Monday, September 7, 2009

Why I Wrote Imaginative Realism

Short answer:
To support my blogging habit.

Long answer (adapted from the introduction):
Because it needed to be written. The book explores the question of how to paint a realistic picture of something that doesn’t exist.

It is intended not only for artists interested in fantasy and science fiction but also for anyone who wants to recreate history, visualize extinct wildlife, or simply tell a story with a picture.

Most methods of art instruction assume that you’re drawing or painting directly from observation. When you make a still life, a portrait, or a landscape, you generally begin with the subject in front of you.

That’s how I painted this picture of a skull. (Oil on panel, 12 x 12.5 inches, 1980)

……or this plein-air landscape (9 x 12 inches).

The task is to learn to observe the subject accurately and arrange it into a pleasing design. Even if you’re painting from a photograph, the challenge is essentially the same. You learn first how to see and then how to paint what you see. This kind of observational art training enables you to capture a likeness or to render a landscape.

But it doesn’t help you much if you want to paint a mermaid, a Tyrannosaurus rex, a Civil War battle, or a scene from an ancient civilization.

For that, you need a whole different approach. You can’t just go out in your backyard and sketch a spaceship or a scene from the Odyssey. You might find some images on an Internet search, but those are just other people’s notions of what your scene should look like.

This problem always puzzled me as a young artist. I liked to sketch from observation, but I couldn’t find many books that explained how to develop my imaginative muscles. For a while I kept two separate sketchbooks, one from life and the other from imagination, and I felt as if they were done by two different people.

The first instructional book I cowrote was called The Artist’s Guide to Sketching (1982). Around the same time I got a job as a background painter in the film industry (Fire and Ice, 1983). Later I painted science fiction paperback covers and illustrated for National Geographic magazine. All the while in my spare time I was sketching and painting from life outdoors.

I started to discover that my separate skills of observation and imagination were beginning to grow together and to reinforce each other. I embarked on writing and illustrating Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time (1992), which is an imaginary but realistic world shared by humans and dinosaurs, presented in the form of an explorer’s sketchbook.

Along the way, I have researched the art instruction methods from fifty and one hundred years ago, when imaginative art was taught more systematically. I have taken those lessons to heart in my professional approach and have shared them with art students across the country.

I also have shared many of those insights on this blog. Your feedback has pushed my understanding much farther, and your encouragement about doing a book got me started. It was a very long process to compile the information into a 224-page book with 400 illustrations.

What the book contains is a distillation of the time-tested methods that I’ve found to be most helpful for achieving realism in imaginative pictures. They apply equally to professionals and to beginning art students.

It's not a book about figure drawing, anatomy, or perspective. It’s not a step-by-step guide on how to draw dinosaurs. It’s also not a recipe book for a particular paint technique, although all these topics are addressed in passing. You might use a traditional technique such as watercolor, gouache, oil, or acrylic.

Or you might prefer a digital program such as Photoshop. My own art media are traditional: pencil, paper, pens, paint, brushes, cardboard, and modeling clay. Regardless of your medium, there are no shortcuts to research and planning. The methods in the book will save you time in the long run and yield much better results.

This book is designed to show you how by taking you behind the scenes. You’ll see the preliminary steps, the blind alleys, and the adventures that went into the making of various imaginative paintings. Every page spread covers a separate topic that builds on previous material. You can browse it like a magazine or read it straight through. The chapters are organized by subject: sketches, history, people, dinosaurs, creatures, architecture, and vehicles, concluding with a look at the various professions that are looking for artists who have developed these skills.

The section on composition is different from most other treatments of pictorial design, which tend to be based on abstract formulas of line, shape, or geometric proportions. My approach is centered more on tonal organization in the service of a representational image.

Because the art vocabulary in English lacks some words to describe key concepts, I have had to invent several terms such as clustering and shapewelding to describe compositional principles that artists often think about but lack the vocabulary to talk about. You’ll find those terms defined in the glossary in the back of the book.

To keep the price down to $24.99, our publisher, Andrews McMeel agreed with us to produce the book in softcover. But they used the very best paper and printing technology, and the pages are folded and stitched into signatures to make the book extremely durable.

"Jim's book, at once encyclopedic and anecdotal, belongs beside the taboret of every narrative painter. It is a comprehensive step-by-step guide to authoritative painting and visionary storytelling as well as a lively visual testament to a committed artist's life lived fully and passionately. I heartily recommend it to all my students."
—Charles S. Pyle
Director, School of Illustration
Academy of Art University, San Francisco

"Gurney’s Imaginative Realism is a goldmine for artist’s wanting to create images that sing with authority and delight the viewer with rich otherworldly visuals."
—Erik Tiemens
Concept Artist
Star Wars: Episodes II and III

The books are on the boat on their way to the warehouse, and we expect to get the very first shipment by the end of the month for our mail order store and for the book tour in October.

If you’d like to order a signed and personalized copy directly from me, please visit my website store page. Please mail in a check, money order, or cash. We'll hold your check until we ship. We don't do credit cards, and we regret that our Paypal account is only for donations.

We're sorry to our international customers that because of all the difficulties with paperwork, costs, loss and other logistics, we just can't ship overseas, as much as we'd like to. Instead, we suggest that you ask a friend or family member living in the USA to order the book for you, and then they can transport it to you.


Erik Bongers said...

Congratulations on the book!

I do hope it will be available on Amazon after some time?

jeff jordan said...

Hey Erik, I pre-ordered from amazon a couple months ago.

Matt said...

Very cool - looks like an excellent book. Sign me up!

Unknown said...

Now there a habit I can support!

JP said...

I'm so glad that this book is in existence. I've directed students and colleagues to your blog and told people about te general ideas you put forth, but it will be so much better to have all the information in handy book form. I plan on getting a copy for me, and after they digest drawing made easy, getting some for my young siblings. Thanks again Jim!

Johan said...

Hello Sir,
I noticed I can pre-order the book on
I'm a bit worried though, since you say that it's recommended to have a US resident friend order and ship through to EU.
Will I get the book when I pre-order on

Erik Bongers said...

Indeed, you're right Jeff.
Order submitted.

Andrew said...

I'm very excited for this book. Congrats Jim! It's gonna be a hit!

I coulda sworn it was coming out in September though...must be a fuzzy memory...

Erik Bongers said...

Johan, I think you'll get it (via Amazon), but it won't be 'personalized' with a signature.
JG doesn't have an Amazon-size empire to handle packaging and international shipping.

David Still said...

I'm wondering the same thing as Johan, if it's available on amazon, will they be able to ship to Europe?

Johan said...

Thanks Erik
I can live with that so I pre-ordered it :)

woos said...

Can't wait to get it!

Tyler J said...

Congratulations Jim! I eagerly anticipate the arrival of this book.

Stephen James. said...

very cool man.

Anonymous said...

You made the BGs for Fire and Ice? When I first saw that movie the backgrounds was what stood out the most to me, really great stuff.

tracey clarke said...

I just can't wait for delivery of my copy which I have pre-ordered from

I draw great inspiration from your blog; its URL is on my student's list of electronic resources.

I use posts from your blog, and ideas you put forward within my teaching. With reference to yesterdays post, I can't wait to do Gourd Goblins with my students, and let them combine their still life sessions with imaginative thinking.

"Imaginative Realism" is going to form part of the required reading list for my students this year, and a number of copies will be ordered for the college library.

Thanks for being so generous with your time, knowledge and sources of inspiration.

Susan Adsett said...

OK, I'm off to pre-order on but before I do... remember the Memory Game (drawing maps from memory - posted late May)?

I think you'll be very impressed by Al Franken's work... I certainly was!

Steve said...

Susan, thanks for the link to the Al Franken/map clip. Wish they'd kept the original sound so we could hear what he's saying; it looks like he's explaining his method.

eric said...

cant wait to see the new book, i know its going to be awsome because like this blog i know you have put your huge heart and sould into it.

you should have it come out with different covers too, some of those early images you put in the book are freaking amazing!

zelas said...

I hope you'll visit the DC area for your book tour! I cant wait to see this book!

Roberto said...

Hey Jim...Congrats on the book!
I'm sure it will be a real treasure of insights, knowledge, techniques, and an inspiration (as is your blog). In addition to the painting genres you mention, it will also be of great benefit to Surrealist painters, artists exploring Magical Realism, and spiritual, psychological and Mythical themes as well.

Will I be able to purchase a signed copy from you at your lecture on Oct. 10 in Van Nuys, California at the LAAFA? or do I need to pre-order one? -RQ

James Gurney said...

Thanks, everybody...there's a big part of all of you in the book, and it really helped me to review your blog comments on each of the topics as I adapted posts into pages.

Tracey, I'm really thrilled if art teachers use this book as a textbook. I really tried to make it useful as a reference, and it's loaded with appendix materials: glossary, index, list of museums, annotated bibliography, etc.

Zombie, yeah, Fire and Ice was where I really got started painting. You can read about it in the new ILLO magazine, and the new book reproduces one of the BGs.

Roberto, yes, I've ordered a bunch of books for the California tour and will have them at LAAFA if the supply holds out.

Susan, I enjoyed that Franken map video, thanks. It led to another YouTube clip with Garrison Keillor reciting all the counties of Minnesota at breakneck speed. Yowzer!

Jeremy said...

Hi James,

I too am looking forward to the book.
I am a regular to the blog and I'm
thrilled by the prospect of a printed
version. On a diferent note,
correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't
the art term for 'shape weilding' - 'massing'? I think there's a strange
dutch term for it as well.


Ray Lederer said...

Great post James. I can't wait to get my hands on this book. Now I'm gonna go back and watch Fire and Ice again to play a game of 'spot the Gurney'...:)

Michael Pieczonka said...

Hi James, I can't wait to get a hold of this awesome new book.. it looks incredibly informative!! I have only one hopeful question.. Could I get a pre-order signed copy sent north of the border to Canada? :)


Barbara said...

I pre ordered your book from after learning about it from another artist on

I hope this will help me because I like realism but it is hard to paint good when what you are painting doesn't exist.

I'll certainly tell you what I think of it once I get and read it.

Thank you

Tony said...

Hi! I´m from Brazil!

Why don´t you put this book in Amazon or (better for me) Better World Books? This is a way to customers like me to buy your book!

This must be amazing!!!
I don´t have another way to get this book... =/

Joe Kulka said...

The book looks fantastic. I met you and your wife a couple years ago at NAIBA in Baltimore. Will you be there this year? I'm still debating whether or not to make trip but the possibility of buying a copy of this book from you certainly makes it more enticing.

R. Adrian Z said...

hi I'm very appreciate If there's anybody artists fellow in US can help me buying this book . Because i just only can Pay it with Paypal payment services,
and i also will pay the USPS shipping included.

Thank you very much.

Adam Cope said...

well done James

big achievement

James Gurney said...

Thanks so much, everybody. There's a huge amount the blog mind reflected in the book, and it was a fascinating experience as a writer to compose the book based on topics that we have discussed in this setting. It was like having two thousand expert editors to guide me through the maze.

Joe, I don't think I'll be able to make it to NAIBA this year. Sorry to miss seeing you.

Jeremy, yes, you're right: the term "massing" has been used for the concept I call shapewelding, and I think it's basically the same thing, as long as it applies to the grouping of both to the light and dark value areas.

Sorry to my Canadian and overseas friends. We don't have a staff for our store (Jeanette and I do it all) and the paperwork for shipping outside the country just got to be too much of a hassle. I'll try to get back up to Canada again for another booksigning tour. We had a wonderful time in Toronto earlier this year.

Bryn Barnard said...


Max Rockbin said...

Another great book - and a sort of grandfather to this one:
"50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship" by Salvador Dali.
It's a technical painting book. Only like $10 or so (paper).
ISBN: 0486271323

Theresa Taylor Bayer said...

I am having soooo much fun with this book! Thanks for writing it. There's always something new to look up in it.

James Gurney said...

Thanks for the feedback, Theresa! All the best with your artwork.