Monday, February 28, 2011

Studies for "Love's Baubles"

Byam Shaw,  (full name: John Byam Liston Shaw, 1872 – 1919) was a British painter known for his scenes of history and mythology. Like many of his Royal Academy contemporaries, he went to great lengths to make studies before he began the final painting.

For example, on one of his masterpieces, "Love's Baubles,"  he went to the trouble to make charcoal drawings of the nude figures beneath the costumes.
This makes a big difference for getting the action of the pose right, especially with voluminous costumes.

And the hair is not an accident either. Shaw did careful studies to work out the braids and the locks. It all shows in the final painting.
Painting repro from "Preraphaelite Paintings"
More paintings by Byam Shaw on the same blog collection
Wikipedia on Byam Shaw
Black and white studies from "The Magazine of Art," vol. 22, page 633

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Video Game Talk

Don’t you love the way people talk when they’re playing video games?

It’s a cascade of antic surrealism, of dying and coming to life again, of hippo people and apes on go-carts trying to kill you before you can find the magic acorns.

Viewed from the outside, the player is a picture of calm focus and attention. Inside he fights to live another moment and to fly to safety on the wings of rabbit ears.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Juana la Loca

In his painting Juana la Loca, Spanish painter Francisco Pradilla Ortiz (1848-1921) told an epic story worthy of a best-selling novel or a Hollywood movie:

“It is chronicled that Juana, wife of Philip de Borgogne and mother of Charles the Fifth, being distractedly in love with her handsome husband—a reputed flirt—became possessed of a superhuman jealousy which over-balanced her intellect.

“Philip meantime ‘shuffles off the mortal coil,’ and his unhappy Queen Juana, in a frenzy of grief, insists on accompanying the corpse to its last resting place, situated at the furthest extremity of Spain, Granada—then the burial place of the royalties—being five hundred miles from Burgos, where Philip died.

“The route lay through a wild, uninhabited country, utterly impracticable to vehicles of any description, so that the Court, the prelates, nobles, and knights, who made up the funeral procession, had a long trudge, her Majesty leading, behind the coffin.

“The pathetic scene given us by the painter takes place at the close of a bitter December day when three months had already been passed on the road; footsore and perishing from cold, the Court mourners spied the walls of a convent, hailing the prospect of hospitality contained therein with delight.

“The Queen, who felt neither cold nor fatigue, acceded to the request of her people, and the bier was taken into the church of the convent, the Queen in close attendance on her treasure, when suddenly a shriek was heard from the horrified Queen, who screamed ‘Out, out of here this instant!’

“Her majesty had unwittingly come into the camp of the enemy. The inhabitants of the convent were not —as supposed — friars, but nuns.

“The spectral figure of the worn-out queen, in whose gaze, fixed upon the coffin, can be detected the wanderings of a mind shaken by the mad jealousy which still consumes her, the coffin itself, illuminated by the light of a miserable campfire, the smoke of which is utilized by the painter to detach the sombre centre-figure, the well-disposed groups which crouch around, half dead with exhaustion, who had been so ruthlessly deprived of a warm shelter by the unconscious cruelty of an afflicted woman, are all remarkably finely rendered.

“The dawning light which illumines feebly the dreary scene—including the obnoxious convent—all combine to render the painting a drama in all save in theatrical accessories and get-up.”
Quoted from International Studio, 1901.
Image from Wikipedia: Juana la Loca1877
Wikipedia on Francisco Pradilla Ortiz (teacher of Sorolla)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Bicycle Wheel Anemometer

How to make an spinning sound gadget from cheap stuff you can find around the house.

File it under the category of “Utterly useless eccentric devices for cheerfully driving your neighbor insane.”
Direct Link to YouTube video

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Piano Slim

My cab driver in Saint Louis was a guy who called himself “Piano Slim.” At night he parked the taxi and played the blues.

I sketched his portrait from the back seat. “The blues ain’t no more like they used to be,” he said.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Book Trailer Contest

When my last book, Imaginative Realism came out, blog reader GooGooSupreme suggested a book trailer contest, and you came through with fabulous entries. There was everything from a poetic image montage using pictures from the blog to some really cool animation by a high school film class and a claymation caricature of me, complete with the high gray socks.

Let’s do the same thing for Color and Light. It can be live action or animation. It can be a wacky gag or magic trick, a practical how-to demo, a poetic art piece, a group project by a film class, or a personal reflection about something you learned from the book. If you have a camera or a cellphone that shoots video, you've got all the tools you need. No experience necessary. It can be as simple as talking into your webcam, or it can be as fancy as a scripted, edited piece with music and sound effects.

Here are the rules: 
1. The contest is open to anyone of any age worldwide.
2. Videos must be three minutes or less.
3. It has to somehow relate to Color and Light, and it has to be something that you created. You don't even need to own the book; you can create a video that uses content from GurneyJourney blog posts if you want. But at some point it must either show the cover of Color and Light OR the presenter must mention the title on camera (not just voice-over).
4. Post your video on YouTube. Send the YouTube URL link to:, subject line VIDEO.
5. Deadline is May 1, 2011.
6. Videos are exhibited on the blog on May 15, with links back to your website if you want.
7. Winners and runners-up will be chosen by popular vote on a blog poll; That decision is final.

Everyone who enters will receive a signed and remarqued copy of the Color and Light poster. The two runners-up will each get their choice of one signed and remarqued book from the Dinotopia Store: (Chandara, I.R. or C&L or Drawing Made Easy). Winner will get the actual book that I decorated in “Painting Rainbows” as well as one other signed and remarqued book (in print) of their choice from the Dinotopia Store.

Good luck and have fun.
Dinotopia Store
Previously: I. R. Book Trailer Results

Making of Painting Rainbows

A couple of you asked about the making of the book trailer video “Painting Rainbows” which aired yesterday.

Lighting and Effects
My wife Jeanette pulled the color cards and operated the smoke machine. There’s a shimmering light effect to the left of the camera path between :22 and :27. It’s a caustic pattern that I got by reflecting sunlight off an undulating surface of water on a cookie sheet, which bounced the light up onto a movie screen.

I filmed that caustic reflection in HD and then projected it from a digital projector (visible on the C-stand to the left of the studio photo below). The smoke effect was a blast from a Memorex fog machine (Thanks, Frank).

The HD film was shot on a Canon Vixia HV40 and edited in iMovie. I shot the tabletop flyover using a homemade suspended camera rig. The rig was mounted to the end of an extension arm that reached out from a C-stand strapped to a bicycle. By steering the bike I could fly the camera an inch or two above the tabletop, giving a dolly shot with some steerability (and some wobble due to the knobby tires).

The dissolve to the Chandara artwork masked the switch to a reset camera rig at the end of an extension arm on a circular pivot from a floor-mounted C-stand to the left of the table, rotated with my right hand as I reached for the box.


There are a number of “whoosh” effects added, along with some audio enhancement during the assembly of the toolkit, using gun cocks, lock clicks, and squeaks. All are copyright free sounds, as was the musical piece “Sanskrit,” which came with the iMovie suite (Thanks, Apple!)

 Brushes and Paint
The brush is a Winsor and Newton Series 995 3/4 inch held onto the Helix compass with a Tridon hose clamp. The rainbow block has six slots cut with a radial saw with a plywood blade set to a maximum depth of 1/4 inch and spaced apart to a full spread of 7/8 inch.

The paints are cheap acrylic paints, most of them $1.00 or $1.50 each at Michaels. They’re fairly close to YURMBY colors: American Bright Yellow, Michaels True Red, Folk Art Magenta, Craftsman Bright Blue, Aqua, and Holiday Green.

Total budget for the book trailer, about $9.87.
Link to Painting Rainbows

What’s in My Bag?

Call it a waist pack, a belt pouch, or a man purse. But it’s how I carry around my lightweight sketching stuff.

BoingBoing founder Mark Frauenfelder asked me to dump it all out and explain each item. It's a new feature called “What’s in My Bag?”  Link to What's in My Bag?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Painting Rainbows

It's the final day of Video Week. Today the camera flies through my studio, ending with a demo of how I paint the rainbows in copies of my book Color and Light.

From now through the month of March, if you order a copy of Color and Light from the Dinotopia Store I'll do a similar sketch in your copy.

Tomorrow, I'll announce the "Color and Light" Book Trailer Video Contest.
Winners of the 2009 GJ Blogreaders video contest
 Get Color and Light at the Dinotopia Store
Direct link to video on YouTube
GurneyJourney channel on YouTube 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Ice Damage

Video Week, Day 5:

Make way for spring! It’s time to put an end to Old Man Winter.
Direct Link to YouTube video
Previously: Ice Towers

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ice Towers

Day 4 of Video Week is about making towers of ice. When you put candles in them, they look like transparent lighthouses, and they keep shining even in a hefty windstorm.

A couple of points that I forgot to mention:

1. I don’t recommend using bare hands for handling wet ice in zero degree weather. Leather gloves don’t work either because they stick hard and you have to tear the surface layer off. Neoprene gloves seem to do the job. Also, be careful not to stick your tongue out if you make an ice helmet.

2. To make the cylinders of ice stack securely, put a ring of wet slush at the top of each section before adding the next. That will freeze and bond like cement.

3. If you have a hollow cylinder below the top one, you can chip a 5-inch hole in the side of it so that you can put a candle in there, too.
Direct link to YouTube video: Ice Towers
GurneyJourney channel on YouTube
Previously on GJ:
Icy Blockhead
Sub-Freezing Soap Bubbles.
Sub-Zero Bubble Discussion
Mud Trap Video

Friday, February 18, 2011

Dean Cornwell Paints

Here's some archival footage of American illustrator Dean Cornwell at work as he paints an illustration.

The oil painting is from The Robe, by Lloyd Douglas: "And now, with a deft maneuver, Marcellus brought the engagement to a dramatic close."  Click on the image below for a very large scan of the final artwork (Thanks, Joe).

The footage was shot by Frank Reilly in 1947, part of his "Artists at Work" series. According to Reilly himself, the purpose of the film "is to impress upon us the accomplishments of those among us now and to perpetuate their memory for the inspiration of those who are to follow.”

Thanks to Mr. Reilly, and thanks to the individuals and institutions who have preserved Reilly's legacy. If anyone knows where the original motion picture film copies are, please let me know.

Correction, March 5, 2013: According to one of Cornwell's grandchildren, "Dean was actually ambidextrous and could actually paint with both hands and apparently sometimes did so simultaneously (I would guess only if it wasn't great detail). Not a lefty; an ambi."
Dean Cornwell on Wikipedia
Previously on GurneyJourney:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reader's Poll Finalist

Color and Light has been nominated as a finalist in's "Reader's Choice" Awards. If you have a moment, please click over to the poll and give it your vote!

You can also vote for your favorite art materials and art magazine.

Meet Harvey Dunn

Here’s a two-minute video with archival footage of Harvey Dunn (1884-1952) as he paints a western character.

About the video
In the late 1940s, illustrator and teacher Frank Reilly visited the studios of the premier illustrators of his day and filmed their working methods. He used state-of-the-art color film equipment, and in some cases, sound. He filmed Dean Cornwell, Arthur William Brown, F. R. Gruger, Bradshaw Crandall, William Oberhardt, and Harvey Dunn. He called the series “Artists at Work.” The films have been lost for many years, and a few of them have recently resurfaced.

The purpose of the Artists at Work series, according to Reilly himself, was “to create a permanent collection of films that will be available to schools, societies, and museums.”

In June, 1948, American Artist magazine interviewed Reilly about the project. According to American Artist, Reilly said the series “is intended to impress upon us the accomplishments of those among us now and to perpetuate their memory for the inspiration of those who are to follow. Eventually the collection will be entrusted to some museum or foundation or society where it can continue indefinitely to serve the purpose of its founder. This is a strictly non-profit educational venture, Reilly investing in it thousands of dollars of his own savings and will never receive a penny of the income from rental fees charged for showing the films...The enterprise has been set up legally to assure its operation on this wholly altruistic basis.”

I’ve added a brief narration and some sound effects to this silent film. I would like to thank the teachers, institutions, and individuals who have helped preserve and share Mr. Reilly’s wonderful gift to the world of art.

Links for further reading
Direct link to this video on YouTube

Harvey Dunn is featured in a major new book written by illustration historian Walt Reed of Illustration House Galleries. You can find out more about the book called Harvey Dunn, Illustrator and Painter of the Pioneer West available at the publisher, Flesk Publications, or the South Dakota Art Museum museum. And the book is available only in limited quantities at Amazon.

Post about Dunn on David Apatoff’s "Illustration Art" blog.
Post about Dunn on Charley Parker's "Lines and Colors"
Biography of Dunn on Jim V's BPIB
Walt Reed’s Illustration House
South Dakota Art Museum website on Dunn
Wikipedia on Harvey Dunn
Previously on GJ:
Reilly and Beyond

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

John Whelan on Concert Window

Even better than canned video is free live streaming on your computer.

Tonight at 8:00 p.m. USA Eastern time, you can watch a live concert by the great Irish accordion player John Whelan. 

The show will be webcast from Club Passim in Cambridge, Massachusetts via Concert Window, a web startup co-founded by my son Dan Gurney.
John Whelan's official website
Concert Window / Whelan concert at 8:00
Previously on GJ: 
John Whelan at Mary Kate's
Irish Music Party (with JWhelan)
Dan's Squeezebox

Mud Trap

A couple of months ago, Scientific American magazine asked me to illustrate a feature for the upcoming March issue about an amazing discovery: a group of small dinosaurs who died together, trapped in mud.

When I delivered the oil painting of the scene (above), I also produced a short video showing how I did the painting.

Yesterday Scientific American put the video up on their official website, along with a blog post describing my analog process of making the maquette—you know, pencil, clay, glue, and paint. The cracking "mud" in the foreground of the maquette above is flour and water baked in the wood stove and painted with acrylic.

If it wasn’t below freezing outside, I would have been out in the real pond muck wallowing around to see what it feels like to die in quicksand.
Direct link to video
Scientific American blog post
More from Scientific American about the new dinosaur discovery by Paul Sereno.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Video Week Starts Tomorrow

Previous Videos from 2009:
Unicycle Painter
Gallery Flambeau
Parakeet Artist
Check out (and if you want, subscribe to) the GurneyJourney channel on YouTube

Winners of the 2009 GJ Blogreaders video contest
  We'll have a new contest (with you as the jury), announced at the end of Video Week. More on that later.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Why is There No Illustration History Textbook?

Blog reader Corey sent me the following question:
“I just graduated with my BFA, but I never got much of an education on illustration. Through your blog and others I've been slowly discovering artists like Howard Pyle, Winsor McCay, R.O. Blechman and on and on. It's been a pot luck of art history for me. I've been looking for a more comprehensive collection of illustrators, so I can create some sort of time table for all of these artists and see the landmarks I might have missed. I cracked open my big art history book from school today to see what I could find, but they accidentally skipped over the illustrations and comics. Could you recommend for me a good book on the history of illustration?”

Dear Corey,
The short answer is that to my knowledge there is no good standard illustrated textbook on the history of illustration, at least not in the USA. Why not? There are comprehensive histories of animation, movies, and comics, but there isn’t one on illustration. There should be. It would be a big project, but it’s a book that needs to be written.

There are a few books that come close. Walt and Roger Reed of the Illustration House gallery of illustration have created several editions of The Illustrator in America, (starting in 1960, and updated in 1980, and 2000). This is an excellent and authoritative survey of American illustration in the form of illustrated mini-biographies. Although there’s an essay at the beginning of each decade, the book doesn’t try to lay out the full story and draw all the connections.

Another book comes very close: 200 Years of American Illustration, by Henry C. Pitz, published by the Society of Illustrators. It’s a catalog for a 1976 exhibition, so it’s 35 years old. It’s mostly a showcase of artwork, and mostly in black and white. Although the chapters on history are good, they’re just a fraction of the book, and they don’t attempt to tell the complete story in the way Gardner, Janson or Gombrich gave their account of art history. And you're right: those older standard art histories overlook comics, animation, and illustration, and it's not accidental. It's just plain blind.

There’s also the Susan Meyer's book “Great American Illustrators,” which spotlights ten great illustrators, mostly from the Golden Age. And of course there are many books on individual illustrations, especially on Rockwell and Wyeth.

Illustration historians Fred Taraba and Dan Zimmer are putting the finishing touches on 41 Illustrators and How They Worked, a sort of companion volume to the classic 40 Illustrators and How They Worked, from the 1940s. I’m eager to see the first one, and highly recommend the second, though neither attempts to be an overall historical survey.

A complete history of American illustration needs to be compiled and written. There’s a grand opportunity for a publisher and a writer (not me—I don't know enough).

I’d be interested in comments from the Group Mind. How would you define the scope of the book? What should it include—or not include—from following list (Note: poll results from 140 blog readers follow): magazines (121), books (126), newspapers (84), humorous illustration (70), pulp (90), pin-up (85), children’s books (100), pen and ink (105), comics (80), concept art (79), advertising and packaging art (100), movie posters (107), art prints (48), mural work (31)?

How far back should it go? Should it include illustration from all countries? Did I overlook an important book to recommend to Corey?
Recommended books:
The Illustrator in America
The Illustrator in America,
Great American Illustrators
40 Illustrators and How They Worked
41 Illustrators and How They Worked (not yet published)
Also, Illustrator Magazine provides regular articles on the history of the field.
Previously on GJ:
Academic painting and Illustrations in public museum collections

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Did Egyptians have Pygmy Mammoths?

An Egyptian mural from the Rekhmire Tomb (c. 1479 to 1401 BCE during the XVIII dynasty) shows what appears to be a baby mammoth. The artist portrayed an elephant-like creature with lots of hair, a convex back, a high-domed head, and tusks.

Science writer Darren Nash Naish proposes the “tentative suggestion that the elephant shown in Rekhmire's tomb might actually be a dwarf Woolly mammoth. If true, this would have radical implications. It would mean that the ancient Egyptians had a trading link of sorts with far eastern Siberia, and also that mammoths were captured and then transported alive to Africa!”

Both Naish and the commentators to his web article suggest other possibilities. Could it have been a surviving pygmy mammoth from one of the Mediterranean islands? Or was the artist unclear about what Asian elephants really looked like?
Read the post at Nash’s site: Tetrapod Zoology. 
More about Cryptozoology

Saturday, February 12, 2011

New Reviews of Color and Light

If you’re still undecided about whether to pick up a copy of my new book, Color and Light, I understand. I’m the same way. I end up deliberating for a long time before buying a book. For you, I offer this post to see if a couple of new reviews might gently push you over the edge.

My favorite mini-review comes from a reader named Amanda R.: "James: In a world of art-instruction seafood buffets, I thank you for teaching me how to fish.” Amanda, you got what I was trying to do!

In the current issue of International Artist magazine, there’s a longer review that goes into some detail:

Setting the Standard
"James Gurney’s new book, Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter,
is the book every artist has been waiting for One of the first things that is evident from James Gurney’s new book is that what the illustration world gained in Gurney’s successful career as the creator of the Dinotopia series, the fine art world lost. Gurney’s landscape, cityscapes and figurative paintings—many of which are included in the book to illustrate each section—are masterworks in their own right and he could easily be represented by any of the top realist galleries in New York if he chose that career instead.

"While many artist books end up being more vanity than content, Gurney’s book breaks down Color and Light in a way that I’ve never seen before.

"Gurney is able to get to explain the scientific aspects of color, light and shadow without becoming preachy or academic. In fact, his method of explaining even the most complex painting terms and techniques is simple, to the point and accessible to artists of all skill levels. Gurney’s inquisitive mind and personal desire to understand even the most difficult artistic concerns is what really drives the book.

"For example, instead of offering just a general discussion of shadows within a landscape or still life painting, Color and Light, breaks it down into smaller, manageable chapters on the separation of light and shadow, half shadows, occlusion shadows, three-quarter lighting, frontal lighting, edge lighting, light from below and even Contre Jour — a type of backlighting where a subject blocks the light.

"Gurney’s take on these topics is refreshing as, instead of falling back on overly technical explanations of such effects, he offers accessible and easy to use explanations aimed at actually helping an artist solve problems that come up during the painting process.

"For example, when discussing Frontal Lighting, Gurney offers this advice: “It’s a good lighting to choose if you want to emphasize local color or pattern—to feature a fashion or costume, for instance.” This is the type of sound, straight forward advice that Gurney offers throughout the book.

"Gurney’s understanding and mastery of light is only equaled by his explanation of color in the second half of the book. His pigment wheel is a true work of science and understanding, with pigments charted by hue, value, chroma and CIECAM hue angles. Gurney has a lot to say on color and asks artists to rethink the color wheel.

"To him, there are many problems with both the traditional color wheel and the Munsell System. He believes that the idea that red, yellow and blue are the primary colors is something that should be questioned. To him, any of the “infinite hues on the outer rim of the gradating wheel could make an equal claim as a primary.”

"Gurney’s proposition is to replace these older and problematic models with what he calls the “YURMBY” wheel. In this new version of the color wheel, the RGB is placed evenly between CMY to create a universal color wheel. For Gurney, the six equal primary colors then become yellow, red,magenta, blue, cyan and green.

"Every chapter in Color and Light serves a specific purpose and all of it is useful, valid, and tried and true methods of understanding how one can create three-dimensional images on a two-dimensional surface. His discussion of what he terms lightfastness—the resistance given pigment to fading as a result of expose to light, is an indication of the level he has gone to accurately explain all aspects of the painting process.

"At twelve complete chapters and over 200 pages, Color and Light is destined to become the new standard for artists from beginners to even the experienced artist looking to hone their skills or pick up authoritative information on any of the multitude of problems that an oil painter may encounter while practicing their craft.

"Even the index is useful — with a detailed glossary of terms, a comprehensive list of pigments and their properties (complete with a list of historic and not-recommended pigments) and finally a carefully thought out list of recommended reading (with titles ranging from Goethe to Ruskin and John Stobart) and internet resources."

More about International Artist Magazine
24 Amazon Customer Reviews

Cruising Dubai with Video Street View

You may recall the recent post about MapCrunch, an application that generates random images from Google’s immense street view archives.

Now there’s another app that shows the view from the road between any two points. “Video Street View” started off this month with databases covering Dubai, Saïgon and Hanoï. Users pick routes and watch an immersive video that lets them pan and tilt for a 360 degree view.

Project manager, Jan-Mathieu Donnier is talking about adding data for pedestrian routes such as museum interiors.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Drawn Studies for the Space Jockey

Sometimes I think it’s helpful to use several different reference sources for a given figure. For this science fiction cover called Space Jockey (Color and Light, page 163), I wanted to show a space pilot who seemed to come from the “Right Stuff” era of bold space exploration.

 Instead of resorting to the camera to take photos of a specific model, I tried to construct the character in my imagination by using a variety of charcoal studies on tone paper. Some are done from my own face in a mirror, lit frontally with a clip-on lamp. I also used a couple of my little plaster head maquettes  as models. The one in the lower left is the simplified plane head  (Imaginative Realism, page 69, based on George Bridgman’s analysis) with a “mouth barrel.”

In the end I only used photo reference indirectly for some of the costume details, but not for the face and hands. This way of working helps steer me to a more structural understanding, away from a purely photographic look.
Color and Light on Amazon
Imaginative Realism on Amazon
Or get them signed at the Dinotopia Store
Previous Posts: Character Maquettes, 
Tone paper studies, Using (or not using) Photo Reference

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Saint Francis Quote

“If you work with your hands, you’re a laborer.
If you work with your hands and your mind, you’re a craftsman.
If you work with your hands and your mind and your heart, you’re an artist.”
—Saint Francis of Assisi
The self portrait (meant to symbolize "artist") is by  Burton Silverman
Factcheck: The quote may not actually appear in the writings of St. Francis. It also appears in the writings of Louis Nizer.
Thanks, Dennis!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Painful Poses

Artists’ models often had to endure difficult poses in the Royal Academy.

“The pose is occasionally very painful to retain for any length of time, especially when the head is turned or the arms uplifted,” said M.H. Spielmann, a contemporary observer. Models that moved the least bit ruined their reputation as a sitter.

A model’s uplifted arm was often suspended by ropes or chains. The dying horseman for the painting “Last Call” by the sculptor Charles Bell Birch (1832-1893) held onto a bar attached to the rafters, while his “horse” was raised up on pulleys.
Second image (and Birch bio) at

M.H. Spielmann in Magazine of Art, 1888, page 139.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Fractals, Reverie, and Biofeedback

We humans are curiously attracted to abstract forms of an organic, fractal character. When you sit there looking at these forms it leads to a pleasant state of mind.

Consider how fractal-based forms are associated with daydreams, fantasy, and even worship.
1. Marbleized paper in an old book of poetry (above left).
2. Ornate movie palaces from the 1920s (above right).
3. Cathedral architecture (think of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona).
4. Limestone dripstone formations (below).
5. Roccoco gold picture frames.
6. Bird’s eye wood grain or patterns in marble.
7. The fluid, languid smoke of incense or pipe smoke.

In the absence of these forms, the human spirit can wither. Think of the bleak rectilinear spaces such as parking garages. Or prisons. These lack organic character, and are scalebound, that is, lacking the large and small forms repeating at different levels of magnification, one attribute of fractal geometry which can lead to a sense of worlds within worlds.

What happens when these fractal patterns are set into motion? Nothing is more compelling than watching the flicker of firelight, the swirl of smoke in a still room, the cycling of ocean waves, waterfalls, rapids, or stream eddies. Time lapse has allowed us to see the mesmerizing beauty of a plant growing or a cloud forming.

Computers offer new ways to experience such forms. Computer-generated music visualizers are getting better and better and doing what the Disney animated film Fantasia did by hand. Below, a still from from the open source visualizer program "MilkDrop."

I believe we’re on the threshold of a major new art form using computers to create visualizers as changing visual spaces into which we can project our consciousness.

Imagine a “biofeedback Rorschach” system, where the computer monitors the brain response when we begin to see a face in a cloud, and then manipulates the forms to accentuate the effect. A computer could shift in and out between abstraction and representation, suggesting grass blowing in the wind or a figure dancing, or scary faces wired to our own unconscious fear response.

Depending on the program, and the sensibilities we bring to it, it could bring us into the heart of dreams or nightmares, and give artists and digital filmmakers a profoundly powerful tool. 
Yale website on Fractal geometry
Examples of fractal patters in nature
Wikipedia on Music Visualization
Wikipedia on MilkDrop
Sagrada  Familia on Wiki 
Image sources:
Frame via Carver’s Guild
Movie palace via The Clay Board
Limestone formation
Marbled Paper

Monday, February 7, 2011

Kazuo Oga

I’ve probably put way too much emphasis on American and European artists, overlooking painters from other great traditions. So let’s take a minute to appreciate Kazuo Oga, the painter who helped create the forest in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film My Neighbor Totoro.

On, Mr. Oga said: "Basically, I use poster- color. Because as we have to paint much, we can't use expensive paint. Poster colors can show brightness or depth of color and, above all, it is easy-to-use."

 In the landscape below, I love the way he alternates empty areas, such as the sky, with busy areas, such as the hanging laundry. He also alternates the parallel stripes of the cultivated areas with the wild shapes of the foreground.

Look at how he builds gradually toward the mysterious dark under the tree. He keeps the grouping of far trees in the center of the picture close in value.

The result, for all its complexity, is quite simple in tonal and coloristic design, an important consideration for animation backgrounds, which must be understood quickly.
My Neighbor Totoro trailer on YouTube
Studio Ghibli on Wikipedia
Background painting from My
List of Studio Ghibli Films
Photo and quotation from Monisawa Blog

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Activating Your Imagination

A student in an academic atelier recently asked me the following question:

Dear James, 
Do you have any advice on how artists can keep their imagination active while studying things like anatomy and observational drawing of casts and models?

I've noticed recently that I've become really scared of sketching things off the top of my head, which I used to do without much thought.

I find myself thinking "where's my photo reference?" or nitpicking every little flaw in a throwaway sketch when I should just be trying to have fun.  

Sincerely, Stumped Imaginatively

Dear Stumped,
You said it! This is a common feeling! Every pro has had it from time to time.

Anyone who works in the field of concept art or science fiction or fantasy has a passion to turn our dreams into something tangible. But most of the time the images always start out as hazy and hard-to-capture. The reality of the model or the photo is much more compelling.

When you set out to paint a scene from the imagination, like the scene above from the Slav Epics by Alphonse Mucha, you’re facing a whole different bunch of challenges than you would if you were painting a portrait or a landscape from observation.

Here are some suggestions to keep your imagination active, and to develop your ability to draw scenes totally out of your head.

1. When you do a painting from the model, for a change from the usual straight observational approach, try to imagine a story driving the pose. Add something to bring out the story: paint a forest background, a set of angel wings, or re-imagine the figure as a robot.

Howard Pyle used to have his students do that. He said: "Don't paint the model," Instead, "make a picture."

2. Keep a sketchbook just for image generation, rather than observation. Use it not only for creature designs and other stuff from your head, but also for quick copies from whichever old masters you like.

3. Try not give in to the desire for photo reference too quickly. Keep an idea in pure sketch stage as long as possible. Shoot (or better yet draw) your reference studies to fit your mental image as much as possible. Dean Cornwell used to project up his rough poses and mental-image composition onto the final canvas before he sought out models.

4. Learn to draw a mannequin figure out of your head. The Famous Artist’s Course from the ‘50s has a good mannequin formula made up of tapered cylinders. “How to Draw the Marvel Way” has another good system. Copy the figure work of comic art masters like Winsor McCay, Hal Foster, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jack Davis, or Mort Drucker. These systems help improve your imaginative drawing so that the ‘nitpicker’ guy in your head shuts up.

5. Work on memory drawing. Observe a face or a figure or an architectural façade and try to reproduce it only from memory later in your sketchbook. This is superb training for good imaginative work.

6. Since you’re in an academic program, remember that the original 19th C. Ecole and the ateliers weren’t just about drawing what you see. The students did a lot of sketch practice for the Prix de Rome, which was all about doing multi-figure compositions from the Bible and Greek mythology. Those students could draw the cast or the figure brilliantly, but they were always experimenting with sample multi-figure story assignments.

7. Remember the words of Howard Pyle: "You should not need models. You know how a face looks. How an eye is placed and the form of it and you should be able to draw it from your knowledge. That is very difficult with students from other schools. They say ‘That is a good draughtsman.’ Yet ask him to draw without the model and he is utterly helpless. He has learned nothing of real value, for you cannot draw until you can be independent of the model. And so I would advise you to draw your figures and carry them as far as you can without the model then get the model to correct by.”
Alphonse Mucha and his Slav Epics on Wikipedia

Prehistoric Times

What do you get when you cross a guinea pig with a rhinoceros?

The new Winter issue of Prehistoric Times magazine has two new features that I wrote: “How I Painted Titanoboa” and “The Making of a Giant Rodent.”

Each article has a behind-the-scenes look on how I reconstructed an extinct animal. In each case, all I had to start with was one or two bones. The rest took a lot of educated guesswork—and you guessed it....maquettes!
If you love extinct animals, check out the print magazine Prehistoric Times

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Guillermo Del Toro

The new issue of the New Yorker magazine has a long feature on the movie director Guillermo Del Toro, with a description of his man cave that he calls "Bleak House," with a collection of fantasy art that rivals that of his hero Forrest Ackerman. 

On the walls beside him are eerie antique portraits by Travis Louie, who didn't seem to be credited. The article mentions the ups and downs of development work on New Line's Hobbit (which, alas, Del Toro didn't end up directing), his work on Frankenstein (with a mention of illustrator/concept artist Bernie Wrightson), and Del Toro's recent work on the Lovecraft story "At the Mountains of Madness" with concept artists Allen Williams, Peter Konig, Wayne Barlowe, Keith Thompson, and Guy Davis.
Guillermo Del Toro on Wikipedia
Travis Louie's website 
Bernie Wrightson's website
Photo from Viva La Geek
New Yorker article excerpt at
Huffington Post article with a video showing Del Toro's sketchbook process.

Bronze Torch Holder

I just had a weird intuition that one of you out there in Blogland needs some reference for a dragon torch holder.

Maybe you’re a concept artist or a fantasy illustrator or a set designer. Maybe you’re working on a design for a castle of vampires or a lair of dragon tamers. Anyway, here it is for the taking. The piece is from Siena, Italy, and I found it in on page 395 of an 1887 edition of the Magazine of Art.
Download the 1887 Magazine of Art from Google Books

Friday, February 4, 2011

Yemen Embassy Art Returned

Yesterday an art courier returned my painting called “Hudson Highlands” from the United States embassy in Sana, Yemen, where it has been hanging for three years.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported yesterday that longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh announced sweeping concessions, facing growing opposition from protesters.

I thank the Art in Embassies program of the U.S. State Department for allowing my painting to play a small role as a form of visual diplomacy in that troubled region, and I hope that peace and justice will prevail in Yemen and other countries in the Arab world.
Image from MinnPost
Previously on GJ: Art in Embassies Program
Guidelines for submitting art to the U.S. Art in Embassies Program

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Sky’s Dual Gradations

You may recall this painting of an oak tree, below. It is painted over a 'sky panel', a prepared sky gradation recorded from observation on a previous day.

If you take a section of color from each corner of the sky, you can see how the sky is created with four different starting colors. The sky gradated in two directions:

1. From top to bottom, as a result of “horizon glow,”
2. From left to right, “solar glare.” The sun is to the right in the painting, so the colors are lighter on the right swatches.

Both gradations are going on in this landscape by Jean-Ferdinand Monchablon. The sun is also coming from the right in this scene.

Here again, Monchablon gradates his sky both ways. His paint is very thin, probably stippled with the end of a brush.

Monchablon’s skies retire back from the plane of the canvas, allowing the viewer to travel into the painting for miles and miles. This is a great and very difficult achievement. It’s easy to make a sky look like paint. It’s hard to make it look like a radiant veil interposed over infinity.

For more on painting skies, pick up the new Feb/March issue of International Artist magazine, where I begin the first of a ten part Masterclass series on atmospheric effects.
Previously on GJ: Sky panels, Sky Blue
International Artist magazine
J.F. Monchablon on ARC

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Year of the Rabbit Starts Tomorrow

Happy New Year to all my Chinese friends around the world. Rabbits are good luck, right?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

“If You Please, Sir, a Lion Have Come”

Nineteenth-century animal painter Briton Riviere was wise to live near the Zoological Gardens in London, for the authorities there were kind to him.

According to an 1896 article in the New Windsor magazine:

“When the beasts die they courteously send the bodies over in a cart to the painter. One morning, when he was at breakfast, a servant entered the room with the remark, ‘If you please sir, a lion have come.’ Mr. Briton Riviere stepped out into the street, and there, sure enough, was a lion upon a truck. The beast had died during the night.
But a limp, dead lion is a very different object from the splendid living beast, with every muscle taut and radiant with the symmetry of limb and motion that delight the painter’s heart, so the dead animal is merely utilised in the way that medical students study the subjects of the dissection-room....Tame creatures, such as horses, dogs, and donkeys, Mr. Briton Riviere admits to his studio. They enter from a large stable door, and sit, or rather stand, patiently upon a bed of straw.”
Image from Art Prints on Demand
Previously on GJ: Briton Riviere's Studio (photo showing big cat skins)
Enchantment Symposium (with another repro of Riviere)