Saturday, August 20, 2011


Illustrator James Gurney wrote:
"Yesterday I took my car to the shop because it needed an inspection. The rain was pouring down. There wasn't much space in the waiting room. So I sat under the awning out back between an old rusty engine and a forklift.
While I waited, I sketched the mud puddle beside me. The rain streamed off the corrugated roof  and splashed the water, making big bubbles. The puddle was a sea of overlapping ripples."

I love this little study, not just for how it looks but for what it signifies. 

Gurney is the creator of the famed Dinotopia series, whose books, calendars, posters, prints and collectibles have become a publishing sensation.   He is renowned for his illustrations for National Geographic and his more than 70 book covers, as well as stamps and animated films.

Gurney working on one of his carefully researched illustrations for National Geographic,
with his parakeet on his shoulder 

He authored two excellent books on art, Color and Light and Imaginative Realism and in his spare time he writes one of the best, most informative art blogs around.    I get exhausted just reading about his accomplishments.  Here is his work plan for the 160 illustrations he created for Dinotopia: The World Beneath:

So when Gurney finally gets a few minutes of respite from the easel to take care of routine car maintenance, what does he do?  He becomes so intrigued by the effect of rain drops in a mud puddle that he pauses to produce the lovely study above.

Gurney's fans ask him about his work habits.   He tells them, "I typically work from 8:30 to 5:30 five or six days a week."


The problem with Gurney is that he can't distinguish between work and play.   Robert Frost wrote about that state of grace, where the thing we need to do and the thing we love to do "are one."
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.
Some of the most successful artists are the ones whose eyes can't help but see-- and whose hand can't help but investigate-- the beauty of a rain puddle even while they are waiting in a dreary line for their car to be inspected.


James Gurney said...

Thanks, David, that's really generous and incredible poetic of you. Your thought-provoking posts are why I love your blog, and it feels funny to be the subject of one.

BTW, I showed the sketch to the mechanic and he just shrugged and said, "I've been meaning to clean up that mess over by the shed."

MORAN said...

I'm glad you're writing about Gurney. He is a great inspiration for modern illustrators. He shows that with enough talent and drive, you can succeed even in bad times for illustration. He is particularly impressive because he is largely self-taught!

Anonymous said...

That little mud puddle sketch is amazing. It's also amazing that he had the serenity to focus on that type of subject matter at the car inspectors; I would have been in a more allegorical state of mind, say highway bandits for instance.

Scott B. said...

I met James Gurney at a book signing here in Atlanta several years ago. I've met some pro writers and artists over the years, and in just that brief interaction, I can tell you he is BY FAR the nicest and most genuine and generous I've ever met. And of course his work, even of a beautiful, dirty little puddle, is nothing short of phenomenal.

I just discovered this blog a couple of weeks ago. What a great treat to find someone who writes so well about illustration. David, your piece "The Low Note in the Harmony" wonderfully expresses something I have struggled to explain to people over the years. Thanks for giving me a place to send them to now!

David Apatoff said...

James Gurney-- I'm honored to have you weigh in on this blog. I have never found an art blog more earnest and sincere than yours; you share generously of your knowledge and skill, de-mystifying every part of the process that can properly be de-mystified (unlike many successful artists who try to cloak their work in mystery to enhance their own legend).

You didn't claim that the muse tiptoed up and trilled softly in your ear that you would find inspiration by painting the rain. Instead, the waiting room was too crowded so you went and sat in the rain amongst the rusty junk. Absolutely hilarious. And the mechanic's reaction is the finishing touch that makes the story perfect. Your success is all the more deserved because you don't seem to have a self-aggrandizing bone in your body.

From my perspective, reducing the mystical, inspirational part of art to its proper space, separate from all the humbuggery of art, makes the inspirational part all the more significant and honest when we get to it. Thanks for sharing a beautiful little sketch and a beautiful little story.

MORAN-- Agreed. I understand that he also took the Famous Artists School correspondence course, but he is obviously what they call a self-starter.

Etc, etc-- Isn't it an amazingly sensitive treatment of a mud puddle? I think most of us would just slip into that trance-like state where we make the world go away. Gurney kept his eyes wide open and found a little piece of muddy poetry.

António Araújo said...

David, it's not like you, to choose such an uncontroversial subject for a post :)

It's really hard not to like Jim Gurney: a charming, inteligent, and talented fellow.

David Apatoff said...

Scott B.-- Thanks, and welcome!

Antonio Araujo-- Are you kidding? Around here, mentioning a "charming, intelligent, and talented fellow" is the surest way to provoke a fist fight.

Anonymous said...

This is a great story that reveals a lot about the man. I have the Dinotopia books but never looked for a Gurney blog.


Anonymous said...

Apologies to Arnie Fenner should he read this blog , but if that study were in a burning room next to a burning room which contained the original art for the Spectrum book , and I thought I might have time to safely run in one room and rescue the art - I'd try to save Gurney's piece .

Al McLuckie

chuck pyle said...

The Robert Frost quote is the perfect summation of the artist's life of immersion. James' work ethos is the living embodiment of that state of being.

slinberg said...

And just echoing what others have already said: James is one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. I could sing his praises all day long for many other deserving reasons, but that's actually one of the highest positives I can think of in a field where high levels of ability are often mixed with abrasive, feudal personalities. James is a true gentleman and a pleasure to talk with, in addition to being an extremely talented artist and teacher.

Anonymous said...

How does he prevent that parakeet from crapping on that art? I keep mine far away from my drafting table.

David Apatoff said...

Al McLuckie-- I know exactly what you mean.

Chuck Pyle-- I think there aren't many artists who get the balance right for the "life of immersion" you describe, but when they do (Howard Pyle was another good example) they seem to lead phenomenally productive and fulfilled lives, as Frost suggests. Of course, one can still be a brilliant artist and prefer to spend one's time playing baseball (here, Frazetta comes to mind). For this category, there is an entirely different poem, Ogden Nash's wonderful "Kind of an Ode to Duty." The opening lines will give you the flavor:

O Duty,
Why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie?
Why are thou so different from Venus
And why do thou and I have so few interests mutually
in common between us?

I think it's a hilarious poem, but I'm not sure it would resonate with Gurney.

slinberg-- I have never met the man, but it's nice to have confirmation from someone who has. As others have noted, the attitude behind that mud puddle sketch tells you a lot about the person, all of it good.

Anonymous-- I can't answer your question, but doesn't the blue parakeet go nicely against that red shirt?

Unknown said...

So well constructed and beautiful
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Check our project, It would be an honor

M Althauser said...

I was recently listening to a podcast in which James Gurney was briefly mentioned. I think what was said was something along the lines of "...and you'll be talking to James, and the entire while he'll be sketching away, doing your portrait!".
I believe that in itself says a lot - it's one thing to be an artist, but I do think that every artist needs to be constantly aware of his surroundings; what better way to do that than to carry a sketchbook and use it whenever the chance arises(as often as possible!)?

Kim Smith said...

David, I so wish I could get your posts as feeds on my browser front page. I don't think there is an option to do that; can that be instituted? You know I love your posts and the potential "fistfights", and this post on James Gurney is one of my favorites. I do love unstudied studies.

Anonymous said...

I am amazed at how an artist can extract such beauty for a mundane object as a puddle.

Off the Coast of Utopia said...

Echoing other comments here, James really is what I would call a true gentleman. I too asked him about his work schedule and before he could answer his wife responded, "Insomnia!".

Diana Sesarin said...

Nice poem

Untitled said...

Ordered it!
Thanks for exposing me to this great artist unknown to me!
I hope James signs that book :)