Seven Questions
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Seven Questions

The Artist Behind “Dinotopia”: Seven Questions for James Gurney

Photo used for education under Fair Use with the permission of the author.

James Gurney’s Dinotopia is, by far, one of my favorite stories in the worlds of speculative fiction. It imagines a fictional island away from civilization, where humans and dinosaurs live together in peace. It’s a story which is very believable due to its careful attention to scientific detail with regards to what we know about dinosaurs. A seminal feature which brings Dinotopia to life are the spectacular paintings, such as “Dinosaur Parade” and “Waterfall City”, which echo Norman Rockwell, National Geographic, and the “Orientalist” art of the 19th century. Two sequels and one prequel were written for the first book, Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time, and they all avoid the common mistake of repeating what was already done before. The World Beneath leans heavily on Verne, particularly 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth, with an undersea journey by submersible that brings the readers face to face with Dinotopia’s lost technology. This technology is explored further in the prequel, First Flight, which is akin to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, and is probably the furthest the series as gone into realm of political science-fiction. Gurney’s second sequel, Journey to Chandara, is a T.E. Lawrence-worthy expedition through desert and snow (with an added homage to M.C. Escher). I would associate the themes of Dinotopia with those of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series or Hayao Miyazaki’s anime films, where violence is neither encouraged nor used as a primary means of resolving conflicts. As a result, what keeps these stories interesting is discovery, not only of strange new worlds, but also of one’s own self.

James Gurney was born in 1958 in California. He has studied archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley, and received a degree in anthropology with honors from Phi Beta Kappa. Gurney has done illustrations for National Geographic, background painting for Ralph Bakshi’s Fire and Ice, and has contributed art to American postage stamps. Gurney nowadays shares his passion for art on his blog, “Gurney Journey” as well as through YouTube. Many of his teachings on art can be found in his 2010 book Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter.

I first saw Gurney’s paintings at a friend’s house and have been mesmerized with them forever afterwards. I borrowed Dinotopia from the library more than any other book as a child. I also had the great fortune of meeting him in 2007, during his book tour for Journey to Chandara at the Carnegie Center in Three Rivers, Michigan. (I also accidentally bumped into him). Hearing his lecture was quite inspiring and I hope you will all feel the same through this brief interview. I am most grateful that James Gurney took time out of his very busy schedule to do this. This interview was conducted via email.

Cover of the first “Dinotopia” book. Used with permission of the author.
  1. What do you think it is about dinosaurs that excites our imagination, especially while we are young?

What I love most about dinosaurs is the constantly unfolding revelations about them: new forms discovered, and new theories about their life and death. Of course that means I have to wince a bit when I look back at my paintings from 20 or 30 years ago, but the more we learn about them the more impressive they become.

2. What impresses me a great deal about the Dinotopia series is the attention to scientific detail and plausibility. What role has science had in shaping Dinotopia?

The very earliest inklings of the idea came from brainstorm sessions with archaeologists on Nat Geo expeditions and with paleontologists from the Smithsonian. Throughout the process of world-building I consulted with scientists to help me with the outward form of the dinosaurs. When it came to the more speculative elements of the story, such as saurian writing systems, I was surprised how most scientists were willing to contribute science fiction ideas. Most scientists start out as science fiction buffs, and many of them remain fans.

Will Denison and Ambassador Bix. Art by James Gurney. Used with the permission of the author.

3. The characters of Dinotopia, such as Ambassador Bix, Lee Crabbe, and Oriana Nascava are so memorable and rich. How do you go about creating such characters?

Most of those characters are based on real people, or combinations of real people, and I then try to focus their personalities. Lee Crabb is based on an art teacher friend of mine who’s a rugged, physical guy, very sweet natured, but he likes to pretend to be Crabb. Bix is a combination of my chihuahua, my grandmother, and the Dalai Lama. Oriana is based on a friend of mine who taught art to sixth graders, and she said her students got a big kick out of seeing her appear in the book.

“Waterfall City” by James Gurney. Used with the permission of the author.

4. Your paintings are an essential part of the Dinotopia experience. The most iconic, I’d argue, is “Waterfall City.” What inspired you to create such an original vision?

I first painted a city built on a waterfall around 1981, and again in 1988. That panoramic painting was the first image I painted of an imaginary lost world that ultimately became a part of the first book Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time. The city is a combination of Italian hill towns which I saw while on assignment with National Geographic, together with Niagara Falls, which I painted from Goat Island before undertaking the big painting.

All rights to James Gurney. Used with the permission of the author.

5. When I was a kid, I enjoyed playing Dinotopia: The Timestone Pirates for the GameBoy Advance. To what extent were you involved in the game, and do you have any fond memories of it?

I love the job the developers did in translating Dinotopia into a GameBoy platform-jumper. Although I wasn’t directly involved in creating that game, its development came at a good time because my own two sons were heavily into GBA at that time.

6. Nowadays you have also been sharing your passion for painting on your blog “Gurney Journey” as well as through YouTube videos. How has your experience been interacting with fellow artists through the Internet?

I like interacting with other artists through the Internet, and I get a lot out of creating posts and videos for Instagram, Blogger, and YouTube.

There are at least four reasons:

1. It provides a good excuse for learning. Explaining or demonstrating some aspect of your art life forces you to understand it, and you learn even more from the feedback.

2. It helps me as a writer. I find out right away if a topic is controversial, confusing, electrifying, or boring.

3. It builds a following. People who follow any artist’s artwork want to hear what went into making it. They feel a sense of belonging to your next project if I include them in its creation.

4. We all benefit from sharing. The Internet at its best is about sharing, and it has fostered a spirit of openness that has never existed before in the history of art.

7. One of my favorite sayings in Dinotopia is “breathe deep, seek peace,” which I see as a good practice that we can all use when confronted with moments of difficulty. Do you have any words of wisdom to offer for those of us who are still seeking peace in our own lives?

The world is always in need of a vision of people getting along and working things out, both with each other and with the natural world. We’re always going to be a work in progress, but we’ve got to remember that we’re all in this together. Hopefully good things will emerge from times of stress, both in our personal lives and the world around us. The best way to eliminate worry for me is to remember that the things I have worried about the most never came to pass, and the bad things that happened have usually been unanticipated. So all we can do is try to fix things, grow things, and encourage people to find common cause.

Art by James Gurney. Used with the permission of the author.

My review of Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time:

Seven Questions Interview with Grady Hendrix

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Sansu the Cat

Sansu the Cat

I write about art, life, and humanity. M.A. Japanese Literature. B.A. Spanish & Japanese. email: sansuthecat@yahoo.com