paint dra­matic light­ing

James Gur­ney shows how to cre­ate a sur­re­al­is­tic town­scape, on lo­ca­tion

ImagineFX: Sci-fi & Fantasy Art magazine - - Fantasy Workshop - James Gur­ney wrote Color and Light and Imag­i­na­tive Re­al­ism, which both dis­cuss the meth­ods used in cre­at­ing the New-York-Times best­selling Dino­topia se­ries. See James’s video tu­to­ri­als at www.james­gur­ney.com.

Who says you have to copy mun­dane re­al­ity when you’re out­side, plein air paint­ing? Why not give the facts a sur­real twist? I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in the two realms: the ba­nal, com­mon­place stage on which we act out our lives and the realm of dreams just be­hind the veil. Here I want to ex­plore where those two worlds in­ter­sect.

To get the ball rolling, I scout a lo­ca­tion in a small town along the Hud­son River in New York State. I con­sider some ways to trans­form the street scene in front of me. Maybe a gi­ant snake is com­ing out of a man­hole cover, or a 60-foot-tall car­toon fig­ure is step­ping over build­ings like some sort of Toon-Zilla. If I bring a model car to the lo­ca­tion, I can use it as a ma­que­tte and make it float up above the rooftops, per­haps lifted by a trac­tor beam.

To add to the mys­tery, I choose a time of day when the light is com­ing down at 45 de­grees, but I’ll limit the light to one beam il­lu­mi­nat­ing just one house like a the­atri­cal spotlight. This could never hap­pen in the real world, be­cause only an aper­ture in the clouds could frame a ray of light at that time of day. Those rays from clouds are not so fo­cused. They tran­si­tion from full light to full shadow very grad­u­ally – over the space of at least a city block. Smaller, more con­cen­trated lo­cal spots of light could hap­pen around sunset, but in that case, the light would be trav­el­ling al­most hor­i­zon­tally. So whether the viewer is con­scious of it or not, this tar­geted down­light­ing com­mu­ni­cates an alien, strange feel­ing.

Why paint such a scene out­side? The an­swer is that when I’m face to face with Na­ture, there are a thou­sand colour ideas and im­pres­sions that give my paint­ing added con­vic­tion. And be­ing on lo­ca­tion is a huge kick in the pants for speed­ing up the paint­ing process. I can get done in one af­ter­noon what would oth­er­wise take me a week in the stu­dio.

I’ll be us­ing ca­sein, a wa­ter-based paint with a milk pro­tein binder that was pop­u­lar be­fore acrylics. It’s a lot like gouache, ideally suited to fast, di­rect, opaque han­dling. It’s also the phys­i­cal paint tech­nique most like Pho­to­shop –ex­cept that there’s no Cmd-Z.

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