Lines and Colors art blog

Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist

Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist,  James Gurney
There are hundreds of art instruction books out there, with a wide range of topics, approaches and degrees of value, but Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist by renowned painter, illustrator and Dinotopia artist James Gurney, is exceptional in several ways.

Before I go too far, I’ll point out that although this is essentially an instructional book, it also works well simply as an art book; and fans of fantastic art in general, and Gurney’s work in particular, will quickly find it a “must-have”. (See my previous posts on James Gurney, also here and here. As a side note, Gurney is part of the Enchantment Artist’s Symposium and Exhibition at the University of Hartford’s Joseloff Gallery, 6 November 2009 to 17 January 2010.)

First, this book is unusual because of its topic. Most art instruction books concern themselves with drawing and painting aspects of the real world, and this is certainly the most fundamental and important factor in representational art. But for those in working in areas that demand the creation of images of things that do not exist, whether of real but extinct animals, scenes form the historic past or visionary imaginings of undiscovered worlds, the challenge is to take those fundamentals of drawing and painting from life and extend them into the realm of the imagined.

This is increasingly important for contemporary illustrators, movie and gaming concept artists, animators and comic book artists. Figures, faces, animals, creatures, scenes and entire worlds need to be conjured from the the artist’s imagination and made visually manifest.

James GurneyGurney tackles the skills needed in this kind of art head-on. He goes through an extensive array of topics, from generating ideas to initial sketches to models and maquettes, through materials, mediums, techniques, perspective, composition and finishing. In the process he covers elements like imagined architecture and landscapes, vehicles, dinosaurs, history painting, characters, creatures and aliens. The topics are arranged in short, but densely informative two-page topics and sub-topics, lavishly illustrated with Gurney’s own work and occasional nods to the masters.

Steeped in the traditions of classic representational art and the firm artistic foundations of 19th Century academic art in particular, Gurney starts from his interest in those traditions and opens with a brief look at the history and origins of imaginative art, with an acknowledgement of the value of studying the work of artists that have defined the field.

The topics are at once wide ranging and surprisingly consistent. I say that because of the other, perhaps most important, stand out characteristic of this book, its rather unique origin.

There are several approaches to the creation of art instruction books. We can eliminate those that are mediocre or downright terrible and concentrate only on books we would consider valuable.

Among these there are books that are proposed by editors in publishing houses, and fulfilled in a perfunctory, but capable manner by artists and writers chosen for the task. There are books that are proposed by the artists themselves in an effort to leverage their knowledge into financial stability beyond its application in their own work. There are books that are created from the artist’s inclination to take on the role of a teacher.

Rarest of all, there are art instruction books that are born out of the artist’s sheer enthusiasm for what they have learned and the desire to share it with any who are inclined to benefit from that knowledge. Imaginative Realism is one of those rare gems.

The contents of this book didn’t originate as a book project, but were gleaned from posts to Gurney’s superb blog, Gurney Journey, in which they have been offered up for free over the course of the last few years.

Over the extent of it’s run, Gurney’s blog has evolved from chronicling a book tour into a personal journey of artistic exploration and discovery; in the course of which Gurney has shared his insights into painting, composition, color, light and a variety of keen observations about the nature of creating art. As you can imagine, in the course of writing Lines and Colors I have occasion to visit hundreds and hundreds of artists’ web sites and blogs. Gurney Journey is one of the exceptional few that I return to on an almost daily basis.

The book started as an idea in a blog post, and further posts followed it’s creation and eventual publication. In this one, Gurney explains his intention in creating the book.

The resulting book is beautiful. It’s printed in a nicely oversize format on heavy stock, with printing values that make the hundreds of illustrations jump off the pages. The reproduction standards follow in the tradition of the superb reproductions and excellent printing evident in Gurney’s popular Dinotopia books (particularly the most recent one, Journey to Chandara), and his refined use of color is vibrantly present.

james Gurney
I also haven’t seen many art instruction books as information dense as this one. Not that the book feels visually cramped in any way, the book design is clear and elegant, but every one of its 200+ pages can be mined for nuggets of art technique gold. This is likely due to the origin of the book in blog posts collected over a long time, rather than a book project that had to be filled out from its inception. Instead of having to put together enough material to create a substantial book, Gurney probably had a job sifting through that wealth of material and deciding what to leave out.

Gurney even goes the extra mile and gives an insightful overview of art careers based on the techniques he outlines in the book, including paperback covers, film design, storyboards, concept art, video game design, toy design and even theme park design.

The one glaring omission is comics, perhaps because it’s an art form in which Gurney doesn’t personally work, and, though he pays plenty of attention to drawing, his emphasis is on painting. I do work in comics, however, so I’ll take in on myself to point out that virtually all of the concepts in the book can be applied to the creation of comics in addition to the other areas mentioned.

The last way in which Imaginative Realism is different from most other art instruction books is the feeling it carries of a start-to-finish labor of love; from its origin in the artist’s enthusiasm for the subject, to the fulfillment from a lifetime of experience, observation and work, to it’s refined finish, crafted like one of Gurney’s own paintings. It is instructive not only in how to draw and paint from the imagination, but in how to create an outstanding art instruction book.

In short, an absolute treat.


9 responses to “Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist

  1. Well said, and probably one of my favorite books. I’m constantly learning and relearning every time I crack it open.


  2. Mike Burke Avatar

    I just wanted to mention that the magazine Prehistoric Times has run a sample of this as a How to Draw Dinosaurs article in what I believe is the current issue. I looked through the issue only briefly this evening at the local hobby shop.


    1. Thanks, Mike. It is the current issue (#91). Here’s the link to Prehistoric Times.

  3. Well, the problem is “do your really want to paint like Gurney does ?”. 🙂

  4. Stop joking. I will certainly have a look at this book as I am always interested in technique but I’m not a great fan of his art.

  5. Scott Conner Avatar
    Scott Conner

    I’m not an artist myself, but I *really* like this book. I’m a huge fan of Jim Gurney’s work, and it’s interesting to see how he goes about all the various factors involved in creating a composition.
    The new issue of ImagineFx magazine also has an article by James that goes over some of the same points.

  6. Like his art or not…the principles are universal. He doesn’t teach you how to paint as much as he shows you how to set yourself up to make the best choices regardless of style.


  7. I’m sure it’s a great book. He is a fantastic artist. But it’s all in the packaging. The Cover design and the creature on the cover are not his best work.

  8. What a great painter. Thanks for sharing this.