It’s always a pleasure when you get to see artworks in person that you’ve become familiar with over time in reproduction; so I was delighted to have the opportunity to see some of my favorite fantasy illustration from James Gurney, author/artist of the terrific Dinotopia series of illustrated books, in a new exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum.
Dinotopia: The Art of James Gurney opened February 6 and runs to May 16, 2010. The show is an excellent cross section of the work Gurney has done on the series. While thematically unified by the storyline of the books, and the richly imagined world in which they take place, the paintings show a broad range of Gurney’s influences.
Gurney is an artist who is constantly investigating the works of other artists from various points in history, delving into their techniques and approaches, and playfully applying those elements he finds most interesting to his own work.
Gurney chronicles many of these investigations of great artists and their process in his always fascinating blog, Gurney Journey, and has begun to codify much of what he has learned into books like the recently released Imaginative Realism, and the still-in-progress Color and Light.
The result of his experimentation is a fascinating variety within the overall whole of the Dinotopia series, where you can see the neo-classical beauty of Victorian painters like Alma-Tadema and Frederick Leighton, and Orientalists like Jean-Léon Gérôme, along with the robust color and drama of the great adventure illustrators like Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth. All of these influences, and of course, Gurney’s own unique style, are set in service of great fantasy scenes in exotic locations; populated by Victorian humans; clever steampunkery, vehicles and gadgets; and those wonderful dinosaurs.
As is often the case when first seeing originals for paintings that are already familiar from reproductions, I found a few surprises in scale; some smaller than I might have thought, some larger; as well as many details and textural aspects in the handling of paint that aren’t evident in print.
In particular, I found myself looking past the subjects of many of the paintings and into the backgrounds, where Gurney’s other passion, plein air landscape painting, is wonderfully evident. In some cases, like the image above, top, the floral and landscape elements could easily be the subject of a painting in themselves. In many others, the confidently simplified landscapes are marvels of suggestion, as in the image above, middle with detail at bottom.
There is even a plein air painting in the show of Niagra Falls and Goat Island, a nod both to the Dinotopia setting of Waterfall City an another great 19th Century artist, Frederic Edwin Church. The large dramatic paintings of Waterfall City are notable for their compositional use of light and shadow as a means of leading the eye through a complex scene. (Waterfall City, by the way, was an uncredited inspiration for the cities of the Planet Naboo in Star Wars Episode I. I’ve heard that production artists who worked on the film have tacitly acknowledged its influence. Gurney really should have gotten credit.)
The Delaware Art Museum, with it’s great collections of Howard Pyle and American Illustration, 19th and 20th Century American art and British Pre-Raphaelite painters is an ideal venue for Gurney’s work.
If you decide to travel to see the show, not only are the museum’s own holdings a nice compliment, but the Brandywine River Museum, with it’s own superb collections of Pyle, N.C. Wyeth and American illustration, is just 20 minutes away.