Imaginative Realism by James Gurney

Posted: 2012.02.03 in Books

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.

  1. bibliopirate says:

    Looks very cool, if I had any apptitude for painting what so ever, I’d have to get a copy.

    • jalachan says:

      Yes, it’s a great book. 🙂 Even if you aren’t an artist, you may wish to check out his Dinotopia books. They are laid out as though they are travel logs, and richly illustrated with Gurney’s beautiful work. The books won Hugo Awards, actually.

  2. […] Imaginative Realism by James Gurney […]

  3. […] studying art books such as The Artist’s Guide to Sketching, Imaginative Realism, and Color and Light, I have worked a little bit on a new painting. The subject matter pertains to […]

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