Gurney Journey | category: Writing


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.

Art and Ideology

Word clouds are a graphic representation of how often certain words are used in a text. Words that are shown larger are used more frequently.

Art and Ideology

Here's the word cloud for my book “Color and Light: A Guide for Realist Painters.” It appears the title accurately represents what's inside.

Art and Ideology

Here's “Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist.” The reason the word "imagination" doesn't appear in the cloud is that the book is focused less on where ideas come from and more on practical methods for how to take a vague idea and make it real.

Art and Ideology

Finally here's John Ruskin's "Modern Painters." Even though he was a practicing artist, Ruskin doesn't really discuss the nuts and bolts of practical picture-making, but instead dwells in loftier realms of abstract, ideal principles. Art is almost a religion for Ruskin. 

If you're interested in the ideology that drove realist painters, I would recommend reading The Art Spirit by Robert Henri, The Classic Point of View by Kenyon Cox, or Aims and Ideals of Art by George Clausen (Also available on Any other books on art and ideology that you would recommend — or not recommend?
Read more
Color and Light: A Guide for Realist Painters
Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist
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Aisha's Questions

Art student Aisha Ling wanted to interview me for a class project, so I sent her all my previous interviews and asked her to come up with two questions I haven't been asked yet.

Aisha's Questions
James Gurney writing "The Artist's Guide to Sketching," 1981, age 23
Have you ever faced criticism, and how do you deal with it?

Even before the age of social media, every artist or writer who has ever put their work out in the public has had to deal with both praise and criticism. If you don't receive either, it means no one cares about your work. The first book that I co-wrote, The Artist's Guide to Sketching, only got one published review and we received about five fan letters, and that was it. That was the only feedback, really, but that was normal back then for a book like that.

Now of course, in the age of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, comments come flooding in. It's best not to be too concerned about either praise or criticism. Being attached to praise can be as damaging as being obsessed with critical comments. 

I've been pretty lucky because I try to give out positive, constructive energy, and that's mostly what I get back. You can't please everyone, and that's OK. Sometimes criticism is a matter of taste: not everyone likes everything that any artist produces. But if professional reviewers or smart amateurs offer a thoughtful, valid critique given in good faith, I take the comments seriously and see if I can make my work better. It's rare that someone will point out a weakness in my work that I'm not already well familiar with. I'm my own severest critic. The person whose artistic judgment I seek out most often is my wife, who I can always count on for giving me honest feedback.

How do you overcome artist's or writer's block?

I've never had an issue with slumps or blocks, probably because my earliest work experiences (painting backgrounds for animated films) didn't allow for them. I had to produce 11 paintings per week or I'd be fired. The same was true with my freelance illustration work. There was a lot riding on me producing a good result on a deadline. Working on a schedule like that means you can't choke. If something isn't working well, you keep working it until it succeeds.

Some people complain that it's as hard to finish something as it is to start it. You often hear art mentors say that you have to quit working on a painting to avoid overworking it. But I think that's usually unhelpful advice. Too many paintings and book projects are abandoned too soon or undertaken without enough experimentation and planning. 

If there is any way to make a picture better, it's worth considering. Many projects bring you to a place where you want to abandon them, and that's the time to redouble your effort to make them better. Sometimes that means starting fresh or wiping down the canvas, or reshooting video. But you can't do that forever. It's good to have a deadline to work toward so that you're not stuck with an endlessly polished rock.
Thanks, Aisha!

Painting a Supermarket Entrance

I have painted around this supermarket many times, and I keep discovering new views of it. On a rainy day, I notice how the warm inside lights contrast with the cool light outdoors.

I have to push the painting through the “ugly stage” by having faith in the process. 

The palette of colors is very simple: White gouacheYellow ochre (watercolor), Transparent red oxide (watercolor), and Ultramarine blue (gouache)

In the choice of subjects, I am inspired by French philosopher Emile Zola, who encouraged artists to paint commonplace subjects from our own era. 

He said: “The past was but the cemetery of our illusions: one simply stubbed one's toes on the gravestones.” (Le passé n'était que le cimetière de nos illusions, on s'y brisait les pieds contre des tombes.)

Zola also said: "A work of art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament” (Une oeuvre d'art est un coin de la création vu à travers un tempérament).

Somehow, by interpreting a subject that isn't often painted, it opens the doors to appreciating our world anew.

Donald McGill's Postcard Art

Donald McGill's Postcard Art
Donald McGill was a gag writer and illustrator of comic-picture postcards in Britain in the mid-20th century. Each card had a slightly outrageous joke or double entendre.

Donald McGill's Postcard Art

George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, wrote about McGill's art:
"A comic post card is simply an illustration to a joke, invariably a ‘low’ joke, and it stands or falls by its ability to raise a laugh. Beyond that it has only ‘ideological’ interest. McGill is a clever draughtsman with a real caricaturist's touch in the drawing of faces, but the special value of his post cards is that they are so completely typical. They represent, as it were, the norm of the comic post card. Without being in the least imitative, they are exactly what comic post cards have been any time these last forty years, and from them the meaning and purpose of the whole genre can be inferred."

Donald McGill's Postcard Art----
Donald McGill's Postcard Art

Read the rest of the essay "The Art of Donald McGill," available online in full.
It is also included in the essay collection All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays

Six-Word Story Challenge

According to legend, Ernest Hemingway once accepted a challenge to tell a story using just six words. He wrote: "For sale: baby shoes. Never worn." 

Six-Word Story Challenge

For the next GurneyJourney challenge, I invite you to invent a six word story and combine it with a drawing or painting. 

Six-Word Story Challenge
Chance meeting. Awkward silence. The weather.
In just six carefully-chosen words, you can introduce characters and add the hint of backstory, foreshadowing, surprise, mystery, revelation, or resolution. The illustration can give context to your story or expand it in a new direction. You'll know if it works if fireworks go off in your head.

Six-Word Story Challenge

Here are a few more six-word stories that Jeanette and I came up with:

He dug until he fell through.
"Let's see what we ran over."
"Why are they selling my stuff?"
"Oops. It was a bearing wall."
"One gallon and a can, please."

1. Free to enter. Deadline is midnight, December 31.
2. The story must be original and the words must be hand-lettered within the image.
3. The image may be created with any handmade medium, such as pencil, pen, marker, watercolor, oil or gouache.
4. The image can be created either from observation or imagination.
5. You can collaborate with a writer, but enter it under one of your names.
Six-Word Story Challenge6. Upload your entry to this special Facebook event page. If you don't have a Facebook account, ask a friend to use theirs.
7. If you want, you can also also upload to Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag #sixwordstorychallenge
8. You can write your story in a language other than English, but please give the best translation you can (the translation doesn't have to be exactly six words).
9. Submit only one example. If you have submitted one and then come up with a better one later, delete all but your best.
10. I'll pick my five favorites. Each of the five winners gets a free video download, a Department of Art patch, and the work posted on GurneyJourney.
There's a book of examples called Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure
There's also a website 
The urban legend of the Hemingway story.

Ten Principles of Fair Use

Ten Principles of Fair Use
The College Art Association has just released a guidebook about the special circumstances when it's OK to use someone else's copyrighted artwork.

Called the "Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts," the short, free, PDF is the result of years of work from the Association's legal experts.

Here's a quick summary of 10 main principles that are covered in the document.

1. You don't need to worry about Fair Use if permission is already granted, such as work designated by a Creative Commons license, or work in the public domain, such as images published before 1923.

2. If you're writing a review or an analysis of a given work, you can show the work or quote necessary parts from it, as long as you give appropriate credit. Generally speaking, this kind of use is permissible if it involves "criticism, comment, teaching, or scholarship."

3. If you're a teacher, you can display a copyrighted work as part of a specific curriculum for a specific group of students.

4. If you make art, you can adapt or reference copyrighted material if you use only what you need, and alter it into a new medium, generating new artistic meaning.

5. It's generally OK to use copyrighted work if the use is transformative, meaning that it "adds something new, with a further purpose or different character."

6. Museums can show copyrighted works as part of their curatorial mission, as long as it's credited, and not downloadable in high resolution form.

7. Academic libraries and art schools can preserve digital copies for purposes of study, again as long as they're properly credited, and not released in high resolution form.

8. If you deliberately repurpose the work of others, you should be prepared to explain the artistic objective, and you should not claim to be the creator of those derivative elements.

9. Judges consider whether the derivative work is commercial or educational in nature, and whether the derivative work undermines the market for the copyrighted work.

10. None of these are absolute rules. Like principles of freedom of expression, there are plenty of gray areas, and judges may rule one way or another, depending on many factors. My personal disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer; these ten basic principles I've summarized here are necessarily oversimplified; they're not the last word on my personal opinion; and I recommend you read the whole document.

In an appendix to the publication, Peter Jaszi puts the principles of the Copyright Code in context by explaining how the rights of the creator are balanced against the needs of the culture at large:

"The goal of US copyright law is to promote the progress of knowledge and culture. Its best-known feature is protection of owners’ rights. But copying, quoting, recontextualizing, and reusing existing cultural material can be critically important to creating and spreading knowledge and culture. That is why there is a social bargain at the heart of copyright law. That bargain is: Our society offers creators some exclusive rights in copyrighted works, to encourage them to produce culture. The compensation that creators receive from exploiting their copyrights is important as an incentive to this ultimate end; it is not an end in itself."
Free PDF: Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for the Visual Arts
Wikipedia on Fair Use
Thanks, Animation World Network

Interview with Grammarly

I recently received an offer to try out the grammar correction program called Grammarly. On their website, Grammarly claims to make you a better writer by finding and correcting grammatical mistakes.

I downloaded the software and tried it out, but instead of reviewing it, I thought it would be interesting to interview a representative of the company by email. Mr. Mager, an online marketing analyst, agreed to my request. Before he sent his answers, he said he checked them with a colleague to verify that they were accurate.

JG: Would you briefly describe how Grammarly is different from other grammar-checking programs?

Grammarly offers automated grammar, spelling, and plagiarism checking. Its technology catches 10x more mistakes than Microsoft Word, while also offering unique features such as writing enhancement and citation suggestions. Grammarly regularly conducts tests to compare our algorithms against our competitors including Google. Our continuously improving machine learning algorithm always wins. A more recent defining element of Grammarly is its Chrome extension that will soon be available for Firefox and Safari later this year. The extension allows our users to have a grammar checker wherever they go on the internet from their emails to Facebook comments.

JG: Do you recommend a different prose style for print settings than you do for online settings?
Our linguists approach Grammarly with a classical, academic approach. We realize that context is vital to proper communication. A properly written sentence or paragraph can make the difference in receiving a passing or failing grade, job offer, or a good story. When writing with Grammarly, we offer seven categories and 32 different document types that range from short stories to business emails. With each document type, Grammarly applies different grammar rules and suggestions.

JG: How does the reading experience differ when we read text on a computer screen?
Last year, the Grammarly team ran a survey to get more information about this topic from our community of word nerds about their reading habits. We found that out of 6,744 responses, 79% preferred to read printed books versus e-books. Another survey showed that of 1,929 responses 39% would prefer their children read printed books while 11% preferred e-books and 34% of respondents simply wanted their kids to read! It is clear that there is a more positive experience with holding a paper book than looking at a screen.

JG: Should those differences change the way we think about writing for the computer?

The most important thing, about writing for the computer or print, is that we write with clarity and creativity. If readers can’t understand what we are writing, then our message is lost on them - no matter what we’re saying. What I have personally noticed is that writing in print is often more formal than online writing and written in long form. Online writing tends to be more succinct, with more paragraphs and bullets to break up thoughts. This is likely due to our shorter digital attention spans.

Interview with Grammarly
JG: I allowed Grammarly to evaluate the first paragraphs from Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. According to Grammarly, each of them has issues with wordiness. Is that a false positive, a change in historical standards or a valid objection to their style?

Grammarly is not meant to critique works of art or classic literature. It is built around a powerful and an ever-evolving algorithm designed to provide students, professionals, and advanced language learners with an automated, cost-effective, accurate, and always-available online tool to help improve their written English skills. Through contextual guidance, users are empowered to make the final assessment of whether the feedback they’ve received fits the material being reviewed, enabling them to learn from their mistakes.

JG: How has using Grammarly changed your personal experience as a writer?
For me, Grammarly serves as an extra pair of eyes on my work. It keeps me aware of some common issues that I have with my writing and explains the grammar rules that I miss. This feedback has been helpful with the accuracy of my writing even when Grammarly isn’t available. I find when I write to my boss, family, or friends I can have more confidence and credibility behind my message.

JG: Given that you work at a web company that ferrets out mistakes in writing, do you find that your friends and family give you a hard time every time you make a mistake?
Yes! So much so, in fact, that one of us wrote a blog post about it:

I appreciate the challenge though. My writing wasn’t the best in school so as I pay more attention to how I speak and write, I see my communication improving every day.

JG: Forgive me, but you did make an error in your cover letter to me, saying, “stuck a chord” rather than “struck a chord.” That’s a hard one to catch given that you spelled each phrase correctly, and it was grammatical. Would Grammarly be able to find such a mistake if it used the kind of statistical algorithms that Google uses when it prompts alternate search phrasing?

Grammarly is able to pick up “stuck and struck” a chord and other contextual errors such as “there, their, they’re”, however we are still adding to the contexts that they can be found in. Our program is constantly learning, similar to the way Google uses its statistical algorithms, and while Grammarly is not yet perfect, we are still the leader in writing enhancement software.

JG: What thinking did you give to the manner in which Grammarly points out issues to the writer? I notice that it has a polite and helpful demeanor. If you had designed it differently, it might have appeared obnoxious or pedantic. What thinking went into that interface?

Grammar rules can be confusing to many people and are constantly evolving. Grammarly was created to provide an easy way for students, professionals, job seekers, and English language learners to become better, more accurate English language writers and help them learn and understand the rules of grammar. We’re not here as a grammar judge; rather, we want to be a resource. Our world-class designers and UX experts have played a big role in this as they obsess over every detail to create an easy, understandable interface for our users.

JG: What happens behind the scenes when the little Grammarly logo starts spinning around? Is the text being uploaded to your computers? Do you keep a copy of the writing? Do you ever share it with anyone else?

Our policy agreement provides detailed information about how Grammarly stores text, but I can tell you that we never share any writer's text publically. Behind the scenes, Grammarly's learning algorithms are constantly reviewing whether our tool is being applied in the right context or not -- that is how we can make continuous improvements.

[Note from JG: The Policy Agreement states: "By uploading or entering any User Content, you give Grammarly (and those it works with) a nonexclusive, worldwide, royalty-free and fully-paid, transferable and sublicensable, perpetual, and irrevocable license to copy, store and use your User Content in connection with the provision of the Software and the Services and to improve the algorithms underlying the Software and the Services."]

JG: Do you worry that the reliance on machine-based spell-check or grammar-check programs will blunt the attention that you devote to your writing or that it might sand off the corners of your personal style? (Grammarly didn't like me using the word "sand".)

Nice imagery. No, the great thing about Grammarly is that it was developed alongside English professors to be a passive learning tool. For each potential issue flagged by Grammarly’s algorithms, users receive a detailed explanation so they can make an informed decision about how, and whether, to correct the mistake. Our positive reviews from professional writers really speak for itself.

JG: How would you envision Grammarly five years from now? Please describe the kind of writing partner you’d like to see it become.

Grammarly’s core mission is improving lives by improving communication, and there is a lot in store over the next few years. One part of this is improving Grammarly’s algorithms to the level of a human proofreader. Every day, we get a little closer to that goal. The other part is integrating Grammarly more into people’s lives. This new plugin we recently launched for Chrome, and soon other browsers, is a big step to bringing our advanced grammar checker to where a majority of the world writes most. It is an exciting time to be here!
Grammarly official website

Question: Age Range for Dinotopia

Blog reader James Jones asked: "I'm a college student in Idaho studying to become an elementary teacher. I was just wondering, when you created the world and artwork and subsequently the story of the Dinotopia series, did you have a specific age range in mind for the series? I personally discovered the books in the 4th grade and have loved them ever sense, but I was wondering if they were meant for a slightly older audience."

Question: Age Range for Dinotopia
Hi, James,
I don't buy into the "target age range" mindset of contemporary publishing. I wrote Dinotopia fundamentally to amuse myself as a 30-year-old adult who was rediscovering dinosaurs and utopias. I was also a new dad when the idea came to me, so I was aware of the magic that picture books have for young kids. And I was thinking of making the kind of book that I would have enjoyed when I was 10 or 12. At that age I didn't really like very many children's books, but instead loved the old illustrated adventure books by Twain and Stevenson and Verne.

Question: Age Range for Dinotopia
A book should be like a swimming pool, with a shallow end and a deep end. The few "children's" books that I did like when I was young, such as the Winnie the Pooh books or The Little Prince, had layers of meaning that fed me as I got older. I don't see why a book can't have meaning for a person at different stages of their lives.

Question: Age Range for Dinotopia
In fact, I was deeply touched yesterday to receive a letter from a young filmmaker who has carried the book along with him overseas as he has grown from child to adult. He says:
"Dinotopia began as the favorite book of a little boy fascinated by dinosaurs. It later evolved into a personal inspiration for a young man just starting to dream about how he might make his mark on the world. I'm now happy to report that, as I approach my thirties, it has evolved into professional encouragement for how to keep that childhood spark alive while pursuing a creative career....and all the discipline, terror, heartbreak, exhilaration, and wonder that come with it. Thank you for that gift; I hope that some of my work can one day provide just just as much inspiration to even one little child somewhere."
Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time 

How to write a query letter

If you want to write a book or a magazine article, it helps to write a query letter first. The query can be fairly short. You don't have to write the book or article, just describe it to the editor.

One thing that helps me in writing a query letter is to follow this basic form, with just a sentence or two on each topic:

1. THE PROBLEM. Why is this book or article needed? What's the gap in the market? What's the story that hasn't been told yet?

2. THE SOLUTION. How will the piece I want to write address that need? What is my piece not going to be? What other published works are similar or different? 

3. THE SCOPE. How big is this thing, how long, how many pictures? How much is finished already? What is the look, feel, tone, or style?

4. THE MARKET. Who is this work for? How am I connected with the audience? How big is the market? The actual marketing and publicity will be a joint effort, but authors often know their market best.

5. THE DELIVERABLES. What am I going to provide? Who will bring in the text, captions, permissions, and photos? How long will it take? What will I need help with?

6. MY QUALIFICATIONS. If the editor doesn't know me already, here's the chance to say why I believe I'm the best person to write the book.

As an example, here's a brief letter where I spend just one sentence answering each question. Brevity helps. One page is usually enough, two pages if you must.

Dear (Editor of ImagineFX magazine)

Workshop: 10 Tips for Working from Photographs

Artists are always looking for reference tools to improve the realism of their imaginative paintings. They know that photographs offer a useful tool, but also a potential pitfall. I propose to give your readers 10 tips that will help them use photo reference effectively, preserving their innate vision without the risk of photo-dependence.

I envision this article appearing in the Workshop section of the magazine, running about 2000-2500 words with approximately 12 - 18 illustrations. Several case study examples would show some works developed with drawings alone as reference, and some with photo reference.

As before, with the “Visual Perception” and “Lived-In Future” workshops, the completed article can be delivered to you in hard copy and/or via email within two weeks of your acceptance.

You can accompany the query with links to works that you've already written, and you might also include a résumé. You can submit queries as emails, but if you want to cut through the clutter, you can send it as a good old-fashioned letter. A query letter arriving by post is a rare diversion for editors these days.
Previously on the blog: Using Photo Reference

Hannibal, Missouri, 1983

Hannibal, Missouri, 1983
Hannibal, Missouri, August 25, 1983, by James Gurney. Pencil, 11x14 inches.
In 1983 I sat on the curb in Hannibal, Missouri and sketched the storefronts on Broadway. In the margins I wrote the following notes:

A mortician told us that the Schwartz Funeral Home caught fire. He said, "It really went. Biggest fire they had around in a long time. Luckily there was no stiffs inside. Old Schwartz don't do much business."

The owner of the TV repair shop came over. His name is Frank Brashears, and his shop used to be a confectionary. It once belonged to Molly Brown's sister. Upstairs there used to be a bordello. Frank brought over the title and the deed, dated 1823.

Frank has a ham radio set. He recently spoke to Bombay, India. He showed us his postcard, with a picture of his radio equipment. It said "88s" which means Love and Kisses. All ham operators have postcards with their call letters. Frank wrote his: WØCJH.

We met a black artist named Larry Washington whose idols were Boris and Frazetta. He had a pencil drawing of a snake lady. He had a girlfriend who was pregnant. She saw her mother drive by, and her mother stopped and picked her up.

A hobo told us the clock over the P-D Sports Store is five minutes slow. 

Everyone recommends the Steamboat Inn on Main Street. We ate there--good ribeye steak. At the Steamboat Inn, a fellow told us that Mark Twain stayed on the second floor.

Hannibal, Missouri, 1983
All the businesses have changed now, according to Google Street View. That page from my sketchbook is just a yellow leaf, drifting in the winds of time.
Art and IdeologyAisha's QuestionsPainting a Supermarket EntranceDonald McGill's Postcard ArtSix-Word Story ChallengeTen Principles of Fair Use Interview with GrammarlyQuestion: Age Range for DinotopiaHannibal, Missouri, 1983

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