Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Interview on Creativity

A student named Avery had a few questions for me:

Would you consider yourself someone who has always been creative?

I didn't think of myself as particularly creative. Making stuff was just expected in my family. I'm the youngest of a family of five kids, and we had to invent our own amusements. My dad was a mechanical engineer, and I grew up in a house with a big workshop and a lot of tools. They were not helicopter parents: if you wanted to make a kite, you had to rip the kite sticks from spruce on the table saw, and if you wanted a metal toy car, you had to make a lost wax lead casting. If you liked movies, you grabbed the 8mm movie camera and made your own animation or action flick. I made my own kites and electric-powered tugboats and hand puppets, all based on how-to books that I checked out of the library.

Did you know from a young age that art was going to be your career path?
I'm not sure I would have understood the concept of a career path when I was at a young age, but as I say, I tried everything when I was in grade school: sculpting, model making, drawing, lettering, and painting. The thing that I had as a young person was endless patience and focused concentration. If something didn't work, I kept trying. I never met a professional artist until I was much older. Early on, it never dawned on me that you could actually make a living as an illustrator.

 James Gurney, pen and ink drawing, age 13

You are best known for the "Dinotopia" book series. This series is beloved by so many people, both children and adults. Why do you think these books have resonated so well with audiences?

I was intrigued by fantasy universes such as Star Wars, Narnia, or Lord of the Rings. What I loved about all those stories was the completeness of the imagined worlds, and the ability to transport you inside them. 

But Dinotopia doesn't follow the dramatic framework of those worlds. All of those stories start off with the basic premise of good guys on one side and bad guys on the other, with a big fight in the end. The center of every plot is the temptation of the hero by the dark forces. Even though those classic works were brilliant, to me, the good-versus-evil formula became pretty tiresome. I wanted to believe it, but I couldn’t help wondering who grew the food for the orcs, or what the Stormtroopers did when they got off work, and as a result they didn't pass the believability test.

I've always believed that my best, most discerning readers are young people between the ages of 10 and 20. They don't miss a thing, and they can handle even the most abstruse philosophical or scientific concepts. I wanted to write a visual book for those readers.

Much of your artwork depicts scenes of natural beauty, both present and prehistoric. How has the role of "Nature" played its part in your life and creative work?

I was an outdoor kid and spent a lot of time sailing, hiking and backpacking in the Sierras. When I got home from my adventures, I read about explorers in National Geographic. I had grown up studying old copies of the magazine going back to the 1920s. Later, when I started working for the magazine as an illustrator, it was a golden era when National Geographic still sent its artists and art directors to meet the archaeologists on location. On some of my first assignments I had a chance to see Rome, Tarquinia, Cerveteri, Norchia, and Populonia for an article on the Etruscans. We visited some newly discovered tombs and many remote sites of Roman occupation. Having graduated from UC Berkeley as an archaeology major, this was food for my imagination.

Besides archaeology, my other fascination was with extinct creatures. When I was about eight years old my parents took me to a science museum where I saw a life-size skeleton of an Allosaurus. I was bowled over to see such a fantastic and scary-looking creature and to know it was real. I imagined that the creature would come to life at night, step off the platform and wander around the empty museum. I wanted to learn how to make paintings that brought these creatures to life.

What is one single piece of advice you would give to a young upcoming artist or author, wanting to take their passion and turn it into their career?

You've got to love painting or writing so much that you can't wait to get back to it. That enthusiasm is necessary to carry you through the inevitable frustrations and disappointments that are sure to come along. Professionals in the business may complain about the headaches of stock art, photo-illustration, digital art, A.I. art, lousy contracts, and disappearing clients. There’s no doubt: it’s a tough time right now to make a living as an illustrator. But it's also a time full of opportunity with fewer gatekeepers than ever before. 

Now we have to come up with new ways to tell stories with pictures. We have more resources at our fingertips—tools, references, printing technology, and audience-building tools via social media—than any of our artistic ancestors ever dreamed of. You don't have to be limited by gatekeepers. There are unlimited opportunities. Making pictures is a proud calling. We should never forget how lucky we are to be able to conjure dreams out of thin air.


rock995 said...

That was a fascinating glimpse into what is now called an "old-fashioned" childhood. A wonderful childhood with a strong nuclear family. Now, "media" is the "family" for a child. Just my opinion but I grew up in the early 50's and this is what it was like back then. Different, and in many ways much better than growing up today with all the "technology". We rarely came indoors until it got so dark that you could barely see outside.

Daniel Potvin said...

« Making pictures is a proud calling. We should never forget how lucky we are to be able to conjure dreams out of thin air. »

That quote is going straight on my studio wall! Thank you again for the inspiration dear sir.

Bevan said...

What a fun interview, thank you for sharing.

Mono said...

Wow, I'm almost 40,and your 13 years old drawing is way better than mine today after 15 years of hobby drawing!!
I think I would have enjoyed a childhood like that, to me at least it sounds amazing. Thanks for sharing this interview. Cheers, Octavio

Jason Bill said...