How the Yellow Pages and riding freight trains helped James turn pro
James Gurney gives advice.
Where did it all start?
I’m about eight years old walking behind my family in San Francisco’s art museum. Suddenly the eyes of a Rembrandt portrait catch mine. Am I crazy, or did it just blink? For a second, I think I see the eyes turning to follow me. The moment passes as my parents call for me to catch up. But the idea enters my brain that paintings can be more than a flat surface. They might also be windows to living worlds.
What was your next step in art?
I was a pen and ink man until I was 20. I spent more time building models than drawing pictures, though, because I couldn’t get the pictures real enough to satisfy myself that I could live inside them. Through high school I built model boats, aeroplanes, kites, puppets and masks. Drawing was mainly a tool for planning those month-long projects.
Who has helped you the most?
My high school graphic-arts teacher Bill Burns let me use his copy stand for basic animation – bouncing balls and walk cycles – and loaned me the stand and the camera to create a short film over the summer. In art school, Ted Youngkin was the greatest ever perspective teacher. He was very demanding and a bit scary in class, but I kept in touch with him until he passed away. He really loved his students and wanted them to succeed.
Has anyone tried to get in your way?
Aged 22, after my first year at Art Center in California, I rode freight trains across America for the summer, documenting everything with a sketchbook. I returned with a backpack full of sketches and a book contract from Watson- Guptill. When I asked the president of the art school, Don Kubly, and head of the illustration department, Phil Hays, to let me do a slide show for the school, they refused, saying art instruction books weren’t high-art or conceptual enough. It was a ridiculously narrow view of art, and I felt sorry for both of them. I never returned to the school because I realised they weren’t serious enough about the knowledge I was hungry to learn.
Do what you love most, then figure out how to make
a living out of it
What was your first paid commission?
In high school I went through the Yellow Pages to find all the small printing shops in hope of getting assignments for calligraphy and illustration. I visited all of them on my bicycle, with my portfolio strapped to the basket. I taught myself calligraphy using books from the 1920s and ’30s. My first job was a wedding invitation that paid $20. It seemed like a fortune for an afternoon’s work.
Is your art evolving? What’s the most recent experiment you’ve made?
I hope it’s evolving. It’s got to change to stay alive. I’ve been sketching a lot in water media, and I’ve been returning to casein, a milk-based paint that predated acrylic. It’s the oldest paint, older than oil – I think the Egyptians used it. It’s very opaque and has a wonderful surface. I’ve also been painting in watercolour and gouache, which appeal because of their difficulty and because they encourage risk and commitment.
What is the most important thing you’ve taught someone?
I’m not really a teacher, more of an explainer and I don’t often work directly with students. But on my blog I did a multi-part post, myth-busting the Golden Mean, one of the most persistent dogmas in art education.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
First, do what you love most, then figure out how to make a living out of it. Second, don’t worry about the numbers of a contract – think more whether you like the people you’ll be doing business with. Third, hang on to your rights.
How has fantasy art changed for good since you’ve been working in it?
Digital empowers creators to be their own publishers, which places a burden of responsibility to maintain quality in everything they do. But at the same time to take risks and experiment, not only with subject matter, but with delivery systems and monetisation.
What gripes do you have about the fantasy art industry right now?
I’m not very good at griping. There’s always room for new ideas and people who want to take risks. What’s hot and popular now will be tomorrow’s corny nostalgia. The things that won’t feel dated are truth to nature (realism) and truth to emotion (sincerity).
Eggs-ellent art James Gurney’s most recent work: one of three paintings of dinosaur eggs and babies for the National Wildlife Federation.