Mech art on location
James Gurney heads outdoors.
Could it be possible to plan and execute a science fiction painting entirely outside, removed from the comfort of the studio? I have the chance to find out, because a big construction project has moved into my hometown.
Track excavators have always looked like robots to me, so I start with the idea of designing a 40-foot-tall mech based on the engineering principles of heavy construction equipment. My plan is to work outdoors for every step of the process, from thumbnail sketches, to comps, to the finished painting. The question is: will reality ignite my imagination or overwhelm it?
The concept for the picture doesn’t come easy at first. They say a creative success is the end product of a thousand failures. But my ideas don’t seem like failures when I first hatch them. Each one starts with a burst of enthusiasm. It takes a while for disenchantment to set in. I keep playfully experimenting until I arrive at the idea of showing the robot tangled up in a complex accident scene.
I set up my easel alongside a busy franchise thoroughfare. Along the way I meet policemen, machine operators and college students, each of whom looks at my work-in-progress and gives me helpful feedback.
James animates stop-motion puppets, produces video, writes books, paints dinosaurs and is more mild-mannered than the predator named after him: Torvosaurus gurneyi. For more, visit www.jamesgurney.com.
1 Explore concepts and compositions
I sketch thumbnails in watercolour, and get ideas for scale, setting, time of day and pose. Some are at night, some are at midday, and others in overcast light. I want to avoid a lot of the familiar battle clichés, and imagine scenarios where robots are commonplace.
2 Build a foam maquette
I sketch a standing robot, then scale the maquette to match the drawing. The maquette is made out of sheets of construction foam. I cut out pieces and sandwich them with hot glue over a wire skeleton. The wire skeleton makes complicated mechanical joints unnecessary.
3 Maquette generates pose ideas
My first idea is to show the robot seated, forgotten and rusting in the back of a repair shop. The maquette helps with poses and lighting. But I reject the idea because it’s too static. The robot needs to be doing something active if he’s going to have any personality.
4 Robot meets humans
In this little casein comprehensive, I get the robot up on his feet and show him encountering humans. Perhaps he was built on a secret manufacturing base by other autonomous, intelligent robots and he’s exploring the human world for the first time. I like the basic composition and the sense of scale, but it lacks a sense of drama. Time to return to the drawing board.
5 Brainstorm in a restaurant
At my favourite diner I sketch more ideas while I wait for my scrambled eggs to be delivered to my table. I’m inspired by a photo I saw of the consequences of a chemical explosion in China. Why not show some sort of accident scene that the robot gets involved in?
6 Focus on the aftermath
Now I’ve got something. The robot feels remorseful. He’s just trying to help, but he’s making it worse. There’s debris from an accident he didn’t mean to cause. There are firemen and police and passersby at the scene.
7 Interact with the environment
More thumbnails help me figure out how the robot should interact with the cars, power lines and people in the scene. I also think about time of day and light direction. Interactivity weaves the action with the setting, implies cause and effect, and gets away from the dull green-screen look of so many special effects-driven movies.
8 Give the maquette a hero pose
I put the maquette in a pose where he’s down on one knee. Instead of looking despairing or tired, he looks more active and dynamic, like he’s bending down to try to help someone. The maquette gives me the information I need for lighting.
9 Work out the whole scene
With the light coming from the left and behind, I do a quick sketch to generate ideas for the arrangement of all the elements in the shot. There should be plenty of cars, utility poles and fast food outlets lining the outer edges of the composition to suggest action going on outside the frame.
10 Study an excavator
To understand the joints and hydraulics, I do a careful gouache study of a track excavator. I talk to the operators, who explain how the hydraulics and the controls work. The arm is made up of two parts, the boom and the stick, ending in the linkage, the bucket and the ground engagement tools.
11 Work out the backstory
I think more about a science-fiction backstory. This is an autonomous robot that escaped from an AI research compound to warn humans about the upcoming Checkmate Scenario. A whole novel-length story unfolds in my head. It won’t all be reflected in this one painting, but I could build the story backward or forward if I needed to.
12 Plan with a line drawing
On a 12x16-inch illustration board, primed with tinted gesso, I develop the design with a reddish watercolour pencil. Note the five-fingered hand, which I soon realise is too sophisticated for this character. Better to limit his dexterity and make him more helpless in the situation.
13 Try again on the hand
I paint over the five-fingered hand and make this attempt at a more primitive hand. But it still doesn’t work. It looks too much like a fist. So I paint it again and replace it with a bucket-like hand. I have to redraw or repaint many elements in the scene four or five times.
14 Get advice from a policeman
While I’m at the police station, painting one of the cars, several officers approach me, look at my painting and give me some helpful pointers about how they would deal with the situation I’m painting. “The first thing you’re looking for is injuries… the safety of the people and the public,” one of them tells me. “Once you figure that out, then you slowly start dissecting it from there.”