use in the new story.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sketch of Joe

I met Joe at a family gathering and did this sketch while he told me his life story. He saw so many terrible and wonderful things in his life, fleeing from Hungary, leaving all that he loved behind him.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Rochester Institute of Technology

Most people think of RIT as a technical school for engineers and scientists. But it also has an impressive art and illustration program, which offers its students a skills-oriented course of study in a professional setting.

The campus consists of rectilinear red brick buildings arranged on a large campus on the outskirts of the city. We arrived at the gallery of the art building, which was hosting an exhibition investigating the design of pop-up books. Each of the basic design principles of pop-ups was illustrated with a giant-sized corrugated plastic model that you could try out.

Illustration chairman Bob Dorsey toured us through the art building. He told us that illustration students concentrate on basic skills of drawing and painting for the first two years. When they begin using digital tools later in the program, the college insists on staying on the cutting edge, completely gutting and replacing the computer equipment with the latest technology every two and a half years.

Mr. Dorsey described his program this way: "our illustration program is really geared towards full time studio careers. We have a diverse faculty of real working illustrators who all have their own areas of expertise. This includes traditional, digital, and dimensional illustration."

RIT is one of only two institutions in America that offers comprehensive degree programs in medical illustration (the other is in Cleveland). Department Chairman Glen Hintz showed us tearsheets of alumni (above), and the room where students get artistic training in the area of human anatomy and physiology.

The medical illustration program is closely integrated with the university’s biology department, and students have full access to cadavers and head-to-toe dissection.

To my knowledge, no school that I've seen yet offers a course specifically in animal anatomy for the artist—but I believe every art school should! If you know of such a school, shout it out on the comments.

RIT is also the home for the legendary School for American Crafts. For students interested in woodworking, metalworking, glassblowing, or ceramics (textiles were discontinued in the mid-90s), there is probably no better place to learn from modern masters. Illustration majors are able to sample from these resources as electives.

There are also programs in animation and sculpture or "dimensional" work. Here is a dimensional major named Matt, with his sculpture called the “Key Keeper,” an alien creature who walks on his fingers and holds his keys with his tail.

After my presentation on Dinotopia, I enjoyed talking with Bob Dorsey, Chad Grohman and Allen Douglas of the illustration faculty. These teachers obviously have great sympathy and respect for each other and a profound regard for their students. We’ve noticed that when all the teachers get along as friendly colleagues, the students benefit from the chemistry and the unity of vision, and they do their best work.

Thanks again and best wishes to everyone at RIT, and I wish I had had more time to visit with you!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Bakery Baby

We had to warm up from the bone-chilling November air, so we stopped in the Upper Crust Bakery for some chicken soup and coffee.

At the table near us was a gathering of moms with their 1-year-old babies. Like all infants, they were spellbound by the sight of each other. One little guy looked so well bundled and contented that I guessed he would hold still for a while.

I brought out the ink-filled Kuretake water brushes, which are nice in places like this where you don’t want to set up a whole watercolor kit. The darker one is filled with pure Waterman brown ink. It’s a little too red for my liking. Does anyone have a recommendation for some bottled ink that runs closer to sepia or raw umber? Also, has anyone found a web source for these? I got them in the Pearl Paint store in New Jersey.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Radio Interview

Yesterday morning the rain kept pouring down as we endured the rush hour traffic into Albany, New York for an interview on public radio. We got to the station 45 minutes early, with plenty of nervous energy to burn off.

We parked Trusty Rusty in view of the WAMC headquarters and its performance hall, a retrofitted old bank building on Central Avenue. I started a watercolor sketch of the streetcorner, while Jeanette cast on another knitted sock onto her bamboo needles. I had to fire up the defroster and wipers every ten minutes or so to keep the windshield from fogging up.
I take back what I said yesterday about watercolor being impossible on rainy days. The comforts of the car interior is better than getting a steady soaking outside. Here’s the sketch in my mini-Moleskine, using the Schmincke sepia, light red, ultramarine, and yellow ochre.

We suddenly remembered to tune the radio to WAMC. As I put on the last touches to the sketch, the hosts Joe Donahue and Julia Taylor introduced the segment: “Next we’re going to take a journey into a world of fantasy with artist and author James Gurney…” I rushed in to the studio with a cup of coffee and my sketchbook still in my hand.

The on-air room was lined with foam waffles, and the microphones swung out from spidery arms. Even though the show is called “The Roundtable,” the table is actually elongated. The engineer behind the glass flashed a hand with five fingers—was that five seconds or five minutes? Joe and Julia were completely relaxed and friendly, but intensely focused, always in the moment. They write the intros, segues, and questions the day before, Joe told me. But they depart from the written script on a whim.

It’s the interviewer’s job to get the guest beyond his prepared answers, and the guest’s job to get the interviewer beyond his prepared questions. They were fun to talk to, and got me thinking about aspects of Dinotopia that I hadn't touched in an interview before.

Here's the link to the MP3 podcast of the interview.

Today I do two more interviews: an in-studio chat at WKZE and a phoner from LA to plug the Art Center gig.