Gurney Journey | category: Miniatures


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.

Mountain Maquette

Mountain Maquette

Yesterday on Instagram I shared my painting "Palace in the Clouds," and some people asked: 
@martinez_lucas.psd What did you use for reference?
@marcbanks_ Is this completely from imagination?
@s.error_ Have you made a model to help in this scene?

Mountain Maquette
The answer is yes! 

For the mountain forms I draped a piece of plaster-impregnated burlap over some chunks of styrofoam, then made the buildings out of scraps of mat board hot-glued together. 

On top of all that I attached bits of white foam for the snow. Bringing that outside into the sunlight was a huge help for imagining the pattern of light and cast shadows.

How Do I Make a Posable Maquette?

Robert Post asks: "James, I need to build a maquette that is flexible to pose as a model for paintings. What material do you recommend? "

Robert, it depends how much flexibility you want. If you just need your maquette to flex a little, there's a kind of flexible Sculpey that bends a bit after curing.

If you really need a model that you can pose, you can use the build-up technique, using soft foam and latex, as shown in the video above.

The easiest way to make a skeleton is to use an aluminum armature, and you can bulk out the forms with foam, as with the simple robot maquette above.

That's more or less how I made the poseable skybax maquette (right).

Or if you want an exact shape with a smooth outer surface, you can sculpt, mold, and cast latex or silicon, but those processes are a lot more involved. Stop Mo Nick has some pretty good videos on this.

Bill Wiist asks: I am planning to build posable human maquettes. Have you done a blog on articulation, best materials to use, etc.

Bill, I haven't done a blog post about articulated joints yet. The simplest solution is to build your person or creature over an existing action figure by grinding away material and then adding what you want to add with Magic Sculpt.

If you want to build a posable figure from scratch, you can get a metal stop-motion armature or use the cheaper one made of plastic called a Modibot. (above, right)

Finally, the small artist manikins have gotten a lot better since the old "jointed wooden doll" era. For example, the Color LILIJ male and female manikins shown at right are quite realistic, and not as expensive as they used to be.

Evolution of a Picture, Part 3 of 4: Maquettes and Animals

Evolution of a Picture, Part 3 of 4: Maquettes and Animals
Ernest Meissonier, study for Friedland
This is Part 3 of a 1901 article called Evolution of a Picture: A Chapter on Studies by academy-trained Edgar Spier CameronYesterday's installment discussed studies, facial expression, and drapery. Today we look at maquettes and animals.

Evolution of a Picture, Part 3 of 4: Maquettes and Animals
Maquette by Meissonier
Part 3: Maquettes and Manikins
"Meissonier was so scrupulous in his drawing that he sometimes modeled his horses and sometimes his figures in wax from which to make his drawings.

"In a subject in which there are numerous figures, animals, or objects of similar size, the element of correct perspective is of great importance, and the grouping together of maquettes, or small models in wax or clay, makes it possible to avoid those errors which creep into the work of some of the greatest artists.

Evolution of a Picture, Part 3 of 4: Maquettes and Animals
Lord Frederic Leighton in his studio
"Sir Frederic Leighton frequently made use of the plan, and it is said that Detaille, in composing his battle scenes, arranges whole companies of pewter soldiers on a table on which the inequalities of the surface of the ground have been represented in various ways.

"Maquettes and manikins are of great service in composing decorative subjects when it is desired to show figures in unusual positions requiring violent foreshortening, as in flying, or in a perspective system such as is sometimes used in ceiling decoration, with a vanishing point in the air.

Evolution of a Picture, Part 3 of 4: Maquettes and Animals
Aimé Morot with the skin of a lion
Animals in Motion
"When animals are introduced into a picture many studies of them are necessary because of the great difficulty in securing a suitable pose or action, owing to their almost constant movement.

"In making studies of animal motion, many painters resort to the use of instantaneous photographs with the result that they frequently show movement too rapid to be observed by the human eye. In their efforts to avoid such solecism, artists have resorted to various devices to study the motions of the animals they paint.

Evolution of a Picture, Part 3 of 4: Maquettes and Animals
Aimé Morot
"Aimé Morot, who has painted some of the most spirited cavalry charges ever reproduced on canvas, was attached to the General Staff of the French army, and had all the horses and men he desired at his disposition. His favorite mode of study was to have horses ridden past him, and at a certain point he would give one quick glance at his models, close his eyes, and open them only when he had diverted his gaze to the white surface of the paper held in his lap on which he quickly jotted down the impression received. (See previous post: Morot's motion device)

Evolution of a Picture, Part 3 of 4: Maquettes and Animals
Horse study by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier
"Meissonier had a track built, along which he had himself propelled as horses were ridden along a parallel course. Another excellent way for an artist to gain an appreciation of a horse's movement is to see and feel it at the same time by riding the animal along a wall in sunlight and observing its shadow."

Editor's note: The author is muralist and critic Edgar Spier Cameron (1862-1944) from Chicago. He studied at the Art Students League in New York and the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His teachers were Dewing, Inness, Cabanel, Lefebvre, Boulanger, Laurens, and Benjamin-Constant.

Evolution of the Picture, Part 2: Studies and Drapery
Morot's motion device

You can find more about these methods in my book Imaginative Realism.
Ernest Meissonier exhibition catalog.
Frederic Leighton Abrams book.

Sources and More Info:
Evolution of a Picture: A Chapter on Studies by Edgar Cameron in Brush and Pencil Magazine
Vol. 8, No. 3 (June, 1901), pp. 121-133

Is Mount Rushmore Unfinished?

The original design for Mount Rushmore showed far more of the figures, as suggested by this preliminary maquette. 

I have digitally superimposed the actual carvings of the faces over the maquette. Susan B. Anthony was supposed to be included, too.

But by 1941, federal funding was cut back, and the sculptor, Danish-American Gutzon Borglum, died of a heart attack while the work was still being carved.

This video has aerial shots that show more of the setting.

(Link to video) Video by Smithsonian.

Read more about the design history of the monument at

Trust the Process

I always remind myself: "Trust the process."

Step 1: Research. I study the scientist's papers, look at photos of the fossils, and compare animals in our world that might serve as analogues.

Anchiornis sketches
Step 2: Thumbnails. I sketch these preliminaries with watercolor, gouache, colored pencil and fountain pen. I do these from imagination, pretending I'm watching the animals go through a series of actions. What is the moment to capture?

On some level I'm also aware of 2D design issues, but I'm really trying to project myself into the moment. I try to think of my sketch as a window rather than a piece of paper. 

Sometimes the first sketch is the best. Sometimes a discovery happens later. You will never know until you try a lot of variations. I don't get too attached to any of them.

Maquette made of paper over armature wire,
bulked out with epoxy putty, and painted in acrylic.
Step 3. Once the art director and I agree on the best sketch, I try to recreate in physical form the conditions of the sketch, to see if it works out spatially and dimensionally. 

This stage is where all the unexpected surprises arrive to add conviction to the idea—for example the dappled light on the tree and the cast shadow on the visible foot.

Step 4. Then it's on to the finish in oil. Check out the video below if you haven't seen it already.

Step 5. Make a Documentary Video. It's the age of social media, so there's more work to do. Creating a video is the final part of the job. Of course it's not officially commissioned. There's no budget for making a behind-the-scenes video. An outside crew could never get the personal angle that the artist himself or herself can get.

But I like to do this when I can because it helps the magazine reach more readers. We illustrators need to do everything we can to help our print partners win.
Previous post: How to Video Your Art
Book about the process: Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist
Link to YouTube video for this painting
The painting appears in the March issue of Ranger Rick

A Dinosaur Takes Wing

Although a scene like this would have taken place 160 million years ago, I want the image to look like it was captured yesterday by a wildlife photographer's camera.

Anchiornis in Flight
It appears in Ranger Rick, a magazine dominated by wildlife photography. So I blur the background to suggest depth of field. I spotlight the action with an area of soft dappled light cast from the tree behind us.

The following 1-minute video gives a glimpse of the process.

(Link to Facebook video)

I make the paper-over-wire maquette by photocopying a flat plan drawing of the animal two times onto card stock. Then I make a glue sandwich with aluminum armature wire in the place of the bones. Then I bulk up the maquette with epoxy putty.

Here's an 8 minute video on YouTube of all three dinosaur paintings for the March issue of Ranger Rick Magazine.

(Link to YouTube video)

Tennessee man builds Dinotopia in miniature

Tennessee man builds Dinotopia in miniature
Photos by Jack Vance of the Johnson City Times
Bill Lankford, 78, of Johnson City, Tennessee, built this amazing miniature of Dinotopia.

He worked on the 12-foot-long creation for over a year. It includes stairways, bridges, canals inspired by scenes from Waterfall City, Pooktook, and Sauropolis. 

Tennessee man builds Dinotopia in miniature

His wife Linda helped him by sculpting over 100 humans and dinosaurs using epoxy sculpting compound

Tennessee man builds Dinotopia in miniature.
The miniature world has been packed up and shipped to Taipei to be exhibited in the Miniatures Museum of Taiwan.

Feature article about Lankford's Dinotopia miniature.

Using maquettes to experiment with lighting

One of the first things you can do after sculpting a maquette is to rotate the maquette to see how the silhouette and the foreshortening actually look. Here's an excerpt of my tutorial video "How I Paint Dinosaurs." (Link to watch video on Facebook).

It's easy to explore variations in lighting, too. By moving the light from one side to the other, I can completely change the value organization and the way the elements read. I can also discover cast shadows that I never would have imagined.

I start by trying to match my sketch, and then I look for ways to improve on it, as in the case of this illustration of a Teratophoneus attacking a fallen Gryposaurus for Scientific American Magazine. 

I do the first two sketches out of my imagination, then do the third one after looking at the maquettes. The shadow side dark predator frames the light head of the prey.

I can also fine tune the lighting on a given element.

It's important to be open to any possibility that makes for a better picture. And in the case of a physical maquette, those possibilities often arrive completely unexpectedly.

To get the full, detailed presentation on video, check out my Gumroad tutorial: How I Paint Dinosaurs.

Mountain MaquetteHow Do I Make a Posable Maquette?Evolution of a Picture, Part 3 of 4: Maquettes and AnimalsIs Mount Rushmore Unfinished?Meissonier's MaquettesTrust the ProcessA Dinosaur Takes WingTennessee man builds Dinotopia in miniatureBoarCroc MaquetteUsing maquettes to experiment with lighting

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