Dino dude

A passion for adventure inspires Rhinebeck painter James Gurney to create fantastic ‘Dinotopia’ book series.

Posted: Friday, August 29, 2008
The young James Gurney spent many warm days vrooming his Tonka trucks across the front lawn of his family’s home in Los Altos, California. He dug a few holes in the lawn, with hopes of finding a buried pharaoh or a dinosaur bone. Little did he know he was laying the groundwork for a career that has included painting scenes of actual lost cities and creating a virtual one called Dinotopia, where humans and dinosaurs coexist.

“My father was a mechanical engineer, and I was the youngest of five children. By the time I came around, my parents were able to let me make a creative mess. My father even let me use his tools … table saw and a welding torch. And I still have all my fingers,” laughs Gurney, a self-proclaimed diligent little kid with a complex imagination who also loved art.

His grandfather’s old National Geographic magazines, the pages of which told the magnificent tales of Troy and Machu Picchu, further fueled the young boy’s dreams.
“I also loved the adventure classics, like ‘Treasure Island’ and Mark Twain’s works,” says the now 50-year-old.

“Everyone in the family saved toilet-paper tubes for me so I could make miniature castles.”
Before long, those toilet-paper tubes were traded for college-ruled spiral notebooks. At the University of California at Berkeley, he spent four years studying “everything,” from archaeology to history and paleontology. He earned a degree in anthropology in 1979. He then went on to study for two semesters at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

After graduating from Berkeley during the summer of 1980, the free-spirited Gurney and a fellow art student W.T. Kinkade hopped a freight train in Los Angeles and sketched their way around the country.
“We were inspired by John Steinbeck and Charles Kuralt,” says Gurney, referring to writers who road-tripped their craft. “We wanted to explore America as artists.”

The two slept in graveyards and on rooftops. When they needed to eat, they painted portraits of people in bars for a couple of bucks. “We also drew pictures of dogs for $2 each at a dog show in Missouri. This was valuable experience because these people knew what their dogs looked like and wouldn’t hesitate to critique your drawing.”

Rather than words, their memories were recorded in sketches, sketches that would translate into “The Artist’s Guide to Sketching,” a compendium of anecdotes and practical information for artists that was published in 1982, when Gurney was only 24.  “We got kicked off the train at gunpoint in Willard, Ohio. I got caught trying to fly a kite from the top of a train car,” he recalls. “In New York, we couldn’t afford a hotel and stayed on a burned-out pier. I stored my backpack underneath the pier, forgetting about the rising tide of the Hudson River.”

In many ways, this experience of traveling with a sketchbook laid the foundation for Dinotopia, he says, referring to one of the book’s main characters, Arthur Denison, whose journals and sketches tell the story. It was also at the Art Center that Gurney met his sketching buddy and soul mate, Jeanette Lendino.
“She’s still my sketching buddy,” he says, “though once we were settled down, I gave up riding freight trains, much to her relief.”

He accepted an offer to be a background painter for an animated feature titled “Fire and Ice.” It was his job to paint the swamps and jungles, which would be overlaid with the cells containing the animated characters. “It was like living inside the painting,” he says of the 600 or so eight-by-12-inch paintings that he produced at the rate of 11 a week. “I had to learn how to paint quickly.”

That animation project led to painting science fiction and fantasy covers for paperback books. “I’m a fantasy painter who’s a realist at heart,” he says. The young couple, who celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary last April, decided it would be best for their future to be closer to New York City. They bought a Ford Econoline van, and looked for places to live within 100 miles of New York City.

Ultimately, they settled in Rhinebeck in 1984. “We fell in love with the Hudson Valley,” Gurney says, “partly because this was the home of the Hudson River School of landscape painters. It’s thrilling to be close to the site of their inspiration.”  To this day, he and his wife are enamored with and inspired by many little spots along the Hudson River – especially the view from Olana, home of 19th century landscape painter Frederic Church.

From his home in Rhinebeck, Gurney freelances illustrations for publishers in New York City and also worked with National Geographic, based in Washington, D.C., on historical and archeological reconstructions. “These are scenes that can’t be photographed, such as dinosaurs or sunken ships, which bring the past into focus,” he says. These freelance assignments were not made up out of thin air; rather, they required meticulous research, including interviews with scientific experts, in order to paint a scene that brings clarity to the unseen past.”

He notes one trip in which he went to Italy to see a newly discovered intact Etruscan tomb.
“But tomb robbers had gotten there first and emptied the tomb,” he says. So Gurney consulted with archaeologists and looked in museums to reconstruct the death bed, pottery and chariots that were looted.

The National Geographic assignments rekindled his interest in lost cities. There was no storybook concept at this time, but he started painting a series of large, realistic lost cities – including Waterfall City and Dinosaur Parade – which were released as collectible art prints. It was about 1988 that Gurney became acquainted with Ian and Betty Ballantine, who lived near Woodstock.

Ballantine was the founder of Ballantine and Bantam books, and he helped to popularize paperback books in the U.S. “He believed in fantasy for adults, publishing the authorized edition of ‘The Lord of the Rings,’” says Gurney. “He first approached me to do a book on dwarfs.”  But Gurney was brewing another idea, which he first called “Lost Empires,” and which later became “Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time.”
“Mr. Ballantine looked at my initial sketches,” Gurney recalls. “He suggested that the book be 160 pages. I told him that would take me at least three years.”  Which it did.

Not only was this the time that Gurney’s career began to soar, it was also the time that the Gurneys’ two sons were born. Jeanette, a cookbook and exercise book illustrator, set aside her paintbrushes and devoted herself to making a home and raising two boys. Dan, now 21, is studying music; Franklin, 18, is a business major. Both boys grew up in a home that never had a TV. Rather, imaginations were fueled by things like refrigerator cartons turned into spaceships and books read aloud by dad.

“Hallmark made a TV miniseries based on the books, but we didn’t have a TV, so we had no way to watch the tapes they sent us,” Gurney says. “Eventually, we got a monitor to play videotapes, but it’s still not hooked up to anything.” Gurney has also been commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service to design postage stamps. In 1988, he designed a postal card commemorating the settlement of the Northwest Territory.

He also painted the artwork for “The World of Dinosaurs” released in 1996, showing 15 dinosaurs and other creatures in two panoramic scenes. One scene depicted the dinosaurs, plants, insects and birds from 75 million years ago and the other from 150 million years ago. “Every detail had to be accurate,” he says. “Usually the Postal Service works with its own researchers, but they let me work directly with the research scientists. It may have been the first they worked with this way.”

Most recently, he illustrated the Sickle Cell Awareness stamp, a challenging concept. To drive home the message of preventing the disease by testing early, Gurney chose to paint a mother holding her infant son. He found models through an agency in Goshen and did the final paintings based on the photos.
Gurney’s fourth book in the series, “Dinotopia, Journey to Chandara,” was released last fall. With their boys in college, the couple mapped out the book tour as a road trip.

The itinerary included bookstores and museums, and they also did slide presentations at art schools and movie studios nationwide. “It was a different way to do a book tour,” says Gurney. “By traveling in our car and splitting the costs with the publisher, it was affordable, and we took a lot of back roads and visited small towns that didn’t have authors come by too often.”

Locally, Gurney and his wife have participated in an artist-in-residency program at a 19th-century red cabin in the Platte Clove area of the Catskills, through the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development. “The cabin is fairly primitive, with electricity but no plumbing, and it’s set right next to a 100-foot waterfall,” Gurney says. “It feels like a million miles from civilization, yet it’s so close to Kingston and Saugerties.”

For a week, the artist has complete peace within which to create. “I feel very lucky to be making art and telling stories for a living,” Gurney says. “I’m doing for a living the same thing I enjoyed as a kid.” All from digging up a lawn.

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