Artist Profile: James Gurney

Along with Kinuko Y. Craft, James Gurney was extremely influential on me as a child. Both artists are highly realistic in their portrayal of humans and animals while the subject matter they illustrate is fantastical.

Like Craft’s The Twelve Dancing Princesses, I could not stop looking at Dinotopia and its sequel, The World Beneath.* I just couldn’t stop! They are so gorgeous – the dinosaurs, the architecture, nature, people, clothes; and all the notes about how society and things worked.


These books sparked my childhood love for dinosaurs, and the architecture and clothing dovetailed nicely with my enthusiasm for ancient Greek and Egyptian mythology. The scientific background of the narrator, Arthur Denison, echoed the articles I read in Discover Magazine (remember those bog people?).


And of course you all know how much I love the realistic-fantastic fusion of Renaissance art. James Gurney, too, has that perfect blend. He actually makes 3D models to see how light and shadow will fall on creatures and buildings, and takes reference photos.

Model of Bix
Model of Bix
Reference photo and final watercolor for "Dinosaur Parade"
Reference photo and final watercolor for “Dinosaur Parade”

He has two books about how to paint realistically: Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter, and Imaginitive Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist. He is also a plein air artist, meaning that he paints outside whenever possible.

Stages in a plein air painting in France
Stages in a plein air painting in France

Gurney comes from a scientific background, just like Arthur Denison; Gurney has a degree in anthropology and his father was a mechanical engineer. He is a self-taught artist, first learning to paint from books about Norman Rockwell and Howard Pyle.

Prior to Dinotopia, he painted backgrounds for the rotoscope film Fire and Ice and provided paintings of ancient cultures for National Geographic. Researching for these images of Etruscan, Kushite, and Moche civilizations led Gurney to paint “lost world” paintings, some of which featured dinosaurs. Dinotopia is a racially diverse place, and Gurney has infused elements of all sorts of cultures into his books.

The Throne Room
The Throne Room
Dinosaur Boulevard
Dinosaur Boulevard

To date, Gurney has had twenty-five Dinotopia-themed exhibits at museums in both the U.S. and Europe. It would be cool to see them in person, but I will just curl up with Dinotopia and some tea.

For more astounding images and instructional videos, please visit,, and his YouTube channel.

*Two other Dinotopia sequels came later, First Flight and Journey to Chandara.


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