Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Book Review - Imaginative Realism by James Gurney

Title: Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist
Synopsis: This book has been described as the ultimate reference for fans of science fiction and fantasy illustration. Imaginative Realism links traditional techniques with contemporary visualisation.

Award-winning fantasy artist and the creator of Dinotopia, James Gurney systematically examines and details practical methods for creating believable pictures of imaginary subjects. (Right click the Table of Contents on the right and open in a new tabe to see the contents page)

This is NOT a book about the use of digital tools. Instead the focus is on the use of plein-air studies, models photographed in costume, maquettes, models and tableaus.

He also demonstrates the use of thumbnail sketches, storyboards, charcoal comprehensive drawings, tone paper studies and a variety of approaches and techniques relevant to composition.

This vast number of topics are typically covered in double page spreads with dense but succinct text and relevant images at various stages of development. The book also includes a useful section on careers and a detailed glossary.
Summary review:
On publication this book became the #1 art instruction book on Amazon. A month after publication it holds on to the #1 slot in art books about Realism. The reason being that this book sets a very high standard for all art instruction books as it is jam packed full of useful content which is both very accessible and highly informative.

The bias is towards Gurney's normal fantasy art subject matter but the principles are applicable to all painters who create works which involve some element of imagined realism.

Many of the technical approaches he uses are also rooted in classical realism. This book reminded me of all the ways that artists who pre-date photography often worked - assembling finished paintings from studies, mock-ups and maquettes. I looked at the Degas maquettes in the Musée d'Orsay in a whole new light after reading this book

This book is so good I'd recommend that any aspiring fine artist buys it just for Chapter 11 which deals with composition. The approaches to developing a composition and the various devices discussed in the book are also ones which are important to the education of any artist wanting to paint in a realistic way. They also go way beyond what gets highlighted when composition gets discussed in most forums and books.

James manages to be is very informative about past practices of leading illustrators as well as providing very clear explanations about traditional concepts and his own particular techniques developed over many years in his very successful career as a creative artist. In doing so, he maintains a very accessible writing style of the type used by the very best teachers.

I suspect some will hope this book will be published as a hardback as I think this will become a standard reference book and be used for many years to come.
  • covers an enormous amount of material
  • a focus on classical, traditional and practical methods which enable the realisation of fantasy - updated for those using conventional media in the 21st century
  • an emphasis on different stages of development and the amount of work which cam be involved in getting it right
  • an excellent review of fundamental concepts relating to composition - with Gurney terminology
  • well evidenced challenges to conventional wisdom on composition - which will surprise quite a few people
  • a huge number of images used to illustrate and underline points
  • useful section on careers
  • extremely well written and very accessible. This book will appeal to all ages.
  • excellent production values - colours reproduce well. Binding is good - but might possibly become strained over the years of use that this book is likely to generate
Think Again?
  • You can access much of this material on his blog - but if you find that useful you'd regret not buying this book!
  • some may find the fantasy element a little bit too much - but I'd recommend you stick with mining the nuggets of excellent advice in the text
  • I suspect this book will be very well used by some artists who might value the option of a hardback as an alternative.
Who should buy this?:

This is a MUST BUY who all those need to create imaginary realism - even for those working in digital format! Including:
  • fantasy artists
  • contemporary illustrators,
  • Concept artists - for films and games
  • Animators
  • comic book artists
  • figurative artists who would like to create imagined scenes - even if they don't involve dinosaurs!
Who should not buy this?
  • Of limited interest to those not wanting to portray realism
  • dedicated digital artists might think this book has little relevance - but they'd be wrong!
Author / (Publisher): James Gurney / Andrews McMeel Publishing
Technical data:
  • Publication Date: October 20, 2009 in USA; November 2009 in UK
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • ISBN-10: 0740785508
  • ISBN-13: 978-0740785504

I've been a long-time follower and reader of James Gurney's blog Gurney Journey. I also regularly highlight his blog posts in my weekly Sunday post "Who's made a mark this week?" Indeed sometimes it feels like I'm featuring him every week! One of the reasons for that is James is so generous in sharing his expertise as an artist and illustrator.

I've known for some time that he had a book planned and consequently it was great to be able to get hold of it, read it and now write this review.

This long time artist and author produces what he wants to do the way he wants to do it. He's writing about what he knows, he writes from a position of many years expertise and he shares an absolutely amazing amount of content and material.

It's very important to note that, at a time when many publishers of art instruction books are finding yet more ways to regurgitate existing content that they've already paid for into yet another format or cover, James Gurney confounds all the myths about the publication of art books.
  • He tackles complex topics - and renders them easy to understand.
  • He creates a book which appeals to those starting out and those who are experienced in this field.
  • He packs a huge amount of information into one book rather than delivering a publication which is very thin in content terms.
  • He tackles traditional concepts without any sense of the 'same old same old'.
I do hope some of the publishers take note and many thanks to Andrews McMeel Publishing for letting James do what he does best!

A lot of what is in this book I'd already read on Gurney Journey. This has given James the opportunity to refine some of his material as prior publication on his blog means he's already got a very good sense of what interests his readers and devotees. I really enjoyed seeing it all again in book form and there's something about having it all together in a logical sequence which I think creates an overall sum which is greater than the parts.

You should also read Charley Parker's review on Lines and Colors - Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist. This one will particularly appeal to the fantasy artists and illustrators reading this.

This book is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED by me. If you find somebody to buy you a copy as a present for Christmas I guarantee you'll have read it before the New Year arrives! :)


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