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Review: James Gurney’s ‘Imaginative Realism’.

October 13, 2009

Soybeans (National Geographic) James Gurney 1987

I recieved Jim Gurney’s book in the mail yesterday and immediately made myself a cup of coffee, sat outside in the autumn sunshine and read the book. It took about four hours to read through in a few sittings, but I’ll be going back to look through my favourite parts later. A bit about Gurney first.

The bio on his website says ‘Born in 1958 in Glendale, California. Raised in Palo Alto, the youngest of five children of Joanna and Robert Gurney (a mechanical engineer). Earned a B.A. in Archaeology in 1979 with Phi Beta Kappa honors at the University of California at Berkeley. Studied painting at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where he met his wife-to-be Jeanette, also an artist. In 1984 they moved to the Hudson Valley of New York State, where they raised two sons, Daniel and Franklin.’

Gurney has illustrated for the National Geographic and the US Postal Service and has been a background artist for Bakshi’s film ‘Fire and Ice’.  His claim to fame is as a writer and illustrator of the Dinotopia Series, which has been the subject of much acclaim across America.

Dinotopia, James Gurney

Dinotopia, James Gurney

I first came across Gurney on the internet by accidentally (glorious accident!) stumbling across his blog, , which is fantastic and regularly updated. His blog holds forth on many topics related to art and artists, including tips, techniques and discussions on art topics. I guess you could say I model mine after him to a certain extent, but my art pales in comparision to his.

The reason why is clear if you look through Imaginative Realism. The chapters are laid out pleasantly, starting off first with an introduction to illustration history, including some rather beautiful reproductions of Pyle and Cornwell. He moves on to discuss materials and considerations of studio set-up.

I love the photo of his studio- the large windows with the wintry north-facing landscape, the maquettes, beautiful past paintings on the wall, the tidy palette and Gurney himself painting with his budgie on his shoulder.  It looks so idyllic, so beautiful with the snowy trees outside. The studio is large enough to accommodate the several steps included in his process.

Imaginative Realism then goes on to discuss several areas of illustration that call for a fusion of the imagination with realism. Gurney gives several ideas and solutions for problems that have arisen for him over the years and he shows how he has used them not just to solve problems, but to increase the quality of the work. As he says in the books (paraphrased)  ‘The viewer can see right away that you’ve taken all these steps.’ His use of real life models, maquettes and photographic resources all contribute towards the realism of his work, but he is equally careful to warn against being a slave to the resource. Gurney advocates the triumph of the imagination over pinpoint accurate realism and this comes through in his work.

My favourite part comes near the end, where Gurney starts discussing composition, tonality &c. One striking thing about his work is how very good his lighting is.

T-Rex at Watering Hole, James Gurney, 2002.

T-Rex at Watering Hole, James Gurney, 2002.

He goes through the different careers that require the use of imaginative realism and encourages the upcoming young artists ‘Opportunities exist now that even twenty years ago would be unthinkable.’

Yet another one of my favourite parts is where he shows a step by step of his process, bringing together all the elements of the previous chapters. He puts a lot of work into his art and it really shows. His work is beautiful but never overcontrived.

I’m glad I ordered the book and would do so again. If I had to ask for something, it would be a little more discussion on lighting and photographic elements that he uses in his work. I’d like to hear  how he handles things like the light on water, that sort of thing. Perhaps we can look forward to this in his next book?

You can see more for yourself at Gurney’s website :

Subscribe now to his blog.  Yes, now :

and buy Imaginative Realism at Amazon.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2009 2:55 pm

    Big thanks, you have best articles and this one I liked the most!

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  2. Nior Rose permalink
    February 20, 2010 1:17 pm

    Dinotopia has been my favoretist book since I was 5 !
    Amazingly I saw your blog on Mysteryseeker.
    Very unreal.

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