Archive for February, 2012

Color and Light by James Gurney

Posted: 2012.02.10 in Books

Color and Light by James Gurney is the follow-up volume to Imaginative Realism. Like Imaginative Realism, Color and Light is not a “how to” per se, but rather more of a reference book including a basic history of the usage of the title subjects, modern application, and differing approaches for each. Although the principles Gurney details may be applied to any medium, there is a chapter solely about pigments as found primarily in (oil) paints, which also touches on other tactile mediums such as markers, pastels, etc. Perhaps because I have a longstanding interest in color and thus am a bit more educated about that subject, I did not find the first half of this book to be quite as useful. However, there is a turning point in my case once Gurney discusses his Yurmby color wheel and the gamut masks he uses in conjunction with it. Almost everything after that point is fresh and interesting for me.

The Yurmby color wheel is Gurney’s original creation. Although you cannot find a premade one in any art store, upon a Goggle search I found a gamut mask tool online which features both a “standard” color wheel as well as the Yurmby wheel. This is a great tool for artists, though I caution you as to its use as all monitors display differently and print outs will also vary from what you see on screen (they will not be exact). It’s far better to obtain a printed copy of Color and Light and create a Yurmby wheel yourself using the book as a guide.

The discussion of gamuts and gamut masks you can apply over ANY color wheel (regardless of whether you use Gurney’s version, the Munsell wheel, or any other) so as to achieve a more harmonious palette is pivotal. Gurney makes the point that many artists face the issue of having too many colors, not too few, and that many paintings are, as a result, disjointed. Gurney merely comments on some common gamuts/palettes, and more or less says, “play with it.”

Other information you will find in this book includes: a breakdown of the types of light sources and of light itself; the effects of strong light on various pigments and dyes over a period of time (what sort of fading occurs); local color and our assumptions about it which influence our color mixing habits; considerations of how to use light and color to affect the mood of the piece; various methods of premixing and organizing your palette; the factors which influence light and color and what changes in each situation; various methods for gauging the color of an object; the shifts of color and light across surfaces and spaces; the anatomy of shadows; various lighting and color issues commonly faced in art; and the differences between how the eye sees versus how a camera sees.

Some of the principle points of the book are as follows (from the final segment of Chapter 11):

  1. Color and light are not separate topics, but rather closely related.
  2. Viewers will see the subject, but feel the color and light.
  3. Choose a lighting plan and stick with it.
  4. Know your wheel. (Whichever wheel you use.)
  5. Know your gamut.
  6. Vision is an active process.
  7. There is not a single brand of realism.
  8. Compare, compare, compare. (Color shifts, etc.)
  9. The outer eye fuels the inner eye. (Look for resources and study materials, and observe nature.)
  10. We are fortunate to be living today. (Use all of your easily accessible, high-tech resources and relatively inexpensive materials to your advantage.)

I like the fact that he is anything but absolute in his discussion of different aspects of color and light; that is, he will discuss different opinions of each and leave the reader to figure out his or her particular stance on the matter. I also like that he consistently describes the scientific explanation for everything he mentions, from the chemical composition of pigments to the angles of reflection and refraction of light in various situations.

Above and beyond his “technical tips,” he also has a reference section filled with terms and additional resources for you to look into should you desire more information about the topics mentioned in the book. All in all, this is a wonderful textbook for any artist, as it teaches information that may be simple review for more experienced artists yet foundational for neophytes. It’s definitely worth the money – I’d say that it is even more valuable than its predecessor, Imaginative Realism.


Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist by James Gurney, much like The Artist’s Guide to Sketching which he co-authored with “Painter of Light” Thomas Kinkade, is not really a “how to” book although it is a shade more instructional than Sketching. Imaginative Realism is a wonderful tool for any artist seeking a scientific method by which to go about the creative process. This is a great book for getting your imagination going, and also for breaking a painter out of the studio and into hands-on research and reenactment. I believe that for me personally, I loved this book because it provided a new perspective for me, and also put concepts I’d already been practicing into words. Although that seems like a silly thing to place importance on, once an idea is given a description it is easier to focus on it with intention and purpose and therefore to apply it when in the studio.

The main idea of this book is as follows: in order to paint the fantastic, you must first start with the mundane. Use real-life references whenever possible: adapt plein-air sketches to fantasyscapes; base your original creatures on mixtures of real animals and people, giving them a solid core of anatomy which is believable; create maquettes and lifecasts – either temporary or long-term use – in order to get your lighting and composition as accurate as possible. Set up your studio with theater lighting. Purchase or make costumes and act out your own poses. Draft friends, relatives, and neighbors in for your projects as needed. Keep a morgue of reference photos and drawings, cleanly filed for easy access. Use multiple references: sketches, photos, maquettes, live models.

Imaginative Realism also touches upon several different points which an artist may find useful:

The methods of the Great Masters: The very first chapter of the book deals with the various steps the masters of art employed when creating their work. By studying these methods and employing the steps which suit your work style, you are better able to thoroughly understand your piece before you ever set the brush to the final canvas, be it digital or physical.

Your studio setup and materials: Gurney explains what he has in his studio, and why. Everything from what brush sizes/types/shapes to lighting and other useful tools of the trade are listed and photographed for easy reference. He explains what he uses them for and whether it is essential or an “optional extra.”

How to get a fresh perspective to spot what needs work: turn the painting upside-down; use a mirror and look at the painting in reverse; set it aside and work on another project so you have “time away;” ask loved one for their response to the painting – they don’t have to be experts to spot what seems “off” about it.

How to research: He gives tips on how to go about the researching end of the project, as having knowledge about the subject you are painting (or about something relevant to your original creation) will grant you insights into how to best compose and illustrate the work. He takes pains to explain how to think like the subject matter, be it an imagined creature or a recreation of the past. In becoming the subject, you better understand the movements, behaviors, and other important aspects which will assist you in illustrating your story.

Maquettes: The book more or less emphasizes that maquettes are invaluable to a fantasy artist who employs a realistic style, as they provide a window into that which does not exist. You can better comprehend the lighting, and also more accurately render the same character several times if you have a maquette as a reference. Gurney explains a few details about materials he uses, and methods by which he creates them.

Compositional elements: Gurney explains various types of elements to consider in your work, and ways to employ different types of compositions depending on what the nature of your project is (be it a book cover, an illustration for an article, a stand-alone work, etc).

Careers for fantasy-realist artists: He lists several different fields that this sort of artist may find him/herself in, and explains a little about what the responsibilities and work environments for each are.

This book – while not quite as invaluable as The Artist’s Guide to Sketching – is certainly full of plenty of pointers for an active and experienced artist. It will retain its place on my shelf, along with Gurney’s second solo instructional book, Color and Light, which I will review in a separate post.

The Artist’s Guide to Sketching by James Gurney and Thomas Kinkade is a wonderful reference guide for established artists. This is not a “how to” book; this is a book detailing the experiences and methods of two famous, splendid artists. James Gurney is the author of the Dinotopia books, and has worked as an illustrator for such clients as National Geographic; Thomas Kinkade is known as the “Painter of Light.” The two artists took off across America, living the life of a hobo, with nothing but their sketchbooks and knapsacks with some clothes and food (at least that’s the adventurous description of what happened). They “drew their way across America.”

Please note that this book is, at present, out-of-print but available for a premium on Amazon, eBay, and other websites. Why is it so expensive? It’s a great book. I believe the best way to explain why is to say that this book will invariably alter your way of thinking about sketching, and place that activity in the spotlight as the key to adventure, imagination, and recording your life and times.

The first and most important premise of The Artist’s Guide to Sketching is that an artist should get outdoors and draw from LIFE, not photographs, as much as possible. They authors take great pains to explain that the process of sketching is not just drawing a specific subject such as a tree; it’s about incorporating the rest of the environment, including sounds and interactions which are not directly in the picture you are drawing. Carrying across the feel of a lonely tree out in the middle of an abandoned field is a much different task than accurately recreating the feel of a tree in the middle of a park, filled with families and pets, noise and bustling life.

You are in control of what you draw; the subject matter you are drawing is merely a reference tool. Most realist artists — myself included — will feel at times as though they need to render the subject matter the way it looks exactly, and that the successful translation of that subject matter to the paper or canvas is therefore a successful piece of art. However, everything that you use in the creation of your picture is merely a reference. You may omit or add anything you wish. You may invent extra color in some places, texture in others. You may mix and match realities, taking two unlike things and merging them together. You are in essence the god of your sketchbook.

The most important aspect of the sketch is the feeling you convey. You must decide upon a specific mood, and make all judgments about the drawing based on the theme you’ve chosen to work with. It is best to write down keywords for this theme on the paper you are working with, to help prompt yourself. The lonely tree vs the tree in the middle of an active park immediately call forth certain lighting and color schemes — maybe even specific line work, paper size, and drawing mediums.

You should record everything via sketching, and keep a sketchbook with you always to jot notes, draw quick doodles, or compose fully rationalized pieces. The artist’s sketchbook is a point of reference for their daily lives, their adventures, their experiences, their minds. The great masters of art all had sketchbooks filled with mundane objects and scenes regardless of their fantastic oil paintings. This is your window, your reference tool, your way of preserving memories, thoughts, and situations. You should draw, write notes, add in quotes, jot down ideas, and so on. And, you should have several sketchbooks.

You must distinguish between a sketch and a study. A sketch is a picture you create based on one or more references. You “take artistic license” with these references in order to further your goals for the picture. A study is a rendering of a specific subject matter in as faithful a manner as you can create. Studies assist an artist in being able to recreate objects, learn about their inherent properties, learn about their forms, lighting, and so on. Studies are learning tools. All artists should actively draw studies, but should also be conscious of the difference between a sketch and a study and set out with intent to draw either one or the other. It is also a good idea for an artist to dedicate sketchbooks to studies of specific subjects, such as a sketchbook dedicated to drawing trees. This is an invaluable reference tool for an artist to return to whenever composing a painting. All sketchbooks are invaluable to the artist and should be kept in an easily accessible place.

There are several other points that this book makes; the above are just a few summaries of certain key ideas. Gurney and Kinkade explore everything from how to get a stranger to pose for a drawing to handling curious onlookers to what materials work best for plein-air sketching. This is an essential reference for any artist, as sketching is the cornerstone of all visual art regardless of medium.