Sunday, September 23, 2007

Journey to Chandara

James Gurnay, Journey to Chandara
I recently did an update on James Gurney, and I don’t normally do two posts about the same artist in such quick succession, but I finally had a chance to spend some time enjoying my new copy of his latest book, Journey to Chandara, and I was just knocked out.

Journey to Chandara (more detail here) is another in his series of Dinotopia books, fantasy adventure stories set in a “land apart from time”. All of these books, and particularly the new one, are the kind of books for which even that wonderful term “lavishly illustrated” is inadequate. To say these books are fantasy adventure stories is insufficient as well; they are excursions into the science, history and, in particular, art of previous centuries.

In a way somewhat more subtle than William Stout’s playful series of dinosaur images that make reference to various painters and Golden Age illustrators, Gurney likes to combine his fanciful images with his fascination for the styles and techniques of great artists, particularly those of the 19th Century, from Charles R. Knight to Daniel Ridgeway Knight.

In the new volume, this phenomenon is even more pronounced than before. This is a quest adventure to a distant part of Dinotopia. From Waterfall City, which is an idealized European city (think Rome + Venice + Mongo, which Lucas & Co. “borrowed” uncredited as the inspiration for Naboo in Star Wars Episode I), Gurney’s dinosaur and human characters “journey to the east” on their way to Chandara, the Dinotopian equivalent of China. On the way, they visit an ever widening variety of places with their attendant variety of landscapes.

In the process, we see Gurney observing, absorbing and playing with the techniques and subject matter of a host of great landscape painters (which I have to think is the real inspiration for the story). In particular he shows his affection for painters like Caspar David Frederich, John Constable, J.M.W. Turner (particularly his early work), and a number of the “Orientalist” painters (like Jean-Léon Gérôme), who took their own journeys of exploration.

Gurney also continues his obvious display of affection for 19th Century Academic painters, the Pre-Raphaelites, great illustrators like Maxfield Parrish and N.C. Wyeth, and even M.C. Escher.

Somehow, he manages to mix in his knowing winks and thank-yous to these artists with dazzling lighting and dramatic compositions that will enthrall modern adventure fans, as well as inventive designs for places, characters and props that would be the envy of many accomplished production designers and concept artists, and make it all feel like part of a whole. Remarkable.

There is another aspect to this book that makes it my favorite of his published works to date. The reproductions seem even better than in the previous volumes, even though they were excellent. You can see more of the artist’s brushstrokes and the surface quality of the paint. This may be due to the quality of the reproduction, or the way in which the works were photographed, or it may be that Gurney himself is getting more painterly and confident as he continues his restless exploration of the art of painting. I suspect it’s a combination of those factors. The paintings are in oil but Gurney occasionally achieves watercolor-like effects where the paint is thin enough to let the white of the support, and at times hints of the underlying drawing, come through.

Beyond the subtle details for art lovers, and the illustrated adventure itself, Gurney adds, as he often does, features like imaginative cut-aways of the interiors of structures and devices that appeal to the 12-year old inveterate Popular Science reader in many of us. This includes inventive conceits like the use of a brachiosaurus as a fire truck, with an escape ladder on the back of its neck.

The level of detail extends to invented alphabets based on dinosaur tracks and and a separate, beautifully done, National Geographic style Traveler’s Map of Dinotopia. The attention to detail in this volume rivals that of Chris Ware’s amazing book/artifacts.

Gurney also continues to mix real science and history in with his fantasy. He goes on to explore Escher-like surface tessellations (made, of course, of dinosaur tracks) and the presence of the Fibonacci series (the “golden section”) in the surface patterns of seeds and flowers. He shows real designs for astrolabes, demonstrates how an abacus functions; and illustrates, in a detailed, David McCauley-like cutaway, an explanation of how a windmill works.

Of course, on top of that we get image after image of Gurney’s beautiful renderings of dinosaurs; all manner of dinosaurs — large, small and in between. Again, he is including real science. In spite of the fanciful setting, Gurney strives to keep his renderings paleontologically accurate, and the book’s dust-jacket features, amid raves from Ray Harryhausen and Walt Reed, notices from renowned paleontologists like Michael Brett-Surman and Mark Norell. In some cases the relation of the dinosaur images to the story is subtle enough that that the fantasy element is subdued and the images just look like particularly beautiful straightforward paleo illustrations, making me hope that Gurney has plans for such a book up his sleeve.

All of this plus the way that Gurney has allowed us to look over his shoulder as he explores the work of great artists from the past, adds up to a package that is an absolute treat.

Gurney continues to cover his own journey, as he travels in support of the book, on his blog, Gurney Journey. The blog is increasingly fascinating and features posts on his process and technique for the book, on the practice of studying and borrowing from the masters, and the subject of painting in general (see his recent post on his favorite How-To books). It also features larger reproductions of some of the paintings than those on the Journey to Chandara section of the Dinotopia site, along with preliminary studies and sketches, and even some of Gurney’s recent landscape paintings.

Original paintings from Journey to Chandara and his other books are currently on display in exhibitions in Los Angeles and Oshkosh, Wisconsin. See my previous post and Gurney’s Dinotopia Exhibitions page for more links and details.

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