First Im­pres­sions

How the Yel­low Pages and rid­ing freight trains helped James turn pro

ImagineFX - - Contents - James Gur­ney Visit www.james­gur­ney.com to learn more about James and his art.

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.

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