Friday, February 28, 2014

Using historical photos as inspiration

Imagine a giant fish-like ship, burning and sinking, with its surviving crew straggled along the top, waiting to be rescued. 

I did this gouache painting last year. It's called "The Sinking of the Hagfish," part of a new round of backstory development of Dinotopia.

The scene is set thousands of years ago in Dinotopia's Age of Heroes, when human and saurian rebels challenged the invasion from Poseidos. 

The inspiration for this composition came from this historic World War II photo of the burning carrier "Franklin" off the coast of Japan after it was struck by two bombs. Over 772 of the crew were lost, but the ship returned to port on its own steam.

In my composition, I kept the figures on the far left watching the unfolding drama. The feeling that we're among those watching adds a sense of vérité to the science fiction image.

If you want a rich source of World War II photos for inspiration, I recommend the 1950 book called Life's Picture History of World War II, which you can get used for less than $5.00. It's a large volume, crammed with black and white photos, showing many aspects of the the war. The documentary photos stimulate visual ideas that go beyond the cliché fantasy battle images, particularly showing the consequences of war.

My painting will appear in the upcoming expanded edition of Dinotopia: First Flight, from Dover Publications, which is slated for mid-April.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Flip book animation in a paperback

Some of you know that my career began in the animation business, and that I have dabbled in animation alongside painting and writing.

When I was doing science fiction paperback covers, I convinced my art director, Gene Mydlowski, to let me animate a flip book movie in the corners of the pages of the Alan Dean Foster novel "Quozl." I called the technique "Flip-a-Mation," and it was perfect for this story, about a race of rabbit-like aliens who arrive on earth, looking a bit like Warner Brothers cartoon characters.

I recently rediscovered the file folder with the 100 original drawings that I did for the Flip-a-mation sequence. Using my digital camera and free software called "Time Lapse Assembler" I was able to reshoot the sequence and add some sound effects.
(Video Link)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Military Helmets

Here are some of military helmets, sketched at the West Point Museum of the U.S. Military Academy Museum in New York.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Hannibal, Missouri, 1983

Hannibal, Missouri, August 25, 1983, by James Gurney. Pencil, 11x14 inches.
In 1983 I sat on the curb in Hannibal, Missouri and sketched the storefronts on Broadway. In the margins I wrote the following notes:

A mortician told us that the Schwartz Funeral Home caught fire. He said, "It really went. Biggest fire they had around in a long time. Luckily there was no stiffs inside. Old Schwartz don't do much business."

The owner of the TV repair shop came over. His name is Frank Brashears, and his shop used to be a confectionary. It once belonged to Molly Brown's sister. Upstairs there used to be a bordello. Frank brought over the title and the deed, dated 1823.

Frank has a ham radio set. He recently spoke to Bombay, India. He showed us his postcard, with a picture of his radio equipment. It said "88s" which means Love and Kisses. All ham operators have postcards with their call letters. Frank wrote his: WØCJH.

We met a black artist named Larry Washington whose idols were Boris and Frazetta. He had a pencil drawing of a snake lady. He had a girlfriend who was pregnant. She saw her mother drive by, and her mother stopped and picked her up.

A hobo told us the clock over the P-D Sports Store is five minutes slow. 

Everyone recommends the Steamboat Inn on Main Street. We ate there--good ribeye steak. At the Steamboat Inn, a fellow told us that Mark Twain stayed on the second floor.

All the businesses have changed now, according to Google Street View. That page from my sketchbook is just a yellow leaf, drifting in the winds of time.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Alaska residency opportunity

There’s still time for artists to submit an emailed application to the 2014 Voices of the Wilderness summer residencies. It's a opportunity to accompany a ranger for 7-9 days in Alaskan wilderness while participating in stewardship activities. This summer, there are five different residencies available, some of which may select multiple artists. Residencies are open to artists of all mediums. 

March 1 is the deadline. For more information and application materials, contact Barbara Lydon of the Glacier Ranger District in Girdwood, AK at

Aardman Animals Talk Art

(Video link) Aardman Animations (Wallace & Gromit) used stop motion to animate the words of ordinary Americans talking about art.

The 1989 short "Creature Comforts" by Nick Park was an early version of this technique.
(Thanks, Greg!)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Know the Skeleton

Edward Poynter (1836-1919) of the Royal Academy
If you study the skeleton well enough to draw it from any angle, it will give your figure drawing much more authority. The study by Poynter shows him locating the two bony landmarks of the elbow visible here: the lateral epicondyle of the humerus (the bump on the left) and the olecranon process of the ulna (the elbow bump facing us).

In this Russian figure drawing book, the anatomy is well understood from the inside out. It looks dynamic because the artist has enough of a knowledge to simplify to essentials.

I hasten to add that my own knowledge of the skeleton is pretty basic compared to some of my colleagues who have really made a study of it.

When I need answers, here are some of the places I turn:
Books: Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist
Figure Drawing for All It's Worth
Model Skeletons:
33" high model skeleton
I use a Revell plastic model that's only a foot tall, which dangles from my studio wall. A model skeleton should be rigged so that you can hold it in any pose to echo what the model is doing. Every art school should have a model skeleton in the figure drawing room.

Thanks, Rob Nonstop

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Rockwell Museum acquires Famous Artists School Archives

The Norman Rockwell Museum has nearly doubled its collection of American illustration art thanks to a donation of about 5,000 items from the archives of the Famous Artist's School correspondence course.

The Famous Artist's Course archives haven't been catalogued yet, but they include instructional diagrams, films, boxes of fan mail, photographic negatives, and artwork from all of the faculty members, including not only Norman Rockwell, but also Al Dorne, Robert Fawcett, Al Parker, and Peter Helck.

The Rockwell Museum promises to digitize the materials to make them accessible online for people all over the world. They're starting to work on assembling an exhibition of the materials.

In this audio podcastWAMC's Joe Donahue interviews Norman Rockwell Museum's director Laurie Norton Moffatt about the Famous Artist's School bequest, and other issues and opportunities facing the museum.
Norman Rockwell Museum Announces Expansion of Collection

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Newlyn School: Painting Outdoors

Stanhope Forbes Gala Day at Newlyn, Cornwall, 1907
The painters of the Newlyn School of southwest England a century ago followed an extreme devotion to painting directly from life. Led by Stanhope Forbes (1857-1947), and inspired by the Jules Bastien Lepage in France, they tried: 

"To paint the picture entirely and absolutely out of doors, braving all difficulties, and relying in no way upon sketches or studies, with which, later on, the work could be comfortably finished within the walls of a studio—such was the creed to which they pledged themselves. Nature was to be respected and followed without question: to be blindly obeyed. Models might grumble and dislike having to sit in the street under the very eyes of the whole village; but the cult demanded it, and its exponents gave an example of self-sacrifice, for they spared themselves no trouble, and worked out their principles with admirable conscientiousness."

Mrs. Stanhope Forbes arranging a model
This may be a bit of an exaggeration, because Newlyn artists were known to work from models posed under more controlled conditions.
The quote is from the book "Stanhope A. Forbes A.R.A., and Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, A.R.W.S." by Mrs. Lionel Birch.
The best recent art book on Forbes is Stanhope Forbes and the Newlyn Schoolby Caroline Fox.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Versailles, inhabited by chickens

What if Versailles in 1700 were inhabited by chickens? The galline courtesans are elegant but dimwitted, so inevitably decorum dissolves and chaos ensues. In this seven-minute CGI animated film, created as a graduation project, the character design and comic timing are fresh and memorable. (Direct link to video)

By: Julien Hazebroucq - Emmanuelle Leleu - Morrigane Boyer - William Lorton - Ren Hsien hsu
Via CGBros

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

I've got my freeze ray

Another winter storm coming? Bring it on!

Skybax toy prototype

Here's a one-of-a-kind toy prototype made by Hasbro in 1997, part of a proposal for a line of Dinotopia toys. The skybax is fully posable, with flapping wings, gripping foot claws, and a removable saddle for the Will Denison action figure. 

As it often happens with toy ideas, this one never got off the ground. The toy line was tied to a movie at Columbia Pictures that went far into development but never got green-lit.

Edit: In the comments, Drew pointed out a Jurassic Park toy with a remarkable similarity. I'm not sure, but it's possible that the JP toy came first and that they modded it out for the Dinotopia presentation.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Counterchange in tonal design

Here's a beautiful example of counterchange to achieve drama and variety in a concept sketch for the 1939 World's Fair on San Francisco Bay.

Digital Steamboat Willie

"Steamboat Willie" (1928) was Walt Disney's first sound cartoon, and the first star vehicle for Mickey Mouse. Now, it has been remastered in digital animation—made hideous on purpose as a joke.
(Video link to digital satire)
(Watch the original Steamboat Willie)
via Cartoon Brew

Monday, February 17, 2014

Is competition a good thing in art education?

Is competition good for art students? Here's a historical description of competition in the past, but you can skip over that to the end of the post where I pose some basic questions for discussion.

In his book about Paris in 1900, Richard Whiteing described the kinds of competition that art students engaged in:

"In the atelier you have the stimulus of all sorts of competitions. There is the monthly contest for the right to choose your place. The professor looks at your work, marks it as first, second, third, and so on, in the order of merit; and as it is marked, so you have the right to plant your easel where you will for all the month to come. It registers a step in honor, and it precludes bad blood. Then comes the annual competition for the medal, or a tremendous struggle for a place in some special class....With this we have examinations in history, ornament, perspective, anatomy. Students are supposed to know something about these collaterals of their great subject. Many take the history and the perspective in a perfunctory way, feeling that the strain is not there, and that drawing and painting are still the heart of the mystery."  
"Beyond this, of course, there is the struggle for the Prix de Rome — very properly restricted to Frenchmen. It is something like a prize — the winner has free quarters in the art capital of the world on a liberal allowance from the state. The first heat is a sketch in oils, and the result, of course, leaves many out of the race. The second is a figure in oils. For the third, the few left standing are sent to paint against one another for their lives on a subject given by the school. Now, there are all sorts of possibilities of unfair play in a competition of this sort, and against them authority has taken due precaution. A man may get outside help, and bring in a work that is only half his own; and even if he does every bit of it, he may still have fed his invention on the contraband of borrowed ideas. So, to prevent all that, they put him in a kind of monastic cell in the school itself, and there for three mortal months, until his task is done, he has to live and work, with no communication from the outer world. He is what is called en loge. He brings in his own traps, and he is as effectually under lock and key as any Chinese scholar competing for the prize of Peking. The moving-in day for the Prix de Rome is one of the sights of the Latin Quarter, with its baggage-trains of personal gear ranging from the easel of study to the fiddle of recreation. When it is all over, and the best man has won, he settles for four years in the capital of Italy to rummage at his ease in its treasure-houses of the art of all time. Of course he has to rummage on a plan. Paris requires of him a work every year, to show that he has been making good use of his time. If this is of unusual merit, it is bought by the government."
Some thoughts....and then I want to hear yours.
This description raises a lot of thoughts about competition in the arts in our times. Friendly competition, even if there's no prize in view, can bring out the best in amicable rivals. For those aspiring to professional work in art or music, the number of jobs is far more limited than the number of hopeful applicants. One might argue that being seared in the furnace of competition in the school environment prepares young artists for the rigors of making a living.

But not all art students want to enter that competitive world. What good would competition do for people who are studying art as amateurs--literally for the love of it, people who are trying to top their personal best.

Competition has other downsides. It is great if you're the winner, but winning every competition, especially in a regional environment, can lead to complacency. It might inspire those who lose out to work harder, but it can discourage or demoralize others. Or it might force them to conform for the sake of winning and thereby extinguish their flame of uniqueness.

Although some art schools and ateliers have a rigid set of expectations and standards that everyone agrees to upon enrolling, it's not that way in the larger art world. Our art world is so different from that of 19th century Paris that it's hard to imagine any group of students or academics agreeing on universal standards for judging. Do competitions in our day then become an exercise in second-guessing what the judge is likely to pick, and whether the dollar cost of entering a competition makes it worth the marketing value of getting a prize? That's a lot different from the Prix de Rome: it's more like an advertising roulette based on commercial concerns.

I would especially love to hear from teachers who have seen the good or bad results of competition in their classrooms. I'm hoping to hear how the contemporary ateliers with rigorous standards use competition in their pedagogy. And I'd like to hear from students who would like to share stories of the sting or stimulus of being engaged in a competition.
The quote is from Paris of To-Day by Richard Whiteing

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Promoting Public Policy Programs...with Puppets

During the Great Depression, politicians supported puppet shows to combat unemployment and to boost morale.

According to puppeteer Bil Baird (1904-1987), in 1934, New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia supported a marionette company as part of a public works program.

"Two years later," he writes, "President Franklin Roosevelt thought it might be a good idea to organize fifty marionette companies to tour the United States and explain the processes of democracy and the philosophy of the New Deal."

Unfortunately, "the project became mired in partisan politics and never got off the ground. It was a lost opportunity, and about as close as we have ever come, I guess, to having Federal support for puppetry."

Image: NW Puppet Center Opens Great Depression Exhibit
Quote from the book: The Art of the Puppet by Bil Baird.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Artist's Lay Figure

There's something sweet and vulnerable about this artist's lay figure from France circa 1860-1880.

It's life-size, made of wood and metal, with a painted papier-mâché head. Note the curvature of the femurs, the jointed fingers, and the pronating forearms, all with adjustable tensioners in the joints. I'm not sure why the rib cage seems inadequate. 

In order to serve its purpose as a clothing model for painters, I'm supposing that the musculature would have been bulked out in muslin and cotton batting.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Book Review: Shishkin Books

There's a new book on Ivan Shishkin (1832-1898) that offers a helpful introduction for the new fan or the confirmed collector of the great Russian realist who specialized in forest scenes.

The new book is the one on the right. It's in the series of inexpensive books (under $15) in English on Russian realists that have been coming out recently. A similar book in the same series on Ilya Repin that came out in 2011 is now out of print and costs well over $60, and the one on Valentin Serov is also out of print and costs over $100. So people have been snapping these up, and I'm sure the Shishkin book will be no exception.

The new book is hardcover, 200 pages, and about 9x12 inches. It has a short biography and overview of Shishkin's place in Russian art, but it's mostly illustrations. There's a sampling of his pen-and-ink work, his etchings, and his pencil studies, as well as a good representation of his oil paintings and studies. But I found that the colors tended to be too contrasty and warm, with the shadows going to black.

A 1996 book called Shishkin (Great Painters) (shown in the middle of the photo above) is comparable in scope and coverage. It's a little larger, about 9.5 x 13 inches. The color in the reproductions is a little better, but some paintings are reproduced smaller than they need to be.

The best book in my opinion is the large, thick 1981 book, printed in the old Soviet Union, and called Shishkin Album. It's shown on the left in the photo above. You can still get this one in its paperback form as a used book, but it's rather expensive. The book is about 254 pages long, and the reproductions are quite good, with many of Shishkin's plein air studies.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Fractal-Powered CGl Film

This video of morphing and turning space rocks was created not by sculpting or modeling in the usual way, but rather by using fractal mathematics. (Video link).

One of the principles of fractal geometry is self-similarity, where large forms are composed of smaller and smaller components that share the same geometry. This is a design principle found in nature in rock forms, cloud shapes and branching forms. Fractal powered digital graphics provide a a tool for building worlds for animation and computer games.

The video was by Julius Horsthuis, rendered in Mandelbulb 3D, with music by Maurice Horsthuis.

Grand Central Open House

Grand Central Academy in New York City will have their first Open Studio Night on February 21, with works in progress and finished paintings and drawings on view.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

CGI eye simulation

Here's a remarkably believable computer rendering of a human eye by Chris Jones, using Lightwave, Sculptris and a little Krita. He wrote the music, too. 

Custom styling household appliances

Who says you have to live with the boring design language of modern appliances?

My son Frank, who is an apprentice glass artist in Colorado, turned an old bread machine into "R2Dough2."

He modified his blender, too. He taped off and painted orange zebra stripes.

The controls used to have ordinary control names like Mix, Blend, and Purée. Now they say Crush, Vaporize, Annihilate, Destroy, Massacre, and Push Me. The Phasers can be set either to Stun or Kill.

When he was growing up, Frank combined some of our yard vehicles for creative motoring around the neighborhood. Earlier, he gave the wagon a new bed and paint job.

He came up with the initial idea for the Gallery Flambeau, the device I use to eliminate lame paintings.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sketching Game: Cartoon Heads on Commuter Bodies

October Jones plays a fun sketching on the train. Just add cartoon heads on sticky notes and photograph them superimposed over the subject. Instant superhero!

Thanks, Greg Shea

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sketches for "Digging Leviathan"

Here are some initial concept sketches for the cover of a 1984 science fiction novel called Digging Leviathan by James Blaylock.  

The sketches are drawn in pen and marker. I was trying to stay loose, letting ideas happen with each iteration, like a musician's multiple takes in a recording studio.

In the story, the hero makes a machine that can dig under modern-day Los Angeles in search of Pellucidar.

Blaylock is widely regarded as one of the originators of the steampunk movement. I loved the way he introduced fantastical elements into the banal reality of the modern world.
See an unused color sketch for this cover at the previous post, "Digging Machine"

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Lightning Sketch Artists, Part 3

We've been having a look at the Victorian form of parlour entertainment called the lightning sketch act. So far we've seen the work of J. Stuart Blackton and Winsor McCay, two of the most famous American practitioners.

Another of Blackton's tricks that Edison committed to film was "The Enchanted Drawing,"  (Video link) where Blackton draws a gentleman with a top hat and a bottle and glass of wine. By halting the camera and exchanging them for real objects, he turned the lightning sketch performance into a magical act of conjuring.

The French filmmaker Georges Méliès (1861-1938) was using the stopped camera trick right around the same time. In Le Livre Magique, drawings in a giant book become costumed characters.

Méliès also recorded on film his caricatures of Adolphe Thiers, Chamberlain, Queen Victoria, and Bismark, and most likely those early films were what inspired Blackton.

A good source on this topic is the book: Before Mickey: The Animated Film, 1898-1928
Previously on GurneyJourney:

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Lightning Sketch Artists, Part 2

Winsor McCay (c. 1867-1934) was famous for his contributions to comics (Little Nemo) and animation (Gertie the Dinosaur), but those achievements were related to his other career as a lightning sketch artist on the vaudeville stage.

According to Wikipedia:

"Impresario F. F. Proctor approached McCay in April 1906 to perform chalk talks for the vaudeville circuit. For $500 per week he was to draw twenty-five sketches in fifteen minutes before live audiences, as a pit band played a piece called "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend". In his "The Seven Ages of Man" routine, he drew two faces and progressively aged them. His first performance was on June 11, 1906, in a show that also featured entertainer W. C. Fields. It was a success, and McCay toured with the show throughout 1907, while managing to complete his comic strip and illustration work on time, often working in hotel rooms or backstage."

In 1911, McCay animated his Little Nemo characters, in the context of a lightning sketch artist's show (Video link). After making a wager with the guys in the smoking club that he can make drawings move, he proceeds to draw his characters on a big pad, just as he would have done on stage, before he switches to smaller drawings for the animation. You can skip ahead to 8:24 to see the start of the animation.

When he presented his famous animated film of Gertie the Dinosaur, (shown here in its shorter version) McCay stood beside the screen and talked to the animated dinosaur, who seemed to respond to his commands and his scolding. Seeing a lightning sketch artist interact with a drawing which moved and even emoted at his command must have been astounding. Here's the longer version of the film, with the full setup intact.

Lightning Sketch Artists, Part 1

Friday, February 7, 2014

Lightning Sketch Artists, Part 1

A popular stage act around 1900 was the lightning sketch artist. These performers drew quickly in front of the audience, providing a lively patter as they brought the drawing through amusing or surprising transformations. 
Edwin Lutz thanks Michael Sporn Animation

Typically they worked in charcoal on a big piece of paper on an easel, but sometimes they used chalk and a chalkboard. The act often required strategically adding new lines that changed the drawing into something else. 

Sometimes the transformations involved turning the drawing upside down. Inspired by an old book called "The Art of Chalk Talk," I adapted a normal easel with a lazy susan swivel that allows me to turn drawings upside down, and I've tried similar gags in my lectures. Maybe some of you have seen my own act.

A few of the acts by the original performers were filmed, including a 1906 performance called "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces" by J. Stuart Blackton (1875-1941) (Video link). He stopped the camera between different phases of the action to add or subtract lines, or to replace them with paper cutouts. In this way, he inadvertently became one of the fathers of animation.

More examples of lightning sketchers tomorrow, including the legendary Winsor McCay.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Upcoming Workshops

A lot of people have been asking about upcoming workshops and lectures. In September I'll be in Wyoming as a guest instructor of the Susan Kathleen Black Foundation workshop. This weeklong event mixes informal lectures and demos with feasting and the great outdoor life. The all-inclusive fee for instruction, room, and food is only $775 for the whole week, an incredible deal. There are only about 150 spaces, and they're filling fast, with signups started just yesterday.

I'll also be one of the instructors at Illustration Master Class in June. This weeklong workshop takes place on the campus of Amherst College in Massachusetts and is geared to students, pros, and aspiring professionals in the fantasy art field. The faculty includes a roster of top artists, with special guests Brian and Wendy Froud. The signups are full, but you can get on the waitlist.

This coming April 24-27, I'll be one of the faculty at the Portrait Society Annual Conference in Washington, DC. I went last year as well as a speaker and a sketch-reporter. The portrait demos are fun to watch, and it's a great group for learning techniques and business strategies.

And I'll be returning to the Hartford Art School in Connecticut for a lecture on April 16. They've got an excellent illustration department there, thanks to Dennis Nolan (right) and his colleagues, and this lecture is open to the public. I'll be doing a book signing afterward.

Finally, I want to mention the Voice of the Wilderness, a unique art adventure opportunity in Alaska. I haven't been directly involved, but some GurneyJourneyers have, and they say it's a life-changing opportunity to kayak and hike into the wilderness with a sketchbook. Signups must be postmarked February 19.