GUEST ARTIST: “Conjuring Dreams Out Of Thin Air” by James Gurney

James Gurney Gouache Watercolor Plein Air Painting Monterey Feature

My name is James Gurney, and I was born in Glendale, California and raised in Palo Alto. I’ve loved drawing since I was a kid and taught myself drawing by reading books by my child heroes, Norman Rockwell and Howard Pyle. By the time I was in high school, I had learned how to do hand-lettering and made my very first income by designing wedding invitations.

After high school, I attended college at UC Berkeley. I majored in archeology, as I always found it fascinating, and though I graduated with an archeology degree, I always wanted to be an illustrator. So I packed up all of my belongings into a tiny car and headed down to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, never having seen the place.

Maltese Bus Illustration by James Gurney

I had read old books about the French Academy, and I somehow imagined art school would be this hushed atmosphere with high ceilings and north windows and plaster casts of Greek gods, with the walls covered with academic studies. It was not like this at all.  It was shiny and corporate and minimalist. The emphasis was on product design, abstraction, and “concept” illustration, whatever that meant. I wanted to dissect cadavers! I wanted to make pictures that told stories!

Sketching Dinosaurs James Gurney

I left school for the summer and never came back. I think I was dizzy from all the marker fumes and art theories. I wanted to see America. I said good-bye to all of my friends, loaded my backpack with peanuts, and sketchbooks, and jumped onto an open boxcar eastbound from the LA freight yards.

Graveyard Illustration Watercolor by James Gurney

All summer long, I slept in graveyards and on rooftops and sketched portraits of gravestone cutters and lumberjacks. To make money I drew two-dollar portraits in bars by the light of cigarette machines.

My first real art job was doing engraved line illustrations for ring ads in the newspaper. It was a start, but it didn’t pay the bills. My big break was getting a job painting backgrounds for an animated film called Fire and Ice, co-produced by Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta, and released in 1983. It was a marathon of painting, because I had to paint about 600 paintings in a year and a half.

Set Painting from Fire & Ice Movie

The best thing about the film work was the feeling of living inside my paintings. When I saw my pictures projected on the screen with action and music, it really felt like I was inside the world I was painting, not just looking at little flat rectangles. Howard Pyle always talked about jumping through the picture frame and breathing the air you just painted, and that was the first time I completely experienced that feeling.

Dinosaur drawing process Dinotopia with James Gurney

Next, I started painting fantasy book covers and working for National Geographic as an archaeological illustrator.  When I started there, National Geographic still sent its artists and art directors to meet the archaeologists on location. On some of my first assignments I had a chance to see Rome, Tarquinia, Cerveteri, Norchia, and Populonia for an article on the Etruscans. We visited some newly discovered tombs with an archaeologist named Rick Bronson. The archaeologists and paleontologists were always incredibly helpful, as was the National Geographic staff, which includes full-time art researchers.

Dinotopia Cover Illustration James Gurney

Later, I stopped doing freelance for a couple of years to focus on writing and illustrating a book that would become Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time.  The idea for the book grew out of my love of archaeology and lost worlds, but the idea of combining lost worlds and dinosaurs came a little later.

James Gurney Dinosaur Process Painting

One of the reasons I wasn’t too obsessed with dinosaurs as a kid was that most books showed them as evolutionary failures, dull-witted cold-blooded sluggards. When I took a fresh look at dinosaurs as an adult, I quickly discovered that many scientists now regarded them as dynamic, warm-blooded creatures who had more in common with birds than with reptiles.

Any kind of imaginative realism: paleoart, concept art, wildlife art, or historical painting is totally different from a still life because you start with a hazy mental image and you have to provide the convincing details in stages. I’m thoroughly old-school. I start with small thumbnail sketches in pencil or watercolor. If it’s an architectural subject or a dinosaur, I’ll build a maquette out of any material at hand.

Treehouse Illustration by James Gurney

Most of my paintings try to make the impossible look inevitable. I like to think beyond a single work of art and imagine things from many angles, or imagine how they would look in a thousand years. What would happen if an object were picked up by an alien culture and used in a different way? Such leaps of imagination are what an engineer is doing all the time, and most science fiction people aren’t too far removed from that kind of thinking.

My Watercolor Supplies

I have a 12-color set of full-pan watercolors and a small, changing set of gouache. I keep a several different brands in play at any given time, and combine colors from more than one brand in any given painting. I use a heavyweight, medium-textured watercolor paper for all my water media paintings and sketches.

Watercolor and Gouache materials for plein air sketching

My preferred watercolors include a Schmincke Horadam 12 Color Set, Holbein (gouache), M. Graham (gouache), Winsor & Newton (gouache), Shinhan Pass (watercolor/gouache hybrid), Richeson (casein).

For brushes, I use a Winsor Newton series 995 flat, Winsor Newton long flat bristle brush #8, Richeson short-handled travel set and Richeson “Grey Matters” brush set.

Watercolor & Gouache Video Tutorials

Here are some examples of how I paint with watercolors and gouache:


I would advise anyone beginning to draw and paint to forget about style and to draw and paint as naturally and faithfully as possible, especially at the beginning. I think it’s a mistake to dwell on developing a personal style, because sometimes the style gets in the way of really seeing.

Whimsical Illustration of Boy in flying machine by James Gurney

Though, there’s no doubt that it’s a tough time right now to make a living as an illustrator. But that can change. We have to win back the public by coming up with new ways to tell stories with pictures. We have more resources at our fingertips than any of our artistic ancestors ever dreamed of, and there are unlimited opportunities if we can just try to rise to the high ideals and standards that they came before us.

Illustration is a proud calling. We should never forget how lucky we are to be able to conjure dreams out of thin air.

James Gurney

Recommended8 recommendationsPublished in Featured Artists
  1. Suzy pal Powell 4 years ago

    I love James gurney and his art. He is one my my very favorites. He is so sharing with everything.
    It would be such fun to meet him someday.

  2. Laura Hale 4 years ago

    My family and I have been fans of James Gurney since purchasing a “pop-out” Dinotopia book when our children were small. Our sons are now 28 and 32. We still have the book. Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

  3. Denise Soden 4 years ago

    What a wonderful read from the one and only James Gurney. I am always memorized by your painting process, absolutely adored Dinotopia growing up and still have a rich passion for dinosaurs today, and learning a bit more about your past was really fascinating. I particularly like what you mentioned about not dwelling on a style. Paint what comes naturally to you and your style will follow 🙂

    • Lin Powell 4 years ago

      I also liked that comment about style. Certainly gave me a different way of thinking about style.

  4. Mary Roff 4 years ago

    Thanks for sharing your amazing story and your videos! Your work is wonderful!

  5. Sandra Strait 4 years ago

    Your adventurous spirit shows in your artwork, yet the intricate detail and realism keeps it grounded. The result is lightning! Thank you for sharing your artistic journey, James. It is inspiring.

  6. Karen Fortier 4 years ago

    I have been following James Gurney for several years and have learned a lot from his videos!

  7. Lisa Ann Ulibarri 4 years ago

    Thanks for sharing your inspiring story James 🙂

  8. Erez Gonen 4 years ago

    Almost every old master painter was an Illustrator?
    We think of the Sistine Chapel as a great work of art…
    But… is it a still life art? is it figure art? Landscape art?
    NO, it’s illustration art.
    sometime we try to differentiate between art and illustration…
    BUT, PLEASE, don’t mix up “Illustration” with “Illustrative style”.
    Mr Gurney’s Illustrations, most definitely fall into the “Fine Art” category.
    His work is brilliant.

  9. M. L. Kappa 4 years ago

    So nice to see you here, James! I follow your blog, which I find extremely inspiring and instructive, and have watched plenty of videos. Great idea to get him on Doodlewash, Charlie!

  10. Sharon Nolfi 4 years ago

    I’m a Dinotopia fan! It’s great to see you here, James. Thanks for sharing these videos.

  11. Sharon Bonin-Pratt 4 years ago

    I thought I recognized Dinotopia! I bought the book for my sons and they loved it. How fascinating to read your story and see more of your art. You’re extraordinarily creative and talented, James. It’s been a pleasure to get to see so much of your artwork here. That dinosaur, even though the art is incomplete, looks like it’s walking right towards me.

  12. Janneke Booister 4 years ago

    Thank you for sharing all this! I enjoyed both the story and the art 🙂

  13. LoriCtoo 4 years ago

    Your work is iconic! Thank you for sharing your interesting art journey and videos.

  14. June Hadaway 4 years ago

    This is amazing. Thank you for sharing.

  15. Fatima Chamkha 4 years ago

    Thanks for sharing you work amazing these filmsets and details!

  16. James Gurney 4 years ago

    Thanks for your comments everybody. I’m traveling out west on a sketching trip right now without my computer, so sorry I can’t respond individually, but I really appreciate your kind words.

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