Oil Painting: James Gurney's Paintings: Fact & Fantasy

15 Sep 2006

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This New York state plein air artist creates impressive landscape paintings informed by his work as an illustrator and inspired by the work of the Hudson River School.

by John A. Parks

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Creek Above Kaaterskill Falls
2004, oil, 20 x 16.
All artwork this article
private collection
unless otherwise indicated.

James Gurney’s landscape paintings are imbued with such light-filled grandeur, it’s hard to believe they’re not fantastical. Perhaps that’s because this artist is not only a plein air painter but also the creator of the spectacular imaginary world first unveiled in 1992 in his book Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time (HarperCollins, New York, New York). Gurney’s narrative, written to mimic a 19th-century travelogue, chronicles the adventures of an American scientist and his son, who are shipwrecked on a vast island and destined to live among dinosaurs. Huge, luminous landscapes unfold along with great cities pieced together by the inhabitants from memories of the cultures they left. The artist’s meticulous draftsmanship and delicate sense of color combine to create a powerful vision of a full and complete world.

For the viewer, this sense of total immersion is greatly reinforced by the extraordinary light in which each image is bathed. Gurney is partial to long passages of halftone shadow, which serve to infuse his images with a benign and dreamy mystery. In some ways the quality of the light is as engaging and alluring as the fantastic world that the images depict. In developing such a sophisticated feel for light, Gurney credits his work as a plein air painter. “Without my experience of looking carefully at the real world and recreating natural light conditions, I wouldn’t be able to paint the imaginary scenes,” says the artist.

Gurney’s passion for plein air painting, however, goes well beyond his desire to gather inspiration for his illustrations and is deeply grounded in his obvious delight in the visual pleasures offered by the world in which we live. “I’m fortunate to live in the Hudson Valley, which offers a huge range of landscape features, from mountains to rivers to waterfalls; noble, ancient trees; and a well-balanced array of seasonal effects,” he says. Gurney is also well aware that the area has a grand history of outdoor painting dating back to the Hudson River School, which included such artists as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and Asher B. Durand, whom Gurney particularly admires. “He was really one of the first plein air painters,” explains the artist, who has recently acquired one of Durand’s oil paintings. “He painted outdoors before metal paint tubes were invented and had to travel with his paint stored in pigs’ bladders.”

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Winter Sunset
2004, oil, 11 x 14.

The closeness that Gurney feels to Durand appears to go beyond a shared pleasure in working en plein air, however. Looking at Durand’s paintings, one can see that his feel for a delicate light, as well as his pleasure in exploring large areas of shadow married with meticulous and thoughtful draftsmanship, are very much in keeping with Gurney’s own interests. It was always the light, as much as the topographical features, that attracted artists to the Hudson Valley. Frederic Edwin Church, who traveled widely, always maintained that the area had the best light in the world. The Catskill Mountains, lying to the west of the Hudson River, serve to break up the skies in the generally eastward flow of air, scattering clouds about and orchestrating breathtaking sunsets. The general dampness of the Hudson Valley can create wonderful mists and gauzy, watery veils, especially early in the day; while the harsh, dry cold of the winter brings about diamond-hard light with arid blue skies and brilliant snow cover. Gurney has taken full advantage of these conditions in many paintings, including at least one attempt to paint directly into a golden sun sinking behind the Catskills. “It was very hard on the retina,” he admits, “and in the end impossible because the sun, as well as being the brightest element in the scene, also has the most chroma. And you just can’t get that in a painting.” Gurney has long since discovered that what you can achieve in a painting is the richness of color in shadows, which is often missing in a photograph.

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Chandara
2002, oil, 24 x 52.

This painting was
included the 2002 “Dinotopia” exhibition
at the Smithsonian National
Museum of Natural History,
in Washington, DC.

Gurney’s technical approach to plein air painting varies somewhat with the subject. Generally, he will paint on a canvas stretched over a plywood board, beginning with a tint of red oxide. “If I’m painting a subject with a lot of green, I try to use more warm in the underpainting because the green can be so assertive,” the artist says. Gurney mixes his paint on a small palette covered with poly-coated freezer wrap and uses a variety of bristle brushes to build the paint. He will sometimes change to a sable round to do fine work and also uses a nylon flat from time to time. “I’m often simply trying to record information,” he says, “and I find that a bristle brush doesn’t always offer me the kind of control that I need, especially if the painting is small. On anything 12" x 16" or larger I might use all bristle.”

When the artist is painting sunsets or other transitory light effects, he premixes a great deal of the color so that he will be able to work more quickly. “A stage of a sunset may only last 10 or 15 minutes,” he says, “so timing is everything.” Another effective technique Gurney has discovered is painting a basic sky before arriving on-site, which allows him to paint delicate detail over the sky without picking up extra pigment. “Before beginning work on a canvas with a dry sky, I put down a layer of oil so that it feels more like working wet-in-wet,” Gurney says. One nontraditional gadget the artist finds useful is a fluorescent flashlight. “I used it to do a twilight painting last year,” says the artist. “I found that hanging it over the palette in the fading light allowed me to the see the color much more accurately.” It is a device that also works well for night painting in the city.

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Catskills From Blithewood
2003, oil, 9 x 12.

When it comes to making a Dinotopia book, Gurney uses a somewhat different technique from his plein air work. He begins with thumbnail graphite sketches, followed by a slightly more careful graphite drawing showing the page layout. The artist then does a miniature color painting to get a sense of the weight and presence of the whole thing. Having conducted whatever research he needs to complete his image, the artist executes a comprehensive line drawing to scale and then transfers it onto a larger canvas using an opaque projector. Once the graphite drawing is adjusted to his satisfaction on the canvas, he covers it by brushing on a coat of clear acrylic matte medium. The artist then works in oil, beginning with thin, transparent washes and gradually building in opacity. “The advantage of this technique,” he says, “is that if I mess up I can wipe down the paint and still have the graphite line preserved beneath the acrylic.”

Gurney thins his washes with Gamblin Gamsol and uses Liquin medium to work the paint.  This confers a somewhat flat surface on the work, but allows for dazzling transparencies and the close control that the artist requires. In the studio Gurney often uses a palette knife to do his initial mixing.  He has constructed a palette with a paper-towel-roll holder underneath, which allows him to pull a continuous sheet of freezer wrap over the plywood board. “I found that mixing on glass doesn’t work for me,” he explains. “Scraping it off creates a lot of flaking, and I prefer to mix on a white surface.” Unusually, the artist prefers to have his palette tilted at an angle toward him.   

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Farm in
Harlem Valley

2004, oil, 16 x 20.
Collection Sherry Smith.

Facing Gurney as he works is a floor-to-ceiling display surface, angled out from the wall at the base, with quarter-round rails spaced 16 inches apart. On this display rack he can review dozens of paintings at once, which is especially important when planning an illustrated story. “When you are working on a book, you have to think about how each scene fits into the larger sequence, rather like a movie,” says the artist. Gurney is in the midst of working on his next Dinotopia book—a 160-page volume for which he has already completed 120 paintings. It goes without saying that such a project involves an enormously industrious and well-organized approach.

Although Gurney’s work as a plein air painter has certainly enhanced his illustrations, it is also true that his instincts as a storyteller have informed his landscape painting. For instance, in his painting Kaaterskill Falls, Living Waters the almost mystical gauzy light at the top of the painting, set against the shadowed valley with its magnificent waterfall, seems to come from another world—a world quite similar to that inhabited in Waterfall City, Afternoon Light of Dinotopia. And in Catskills From Blithewood the almost impossibly sweet blues and violets in the distance give us more than a hint of Chandara. Living in the midst of the storied tradition of the Hudson River School, Gurney has certainly learned to rely on both his observation and his imagination. No doubt there are many more adventures to come both in this world and in worlds apart.   

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Kaaterskill Falls,
Living Waters

2004, oil, 20 x 16.

About the Artist
James Gurney was born in 1958 in Glendale, California, and raised in Palo Alto. He majored in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley and then studied illustration at the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, where he met his wife, Jeanette, who is also a gifted artist. In 1984 the couple moved to the Hudson Valley, where they have raised two sons, Dan and Franklin. After working in the 1980s as an illustrator for National Geographic, Gurney completed and published Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time (Turner Publishing Company, Atlanta, Georgia) in 1992. The book was a huge success, selling well over a million copies and being translated into 18 languages. Two subsequent books, Dinotopia: The World Beneath (Turner Publishing Company, Atlanta, Georgia) and Dinotopia: First Flight (HarperCollins, New York, New York), were also highly successful and spawned various other ventures, including a television series, a series of novels, and a set of U.S. postage stamps. An exhibition of Gurney’s work, titled “Dinotopia: The Fantastical Art of James Gurney,” was originally held at the Norman Rockwell Museum, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and will be traveling to other museums. A fourth book in the series, Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara, will be published in October of 2007. Visit James Gurney's website or the Dinotopia website for more information. 

John A. Parks is an artist who is represented by Allan Stone Gallery, in New York City. He is also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and is a frequent contributor to American Artist, Drawing, Watercolor, and Workshop magazines.

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Comments

Ezra wrote
on 16 Oct 2006 12:51 AM
A great artist with a great philosophy of art.
Lucia Kelly wrote
on 29 Dec 2006 12:25 PM
Love James Gurney's work. A lovely blend from realistic to fantasy.
on 15 Sep 2011 6:29 PM

Mr. Gurney is also a generous teacher and coach via his blog and website, sharing his process and discoveries in an easy to understand fashion.