Welcome to the Blank Canvas Series – An interview with an Artist. These amazing artists have offered to share their insights with the Master Oil Painting Community. Please Note: The views expressed here are those of the Featured Artist and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Master Oil Painting or Bill Inman.


“It’s easy to make a painting look like paint, but it’s much harder to make a painting that pulls in a viewer so completely that he feels the heat of sun on his neck and the sand in his shoes.”

Q: There is a polarized debate surrounding the distinction between illustration and fine art. You mention two artists you enjoy, that I also admire and study – Norman Rockwell and Alma Tadema – each has similar approaches in that they both create scenes from their imaginations, and yet one is called an illustrator and one is considered fine art. What are your thoughts, does it ever bother you to be called an illustrator, and how can less confident artists generate the courage to create art that inspires them when critics demean their approach?

A: I don’t really draw a distinction in my mind between “fine-art painting” and “illustration,” or between “fine-art” and “fantasy.” All are created in the studio; all are drawn from the imagination; and all follow more or less the same procedure. Whether it’s landscape paintings for a gallery or dinosaur paintings for a science magazine, an artist’s approach can be either inspired or commercial, depending on what frame of mind we bring to the easel. There’s nothing intrinsically “fine” about gallery work; in fact, it can be —and often is—far more commercial than illustration in the sense that an artist is always facing the consciousness of which images sell and why. I’ve never met a gallery artist who honestly doesn’t care about which of his paintings sell. A more meaningful division for me is between observational work and studio work—or you might say: plein-air versus imagination, outdoor work versus indoor work, the outer eye versus the inner eye. Both aspects of the artistic life are essential to me, and always have been.

Q: What role does observational work play in your life and how did you get started with it?

Thomas Kinkade and James Gurney in Missouri

A: I’ve always sketched outdoors at every opportunity. After art school, my friend Thomas Kinkade and I took off on a cross-country sketching trip on railroad boxcars, which led to a book that we co-wrote and illustrated called The Artist’s Guide to Sketching, (Watson- Guptill, 1982). This was before they called it “plein-air” art – for us, it was grittier. We lived the life of hoboes and drew portraits of street people. We wanted to be like Jack Kerouac, except with a sketch pad instead of a typewriter. We interviewed con men, lumberjacks, gravestone cutters, and cowboys. We slept on rooftops and graveyards because we couldn’t afford hotels on the few bucks we earned doing cartoon portraits in bars. This experience laid the groundwork for Dinotopia, too. The idea of an artist’s odyssey across a continent became the prototype for the sketchbook journal of explorer Arthur Denison, through whose eyes we witness the lost world of Dinotopia.

Q: What is the most fun aspect of realistic painting for you, and how do you keep learning and growing as an artist?

A: My biggest joy as an artist is when the painting surface seems to disappear and I feel I can live inside the scene I’m painting. There’s a Latin quote that I have wood-burned onto my mahlstick; it says: “Ars est celare artem.” I picked it up from a wonderful artist, now overlooked, named James Perry Wilson, who painted the illusionistic diorama backdrops in the American Museum of Natural History. It translates: “True art is the concealment of artifice.” Beyond the fun of creating new images, I’m always fascinated to learn more about how artists of the past worked, and how they thought about their artwork. I try to read material that was published in the same era as the art that I’m investigating, as modern professional art criticism is of little interest to me unless there’s truly some new scholarship.

Aftermath, casein, 12 x 16 by James Gurney. Painted on location at a construction site, a fast-food streetscape, and a police station.

Q: Your Dinotopia paintings are so rich with architecture and creatures not available to study in person, and yet the lighting and perspective are so true to life. How do you construct such realistic portrayals from your imagination?

A: The approach I use is developed from the teaching methods of the French Academy. There was a vast body of painting knowledge and terminology that was largely forgotten and is now being enthusiastically rediscovered. When I was a student, I read everything I could find about artists like Alma Tadema, Bouguereau, and Gerome. I also pored over editions of the Famous Artist’s Course from the 1950s, where story illustrators shared the secrets of their craft. How in the world, I wondered, could they paint such lifelike scenes from their imaginations? The method is rather painstaking, starting with lots of research, pages and pages of thumbnail sketches, studies from the costumed model, miniature sets for the architectural elements, and often a charcoal comprehensive study before launching into the final painting.

Q: You describe ‘imaginative realism’ as “any scene that can’t be photographed or observed directly” such as living dinosaurs roaming the countryside, or American Indians hunting buffalo 300 years ago. What relevance does that phrase have to the typical landscape painter creating work for a gallery, and how can we use imaginative realism to improve ‘traditional’ landscapes?

A: I think even with a landscape or a still life there’s an element of archetype to it, a kind of mental image beyond appearances. That’s what the imaginative approach can bring to the table in a painting of an observable subject. It also has to do with involving the viewer in the sympathetic magic of the painting, to make them identify with what we’re painting. It’s easy to make a painting look like paint, but it’s much harder to make a painting that pulls in a viewer so completely that he feels the heat of sun on his neck and the sand in his shoes. I wish this effect happened more often in my own work. It never happens without a lot of sweat and struggle. I don’t do these steps often enough, because I’ve got a lazy streak like everybody. But when I do, I’m glad, and it’s well worth the trouble. Some people say that doing preliminary work takes the spontaneity or the fun out of the final painting, but I’ve found just the opposite is true. If I’ve done the groundwork, the final painting is more likely to have a feeling of joyful effortlessness to it. I think traditional drawing and painting skills will always be valuable—things like anatomy, perspective, caricature, and multi-figure composition. Those skills transcend styles and fads and they’re surprisingly rare these days.

Background painting by James Gurney for the animated film Fire and Ice

Q: How did you teach yourself when you were starting out, and how do you continue to now?

A: Whenever I have needed new skills for my career, I just teach them to myself. The big break in accelerating my skill level 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. My general advice is to draw more than one subject on a regular basis. If you draw animals, houses and machines, you’ll also become a better landscape or floral painter. My specialty is painting realistic scenes that can’t be photographed, either for paleoart, historical illustration, or fantasy/science fiction, yet in my sketching life, I draw EVERYTHING. Just this week I’ve drawn a goat, a jet airliner, a Renaissance doublet, a lady’s braids, and a salt shaker in a diner. I also paint everything: portraits, landscapes, and animals. One of my greatest heroes as a draftsman is Adolf Menzel, who also drew everything around him. I like jumping out of my safe zone as much as possible. I can’t possibly draw the line between my professional work and my “fun” work. Most of it doesn’t pay right away until it’s recycled into a book.

Trash Talk – James painting his sons playing video games Christmas day

Q: Although you don’t sell your plein air work, and focus primarily on prints, books, illustrations and tutorials, do you have any recommendations for a person just starting out who wants to sell landscapes and floral scenes – or anyone who has struggled to make a living as an artist? For those who had not before considered it, but who are now inspired by your example, are there enough opportunities for illustration work to make a full-time living, and would it be best to specialize in one area or subject?

A: Well, yes, I hope there will continue to be employment in art in all the traditional categories, such as illustration, concept art, and gallery art. But the field keeps changing, and that has always been the case as long as there have been artists. Here’s what I tell students who ask about this: 1. Students often ask how the work environment is. I’d say it is competitive but not cutthroat. Nearly everyone I’ve met in the field has been congenial and welcoming to new talent. Of course, there is always a surplus of young (and older) artists who want to be working in the field, but there is also always room for a new voice with a new song. Keep in mind that desire and hard work are worth more than talent. Genius, as Thomas Carlyle once said, is the infinite capacity for taking pains. 2. If you put together a portfolio, show only your best work—eight pieces at the least and sixteen pieces at the most. Start and finish with your best pieces. 3. Don’t rely solely on electronic media to make contact with people in the business. Try to meet the art buyer. Go to conventions. Take workshops. And don’t overlook mailing traditional paper letters and printed leave-behinds. Since so few people do it these days, you might get your work up on someone’s bulletin board. 4. Always express a can-do attitude. On your first job, do twice as good a job as anyone would expect, and deliver it early. Make every published work your very best, regardless of the deadline or the budget. Then be sure to deliver more than you promise. 5. Some parts of the arts industry are more competitive than others. Fewer people think of scientific illustration or toy design, for example, compared to movie concept art. And within the field of concept art, many more people try to break into character design than environment design.

Mossy Brook Falls 12×16 by James Gurney

I don’t think young artists should worry about standing out or developing a unique style. I think it’s more important to be able to draw nature faithfully and express visual ideas clearly without calling attention to style. Too often art schools push young artists to develop a distinctive style before they’ve even begun to master the basics. 6. Finally, to make a living by your art nowadays, you don’t necessarily have to worry about winning the approval of the traditional gatekeepers (such as art directors, galleries, and movie studios) anymore. Thanks to Kickstarter, Gumroad, Patreon, YouTube and other crowdbased publicity and monetization strategies, you can assemble your own crowd and they can support you directly as you make your art. Start your own studio! Publish your own stuff! You can make art in the intersection of what you love to create and what people want to buy. That’s why this is potentially the best time to be a young artist entering the art world. But it takes persistence, grit, determination, flexibility, patience, and an understanding “significantother.” For example, in creating and promoting tutorials and for the first five years of the blog, we didn’t have the Internet at home, so I had to compress everything into short sessions at a library or a coffee shop. I try to set aside chunks of time every day for painting. When I’m traveling, I try to sketch in all the spare waiting moments, such as restaurants, airports, and places like that.

Wild roses, gouache over casein, 5 x 8 by James Gurney

Q: Other artists I have interviewed, as well as from my own observations as a full-time painter for 30+ years – many representational artists report working 15 hour days, 6-7 days a week – you have a much more congenial sounding schedule – can you address that a bit more? For instance, has that always been your regular hours, or are you just in a position now to slow down a bit? What kind of hours should new artists expect to work to succeed?

A: I don’t work to a time clock, and I can’t easily separate my work time from my fun time, since they’re all mixed up together, so I can’t really answer that question. If you enjoy what you do for a living, I would think you’d want to devote every waking minute to it.

Q: In your T-Rex video you use 14 colors, but often in your plein air casein work you use only a few – why? Do you plan your palette according to the needs of the painting, or does it pertain more to the conditions of plein air versus studio?

A: I usually don’t bother bringing many colors on location because my belt pouch is kind of small, so I make do with what I have.

Dinosaur Parade by James Gurney

Website: jamesgurney.com

Blog: Gurney Journey

Please comment below and thank James for sharing his talents and insights with us!