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Gurney Journey

This daily weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You'll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums.

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My Favorite How-To Books

A good how-to book is like a time machine that transports you right into the studios of the great artists of the past.

Here’s a list of my favorites. These are the ones I keep returning to for inspiration. They’re packed with insight and information from masters who knew their craft and were good at explaining it. We’re lucky that people like Norman Rockwell and Andrew Loomis took time out to write down not just their techniques, but the thinking behind their working practice.


My Favorite How-To Books
Some of these books are available free online. Some are still in print in book form and are cheap and easy to get; others cost an arm and a leg, but they’re all worth seeking out.

The Practice and Science of Drawing by Harold Speed, 1917. Sensible overview of drawing and composition from a teacher who painted very well in the academic manner. Also The Practice and Science of Painting by the same author. Both are in print from Dover in inexpensive editions.

The Enjoyment and Use of Color by Walter Sargent, 1923. Also from Dover, a solid presentation of color theory as it applies to the actual practice of painting.

Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, 1981. This is the bible for animators, but there’s so much on composition, design, and characterization that every illustrator should have a copy, too. Written by two of Disney’s classic “nine old men” who have generously downloaded much of their vast knowledge, with hundreds of great examples dug out of the Disney archives.

Creative Illustration by Andrew Loomis, 1946. In one volume, the best instruction by a master of painterly illustration from the Chicago school. Loomis has absorbed lessons of design from Howard Pyle, as well as painting and drawing principles from Sargent and Zorn. In a cheery tone, he works through the laws of line, tone, edges, and storytelling in a way that makes solid sense for any painter or illustrator. Loomis’s books on figure drawing and head drawing are also excellent. There’s a website and another dedicated to saving this material.

The Famous Artists Course, by Rockwell, Al Dorne, Parker and others. Started around 1950, this set of four binders was originally a correspondence course, but the lessons still apply today. The instruction breaks down storytelling illustration into topics about figure drawing, design, and composition from the great American magazine illustrators. Not particularly strong on painting and color. Get the sets from the mid-50s; the quality of instruction suffers later. The book Rockwell on Rockwell from Watson Guptill is based on Rockwell’s own lessons for the Famous Artists School, and gives you the core of his teaching. Also the book Norman Rockwell, Illustrator by Arthur Guptill has an appendix that outlines his method.

The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century by Albert Boime, 1971. Not a how-to book so much as a scholarly reconstruction of the methods and thinking used in the French academies, including their unique terminology for painting. Several books have talked about the academies in a sort of vague art-historical way, but this one really lays out the actual practice that was used in the classrooms.

I'd love to hear about your encounters with any these books, or recommendations of your own favorite how-to books.

Mirror Studies

Over the next week or so, I’ll be doing a few posts about models and posing, so I thought I'd start with the most mega-retro method.

A great way to get reference for a painting a character is to pose yourself in front of a mirror and make a charcoal study on tone paper. I learned this method from Tom Lovell, whose work I have always admired. There’s a full-length mirror mounted on a piano hinge on my studio wall just for this purpose. I set up the drawing paper on an easel and act out the pose, sketching a little at a time.

Mirror Studies
A few years ago, I needed to create the character of a warrior riding an armored dinosaur. I took the pose myself, wearing a wig and scowling in front of the mirror. During a break I forgot to take off the wig, much to the amusement of FedEx man, who chose that moment to come by the house.

Mirror Studies
Here's a detail of the final painting, which appeared as a gatefold in Nintendo Power magazine to announce the Dinotopia GameBoy game “Timestone Pirates.”

Mirror Studies
This picture of Will Denison from Dinotopia was also based on a mirror study. Even if you’re not exactly the right type for the character you’re portraying, you can make plenty of little adjustments. What you’re looking for is the basic action of the pose, something to begin with.

Mirror StudiesThe final painting appeared in Dinotopia: The World Beneath.

Artists have worked from mirror studies for centuries, and it’s still a viable method as long as the pose is possible to hold for a while. It's just about as fast as shooting scrap. Although in recent years I refer to photos a lot more than I used to, I still like working from drawn studies when I can, because they give me only the information I need, unlike photographs, whose details can be compellingly seductive.

Reverse Atmospheric Perspective

We’re all familiar with the principle that warm colors advance and cool colors recede.

Reverse Atmospheric PerspectiveThis picture of West Point from a few miles away is a good example of the way the warm colors tend to drop out in the distance, and the darks become progressively lighter and cooler.

Reverse Atmospheric Perspective
But in wonderful, rare instances, the rule is reversed, and the whole scene gets warmer as it goes back. This happens when moist vapors or dust clouds hover in the air near sunrise or sunset. You have to be looking directly toward the sun to see it. The color of bright or white objects, like the sun itself, becomes increasingly orange-colored as it recedes, because the blue wavelengths are subtracted out of it. I took this photo recently in the Catskills--no filters or Photoshop whatsoever. The effect lasted only a short time.

Reverse Atmospheric Perspective
This painting, called “Light on the Water,” from Journey to Chandara, explores this strange phenomenon. The foreground is actually cooler than the distance. The light of the setting sun spills out into the surrounding atmosphere, warming the outlines of the towers in the distance. The vertical bar of reflected light in the water melts the silhouettes of the boaters and swimmers nearby.

Reverse Atmospheric Perspective
In my clipping file I have a folder of photos with a variety of atmospheric color progressions. Some of these might have been manipulated by filters or image processing. When I'm painting, I also refer to my own plein air studies, and if you're interested I can show you some more of those in future.

The Hudson River School masters Sanford Gifford and Frederic Church loved to work with the effect that I call "reverse atmospheric perspective." I believe they were influenced less by the sort of technical analysis of light that we're familiar with than by the vision of writers like Goethe and Emerson who expressed the poetic idea of light as a “consuming celestial fire” having the power, as Emerson put it, “to burn until it shall dissolve all things into the waves and surges of an ocean of light.”

Speed Blur

Here’s a painting of Will Denison that appears near the beginning of Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara. It follows a finicky establishing shot of Waterfall City. The idea was to grab the reader with fast movement.

Speed Blur
Maybe you’re like me, and you love to stop-frame DVDs during fast action sequences (drives some people crazy). I got this idea by frame-grabbing during scenes where the camera is tracking a fast-flying object through tight spaces. The whole background blurs radially from the vanishing point along the path of movement. The blur gets more extreme toward the edges of the picture. Forms closest to the “camera” blur the most. Only the edges perpendicular to the movement get the blur treatment; the ones running along the path of action stay sharp.

Yeah, I know there are Photoshop and 3D programs that can create this effect, but I wanted to do it the “inconvenient” way with good old oil paint. I laid in the whole scene wet-into-wet, and swooshed the edges with a white nylon blender.

Character Maquettes

I’ll wrap this "maquette miniseries" with the best known kind—the character maquette. Whether the character is human or animal, exaggerated or realistic, animators and illustrators use maquettes to stay “on model” with a character even in weird angles or light situations.

Character Maquettes
I made this bust of the explorer Arthur Denison because I couldn't find a real person with exactly the features I was looking for. I used Sculpey modeling compound, which can be shaped like clay and then baked hard in the oven.

Character Maquettes
With a maquette in front of your drawing table, you can experiment hundreds of different combinations.

Character Maquettes
You can also accessorize the maquette with a hat, turban, or whatever. The head on the right is a simplified “plane head” that I sculpted based on the anatomy teacher George Bridgman’s analysis of form. The plane head helps me to see the head’s basic construction without getting distracted by the features. The head is mounted on a flexible metal tube from the hardware store, which allows you to tilt the head to any angle you want.

Character MaquettesHere’s one of the paintings that used these maquettes for reference.

Maquettes for Architecture

Yesterday’s post took a look at a few methods for making quick maquettes for landscape forms like snow and sand. Maquettes are also a big help for painting architecture, because they give you those little accidental effects of lighting and texture that you would never dream up. In this post I’ll share some studio tricks for architectural maquettes.


This model, which I made for a painting in the first Dinotopia book, is constructed from plaster-soaked burlap for the mountain forms, and mat board for the buildings, assembled with a hot glue gun. The whole thing is coated with gesso and colored with acrylic.


This corner of Waterfall City has about four days of work in it. It served as reference for several different paintings in The World Beneath and Chandara. It's made from cardboard, styrofoam, and two-part epoxy putty for the sculptural details. The original maquette is currently on view in the Dinotopia exhibition at the Los Angeles Public Library.


I made this little model for a painting of Chandara, but I’ve had it kicking around the studio, and I’ve used it in other ways. Here the light is tinted with a blue gel to suggest moonlight. The rough texture in the foreground is the broken surface of the styrofoam. I took the photo with a digital SLR set to a high f-stop and a long time exposure to give it maximum depth of field. Printed out on paper, the photo was one of many that provided a starting point for a painting of the desert city of Khasra in the new book. The trees are bits of dried moss from my backyard.
This 45-minute clay maquette also helped with Khasra. It shows how quick and loose an architectural maquette can be and still give you plenty of lighting information. Note the beautiful light bouncing into the shadows on the right side. The shadows on the tower on the extreme right are much darker because they lack reflected light. That's the kind of information I'm interested in.


The arch here is hot-glued from foam-core and mat board, with domes of styrofoam balls. I coated the structure with gesso and modeling paste and painted it in acrylic. I set up the model alongside toy wooden blocks as a kind of 3-D sketch for the marketplace scene below. A miniature set like this can be placed under an artificial spotlight or outdoors in direct sunlight.

The silver Christmas tree ball provides a record of the entire surrounding light environment. You need this information to really understand the combined effects of various light sources on any given object in the scene. If you look closely at the reflection in the silver ball you can see the arched window and skylights of my studio, and my own dome behind the camera. If the photo had been taken in outdoor light, the light effects would be slightly different, and so would the reflection in the silver ball.


Many of these methods of using miniatures are low-budget home versions of techniques used in the film special effects industry. They really don’t take much time—you can build and shoot a model in half a day—but they yield great dividends in your final results.

Landscape Maquettes

How would you go about painting a realistic scene of a sand dune or a snowy mountaintop? Short of scouting real locations, you might browse through stacks of photos of the Sahara Desert or the Himalayas. I tried that, but came up short. There was a specific composition and lighting idea that I had in mind for each scene and I couldn’t find anything like it.

I knew that if I tried to invent the whole thing from my storyboard sketch, it wouldn’t be convincing, because the key to realism is lighting. Whenever I base a painting on a real form in real light, I notice little accidents of truth that I could never imagine.

Landscape Maquettes
Artists (and animation studios) often use maquettes, or reference models, but they’re typically created only for characters or vehicles. Maquettes are just as useful for landscape elements. Maxfield Parrish collected jagged rocks, which he photographed as reference for his rocky mountainscapes.Landscape MaquettesFor the sand dune painting I used a light tan modeling clay, or plasticene, warmed up in the oven and shaped into a dune. I then arranged a small plastic model of a Brachiosaurus and photographed them both in the same lighting condition.
Landscape MaquettesThe combination of references gave me what I needed to paint “Skeleton Dune.”

Landscape MaquettesTo create a maquette for a snow-covered mountain, I made a rough base from styrofoam, then draped some plaster-impregnated burlap over the base. I then built up a very rough model of an alpine castle from modeling clay and cardboard.

Landscape Maquettes
This was the work of no more than three hours--and I threw it out when it was finished--but it gave me the information I needed for the painting “Thermala: Alpine Hideaway” in Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara.

Hog Heaven for a RetroGeek

When you give a talk at the Library of Congress, they don’t pay you with money. They reward you something far more valuable. Your compensation is to have their researchers dig whatever gems you would like to see out of their collection of 134 million items.

Hog Heaven for a RetroGeekSome years ago a Dinotopia fan and Library staffer named Sirikanya Schaeffer invited me there to speak and asked me what I would like to see afterward. I told her I was dying to look at some original Nineteenth century explorer’s journals like those of Arthur Denison. I also asked to study a few of the handwriting primers from the first half of the 19th Century, the kind of thing they would use to teach writing in one-room schoolhouses more than 150 years ago.

Hog Heaven for a RetroGeek
The researchers covered two large tables with jaw-dropping specimens, and let us very carefully turn the pages. There were delicate little watercolors of people getting haircuts in China in the 1840s. And there were gorgeous examples of lettering guidebooks showing the standard Copperplate and Roundhand alphabets for the aspiring penman. For a bookworm and retro-maniac like me, this was hog heaven, and it was one of the key inspirations for Journey to Chandara.

Please post a comment: What would YOU choose to see at the Library of Congress?

Diluvium IV at Oshkosh

Here’s a sneak peek at one of the surprises that will be unveiled at the “Return to Dinotopia” exhibition at the Oshkosh Public Museum in Wisconsin. The exhibit opens November 3rd, 2007, with over 40 paintings from Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara.

Diluvium IV at Oshkosh
Oshkosh museum exhibit technician Bill Radig has build three different miniature scenes, including the “Diluvium Model IV,” which was described on this blog August 18-24.


Diluvium IV at Oshkosh
According to the museum’s assistant director Mike Breza, the model “was created by using pre-existing dinosaur figures, casting and modifying human figurines, fabricating the saurian turn-out gear as well as construction from scratch on the building. A high level of detail went into the miniature in order to bring to life, in a small way, one bit of Dinotopia. The miniatures might go up for sale at the end of the exhibit to help benefit the Oshkosh Public Museum."

For more information, contact Mike Breza at mbreza@ci.oshkosh.wi.us.
My Favorite How-To BooksMirror StudiesReverse Atmospheric PerspectiveSpeed BlurCharacter MaquettesMaquettes for ArchitectureLandscape MaquettesHog Heaven for a RetroGeekDiluvium IV at OshkoshPopcorn Dogs

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