Gurney Journey | category: Ranger Rick


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.

Maiacetus, Part 2

Maiacetus, Part 2 To imagine the four-legged whale Maiacetus, I made a quick maquette out of Fimo, keeping it in scale to printouts of the skeleton drawings. The baby maquette was easier to make; it didn't even need legs, because I knew I would photograph it mostly underwater.

Maiacetus, Part 2After painting the maquettes, I placed them on a blackened cookie sheet covered with about a half inch of water. The C-stand holds a white umbrella to try to get some fill light into the shadow.

Maiacetus, Part 2Here's the resulting photo, with small waves creating reflections. The reason I added the tail flukes was that I read an argument for them on a science discussion forum online. There are no bones in a whale's tail flukes, so it seemed reasonable to speculate that flukes might have been emerging in this cetacean ancestor.

Maiacetus, Part 2But just to be sure, I contacted Dr. Philip Gingerich, who made the fossil discovery, and he said the evidence of the tail bones definitely rules out flukes. So off they came.

Maiacetus, Part 2With the help of the reference photos, along with plein air studies that I had made of lakeside scenes, I did the final oil painting.
ADDENDUM--At the request of art director M. K. reading the blog, here's how the final page looked. Thanks to Donna Miller, art director for Ranger Rick, who fit everything together!
Maiacetus, Part 2
To see all the Ranger Rick posts back to back, link.

Maiacetus, Part 1

Maiacetus, Part 1 The Maiacetus ("Good Mother Whale") is known from two fossils, and was first described in 2009. From the evidence, scientists have suggested that this four-legged whale ancestor gave birth on land, but lived most of its life in the water.

Maiacetus, Part 1 I wanted to show this land/water lifestyle by portraying the Maiacetus and its young wading in the shallows. Here's the sketch I presented to the art director of Ranger Rick magazine (the finished picture appears in this month's issue). Friday I'll show you the maquette and the finished picture.
Wikipedia on Maiacetus.
More about Ranger Rick, with an interview about the process.

Mega Rodent, Part 2

Mega Rodent, Part 2When Ranger Rick magazine asked me to paint a portrait of the giant extinct rodent for the current October issue, I started with this preliminary sketch in colored pencils. It looks a lot like the largest living rodent, the capybara.

Mega Rodent, Part 2I explored the forms of the full-bodied creature in this maquette, about five inches long. The warthog-like mane was made from the hairs of a red sable brush cut up and glued down with five minute epoxy. I guessed that a creature of that size in a warm climate wouldn’t need much body fur to keep it warm.

In the final oil painting (yesterday’s post), I used a low point of view to make the creature look bigger, and a shallow depth of field to give the appearance of a wildlife photo. The blurring effect was done with a white nylon flat brush over wet oil paint.


Mega Rodent, Part 1

Mega Rodent, Part 1Here’s a painting of the largest rodent known to science. It’s something like a cross between a guinea pig and a rhinoceros. It would have stood about four feet high at the shoulder, weighing about 2,000 pounds.

Mega Rodent, Part 1Known as Josephoartigasia, the fossil skull was discovered in Uruguay and scientifically described in 2008. Tomorrow I’ll show you the steps that led from the skull to the final painting.

Wikipedia on Josephoartigasia.

Baby Mammoth, Part 2

Yesterday I showed you the first steps in reconstructing the baby mammoth, known from a well preserved frozen mummy.

It would have been tempting to just find a wildlife photo of a mother elephant and baby in more or less the same pose I sketched from my head. But mammoths have important differences from elephants, most obviously the small ears and the long tusks (in adults).

Baby Mammoth, Part 2
So I made a quick maquette out of Sculpey, following a sketch I made from the photo of the actual discovery. I also made a head maquette of the mom and attached it to a body that was a cardboard cutout.

Baby Mammoth, Part 2Now I could really experiment with lighting and angles, and after a lot of experimentation, I hit upon this pose. It has a much lower eye level than the sketch, which makes them look bigger.

After talking to the art director, Donna Miller, I decided to change the background to a light value, which made more sense for the arctic, and I flopped the layout from the original sketch that you saw yesterday.

Baby Mammoth, Part 2Even though the baby was found most of its wool worn off, in life it would have had a good shaggy coat.

For the wool texture, I studied images of woolly bulls and musk oxen. I designed the lighting so that the mammoths are in bright light, with the middle ground in shadow, and the distance again in light.

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 2

With the maquette described in yesterday's post, I went outside and set it up on a piece of filmmaker's grip equipment called a C-stand. Now I could experiment both with different angles and different light directions and see exactly what was happening with the shadows.

Gryposaurus, Part 2
I found some very tiny leaves and put them in the dinosaur's mouth. I wanted to see real leaves to study the transmitted light. I also went to a botanical garden to photograph magnolia leaves, and used those leaf shapes for reference.

Here's the final painting in oil on illustration board. I concentrated detail and dark accents around the eye and the tongue, which in the maquette is curling back to grab the leaves.

Gryposaurus, Part 2 The far forest goes way out of focus to subconsciously suggest that this is a wildlife photo. Technically I handled this with white nylon flat brushes after a bristle block-in.

Shallow depth of field is common in wildlife photographs because they are usually shot with telephoto lenses, which have a very narrow focal plane.

I also used an effect called "bokeh," which I haven't really defined yet on the blog. Bokeh (Wikipedia explanation here) is that cool photographic effect where far away bright highlights or sky holes become circles that increase in size with distance.

Even though I'm a traditional painter, I'm using a lot of photographic effects here quite deliberately to create a photographic impression and to blend the images naturally in Ranger Rick. Although I used those effects, I didn't trace the reference photos because there were a million ways I wanted to improve on them.

A lot of what I've learned about light and color and vision has come from my conversations with professional photographers, who think about imagemaking a little differently than artists usually do. Hope all this stuff isn't too dry and technical.
I'll be heading into New York City today for the Spectrum opening and Art Out Loud, so probably won't post tomorrow.

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 2

The next step in the painting of the giant fossil snake was to make a maquette of the snake and the croc out of Sculpey, painted in acrylic. It only took a few hours to do this rough model, but without this step I never would have understood how the forms needed to wrap around each other.

I set up the maquette in a tiny diorama, with a rock and some sticks that I found in the backyard.

Titanoboa, Part 2The wrestling reptiles are sitting half submerged in a take-out food container which I painted black inside and filled with muddy water. The background is a piece of mat board.

Titanoboa, Part 2I lit the maquette with a theater spotlight and shot it with a Canon Digital Rebel single lens reflex camera and printed out several variations.

With that information, combined with many photographs of living snakes, I proceeded with the final pencil drawing and then the painting. For more info on this procedure, check out these earlier posts “Technique Nuts and Bolts” “Utopiales Line Drawing.”

Titanoboa, Part 2Here’s the painting in progress. The pencil drawing shows through in the lower area.

And the final painting, 14 x 19 inches, finished five days after starting the maquette. By contrast to the Cumberland painting, this painting went together pretty briskly. Inset in the painting is the page layout as it will appear in the October issue of Ranger Rick magazine.

Titanoboa, Part 2I find that the greatest value of the maquette in a case like this is in providing little accidents of cast shadows, like the hand of the dying croc on the snake’s neck, and the tail’s shadow crossing the snake's body farther down. It also helped in the placement of the highlights, something that can be tricky to guess at on an organic form.

Those little unexpected nuances are almost impossible (for me) to invent out of pure imagination but they give the ring of truth that I believe is vital in a piece like this.

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.
Maiacetus, Part 2Maiacetus, Part 1Mega Rodent, Part 2Mega Rodent, Part 1Baby Mammoth, Part 2Baby MammothGryposaurus, Part 2Gryposaurus, Part 1Titanoboa, Part 2Titanoboa, Part 1

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