2/14/2013 - Creating a fantasy world of any kind requires more work, more backstory and more research than you might imagine — assuming you want to make it believable.
That’s what James Gurney learned when he started writing his Dinotopia series, beginning with Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time in 1992. All of his intricately illustrated books depict an island on which humans and dinosaurs coexist peacefully, which required him to fuse real, scientific knowledge of the dinosaurs with a fictitious storyline. The trick to making it believable? It’s all in the details.
He’ll describe the journey he took in creating this world at the New Hampshire Institute of Art on Wednesday, Feb. 20, where 22 of his original oil paintings from these best-selling illustrated books, including Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time, Dinotopia: The World Beneath and Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara, will hang in an installation, “Dinotopia: The Fantastical Art of James Gurney.”
“There are some things that I’ve learned from heroes of mine, like J. R. R. Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings. One of the things he did was imagine his universe beyond the pages of the book. He developed heroes and battles in great detail, but of which you only see glancingly in the text,” he said in a phone interview. “That basic principle applies to my work.”
That’s clear if you’ve read his books or seen his paintings.
In the Dinotopia storyline, he knows how people of Dinotopia lived, how humans and dinosaurs communicated (there was a translated footprint shape for each letter of the alphabet), the sports they might have played and the secrets the island held. His books are set in the 19th century, a time when much of the world was unexplored and when these places could really exist in the minds of man, he said on his website. The stories chronicle the experiences of Professor Arthur Denison and his son Will when they venture to Dinotopia by accident.
Each illustration is meticulously crafted too; it can be argued that Gurney’s research for Dinotopia began in college, where he majored in anthropology before venturing off to art school. His landscapes of Dinotopia are inspired by real-life places, and his people are drawn from real people (he or someone he knows will dress up as the character). Similarly, dinosaur drawings were inspired by skeletons, science, and his own dinosaur maquettes.
“The thing I love about dinosaurs is that they are on the balance point between fantasy and reality,” Gurney said in a press release. “It might be hard to believe that mermaids and dragons really existed, but we know that dinosaurs did; we can see their footprints and skeletons, but we can’t photograph or see them, except in our imagination.”
He’s an ideal visitor for aspiring artists today because his work was “groundbreaking” in its concept and the way in which new worlds are used today in concept art, said Jim Burke, chairperson of the illustration department at NHIA. Concept art, which encompasses character design, creation of atmosphere and civilizations, is extremely popular for art majors today, and is often used in video games, illustration and film.
“It’s incredibly complex; it takes a tremendous amount of research and creation of different aspects that must come together to make the works look believable,” Burke said. “We can see that his love of archeology and dinosaurs [has] a role in the world that he’s created.”
There’s also more of a market for concept art today.
“I think it’s become a much bigger area of the art world, not just because of new techniques for making pictures, but because of the sheer number of science fiction movies today. In Avatar, for instance, everything has to be designed and imagined,” Gurney said.
The thing about drawing from science, though, is that what we know is always evolving and changing.
“Along the way, I’ve learned about the new discoveries of dinosaurs. A lot of two-legged theropods had feathers. Even the bigger dinosaurs had feathers,” he said.
This feathered dino didn’t make its way into Dinotopia until its third installment.
If you haven’t read the books, you might also recognize the term Dinotopia from Hallmark’s take on it in a miniseries, which ran from 2002 to 2003. He also worked at great length for National Geographic and occasionally does work for science magazines like Scientific American. Now that his kids are grown, he and his wife (also an artist) travel more. They enjoy visiting art schools to lecture, too.
“Sometimes I meet people who are in art school and tell me, ‘I was seven years old when Dinotopia came out, and it made me want to become an artist.’ I feel a sense of responsibility to make sure that this whole art thing works out for them,” he said, chuckling.