TTLG Author/Illustrator Profiles

James Gurney

James Gurney

When James Gurney was in grade school, it was hard to find books on dinosaurs. "None of my friends talked about them," he said. "And they definitely weren't cool at my school." But one day his parents brought him to a museum near where he grew up in Palo Alto, California. There he saw a mounted skeleton of an Allosaurus. "At first I thought dinosaurs were skeletons, because every time you saw a dinosaur in a museum, it was always just bones." He daydreamed that this skeleton would come to life after the janitors closed up the museum for the night. "I pictured it stepping over the railing and stalking through the corridors before it reached its platform at daybreak. To me that's the reason dinosaurs are so fascinating. They just won't stay dead."

Gurney's daydreams took him beyond dinosaurs into archaeology and lost civilizations. Outside his bedroom door was a shelf of National Geographic magazines dating back to 1915. He would read late into the night about pilots in biplanes flying over uncharted Inca and Maya ruins. After school he would dig "excavation pits" into his suburban back yard, hoping to find arrowheads or maybe even a lost temple. "My friends' mothers quit letting their kids play at my house because they always came home covered with dirt," he said. Even though he didn't find much of what he imagined, he made up for it by sculpting it out of clay of drawing it on paper.

By the time he went to college at the University of California at Berkeley, he sought out the professors who loved archaeology and paleontology. They were kind enough to let him explore the museum collections. One of his first jobs was making careful drawings of Egyptian scarab carvings for a scientist's publication. After participating on a real archaeological dig, he decided to major in anthropology.

He then pursued his interest in drawing and painting by studying at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He sketched outdoors at every opportunity. A cross-country trip on railroad boxcars led to a book that he co-wrote and illustrated with his friend Thomas Kinkade called The Artist's Guide to Sketching, (Watson-Guptill, 1982). He worked for a time in the movie industry, painting background scenes of jungles and volcanoes for the film Fire and Ice, (Bakshi/Frazetta, 1983). The sword and sorcery subject matter got him started with fantasy are, and he began working as an artist for science fiction and fantasy paperback covers.

His big break came when National Geographic invited him to illustrate an article on the explorer Alexander Humboldt, an assignment that was soon followed by many others, including ones on the legends of Jason and Ulysses, and the civilizations of Kush in Nubia, Etruscans in Italy, and Moche in Peru. Each assignment was a stimulating chance to work with experts to recreate a world that could never be photographed. Whenever he would get to know the Indiana-Jones-type archaeologists like Rick Bronson or Tim Kendall, he would discover that each of them shared his secret dream of discovering a lost city as important as Troy or Machu Picchu. Gurney reasoned that he could always paint such a city, and in his spare time, he created Waterfall City and Dinosaur Parade.

These two paintings led to the idea of an island populated by dinosaurs and people. For the five years that it has taken for Gurney to write and illustrate his two books Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time and Dinotopia: The World Beneath, he has immersed himself in every detail of the island, from maps to mechanics to metaphysics. Dinotopia has gone on to win many awards and has been published in over 30 countries worldwide. It was featured on the cover of Smithsonian magazine in September of 1995. Dinotopia revived Gurney's boyhood interest in dinosaurs, and he has enjoyed learning about the new science of dynamic dinosaurs from the experts at the Smithsonian and other museums contributed to making Dinotopia as accurate as possible. In 1997 he created the art for The World of Dinosaurs stamps for the US Postal Service, and illustrated an article in the December, 1997 issue of National Geographic on Patagonian dinosaurs.

James lives in the Hudson Valley of New York with his wife, two sons, and a calico cat, who crouches in his studio amid his model dinosaurs, seeming to wonder, "Why weren't there calico dinosaurs?"