The Art of James Gurney: Part 2

Gurney's "Color and Light" offers a host of tips and techniques for artists of all levels.
Gurney’s “Color and Light” offers a host of tips and techniques for artists of all levels.

James Gurney’s famed Dinotopia series, enchanting adventures juxtaposing mythical creatures and humans against fantasy backgrounds, morphed into his how-to book, Imaginative Realism. In this book, Gurney takes all levels of artists on his journey from HB pencil and compact sketch book onto maquette construction using garden variety cardboard and modeling clay. Finished 3-D compositions get rendered into oil paintings. These works are then carefully lit and photographed for book illustrations, removing all traces of original scale.

Imaginative Realism’s sequel is Gurney’s Color and Light. Written in a convenient cookbook style, he imparts artistic elements, rules-of-the-road, that take painters on a journey, becoming keener observers while perfecting their artistic endeavors.

We all live in the world, yet miss amazing amounts. In Color and Light, Gurney poses topics, using a two page format, parceling out solutions both verbally and illustratively. Enlarged headlines give readers quick answers when thumbing through sections as in Candlelight and Firelight where Gurney says, “candlelight, lantern light, and firelight are all yellow-orange in color.”

In his more scientific chapter, Atmospheric Effects, Gurney concludes with a three-part summary for the section, Cloud Shadows. I’ve abbreviated, “It takes about half a city block to transition from full sunlight to full shadow.” Explanations are always backed up with Gurney’s paintings and diagrams so the reader can visualize the complicated theories. In The Hair Secret, Gurney suggests, “a large brush, keep the forms simple and try to state the largest masses.” An inset of a commercial mop head and gift wrapping ribbon illustrates how hair behaves when hit by light–another example a reader can easily try.

OK, you say you’re an abstract painter, what’s in Color and Light for you? To be good at non-representational compositions you need to know the rules, then you can break them. Even if you are a Post-Modernist setting up a 3-D tableaux in a gallery, you need to know how to light your work so the public will focus on what you’re conveying.

Observing reflected light with croquet balls.
Observing reflected light with croquet balls.

All artists should know how shadows are cast, not only in a studio demo using croquet balls flooded with artificial lighting, but also with cylindrical forms found outdoors when wind, rain and even pollution change appearances as the day progresses into night.

Marine spheres or bumpers that keep boats from bruising at dockside may display highlights on a sunny day. What about a foggy day? In Gurney’s section Fog, Mist, Smoke and Dust he explains, “the sun can’t penetrate a deep fog layer, so the light reaching the ground seems to come from all directions.” Knowing this, painters should correctly blur imagery and omit high contrasts, thus making the foggy day on the water more appealing. However, knowing this, the abstractionist is free to deliberately break this rule, perhaps making a statement about global warming or overcrowded harbors where finding a berth for your boat can be next to impossible.

Harbor Fog (Oil-on-Board, 1995).
Harbor Fog (Oil-on-Board, 1995).

I’m reminded of Claude Monet’s observations and thus his paintings of Rouen Cathedral which he executed at different times on subsequent days. In Serial Painting Gurney too conjures Monet, and throughout Color and Light he peppers his instruction with the importance of knowing the idiosyncrasies of masters who cared about honing skills, showing off favorite techniques that became their trademarks.

In the section Reverse Atmospheric Perspective, Gurney remarks that the stand-by rule, warm colors advance while cool colors recede, was often ignored by Hudson River painters (Gifford, Church and Bierstadt) who, “tended to avoid high-chroma blues in their distant spaces.”

In Subsurface Scattering, or looking at light that either passes through an object or is blocked by its opacity, Gurney shows how a translucent orange segment differs from an opaque toy cow. He places both objects in a dinner plate full of water and then backlights. The fruit displays a nice reflection in the plate but the plastic cow does not. Read Color and Light and discover the results of front lighting, as Gurney again engages the reader by experimenting with everyday objects.

As expressed, referencing art history is not only a good way to cement a point but brings the artist-reader into dialogue with the past as well as with contemporary author Gurney. Peter Paul Rubens experimented with light passing through human skin in order to make his figures comes alive, hence not looking like he’d painted a doll. Quoting Gurney, “Rubens rendered skin not as an opaque surface, but as a translucent, glowing, luminous layer.” Beginners naively choose brown mixed with white paint resulting in dead looking tones. This organ isn’t opaque, nor does it exist in some color vacuum. Skin is made up of many colors and glows in its Color and Light environment.

Like Imaginative Realism, Color and Light is not always an easy read. I found myself pondering over theories, wanting more about reflection and refraction—terms I confess to have confused. In Gurney’s section Water: Reflection and Transparency, he diagrams what happens when light bounces off water(reflection) as opposed to light passing through water (refraction). He says, “as the steepness of the angle of reflection increases, the percentage of light entering the water also increases.”

If you want to learn more, Gurney provides further recommended reading; learning art’s-rules-of-the-road is better accomplished by listening to many experts. Perusing his list, it was comforting to find books I consider old friends. I also found, Light: The Industrial Age,1750-1900 by Bluhm and Lippincott which will be useful for my Art of Churchill dissertation. Keep re-reading Gurney; you’ll find new byways to explore, and you’ll look outside your kitchen window in a fresh way.

Even if you are not an artist you can enjoy this book. Alas, my stash of one hundred watt bulbs is slowly diminishing. And last week’s trip to Home Depot showed that I’ll have to buy ones resembling swirls of soft ice cream or something called an LED—goodbye watts, hello lumens. According to Gurney in the section Window Light, “daylight that enters a room from outside is usually bluish. The cool color contrasts with the relatively orange color of artificial lights shining in the room” –useful information when trying out these new fangled light bulbs.

Gurney works while observing the scene out the window of a train.
Gurney works while observing the scene out the window of a train.

If you’re not a painter, maybe you just like to walk your dog. When tugging the other end of the leash, look at the way light makes some leaves darker. In Transmitted Light, Gurney explains, leaves in shadow facing downward appear the darkest green while leaves in shadow facing upwards are blue-green, because the blue light of the sky influences them. Did you ever observe skyholes, or spaces where the sky leaks through tree branches? According to Gurney in Skyholes and Foliage, these apertures are darker than the surrounding sky. Use them sparingly as Claude Lorrain did.

Here’s a few more teasers: Artists struggling when rendering a portrait can learn in the section Color Zones of the Face that, “The complexion of a light-skinned face divides into three zones.” OK, how about trying to describe in paint a receding street? I remember struggling with an assignment trying to get a deck not to look like it was crashing into the adjacent pool. And, while we all like to snap a photo rather than drag that easel through rain and snow, Gurney warns when taking photos, “subtle or close variations between adjacent warm and cool colors are often not registered while deep shadows will appear pure black and bright highlights will appear pure white.” What about a color wheel that actually has paint names from your studio tubes like quinacridone magenta or cobalt teal blue. Gurney tips can make masterpieces less overworked and you’ll feel less guilty about reaching for your camera.

Color and Light continues to stress the importance of going-on-location. In Serial Painting, Gurney is seen riding a train, absorbed in making postage stamp-size watercolors of the passing landscape. Always the professional, he comments, “the landscape view disappears as quickly as it appears, you have to rely on your visual memory.”

Whether you’re highly skilled, have finally found time for aesthetic pleasures, or just want to make that walk with Fido more memorable, James Gurney’s Color and Light with its instruction and original Gurney work is worth a place in your studio. Remember, you can memorize rules but facing an empty canvas or a piece of virgin watercolor paper should always be a thrill and new adventure. Gurney finishes by saying, “The way you paint is a record of how you see.”

The Art of James Gurney: Part 1