Gurney Journey | category: Preliminary Sketches | (page 4 of 8)


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.

Jacob’s Questions

I’m not usually able to answer art-related questions that are emailed to me offline—there just isn’t time. But once in a while, I can tell someone has really been grappling with a challenge. He or she has read the books and blog material, and they still have some interesting questions that others might relate to.

So here are the questions of Jacob Cook, a high school student, along with my answers. And I’ll bet you get more answers and resources in the comments.

Jacob’s Questions1. I know from your books and your blog that you make use of photographic reference in your large-scale paintings that involve humans - for example, this type of painting: "Warrior Woman." But of course, that's not the whole story - to make a painting like that requires that you place the figures in an invented space, and do it convincingly. How do you approach that task? How do you give your figures a sense of weight and dimensionality within a scene?

The key to making multi-figure scenes is to practice drawing compositions from imagination and observation, so that when you need to create a large-scale painting, you can take it pretty far entirely out of your head. After you’ve done that, you can call in the models and use photography if you want. (“Warrior Woman” was done from life studies but no photography.) Either way, let your imaginative idea guide the process.

Getting weight in figures comes from thinking about the force of gravity when you do your figure drawing. Take the pose yourself, and you’ll know things you miss when just looking at it. Dimensionality comes from a solid understanding of perspective, form modeling, and optics.

Jacob’s Questions

2. How much anatomical knowledge do you possess? Do you have what could be called a working knowledge of the body, or have you learned about the body at a deeper level, like the names of the bones and muscles? I ask because I'm getting to be very interested in the technical details of the human body. I've been filling sketchbooks with studies of the skeleto-muscular system, and I even bought a life-sized model skeleton to study from. I'm wondering how much of that sort of thing you've done.

I’m not really an expert on anatomy compared to some of my friends. But when I was a student I went through the standard figure texts: especially Bridgman, Peck, Vanderpoel, and Loomis. I copied a lot of the plates and learning the names of the major bones and muscles. Doing copies is a good path to understanding. The next level is to sculpt a figure from the skeleton outward, muscle by muscle. Some of the academies, such as Grand Central Academy, offer such training, and that way the knowledge really gets into your hands.

I was like you as an art student. I bought a miniature plastic skeleton, a real human skull, and a bunch of plaster casts. I also recommend purchasing a couple good ecorché figures and placing them near you in your studio when you’re puzzled over something.

3. If you're making a quick sketch of a human figure, which elements do you make sure to draw first? Which parts of the figure are essential in conveying the action of the pose? Is it the head and spine? The ribcage and pelvis? Some combination, or something I haven't thought of? Is this even the right question to be asking?

Yes, it’s definitely the right question, but I don’t think there’s a hard and fast answer to any these questions, and I don’t follow any single system, because sometimes I try to think like an animator, sometimes like a painter, and sometimes like a caricaturist. Different schools of the figure will give you different approaches, and I think you should learn them all.

Some schools concentrate on the movements of the spine and skeletal frame, others look for rhythmic gesture lines running through the whole pose, others look for contours which sweep inside the form and pick up other contours. A painter who thinks primarily tonally will look for movement and linking of tonal shapes first and foremost. If there’s a general principle, it’s to start with the big and the simple, and progress toward the smaller details.

4. In the People chapter of Imaginative Realism, you show examples of preliminary life drawings next to the finished product. But they're never exactly the same; some limb is in a different place, or the head is turned a different way. What does it take to do that with confidence? Knowledge of anatomy? Prior experience drawing such poses?

The figure studies in that chapter are works in progress--that’s why they’re not overly finished. They’re like a rough draft. You can’t get married to any idea at that stage. Often when it comes to placing a figure into the final composition, there will be a problem with how the figure overlaps with another element in the scene. Sometimes you might simplify the drapery or you might exaggerate the pose a bit more. Everything gets changed and revised all the way to the finish. Drawing the figure as a means to an end rather than an end in itself is incredibly liberating. It gives a drive and a purpose to figure drawing that guides all of your choices.

Great questions, Jacob. They show a lot of thought on your part, and I wish you well.

Previously: Ecorche,
Anatomy of the Ear
On Amazon: Vanderpoel, Loomis, Peck, Bridgman

Sickle Cell Stamp, Part 1

Tomorrow, the National Institute of Health will host a symposium discussing sickle cell disease. On display at the gathering will be the original oil painting I produced for the 2004 U.S. Postal Service stamp commemorating the disease.

Today and tomorrow I’ll tell the story of the making of that stamp.

Sickle Cell Stamp, Part 1
Over the years the U.S. Postal Service has released stamps designed to help raise awareness about health issues. When the Stamp Committee decided on a stamp recognizing sickle cell disease and asked me to design it, I was honored to take on the challenge.

I knew it would not be easy to visualize an incurable hereditary blood disease in a way that would be inviting and interesting. The image that comes readily to mind when people think of sickle cell disease is a microscope slide showing the elongated red blood cells alongside normal round cells.

Sickle Cell Stamp, Part 1

The credit for the design solution belongs to veteran art director Howard Paine, who suggested portraying the scene in universal human terms. Because the disease or the trait is passed down from parent to child, he proposed showing a parent’s love for her baby. Why not show a mother and a child interacting with love and affection? The message then becomes a positive one, reminding at-risk parents to test early to find out whether they carry the gene.

I sketched up several different design ideas in color. The most successful version shows the mother holding up her year-old child in profile and giving him a kiss. The committee approved the design (sans microscope slide) and gave me the go-ahead.
In part 2, I describe how I went from the roughs to the finished art.
Sickle Cell Conference at the NIH Campus in Bethesda, MD, Nov. 16 and 17
Wikipedia on Sickle Cell Disease


Here’s the preliminary line drawing for a Dinotopia painting called “Flight Past the Falls.” I did it on a separate piece of paper, photocopied it, and transferred it to the canvas with an Artograph projector.

Draw-ThroughThe rider on the pterosaur was drawn on a separate layer of paper and moved around until I got the position I wanted.

What I want you to notice is the “draw through,” which means the lines carried across to invisible parts of the form. For example:
1. Circular curve of the bottom half of the globe.
2. Chest of pterosaur hidden by wing.
3. Eye level or horizon hidden behind falls.
4. Curvature of Moorish arch hidden by the flanking buttresses.

Note also the centerline markings on the globe, and the winged sculpture. Also note the perspective grid on the side of the drawing.

Draw-through helps you keep track of what the form is doing when it slips behind something else. If you work out the draw-through on a separate piece of paper from the finished work you don’t have to worry about erasing the lines or covering them up.

You can apply the draw-through principle to figure drawing or any drawing, especially in the early stages. It will make your final drawing or painting more solid and convincing. When an architect draws a building elevation, she knows where the windows and doors are located on the back side of the building.
Earlier GJ post about the skybax model and the finished image.

Baby Mammoth

Let's return to that series of paleo reconstructions for next month's Ranger Rick magazine.

Baby Mammoth You may have heard about that amazingly well preserved baby mammoth named Lyuba that was found two years ago in the Russian arctic.

Scientists studying her frozen tissues speculate that she was healthy before falling into a stream and drowning.

Baby Mammoth I wanted to show her with her mother near the water's edge. Her mother's trunk reaches over her to protect her, as modern elephants do. This concept sketch was drawn out of my head. It was done with water-soluble colored pencils, ink-filled water-brush, and fountain pen.

Tomorrow I'll show how I went from this sketch to the finished painting.

Gryposaurus, Part 1

Today we continue the behind the scenes look at the new paintings for the October issue of Ranger Rick magazine.

Gryposaurus, Part 1 The next creature I needed to visualize was a duck-billed dinosaur called a Gryposaurus (and I misspelled the name). As you can see from my colored pencil sketch, I wasn't too sure what the forms would look like. Even though I was looking at lots of fossils, he looks lumpy and unconvincing. If I went ahead on the final painting, it would only have looked about 10% better.

Gryposaurus, Part 1 I think you really learn a form through your fingers (that's why I love museums that have casts of great sculptures that you can run your hands over). By making a tiny sculpture of this particular dinosaur, using Fimo over tin foil and armature wire, I came to know my subject.

Gryposaurus, Part 1 I kept checking it against the drawing. That nasal bone is not quite high enough.

I painted it with acrylic, darkening around the eyes. Many animals have dark color around their eyes for the same reason that football players smudge stuff around their eyes: to cut down on glare.

Tomorrow I'll show you how I photographed the maquette and proceeded with the painting.

Titanoboa, Part 1

For the next week or so, I’ll be sharing the story of the making of six recent paintings that will be appearing in the upcoming October issue of Ranger Rick magazine.

If it’s not on the newsstand already, it will be very soon. The article is about six of the strangest recent discoveries in fossil science.

Titanoboa, Part 1One of the subjects is the giant snake Titanoboa, the largest snake yet discovered, known from its remarkable vertebrae, which dwarf that of a modern anaconda, shown beside it for comparison. All we really have to start with are a few bones like this.

The rest I had to conjecture by extrapolation from living snakes. How do you show it was over forty feet long? I thought it would be cool to show it in a death match with a crocodile.

Titanoboa, Part 1There are videos of anacondas killing and swallowing crocodilians called caimans. This usually happens underwater, but I wanted to show the Titanoboa lifting part way out of the water.

Titanoboa, Part 1
So I sketched it over and over again in several pages of thumbnail sketches like these. I liked the one in the upper right, and tomorrow you’ll see that the final painting follows this mental conception fairly closely.

Titanoboa, Part 1This was the comprehensive sketch I showed the art director. It’s about the size of a trading card, and it's made with water-soluble colored pencils and a water brush filled with black ink. Tomorrow I’ll show you how I went from this comp to the finish.

Line Drawing

We’re continuing a daily progress report on the poster for the Utopiales Festival in Nantes, France.

During the preliminary drawing stage, the studio fills with clutter.
Near the maquette of the flying machine are model horses, photos of Nantes, books about insects, coffee cups, and audio cassettes with recordings I’ve made of steam engines and street noises.

I love this photo of the square called Place Royale in Nantes. This is the period I’m trying to evoke. My dream is that a little over a hundred years ago, Nantes had strange visitors who arrived and departed by moonlight in this incredible flying machine. It flew very gently and majestically like a sailing ship, creaking and hissing steam.

Here’s the line drawing. This jpeg is a pretty large file, so if you click on it, you can see most of the details. Even though it’s just a line drawing, I’m thinking ahead to tone and color, which is coming up next.

Here’s a 40-second video showing a little about perspective and how to seal the drawing before painting.
More about the Utopiales Festival
Previous posts on Perspective Grid, Sealing the Surface

Part 1: Initial Sketches
Part 2: Researching Insect Flight
Part 3: Maquette
Part 7: The Painting

Utopiales Poster, Part 2

We picked sketch #2 (Décollage nocturne) from yesterday, mainly for the light, color, and mood. I liked the idea of a giant insect vehicle departing at night, but I wasn’t happy with the design of the aircraft. It looked like a cricket with wings. It was too much like a real bug and not enough like a fantastic flying machine. It needed to look both more believable and more magical.

I studied a great book called Insects in Flight by John Brackenbury. It’s loaded with super high-speed color photographs of all sorts of insects in flight postures. With these photos as a starting point I did many pages of sketches. These sketches are made in pencil, fountain pen, watercolor pencil, and water brush.

At this stage I try to absorb as many new ideas as possible, and just draw the scene over and over again, looking for unexpected variations. Some sketches show two sets of wings working in opposing pairs.

The breakthrough was learning about the unique flight mechanics of butterflies. Mr. Brackenbury explains in great detail how they use a “clap and peel” (also called "clap and fling") system for generating lift. The wings are brought up together vertically, and the leading edges pulled down, creating a cone-shaped funnel that draws in a vortex of low-pressure air.

I was surprised to learn that butterflies, along with dragonflies, are among the most adept fliers of the insect world. They’ll maneuver in high winds that will ground other insects. I had to revise my notion that butterflies are capricious or random aeronauts.

Anyway, the butterfly breakthrough also helped with the problem of appeal. Everybody loves butterflies. Who wouldn’t want to fly in a butterfly ornithopter?—(OK, it would be a pretty bumpy ride).

So now my job was to draw up plans for the maquette. I looked not only at butterflies, but also flying fish, old trolleys, and WWI aircraft.

The next task will be to build a 3D maquette.

Part 1: Initial Sketches
Part 2: Researching Insect Flight
Part 3: Maquette
Part 7: The Painting
Jacob’s QuestionsPetar Meseldžija's New BlogSickle Cell Stamp, Part 1Leaping WarriorDraw-ThroughBaby MammothGryposaurus, Part 1Titanoboa, Part 1Line DrawingUtopiales Poster, Part 2

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