Two days ago, a German reporter named Christian Schlierkamp interviewed me.
Christian SCHLIERKAMP: During your career you have been working in such different fields as book cover illustration, on animated films like Frank Frazetta/Ralph Bakshi’s “Fire and Ice,” you celebrated the outstanding success of your Dinotopia books, which also have been turned into a TV series, and you give lectures for creative professionals (e.g. at DreamWorks Animation SKG and Lucasfilm, Ltd).
What in your perspective has changed within the field of visual art in general and for the artists and the requirements on them compared to 20/25 years ago?
JAMES GURNEY: The most obvious change in the last two decades is the emergence of digital tools, both in illustration and in filmmaking. Although I work in traditional oil paints, I find this new technology very interesting, particularly the breakthroughs in 3D modeling, lighting, and animation, because it has brought about a renaissance of new understanding of the visual world. It has brought artists together with physicists and mathematicians to better understand such things as subsurface scattering, caustics, occlusion shadows, and particle behavior. All of these new insights have influenced me, even though I work entirely in traditional media.
But I think your question touches on another, and perhaps less obvious change. Emerging forms of digital distribution offer artists new ways to market and promote their work.
These tools have given artists a lot of choices for how to use their talents. If they enjoy working collaboratively on a large enterprise like a film or a video game, there are huge opportunities. The term “concept artist“ didn’t exist when I was in art school. But artists can also work alone to write, illustrate, and design their own illustrated stories, graphic novels, or even animated films, and connect with the readers before the works are published.
CS: Considering platforms like “Deviant Art“ or “Conceptart.org,” in which artists seem to produce outstanding artwork en masse every day, one provokingly may ask: is there still a demand for illustration/imaginative artwork and what does this mean for the individual artist of today?
JG: I can’t say too much about those forums simply because I don’t have enough time online to be able to explore them, but I realize they’re a rich resource for both emerging artists and professionals.
People are hungrier than ever for images from the imagination. Imaginative artwork is healthier than ever today. The most successful exhibit in recent years at the American Society of Illustrators was the Spectrum exhibition. Most young people have grown up loving comics, games, science fiction, and fantasy, so it’s not going away soon.
CS: In your first instructional book on illustration, “Imaginative Realism – How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist” you give an extensive overview, drawing from the treasure trove of the Golden Age of illustrators as well as providing a generous insight into your personal methods and experiences, on how to create imaginative artwork in an encompassing way that I didn’t find in such form yet – will there be further publications after “Color and Light?” What was your initial starting point/motivation to go for a “how to”-book?
Yes, there will be more books after Color and Light, including another art-instruction book, sketchbooks, and new illustrated fantasies along the lines of Dinotopia. I’m also keenly interested in video, e-book, and app formats, so I will find at least a little bit of time on the side to develop those ideas.
To answer your second question, like a lot of artists in my generation, I found that art school didn’t answer all the questions that were burning in my mind. I was hungry for certain chunks of information, and I could never find it, so I wrote the books to answer all those questions.
To research those books, I drew not only from my own direct experience, but also on that of the older mentors I encountered, such as the classic illustrator Tom Lovell. I also researched out-of-print art instruction books from 50 and 100 years ago, which was like a window into the distant past. Imaginative Realism reached within the last six months the #1 position on Amazon.com in the categories of both art instruction and painting, Color and Light, not released yet, is already on #3, only through pre-orders! How do you explain this success and was it surprising for you?
Completely unexpected, both for me and the publisher! There are so many good books on art instruction out there, especially about drawing the figure, or painting a landscape, or rendering a still life. I didn’t want to repeat what has already been said. But as I looked at the available books, I realized there were gaps, and those pieces of missing information were what I wanted to offer. Surprisingly few books systematically explored the question of making a realistic picture of a subject from fantasy or history. That was the subject of my first book.
Concerning “Color and Light” – one might say the two most fundamental themes of art. I was skimming through the archive of your blog “Gurney Journey“ and found as well a lot of theoretical knowledge as practical examples – what can we expect of this book? Can you give us a brief overview? What are it’s essentials/what was most important for you ?
As I assembled the first volume, Imaginative Realism, I realized that the information on color and light was so extensive that I decided it required a second volume.
I was interested in reaching four groups of readers:
1. Artists of all media interested in a traditional realist approach.
2. Fantasy and science fiction artists, illustrators, and concept artists.
2. Non-artists who are curious about the workings of the visual world.
3. Collectors and and fans of my artwork, making sure to introduce all new artwork compared to what we saw in the last book.
Here’s what the book contains: The book begins with a survey of historic masters who used color and light in interesting ways. It then examines the various sources of light, and we look at how light creates the illusion of three-dimensional form. The middle chapters cover the basic properties of color as well as an introduction to paint and pigments.
Then I present the method I use for color planning called gamut mapping. The later chapters of the book deal with specific challenges that we face when we wish to portray surfaces like hair and foliage, together with detailed information about the infinitely varied phenomena of atmospheric effects. The book ends with a glossary, a pigment index, and a bibliography.
The book does not contain recipes for mixing colors or step-by-step painting procedures. It is not overly technical, but it deals authoritatively with the topic. I also spared the reader some of the extremely technical discussions that are hard to follow unless you’re a physicist. Instead I wanted to keep the text brief enough so the artwork could be reproduced large. And I wanted to offer practical observations that painters can really use. I have already heard from art teachers that it will used as a textbook in art schools and I hope it will be a standard studio reference for many kinds of artists.
Of what I got from your blog, stronger than in “Imaginative Realism,” you seem to focus in your new book on plein-air studies; in “Imaginative Realism“ you promote as well a classic approach to using plein-air studies, charcoal studies from life models as well as from nature whilst the modern digital painter oftentimes is used to working mainly with photo references he loads into his painting software. Why are studies from life so important? What is the difference to working with photo references and is this approach achievable within today’s fast-moving industry (be it book publishing/editorial artwork or conceptual design for the film- and game industry)?
The best way to answer that question is to show you a page from the book which shows the comparison of photographed and observed reality.
Working from imagination and from observation are indispensible to each other. I couldn’t paint from my imagination for very long without needing to go outdoors, and I couldn’t paint from observation exclusively. And yes, it’s achievable to work from life in this fast-moving world. A charcoal study from the model only takes fifteen minutes. But I also love spending three hours or more doing a careful oil study from observation.
Contrary to many modern art schools you do not promote to go for an individual/“personal“ style. Can you explain why?
You’re right. I think it’s a mistake to dwell on developing a personal style, especially for a student, because sometimes the style gets in the way of really seeing. Also, any style eventually becomes tired and stale, but truth to nature is timeless. In my view, students especially, but also working professionals, should keep studying the world around them with close observation. It’s natural and good for young artists to model their pictures after those of other artists as a path to mastery. But I prefer my heroes to be dead, and I’ve always tried to study many different ones, not just one.
In the afterword of IR you quote American painter Harvey Dunn, who said: “The only thing that’s true about anything is the spirit of it,” concluding the book by saying: “Art that lives in the memory and stands the test of time mixes earthiness with mystery, containing both a fistful of clay and a feather from an angel’s wing.” What in your point of view is essential for good art in general and is there something you can share to young up-striving artists?
I can’t speak for what is “good art“ because I love many different kinds of art which are based on different starting premises. But I have always been interested in a painting where the surface seems to disappear and I feel I can live inside the scene I’m painting. There’s a Latin quote that I have wood-burned onto my mahl stick. It says: “Ars est celare artem.” I picked it up from an artist named James Perry Wilson, who painted the illusionistic diorama backdrops in the American Museum of Natural History. It translates: “True art is the concealment of artifice.” It’s easy to make a painting look like paint, but it’s much harder to make a painting that pulls in viewers so completely that they feel the heat of sun on their neck and the sand in their shoes.
Art is more than illusionism, of course. What really matters to me in the end is to what extent a given work connects the visible world with the world of dreams and emotions. Many different modes of art can achieve that goal, but what excites me is art that does so by being sensitive both to the visual world around us, and the sea of mystery inside us. The inner eye and the outer eye inspire each other.
Interview by Christian Schlierkamp