When Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara came out in November 2007 the artist behind it – James Gurney – was already the pre-eminent fantasy artist in the dinosaur genre. Extending the gloriously exciting travels of the Victorian adventurer Arthur Denison into realms of the Dinotopia world yet to be explored, the fourth book in Gurney’s successful series, where dinosaurs and humans live in harmony, includes over 100 pieces of fascinating artwork, each meticulously painted in oils.
The press pack is enough to blow you away, but the book itself is an extremely lavish experience. Talking to James, you very soon realise that nothing other could result from his dedication to the artwork.
“I’m a dinosaur myself in the way I approach picture making,” he explains.
“I work from miniatures, I build models and maquettes and I get human models in costumes to pose. Sometimes I go the real traditional way where I do charcoal studies and work from those.
“The paintings are all done on an illustration board,” he adds. “I start with a pencil drawing and then lay in washes of oil. Sometimes the transparent washes look like watercolour but it’s an oil technique.”Storyteller
Not only does he create all the illustrations, but he also writes the stories for the books and is the creative force behind the entire Dinotopia world. On top of previous illustrated books published in 1992, 1995 and 1999, a TV mini series based on his world was made in 2002 with the CG dinosaurs designed by London’s Framestore CCF, of Walking With Dinosaurs fame. In addition, Dinotopia novels have been published and his creation has sprawled beyond his dreams. Yet James still works in a very detailed way on his creations. The captions in Journey to Chandara are hand rendered with a steel ink-dip pen.
“On the second book, The World Beneath, we used a digital font because it was a lot easier, but I really love old-fashioned lettering and I love the feeling of dipping the pen in ink, so I went back and did it that way just because it’s satisfying and because it really looks different when you do something by hand,” he says.
Dinosaur science – palaeontology – has always been a huge part of the artist’s inspiration. Named in 1841 by Sir Richard Owen, the ‘terrible lizards’ were for 140 years thought to be much like overgrown alligators. Kill. Eat. Sleep. Die off. Interesting creatures but ultimately a dead end. However new discoveries in the field keep James busy.
The therizinosaurus, for instance, resembled a 2,000lb chicken with foot-long claws. It crops up as the pet of a hermit who Arthur Denison meets early in his journey. Further findings give him new ideas all the time: “There’s been so much found recently with some of the micro-data, of pollen, and a lot of footprints and track ways that weren’t known about before and so many different types and forms of dinosaurs – polar dinosaurs, and just over the last couple of years, burrowing dinosaurs and a long-necked sauropod that was the size of a Great Dane. Every time you open a science magazine or newspaper there’s always something revolutionary that comes along.”
When considering how a world where dinosaurs live alongside people would work, one of the main points of contention was whether the creatures would remain true to science, or become a bit more anthropomorphic. James chose the former route to go down and has pretty much stuck with it up to now. Now and again they’re seen wearing clothes or decorated in various unusual ways but in general they’re painted accurately, albeit cleverly juxtaposed with some decidedly odd Victorian eccentrics.Giving words to beasts
James is even careful about which dinosaurs can talk and which ones can’t, and as the keeper of a pet parakeet, he came up with quite an elegant solution to the problem. “I just wanted to have a few of them that could speak in human-like languages,” he says. “So the ones that I chose for that were the ceratopsians, the ones that have the beak and the frill like the triceratops and the protoceratops, because with that parrot-like bill you can imagine them vocalising just in the same way that a parrot would, and you don’t have to deal with the whole issue of lips, which I thought could get kind of corny.”
The original inspiration for Dinotopia came back in the 80s when James was working as an illustrator for National Geographic. Alongside art, he had studied archaeology and assignments for the magazine took him to digs around the world. The idea of lost civilisations waiting to be discovered inspired him to create his own imaginary one. The latest Dinotopia book draws influence from the caravan world of the Middle East and the Orient.Fact and fiction
It seems like James has always applied his imagination to both fact and fiction. We can’t overlook that he was also the artist behind over 70 science fiction and fantasy book jackets. One of his favourite pieces was for the story Quozl, written by his friend Alan Dean Foster. James created a flipbook animation for this project. He
also mentions the cover of On Stranger Tides, a pirate-based story by Tim Powers. “It was kind of a realistic view of something that almost could exist in the real world. That’s the kind of thing I like doing the most, to let my pictures be like a sideways elevator to bring people into other worlds, or to go where the camera can’t go. It’s really what you have to do for National Geographic,” he says.
When you ask him which artists have influenced him, it’s no surprise that the list includes some great illustrative painters, including John Berkey, Ralph McQuarrie, Norman Rockwell and Howard Pyle. Moving to Britain, Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, Lord Frederic Leighton, John Singer Sargent and John Waterhouse. And
a trip to France brings in William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jean-Léon Gerôme.Self-taught
“A lot of what I’ve learned about art has been by studying what I can find from art instruction books from 50 years ago or a hundred years ago or even more. I’m mostly self-taught,” says James. “I did go to art school but they weren’t teaching the kind
of things I wanted so I really tried to find whatever I could of old books and dusty volumes that would describe what they did in the 1880s or so.”
Despite a huge array of fantasy art awards, and even 17 US postage stamps to his name, James Gurney’s enthusiasm knows no wane. “I'm working on the next art-instruction book to follow after Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist," says James. "Before I get back into illustrated fantasy storytelling, I want to download ideas and methods that I've found really useful, and I've found that both digital and traditional artists have found them helpful, too,” he says.