Saturday, December 31, 2022

Caligula's Ships

In the 1930s, archaeologists in Italy discovered the remains of two ships on the bottom of of Lake Nemi, whose surface was lowered by drought.   

Tourists and curiosity seekers came out in large numbers to see the remains of the Nemi ships. 

These luxury ships were built almost 2,000 years ago for the emperor Caligula and were recovered under Mussolini. Unfortunately they were destroyed in 1944 during the combat of World War II. All that's left now are a few bronze and marble decorations.

Friday, December 30, 2022

What Did the Great Composers Really Look Like?

Hadi Karimi used digital tools to imagine what classical composers might have looked like. He says:

"Beethoven is often portrayed as this heroic figure that resembles more of a Greek god than a human who dedicated his life to music. To reconstruct his face I only used his LIFE mask and also a bust that was made by the same person who made the mask. He also had a death mask, but due to his illness, he lost so much weight that the mask is almost useless for this purpose.

"Sculpted in ZBrush, the color texture was painted in Substance Painter, rendered in Maya with Arnold, used Xgen core for the hair."

Thursday, December 29, 2022

Sky is the Lightest


Vlaho Bukovac (Croatian, 1855-1922) said: "In nature, the sky is the lightest thing of all."

Monday, December 26, 2022

How Fleischer Studios Made Cartoons

In 1938, Fleischer Studios produced this short documentary showing how they made animated cartoons. 

The Florida-based studio that popularized Popeye and Betty Boop resembled the Disney process in using painted cels, but there were important differences, too. Fleischer innovated the rotating 3D backgrounds, and they typically recorded the character voices after the animation was completed.

At the YouTube channel Fabulous Fleischer Cartoons Restored they've got a lot of beautifully restored cartoons, and the Tested channel explored how the restoration process works.

(Link to YouTube)

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Santa Claus Print

I have a few signed and numbered artist proofs of of our sold-out Santa Claus artist's proofs available in our store.

My first idea was to paint Santa heroically standing on a rooftop next to a chimney with the elves showing him a map of the route.

Then I tried a bunch of other ideas, including supervising the elves' workshop and flying over the rooftops in his sleigh. 

Then I tried a more iconic image of him standing with the bag of toys over his shoulder, inspired by NC Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, and Haddon Sunblom (who always showed him holding up a Coke bottle).

I got our local hardware-store Santa, Harry Turra, to come over and pose in my studio. He arrived in costume and in character on a snowy night. My young sons were spellbound to meet the real Santa.

The rest of the props and setting were compiled from various homes and hotels here in my Hudson Valley hometown.

Here's the link to our store page for more information about the print.


Thursday, December 22, 2022

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

What I've Been Thinking About Generative Art

Image generated by computer from a text prompt

The field of text-to-image generative art has been drawing investor dollars, and has been growing at an impressive pace, with lots of startups creating services using Stable Diffusion, Midjourney, Dall-E2 and ChatGPT. One notable investor newsletter called Antler has just released an introduction to the field and a map of what's out there.

My brief quote in the article is part of a longer Q and A that I did with the author. If you're interested in where my thoughts are at the moment, read on for the full interview, and I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments:

December 19, 2022

Thoughts about Generative AI or AI Art

Questions from Ollie Forsyth of Antler Investments


1. What impact does Generative AI have on you as a creator? 

Not much. I've tried Dall-E2, Stable Diffusion, and ChatGPT but the results for me always fall too far short of what I have in mind to create. I have very specific ideas in mind when I want to make a picture, and I get the best results and the most satisfaction from making my pictures with paint and brushes. I have always made my art with physical tools, and use digital tools for photography and video to document the process and the results.

That said, I'm watching what's happening with great interest. I'm truly inspired by the results other people are getting with the help of generative models. The people who consistently get the best results often have a computer coding background as well as an aesthetic sense. Is it “art?” Sure, why not? It definitely stimulates my imagination and the good stuff strikes me as original.

You often hear artists call AI image models as "tools," but AI is so much more than a tool. It's a creative partner, a synthetic genie, or an inspirational ally. It’s a weird feeling to acknowledge that a machine can be an able creative partner, with the human acting as a kind of midwife or helping.

But I'm 100% old school. For me, imagination is a basic human process, like eating or walking. I don't think I would feel fully human if I had to rely on such a system as a creative partner.

Image generated by computer from a text prompt

Is this a good thing or is it going to have a negative impact on creators?

There's a lot of good about generative AI in art. For one thing, there has been a huge surge in appreciation for surrealism and fantasy, because that's what it does best. I've seen a lot of images that are new and exciting. The potentials of the medium are almost limitless. But it’s also scary and threatening, especially to digital artists who are part of corporate entertainment pipelines, such as concept artists.

Many artists are concerned about Generative AI “scraping” copyrighted images in their training data. Others worry about it displacing artists. Some people are trying to stop it, or at least shape it.

I'm not worried about either of those issues because AI art for the most part alters and transforms its source material, just as humans do. An artist’s style can’t and shouldn’t be copyrightable.

I don’t feel threatened by AI Art. There's no way it can take away my livelihood because of where I'm positioned as a painter in gouache. Mostly what I do is share behind-the-scenes demos of plein-air sketching on YouTube. No way can AI ever replace that.

I've been in the art business for almost 45 years, through a lot of technological changes. My career has had plenty of highs and lows during that span and I've had to reinvent myself several times. I am concerned not only for emerging artists, but also most all digital artists (top of their game or not, it doesn't matter).

What I try to keep in mind is that AI represents both a threat and an opportunity. If we only focus only on the threat, it may kill our career. If we focus on the opportunity we might end up doing fine.

I would caution the alarmists to remember that applying some sort of digital rights management mechanism could have a chilling effect on the growth of this new art form, and end up helping the powerful entertainment corporations more than the little guys.

Looking a little further down the road into the future, I don't see any easy way around the pitfalls of potential misinformation, deep-faking, erosion of shared reality, and content moderation. Should we let people use these systems to create whatever they want? Should we ask the generative models to edit “dangerous” ideas at the level of generation or distribution? Who defines what is dangerous? Should the government define the limits of what we're allowed to imagine or should private companies do so? China is passing new laws requiring watermarking all AI works. Should other countries do that? What are the political ramifications? These are big societal questions.

The biggest negative impact from my point of view is an erosion of human hand-eye skills and a weakening of the artist's confidence in his or her own imagination. Just as the industrial revolution and the invention of the motorcar made us lazier and less physically active, the development of push-button creativity and synthetic writing partners will make us stupider, and dull our ability to dream. These are core human values, and the threat is very real.

Those concerns were at the forefront of concerns among my YouTube followers:

2. What are your most pressing concerns about the platforms?

By "platforms" I assume you mean generative AI models, such as Midjourney, Dall-E 2, and Stable Diffusion. The ease of creating images means that there has been such a cascade of computer generated images and videos that they've glutted many arenas of the art world: portfolio sites, art print markets, contests, and freelance illustrators. This leads to a cheapening of all the images, a dulling of appreciation, and a confusion about what's really created by humans. How do you run an art school when the students can solve any assignment with the push of a button?

People who worry about the threat of AI art focus on the production side, but we shouldn't forget about the distribution side. How will people consume these images, films, and writing? Remember that the prompt doesn't have to come only from the artist, creator or director. It can also come directly from the consumer, acting as individuals or as fan groups.

Imagine an AI video-generator with personal biofeedback input that creates hallucinatory music or video to suit your current mood. Or let's suppose you have online groups who love Japanese anime style. Their preferences can shape the generation of every video they see. They can watch custom editions of their favorite media or games output with their favorite anime style. Or they can watch shorter or longer versions of films, or films customized for whatever language they speak.

If the viewer and the generative model drive the entire creative process, there's really no need for an "artist" or "director" at all. The idea that a work of art or film exists fixed in a single form at the moment of creation and then finds its audience may be a quaint idea that many of us will outgrow as a culture.

The other big concern is that all these models are based on existing, previously manifested styles of art and photography rather than on the direct human response to nature itself. Therefore it is, by definition, "mannerist." In terms of Plato's Allegory of the Cave, we're talking about the realm of firelit shadows in the cave wall, not the light of the sun itself. Maybe someone will invent ambulatory robots exploring the real world, but without such empirical input, this will always be a profound limitation.

Image generated by computer from a text prompt

3. How will you be using Generative AI platforms? 

I won't condemn AI or vow never to use it, and I respect artists who choose to ally with computers to make art. This all didn't arrive out of the blue. Digital artists have been automating parts of their creative process for many years now, with 3D rendering, ray tracing, procedural effects, photobashing, etc. AI models have just moved the needle way beyond where it was.

Now, for anyone to succeed with generative AI, there's no halfway. They need to join the arms race, learn coding, train their models, learn about the secretive alchemy of prompt writing, and cultivate their awareness of past art styles.

It's a very different path from painting, drawing, and animating with physical materials. We all have to make our peace with the digital sphere. Even classical musicians playing original instruments use digital recording techniques and social media, and read their music off iPads in concerts.

4. Where is all this headed? Please provide examples.

AI art draws upon the collective unconscious of human expression to generate something new. Laws will be passed and new businesses will be formed that will shape the evolution. We will come to enjoy art forms that we can't currently imagine. Those forms may take market share away from traditional forms, just as the introduction of television took away from magazines and movies.

Because of the lack of friction to create these new art forms, there will be a lot of derivative junk out there. But let's assume we can develop algorithmic sorting techniques to allow the truly great stuff to surface. The art we'll see as a result of this technology will be surprising and fascinating. It will reflect many inputs: the prompter, the design of the generative model, the zeitgeist of the audience, and of the immensity of the dataset it draws from.

But as you think about generative computer models, don't forget that there's going to be a healthy backlash to the idea of handing off human creativity to computers. That cultural countermovement hasn't coalesced yet, but it will, and it will be powerful. What will this movement be called: the Human Agency? Hand-Eyes? H&H (Hearts and Hands)? Authentics? Analoggers? As David Sax has argued, the future is analog, or at least a healthy portion of it will be.

The invention of the internet a few decades ago was a boon for knitting and hand-lettering. In a similar way, the growth of AI and the decline of social media will be a powerful stimulus for such uber-traditional forms as face-to-face storytelling, on-location sketching, and recitation. Whatever it ends up being called, I plan to be part of that cultural countermovement.

--James Gurney
Revised slightly in 2024 to clarify a few points.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Memory of a Horse

 Fox and Landscape, Bruno Liljefors, oil, 1915

Swedish wildlife painter Bruno Liljefors said that in order to be successful at painting animals, an artist must have:

1. A love of nature and animals.

2. Great powers of observation.

3. The memory of a horse.

That last note needs some explanation, because it may translate better as a "long, deep, memory." 

Monday, December 19, 2022

Checkerboard Illusion

I painted this checkerboard using the exact same gray mixture for the dark square in the light area (A) as I did for the light square in the shadow (B).

 Why do the tones seem so different? 

 1. They have soft edges, and soft edges usually belong to shadows. 

 2. Those edges are parallel, and cast shadows from the sun on flat surface are parallel. 

 3. The tones of adjacent colored squares shift gradually in value to an equal degree, just the way shadows do.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Scene in Sauropolis

Pageant day in Sauropolis, 3” x 6” concept sketch

This little sketch was inspired by the architecture of state capitols in Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island, and by the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and the expositions in Paris, Saint Louis, and Philadelphia.

Friday, December 16, 2022

Sorolla's Working Method

In the year 1904, Joaquín Sorolla (Spanish, 1863-1923) produced nearly 250 works, which included sketches and finished paintings. 

His working method was documented by his friend Aureliano de Beruete:

"The execution of each work was preceded by a period of preparation in which, by means of several drawings or studies in color, whether of the whole or a detail, he tried to familiarize himself with the subject he wanted to represent with all the contrasts of light and color, with the proportions, form, and foreshortening of each figure and, finally, with the effects and the relationship of some tones with others.

"Once he had penetrated into all this, he placed his models in the right position and in the time and the light which the painting called for and he started working, without hesitation or changes.

"This is what gives his works painted out of doors their freshness, their spontaneity and their imponderable vigor of execution."

Quoted from the book  Joaquin Sorolla by Blanca Pons Sorolla

Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) on Wikipedia

Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Animal Art of Caroline Clowes

A group of cattle in a pastoral setting looks up, as if alarmed. What is bothering them?

The answer is visible at the far right of the composition, where a train fills the quiet landscape with noise and smoke. 

The painting was a response to the addition of an east-west train line through Dutchess County, New York. 

Caroline Clowes lived from 1838-1904, a life nearly coinciding with another animal painter, Rosa Bonheur. 

This exhibitor pass was what you needed to get into one of her exhibitions.

Now there's a free exhibition of original art by Caroline Clowes on view at the Samuel Morse estate in Poughkeepsie, New York through December 30, 2022.

Here's a video with more information.

More on Wikipedia.

Monday, December 12, 2022

A Helicopter in a Hurricane

What would it feel like for a helicopter to drop a boat into the sea during a raging storm?

I was involved in a sailing mishap on the San Francisco Bay during high winds that led to a Coast Guard helicopter rescue. And I've been in the open ocean in a small boat during a heavy wind. 

The wind wasn't quite this strong, and the waves not quite this high, but I built on my memories.

This was my first assignment for magazine illustration way back in 1983. 

The title is "Hurricane Claude," a novelette by Hilbert Schenck, published in 1983 by Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

An Improvisational Approach

In 2020, at the height of the pandemic experience, I painted my wife shopping at the market.

The painting process was looser and more improvisational than usual. 

If you haven't seen it, you might enjoy watching the video on YouTube.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

How Church Painted the Icebergs

In 1859,  American artist Frederic Church (1826-1900) commissioned a schooner to take him on a plein-air painting expedition to "Iceberg Alley," a dangerous region surrounding Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Church produced an impressive set of oil studies from observation to provide the raw material for his big studio painting of The Icebergs (later called "The North"), above. 

The big painting is now in the Dallas Museum of Art, but was lost for many years.

To commemorate that adventure, and to recognize the fragility of arctic landscapes, Frederic Church's estate Olana is hosting an exhibition called "Chasing Icebergs: Art and a Disappearing Landscape."

It's a small show, with Church's art occupying just one upstairs bedroom. Unfortunately the show doesn't include any of the paintings in this post, instead relying on notes and documentary information. But if you haven't toured the house of Olana, it's worth checking out.

Louis Noble, who accompanied Church on the expedition, noted that the artist had a bad case of sea sickness during most of the voyage, but he painted anyway, using a paintbox open on his lap. 

Noble said: “While I have been talking, the painter, who sits midship, with his thin, broad box upon his knees, making his easel of the open lid, has been dashing in the colors.”

Noble continues: “Again, the painter wipes his brushes, puts away his second picture, and tacks a fresh pasteboard within the cover of his box, and gives word to pull for the south-western side.”
Exhibition: Chasing Icebergs: Art and a Disappearing Landscape will be on view through March 26, 2023. Price of admission is $10.00.

Book: The quotes are from After Icebergs with a Painter by Louis Noble.

Book: The Voyage of the Icebergs: Frederic Church's Arctic Masterpiece by Eleanor Jones Harvey

Wikipedia: The Icebergs
Thanks, Ida Brier and Glenda Berman

Monday, December 5, 2022

Midwinter Greetings

Midwinter is fast approaching in Dinotopia. A light snowfall covers the boulevards in Sauropolis. Carolers sing from high up on their sauropod saddles.

This sketch is a little thank-you to all of you who follow and comment on this blog.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Sarah, a Potter

Sarah, a potter, painted while she was working. 

My goal in the first stages of the painting is to establish the big shapes with flat colors, as if it was a poster.


Saturday, December 3, 2022


Boatyard, plein-air study, gray markers and charcoal with white gouache.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Watching the Magic Show


Watching this guy trying to figure out the magic was better than the show itself.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Bukovac and his Scraps of Paper

"While he was teaching his girls at home, at the table, Vlaho Bukovac (Croatian, 1855-1922) used every piece of paper, newspaper and book to make sketches on. When the last piece of paper in sight had been used up, Bukovac would calmly continue, drawing on the napkins, tablecloth, everything that was white and could take the mark of a pencil. He most of all hated to have to interrupt his work, even to the extent of having to get up and look for a piece of paper."


Vlaho Bukovac on Wikipedia 

Quoted from the book Vlaho Bukovac: A Cosmopolitan Croatian

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Five Rules for Painting

If you keep these 5 things in mind, you'll paint faster and your paintings will be nicer to look at.

The BLAST Rule is one of many painting tips in my book Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist, which you can get signed with free shipping at my website store.

More on this previous post

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

How to Play Bucktail

To play bucktail, a Stegosaurus stands between two large mounds of straw. 
Each player in turn climbs on the tail and holds onto the spikes. 

The tail begins to wag back and forth until the player loses hold and tumbles safely into the straw.


Monday, November 28, 2022

Black Friar Pub

The Black Friar Pub in London.

I love the weird juxtaposition of elements. The wedge-shaped Art Nouveau landmark stands alone, surrounded by stark geometric forms from the postwar period.

I use two grades of graphite pencils, an HB and a 3B. I sharpened the soft pencil into a chisel tip, which helps with the treatment of the window details.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Square-Section Vehicles

Here's a good thing for vehicle designers to keep in mind: If it operates in traffic, it will have to fit inside a rectangular cross section.

A rectangular cross section maximizes the carrier's volume capacity. Any element that projects beyond the square boundary, such as mirrors, exhaust pipes or antennas, must be absolutely necessary, because it's prone to being broken off. 

Lane width and bridge height restrictions define the boundaries of the rectangle. Sometimes vehicle length constraints can affect vehicle shapes, especially for low speed designs where streamlining doesn't matter. 

The cab-over-engine design that was popular from the 1950s to the 1970s was a response to length restrictions. When those restrictions were relaxed and trucks could be made longer, cabovers became more unusual.

This principle applies not only to road vehicles, but also to rail traffic and to shipping, especially when it must traverse narrow sea lanes and canals. 

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Woods in Winter, Watercolor

Konstantin Kryzhitsky was one of the founders of the Society of Russian Watercolorists in 1880.

Konstantin Kryzhitsky (1858-1911) Gathering Branches in Winter, signed in Cyrillic and dated 'K. Kryzhitsky 1903.' 
(watercolor and gouache on paper 13¾ x 18½ in. (34.9 x 47 cm.)

 In this forest landscape, he uses blobs of white gouache for the active shapes of the snow on evergreen fronds and for the distant sky holes. Most of the tree trunks however are handled with transparent paint.