Saturday, December 10, 2011

Part 2. The Origins of Dinotopia: College Obsessions

I went to college at the University of California at Berkeley, where I sought out the professors of archaeology and paleontology.

When they found I was interested in ancient artifacts, they let me into the archives of the anthropology museum to draw Egyptian scarab beetle carvings for a scientist’s publication.

Photo by David Gurney
I took a course in paleontology taught by Jane A. Robinson, a plesiosaur expert. In the middle of the term, she was called away to the South Pacific to investigate reports of a strange rotting carcass that Japanese fishermen had pulled out of the sea off the coast of New Zealand.

Everyone hoped it would turn out to be a plesiosaur—a marine reptile from the age of dinosaurs. When she returned she told us that it was nothing but the smelly remains of a shark. More photos and full discussion here.

My fingers itched to dig in the dirt again. That summer I signed up for a fossil dig at the Blackhawk Ranch, east of Berkeley. In my little plot of dirt, I dug up knuckle bones of a ten-million-year-old camel. Instead of writing a term paper, I drew a charcoal reconstruction of the creatures I had found.

After graduating from college as an anthropology major, I studied drawing and painting at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. I soon left art school to work in the movie industry as a background painter for the animated fantasy film Fire and Ice, (Bakshi/Frazetta, 1983).

Background painting, Fire and Ice, cel-vinyl acrylic 

This was where I learned to paint. My job was to create the landscape scenes that appear behind the action. I painted over five hundred backgrounds: jungles, volcanoes, and ice caves. Each afternoon, at the daily test screenings, I would see characters moving around in the worlds I had just rendered. I began to have a strange sensation that I could project myself inside my paintings and live within them. Working with Frank Frazetta gave me my first real exposure to fantasy as a genre of art and storytelling. When the movie work finished, I began illustrating covers for science fiction and fantasy novels.

 Tar Machine, Marker drawing Los Angeles, 1980.

All along, I kept filling sketchbooks with direct observations of people, architecture, and animals. Before I got married and moved east, I took a trip across country on freight trains, documenting everything in a book published in 1982 called The Artist's Guide to Sketching. That will be the subject of a future series.
This series of essays is adapted from the illustrated Afterword of the new 20th anniversary edition of Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time

Previously on GJ:
Fire and Ice Series:

Fire and Ice, Part 1: Rekindled
Fire and Ice, Part 2: Frazetta
Part 3: Fire and Ice -- Tom Kinkade
Part 4: Fire and Ice -- Ralph Bakshi
"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
Art Center College of Design


Bill Gathen said...

Great stuff! Thoroughly enjoying it so far. I love seeing "behind the curtain" to appreciate all the history that went into the creation of the art object itself.

Unknown said...

You worked on Fire and Ice? Well, thank you. Its one of my favorites, or anything touched by Frazetta

António Araújo said...

>The Artist's Guide to Sketching

I've had that book of yours for a long time; that's my first encounter with your work and not, as is the case for most people, Dinotopia; and strangely enough, it is still by far my favorite, even if later you adressed other topics dear to me, like in your book on color and light. Your old sketching book keeps impressing me every time I open it.

Actually, I am wrong on one thing: it turns out my first encounter with your work was in "fire and ice", as a kid, and I did love that immensely, but had forgotten about it completely until you mentioned it in another post - what a blast from the past that was :)

Darrell Anderson said...

I also have that book and I recommend it to all my students....if they can find it. It's a wonderful book on drawing and I've always hoped it would again see the light of day. How about a print on demand or even a pdf? So many would benefit from it.

Thanks for your blog.

Paul Clark said...

So, is it the Gurney or the Kinkade name that makes "The Artist's Guide to Sketching" worth so much money on Amazon?

Sharon Gayhart said...

Wowsers! I bought the Guide to Sketching last month on Amazon for a fifth of what the used ones are going for today. Phew! That was close. I've wanted the book for awhile. I'm working through the Achieving Accuracy chapter right now.

Tom Hart said...

Thanks so much for sharing this information on your background and development, James!

I confess to not having known about The Artist's Guide to Sketching. When you say it will be the subject of a new series, does that mean a series here on the blog? (I'm assuming so.) That suggests a forthcoming updated edition - yes? That would be fantastic!

James Gurney said...

Tom: I meant a series on the blog. No plans yet to bring back the original book--I've been too focused on other projects.

Paul, I don't know why it costs so much, except they didn't print too many to start out.

Darrell, thanks for recommending it.

ben said...

This is interesting to read!

I guess cel-vinyl dries just as rapidly as normal acyrlics.
So just out of curiosity, did you use a moisture retaining palette when working with acrylics for these backgrounds?

James Gurney said...

Ben, I used damp paper towels when painting at home, but in the studio, we kept the cel vinyl in plastic cups with lids to cover them at night.

ben said...

Thanks for the quick reply.

Looking forward to part 3.

Vicki said...

These posts about your beginnings, and about the beginnings of other artists show me that we do our best work as artists when we concentrate on what we love and are familiar with. The unspoken advice is: Don't go out and try to do what someone else does; do what you yourself find compelling in your own life and surroundings.

Andre Ricardo said...

Prof. Gurney,
My gosh, your side profile as a boy is identical to your profile now.

Have you ever posted your thoughts on how the human face ages? Or, how someone now would look x-years from now?