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.

W. Heath Robinson

W. Heath Robinson
William Heath Robinson wanted to be a landscape painter. Even after his study at the Islington Art School and later at the Royal Academy, he came to the realization that he could support himself better by following his brothers Charles and Thomas into the burgeoning field of illustration. (See my post on Charles Robinson.)

The Robinsons were part of the generation of artists that flourished in the Golden Age of illustration, along with artists like Franklin Booth, Maxfield Parrish, Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, J.C. Leyendecker and Elizabeth Shippen Green.

Though he created beautiful illustrations for classics like Beauty and the Beast, Bluebeard, Little Red Riding Hood, The Red Shoes, and Sleeping Beauty (image above, right), he achieved widest notice for his humorous drawings and cartoons.

Robinson created cartoons of life prior to, during and after the First World War. He drew numerous cartoons depicting the follies of golfers; like the one above, left, in which the protagonist is trying to “play it as it lies” with a contraption of strapped together clubs, demonstrating the kind of visual invention for which Robinson became a household word.

Robinson drew countless “inventions” in which overly complex gadgets and bizarre devices were employed to accomplish otherwise simple tasks. Here in the U.S. this kind of inventive visual absurdity is associated with later drawings by Rube Goldberg, but in the U.K. they were simply called “Heath Robinsons”.

R. H. Ives Gammell

R. H. Ives Gammell - Hound of HeavenRobert Hale Ives Gammell was an artist out of sync with his times, for which I set the fault on the times rather than the artist.

Gammell was born in 1893, when academic realism and the classical traditions to which it adhered were about to be overthrown and temporarily (thankfully) submerged beneath the turgid waves of 20th Century Modernism.

Gammell trained at the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where he was a student of Edmund Tarbell, Joseph DeCamp and Phillip Hale. In particular he came to be profoundly influenced by his study with William Paxton, who had been classically trained in Europe and had studied with Jean-Léon Gérôme at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Gammell thrived on the nourishment of the classical traditions, but found himself in a century when those traditions and values were being denigrated and treated as passé. His large scale paintings of mythological and Biblical themes were not well received by an art establishment caught up in the sacred “newness” of whatever modernist “ism” was in this week, and he eventually suffered a nervous collapse. He credited his recovery partly to his study of the writings of the visionary psychologist Carl G. Jung.

As he recovered he laid the groundwork for his book Twilight of Painting (out of print, but available used), in which he laments the demise of those traditions and (wrongly, I think) lays the blame partly at the unfinished Academic training of the Impressionists; which left them unable bring a painting to a finished state, and established a permissiveness for unfinished works in the art establishment. He wrote two other books, The shop-talk of Edgar Degas and The Boston Painters 1900-1930.

He devoted the remainder of his life to teaching and perpetuating what he saw, and rightly so, as the threatened traditions of classical Western Art. A number of his students (and their students) went on to become notable realist painters.

He also started what would become his masterwork, a series of 23 related paintings (or “panels”) based on the poem Hound of Heaven by English poet Francis Thompson. You can see small reproductions of nine of the panels on Wikipedia (panel 12 shown here).

Gammell found himself at a loss for some of the imagery he needed to transform the ideas in the poem into the visual realm and found them in the writings of Jung, perhaps putting him more in touch with the times than he thought.


The Animated Bayeux Tapestry

The Animated Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry is a 20 inch by 230 foot (50cm x 70m) embroidered cloth that shows the story of the Norman invasion of England in 1066, from the “portent” of Halley’s comet to the Battle of Hastings. It may have been completed within a few years of the invasion, but the earliest other record of its existence is in an inventory of the Bayeux Cathederal in 1476.

Like Trajan’s column, some pre-columbian manuscripts and Eqyptian hieroglyphics, it can be thought of as a “graphic story”, a form of storytelling we know today as “comics”; i.e pictures, or words and pictures, arranged in sequence to tell a story (to borrow Scott McCloud’s succinct definition).

In a kind of odd completion of a circle, there is now a computer animated version of the tapestry.

Initiated by a school project when he was 21, in which he merely needed to demonstrate that he had a command of motion graphics software, British designer David Newton took a tracking shot (like a long pan, but along a straight axis) of the tapestry and animated it, added a bit of sound and music and come up with a short movie that probably tells the story better than Hollywood could in a typical over the top blockbuster.

The camera moves along the tapestry and the pictorial elements, kings, princes, soldiers, shipwrights, blacksmiths, ships, horses and a cast of hundreds (well, dozens, anyway) come to life along the story’s path. Delightful.

There is a semi-official site devoted to the actual tapestry, and some info on Wikipedia. The only link I have to the animated version is the YouTube link, which doesn’t have much supporting information.

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Zina Saunders

Zina Saunders - portrait of Tim O´Brien
Zina Saunders is a writer and illustrator who in the last few years has been combining her talents as “reportage illustration” in several series of combined portraits and interviews.

Starting with a website called Overlooked New York in which she has set out to interview “impassioned New Yorkers”, she began illustrating her interviews by painting portraits of the interviewees. The first of the series was an article, and multiple portraits, of the members of the Puerto Rico Schwinn Club, a group of adults with a passion for those great old Schwinns with their chrome fenders and chainguards, tricked out with mirrors and flags and decorations in the spokes. The cool bikes and the wonderful character of the member’s faces made for a terrific series of paintings, and started Saunders on the path to doing more portrait/interviews.

Overlooked New York has maybe 25 or 30 stories on it now, most of which are about groups of one kind or another (Bike Messengers, River Swimmers, Subway Musicians, Kite Flyers, etc.) and feature multiple portraits.

Of double interest to lines and colors readers is her series Both Sides of the Drawing Board in which she interviews and paints portraits of illustrators and art directors, including Tim O’Brien (image above) who I profiled last year. The series will be running in every issue of Illo magazine (which I wrote about back in May). You can find several examples from the series in the Reportage section of her web site.

Her web site has a portfolio of her more general illustration, and children’s book illustration. There is an additional portfolio of her work on the site of her rep, Morgan Gaynin, Inc.

Saunders also maintains a blog on Drawger in which you can see preliminary sketches, work in progress and much larger detail images of her work.

Zina Saunders is the daughter of Norman Sanders, who created many great pulp magazine and comic covers as well as classic trading card series like Mars Attacks (more on Norman Saunders in a future post).

Zina Saunders paints the landscape of the face and figure as a series of rough edged planes, broken up into areas of often exaggerated or expressionistic colors and held within thin outlines. She sometimes surrounds them with sketch-like renderings of their environments, often with a wiggly-line style that I seldom like, but in her case works remarkably well.

Saunders has a number of portraits of celebrities, but many of my favorites are among the “overlooked New Yorkers” and people simply going about their jobs, who she treats like celebrities.

Addendum: in response to being asked about her medium and approach, Zina replied:

I’ve been changing and developing my approach for a while, but I guess it would be best described as “mixed media”. I sketch in pencil, and sometimes paint some of it traditionally and then scan and paint digitally on top of that. Sometimes I do all the painting digitally.

Each painting is different, but that’s the gist of it.

Reto Kaul

Reto Kaul - gizmodus, Mirandopolis: Museum of Modern Art
Reto Kaul is a young (20 yr old) freelance concept artist and illustrator from Switzerland. His web site lists his work experience as concept design, book illustration, covers and fashion design, but doesn’t list specific credits. His portfolio, however, has some nicely atmospheric pieces that show off his talent for dealing with muted light in particular.

His imaginative landscapes and imaginary cityscapes are often cast in compositions with analogous color schemes, largely blues and greens. He likes to punctuate his thick atmospheres with sharp pinpoints of light, and loves to play with the idea of faintly visible shafts of light, fanning out at they emerge through the canopies of trees, break through layers of clouds or splash around a prominence of rock.

He has a nicely balanced command of his digital tools and his pieces have suggestions of texture and detail without being overworked.

His online gallery is a little shy on information about the pieces, but if you hover your mouse over the thumbnails you’ll get a “tool tip” style pop-up with the name of the piece.

You can also find more info about the images (and some larger images) on some of the various concept art sites where he has a presence under the handle “gizmodus”.

Mirandopolis: Museum of Modern Art (image above, with detail, bottom, larger image here) is part of a series in which the museums of the imaginary city (no relation, I assume, to the actual municipality of Mirandópolis in Brazil) are pictured as built in a gigantic cave.

He also has images of an airport and cathedral for the city, and you can see a step by step for his image of the cathedral here.