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Creating Dinotopia with James Gurney

Archaeology and palaeontology collide in an unlikely way with science and history in artist James Gurney’s Dinotopia series, making it an apt welcome as you enter the Into the Unknown exhibition.

We talk to the artist to hear more about the research and technique that goes into every hand-created painting and learn more about his adventures around the world that have helped shape this memorable world.

How did you get into painting?
I am the youngest of a big family, and I grew up in Palo Alto, California. My dad, a mechanical engineer, once told me that everything begins with a drawing. He said that whole worlds can emerge from the tip of a pencil. A highlight for me was traveling to San Francisco to observe the dinosaur skeletons in the natural history museum and to see the paintings in the art museum. Those museum visits, along with a steady exposure to old National Geographic magazines, introduced me to archaeology and palaeontology, which I studied in college. I graduated as an archaeology major from University of California at Berkeley and then went to art school, after which I worked as a background painter for an animated film called Fire and Ice, co-produced by Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta. That’s where I learned to paint.

I started freelancing in illustration, doing paperback covers for science fiction and fantasy novels. Simultaneously, I painted science-based illustrations for National Geographic. They sent me on assignment to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome to research my reconstructions of ancient civilizations. For an assignment on the Etruscans, Rick Bronson, an archaeologist who resembled Indiana Jones, led me through overgrown ruins, and we descended down ladders into newly-discovered tombs. Sitting around the campfire at night, Dr. Bronson and I would talk about the dream of discovering a lost city like Machu Picchu or Troy.

‘It was a short leap from painting reconstructions of actual civilizations to creating scenes of imaginary lost worlds such as Atlantis or El Dorado’

What inspired you to create Dinotopia? Could you describe the Dinotopia series?
The idea for painting lost empires initially sprang from those conversations during my field research an archaeological illustrator. It was a short leap from painting reconstructions of actual civilizations to creating scenes of imaginary lost worlds such as Atlantis or El Dorado. Dinosaur Parade was one of the first major paintings of what became Dinotopia. I intended to portray a springtime festival of people and dinosaurs parading through the streets of a Roman-style city. One of the reasons I wanted to paint images of people and dinosaurs together was simply to see how big we would be relative to them, since most dinosaur paintings had no sense of scale.

When I showed Dinosaur Parade to my brother Dan, a kindergarten teacher, he said, ‘Instead of making the dinosaurs into the beasts of burden, why don’t you have the dinosaurs domesticate the humans?’ This little suggestion opened up the idea that the humans and dinosaurs could have a mutually beneficial partnership. That idea blossomed into the illustrated book Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time, which took me three years to complete. It was released in 18 languages in 32 different countries. The book is about a lost island where sentient dinosaurs live in harmony with humans, told from the point of view of a 19th century naturalist’s sketchbook/journal. For a decade and a half, while doing other science-based illustration, I continued writing and illustrating Dinotopia books. As picture books, they are unusual in that they’re intended for older readers, more in the spirit of the early golden-age adventure classics by the likes of Jules Verne and H. Rider Haggard that inspired me.

‘Imagination is at the core of both art and science’

How important is the relationship between art and science – both for your work but also in helping us imagine the unimaginable?
Imagination is at the core of both art and science. The way we imagine dinosaurs is a good example. Most pictures of dinosaurs that I had seen as a kid showed them as evolutionary failures—dull-witted cold-blooded sluggards. When I took a fresh look at the emerging science in the late 1980s, I quickly discovered that many scientists had come to imagine them as dynamic, warm-blooded creatures who had more in common with birds than with reptiles. The concept for Dinotopia was inspired in part by the work of palaeontologist Jack Horner in Montana, who had discovered fossilized dinosaur nests. He demonstrated evidence that some dinosaurs, such as Maiasaura (‘good mother lizard’), travelled in herds and actively cared for their young. Instead of visualizing dinosaurs as monsters, I imagined scenarios where they might live alongside humans. I painted Waterfall City, Dinosaur Boulevard, The Excursion, and a few other epic vistas, and then I drew a map of a single island that encompassed all those places. That’s when I came up with the idea of a Victorian explorer who discovers this island and reports about it in his journal.

‘Instead of visualizing dinosaurs as monsters, I imagined scenarios where they might live alongside humans’.

Your paintings are very classical in their style – who are your artistic influences?
Two early influences were Norman Rockwell and M.C. Escher. Even though those artists are very different, they both had the ability to pull me into their pictures, and I felt I could live inside them. I have always loved Golden-Age illustrators such as NC Wyeth and Howard Pyle. I grew up with a set of the old adventure classics by Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne. Books like Treasure Island and The Mysterious Island took hold of my imagination, both for their scientifically plausible stories and their evocative approach to color and light. I think it was those classic illustrators who got me interested in realistic images of fantastic subjects. I like to call it ‘imaginative realism’, but it’s really what artists have always done through history, portraying scenes from myth, literature, and the Bible. Science fiction and fantasy are the current expression of our hunger for myth, adventure, and escape.

What is your process in creating the paintings?
I start with small thumbnail sketches in marker or pencil. If it’s an architectural subject or a dinosaur, I’ll often build a sculptural maquette to establish shadows and angles. If necessary I enlist models to pose in costume, usually friends or neighbours. I either take photos or draw tone paper sketches of the models. Sometimes I pose in costume and do a mirror study to get the basic action. I also have a scrap file of colour magazine photos that I use for texture and form ideas. After all these studies, I work up the line drawing—and sometimes a full charcoal drawing—and finally begin the final oil painting. I generally start the painting with transparent washes over a line drawing that has been sealed with acrylic matte medium. Some pictures only take a day. Most take a week. Big ones with lots of people take about a month. Most of the time is spent in the preparatory stages.

Dinotopia is filled with so many rich references from throughout history – how important is historical or scientific accuracy in your work? What kind of research goes into its creation?
I consult with experts at every stage of the process and incorporate their suggestions. One of the first palaeontologists to help me out was Michael Brett-Surman, a dinosaur specialist from the Smithsonian. Like many scientists, he shared my love of both the science and the science fiction. Later on I was thrilled when he curated the Dinotopia exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. I try to make the appearance of the dinosaurs as accurate as possible. Of course I depart from that starting point by attributing sentience to a wide range of non-human species. Nevertheless, one of the world building strategies for Dinotopia is to base the dinosaurs as much as possible on current scientific understanding, and to be sure that each creature is based on a genus known from the fossil record.

The paintings are stories in themselves – what comes first, the stories or the images? Or do you prefer the viewer to create the stories for themselves..?
Sometimes the stories come first, and sometimes the images. But the verbal and the visual weave together once I start developing the storyboards continuity. In an illustrated book like Dinotopia, the pictures function on a separate but parallel track from the text. Hopefully the two fuse in the reader’s mind as they imagine moments of the story that are not described or illustrated in detail. An illustrated book is an act of conjuring unlike any other art form.

I’m constantly reminded of the impact that stories and pictures can still have over us, even in this age of media saturation. I received a letter from a young woman who is an art student in Germany. She said she found her old copy of Dinotopia after it had been misplaced for many years, and she remembered something her father said about it. He told her that it was a magical book, and that every time she opened it up, there would be a new picture hidden somewhere in its pages that she had never seen before.

Find out more about Dinotopia in this short documentary…

See James Gurney’s Dinotopia paintings up close in Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction until 1 September 2017.

Browse more from our Into the Unknown collection

One Comment

Kathy Bischak

It is fascinating to discover the background of author artist, James Gurney’s Dinotopia books. I love them. I taught art for 31 years, and have an amateur archaeologist for a husband. Both of these, and my love for fantasy fiction, made me a fan of the Dinotopia series early on.

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