Monday, December 19, 2011

Part 11. The Origins of Dinotopia: Putting it Together

Continuing the story of how the book Dinotopia came to be....
What should Arthur Denison’s journal look like? To find out, I traveled to the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C. and asked to see their collection of nineteenth century explorer’s sketchbooks. (This photo was taken after Dinotopia was published.)

Most of them were executed in pencil and watercolor, with cursive script for the written notes. I took an old book in my collection and mocked it up with a fake cover to look like my own copy of Denison’s journal.

Early mock-up of Denison’s Journal
Evoking that sketchbook look meant developing a lighter, more transparent technique than I was accustomed to. I wasn’t comfortable enough in watercolor, so I came up with an unusual way of working in oil paint for the vignetted illustrations, something that would look more improvisational and show the pencil drawing underneath.

In contrast to the sketchy vignettes, I wanted a few pictures to be more finished and to completely spill over the edges of the pages. Paintings like Dinosaur Boulevard required several weeks to produce. Creating such a picture was like directing a single frame from a Hollywood movie.

I based my approach on methods that I gleaned from the Golden Age American illustrators and the academic painters of Europe. I studied everything I could find about artists such as Lawrence Alma Tadema, Adolphe-William Bouguereau, and Jean-Léon Gérôme, who faced similar challenges creating detailed, realistic paintings of worlds they couldn’t observe firsthand.

Friends as models
For my references I used ordinary things that I found around me. I made charcoal studies from costumed models, or I photographed my neighbors and friends posing in small groups. They wore theater costumes that I bought from a rental company in New York that was selling off its dilapidated stock.

The girls in the parade posed with artificial flowers, bought at the five-and-dime store in our small town. Sometimes I dressed up in a costume and acted out a part in front of a full-length mirror. I made three-dimensional maquettes of dinosaurs and architectural details using clay, tissue paper, cardboard, and dowel rods.

Set of homemade maquettes
I made a miniature skybax from a combination of toothpicks, wire, leather, and polymer clay. For the wing membrane I used my wife’s discarded pantyhose. I set up these models in natural light conditions to observe how the light and shadow played across the forms. A typical day might find me building a cardboard hat, pacing around snarling like a Tyrannosaurus, and helping my two boys with their own studio projects.

The process of writing the book began with a fifteen-page outline, which laid out the overall story structure and character arcs. Then I planned the composition of each page spread by means of a complete storyboard, drawn in pencil on pre-printed pieces of card stock.

Unused art: "Saurian Pageant"
The next step was to create the finished artwork. This was by far the most time-consuming part of the process. I completed the art out of sequence, sending the paintings off in batches to be photographed for the publisher. Parting with finished artwork before the book was finished made continuity difficult.

I resolved the final text only after all the artwork was finished. I typed out the story on a manual typewriter and attached the columns of text with a paste-up waxer alongside photocopies of the artwork on layout boards that were the same size as the finished book. I rode my bicycle to the copy store in town, photocopied these layouts, and mailed the copies to the publisher so that they could prepare the book for printing.
More at these Links:
The new official Dinotopia website
This "making-of" story, illustrated with photos and sketches, is published in the Afterword section of the new 20th Anniversary Edition of Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time
"Origins of Dinotopia" series on GurneyJourney:
Part 1: Childhood Dreams
Part 2: College Obsessions 
Part 3: Lost Empires
Part 4:  Dinosaurs
Part 5: Treetown
Part 6: The Illustrated Book
Part 7: Utopias 
Part 8: Building a World 
Part 9: Words and Pictures 
Part 10: Canyon Worlds 
Part 11: Putting it Together
Part 12: Book Launch


John Doe said...

Awesome! I never you did all that stuff for your artwork.

Tom Hart said...

It's amazing to see how much research, detail and preliminary work went into Dinotopia - though I venture to say that regular readers of your blog aren't too surprised to see how much you put into it.

The thought crossed my mind that there must have been some discouraging and/or difficult aspects to the project as well. Or maybe, (sensing that you're a quite even-tempered and not easily flustered guy) that's not so much the case. Still, I wonder what - if anything - you would want to share about particular challenges.

Moish said...

I've been a regular reader for quite a while, two years or more, and this series has blown me away!
As Michelangelo said "If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all".

Alhaitham Jassar said...

The fact that you had to type, cut, paste then glue the drawings and compose the pages makes me appreciate photoshop even better now :)

Unknown said...

Does the Library of Congress allow anyone to request to those journals or did you have to have special permission?

James Gurney said...

Alhaitham, so true. I don't miss the cut-and-paste. I use Indesign to design my books now.

Thanks, Tom. I tried to include some of the challenges in the last post. In general, though, the most challenging aspects were in retrospect the most fun and meaningful aspects.

Sara, The Library of Congress offered to research a topic for me in exchange for a lecture I gave to their staff. But I believe they try to help anyone with bona fide research credentials, such as an author writing a book. The folks at the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Smithsonian also were very helpful to me in my research, and I'm grateful to them all.

John Fleck said...

How did you deal with the drying time oil paintings require when your publisher was anxious to get the works so they can be photographed for the book?

James Gurney said...

John, Oil when worked thinly, dries overnight. I always had at least a few days for drying, but even with illustration jobs with tight deadlines, the oil can be managed to dry overnight.

Amelia Murdock said...

James-- What was your unusual method for getting your oils to look similar to watercolors? How did you do it and do you feel it was successful?

James Gurney said...

Amelia, a good question, but one that would take time to answer, so maybe I'll do so in a future post. Basically, I work with washes thinned in solvent and liquin over a pencil drawing sealed with acrylic matte medium.

Amelia Murdock said...

That would be a great post! I will look forward to it. Thanks for the brief overview. I just detest watercolors and want to achieve a similar look.

trefoglio said...

Dear James,

Did you use oil colours for all Dinotopia-originals?

James Gurney said...

Tristan, yes, they're all in oils. No digital and no water media.