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4.3 out of 5 stars
Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist
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HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWERon October 25, 2009
If you are a regular reader of James Gurney's blog, Gurney Journey, you would expect nothing less. This book is as good as I expected. He dispenses his knowledge as freely as he does on his blog. Here's what he says about his own book from the introduction:

"This is not a book about figure drawing, anatomy, or perspective. It's not a step-by-step guide on how to draw dinosaurs. It's also not a recipe book for a particular paint technique, although all these topics are addressed in passing. What this book contains is a distillation of the time-tested methods that I've found to be most helpful for achieving realism in imaginative pictures."

If you haven't got the hint from the title, this book is about making your art real and believable. In every chapter, James Gurney shares with us what he learned when creating his paintings. There are topics on people, dinosaurs, architecture, vehicles, composition and his step-by-steps (not techniques but process). The tips he gives can be applied on other subjects as well.

The importance of research is emphasized and the amount of research he does really shows. While creating an illustration on ship wreckage for National Geographic, he talked to survivors to get an accurate account. He found out there's a drummer boy who used his drum as a float and drew that in. He also acted out the various poses of sailors in distress, rather than drawing them from imagination. The result is a painting that tells its story convincingly. The same goes for many of his other paintings.

Another interesting read is the story of him trying to design a Dinotopian fire engine. When he presented his concept art to a professional fire engine designer, it was critiqued to have form but not function. There's lack of heat protection for the dinosaur, lack of understanding on how water hose works and a complicated water pump design. The revised concept is a huge improvement in believability that I thought it actually might work.

He has provided lots of photos and his own work in the book. You'll get to see how he stages the props for reference, sketches and drafts, plenty of commissioned work (especially from National Geographic), the bird on his shoulder while he's drawing, the lousy-art incinerator he created from mirrors and other entertaining stuff.

Imaginative Realism is an enlightening and fun read. Highly recommended to professionals, beginning art students and those who wish to push their art to the next level in terms of depth.

(There are more pictures of the book on my blog. Just visit my Amazon profile for the link.)
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon November 9, 2009
*Overview--Western vs. Eastern art techniques.
***A question about technique

*James Gurney, the creator of the fantasy series, Dinotopia, as well as a commercial artist for several Fortune 500 companies has created a blueprint for artists of any age and ability to follow in this book, Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist. This is a broad survey of Western/ Occidental Art and it's influence on the contemporary Western aesthetic. It is, indeed, a fresh look at Western art.

I've been very fortunate as of late to be able to get my hands on some priceless books on the subject of art. The first, Elemental Magic: The Art of Special Effects Animation, is a look at illustrating natural elements and phenomena (water, fire, icebergs, shattered glass, pixie dust, i.e.) by capturing the movement or in author, Joseph Gilland's, words the "energy" of the object. This is the quintessential Oriental approach to Art.

Imaginative Realism, on the other hand, is an intimate conversation from a master artist to students of art about capturing art by the physical senses. In other words, "What do you see?" The question of what is better or what is the definition of Art, are not questions that either of these books attempt to answer nor are the authors particularly interested in engaging in a culturally-divisive debate.

As a fellow artist (illustrator, painter and now graphic artist), I find this book captivating. It's very easy to get lost in the hundreds of glossy pictures, from trucks to people to dinosaurs to futuristic battles. It's all here. He offers poignant tips and instructions-- many I know and use, but there are quite a few that I hadn't "discovered" -- which makes this book an indispensable reference book to have.

Imaginative Realism is a text book on the various ways European and American artists went about constructing images, from the early 19th century up to and including the present. This, however, is not an art-instruction book. It doesn't offer instructions on how to draw or to paint, for example. It is squarely addressed to the artist and/or art lover about the mechanics and the building blocks of creating art.

**The book is broken down into several categories:

A brief history of Western art.
Setting up (a workstation)
Tables, easels, lights.
Tips on loosening up for inspiration.
Preliminary sketches
Thumbnail/ Storyboard/ Charcoal/ Corrections and Tracings/
Eye level/ Perspective Grid-- and, perseverance.
References, sculptures (busts)
Creatures/ Aliens/ Cyborgs

Plein-Air Silhouettes
Creating a "Scrap File"

***One of the things that Mr. Gurney recommends for capturing authenticity is the use of maquettes or clay sculptures. This is handy for a number of reasons, according to him.

1. It keeps a consistent model available for the artist. Creating a human bust, for instance, allows for a familiarity, a stasis personality where there's no wrestling or competing interference with other mental images intruding on the work-in-progress.

2. You can experiment with hundreds of different poses and light situations from a single maquette.

I did have one question, however, as it concerns the use of maquettes. In the time it takes to buy the materials, decide the right model and facial expression and the creation of it, could it be simpler to just use high-resolution shots of a model and import it into a 3D modeling software where one may digitally control external factors on the model, at a fraction of the cost and time?

I decided to ask Mr. Gurney, himself. Here's his response:

"I was aware of many parallel digital tools that solve many of the same problems that I do with physical maquettes, but since I don't use them, I felt I couldn't write knowledgeably about them.

I often speak to artists who do use Z-Brush and other programs for reference maquettes. From what I gather, the digital techniques take about the same amount of time, or even longer for an organic form like a creature or a tree. What I'm after are usually the subtle textural effects and reflected light, which the more low-end programs have a harder time capturing.

I expect that a lot of my book's readers will use a combination of traditional and digital techniques, both for the reference tools and the final rendering, but hopefully most of the basic messages of the book will apply in either instance."

****Imaginative Realism is truly an art-lovers book. There are many, many detailed clues to unblock artist fatigue, be more creative and going deeper in the psyche to access one's vision. This book should be the first place to look when starting on any project.
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on June 24, 2010
This book is titled perfectly. It doesn't show how to paint the green creature on the cover; it shows what to do to use a model and lighting and whatever to extrapolate the effects you want for your imaginative work (which doesn't have to be fantasy, either). Extraordinarily complete. While I had already thought of and used some solutions he proposed, Gurney has ingeniously come up with many others. This is a how-to book of a completely different order.
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on August 5, 2013
I've been eyeing this book for a while now being a big fan of James Gurney. I had purchase is other book on color theory which helped me a lot. This book, like the other one, takes the academist approach that you can see in Gurney's paintings. It is reassuring to see that even an artist of his caliber takes no detour regarding quality and hard work.
He works with oils, but I mostly paint digitally now and his method is easily translatable into digital terms.
So If you're a fan a Dinotopia looking for some insight into his work or an artist looking for a good process. I would recommend this. Actually, while reading this I wished that this would have been the class I followed in college instead of the one I got.
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on March 2, 2017
a great book by a wonderful artist
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on June 19, 2013
Looks like I'm the only negative reviewer so far, but here goes.

I bought this book expecting to learn how to paint from imagination, but the book doesn't actually tell you how to do that. On the whole what it instructs you to do is to build intricate realistic models of what you want to paint, and then to do paintings of them. There's a very impressive painting on the cover of this book of a green creature holding a paintbrush. I assumed that this would have been painted from imagination, but when you open the book you find that Gurney actually built a clay or plastic model, extremely detailed, of the creature, then did an oil painting of it.

The book will also show you how to build up images using composites of things that do exist, such using parts of existing vehicles from which to create spaceships, but I was already doing that before I bought this book - it was just common sense. What I thought I was going to learn was how to make tones and textures and shadows out of nothing.

All artists use references, of course - but you don't need a book to tell you to do that, do you? And if you're just starting out as an artist, buying materials to make detailed models of figures, and getting people to dress up and pose for photographs so that you can then paint from the photographs - none of that is really feasible, is it?

So if you're already finding ways to make realistic paintings by using composites of photos and other sources of visual reference, then you don't need this book, beautifully put together and illustrated as it is.
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on November 8, 2016
As a former Art & Design Professor I feel my work would have been more effective if I'd had James Gurney's "Imaginative Realism" as a source of new ideas. Most of my students were employed by the Design Industry so I gave them a good start. But after reading about 'painting what doesn't exist' I feel as though most of what I taught was related to the 'nuts and bolts.'
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on September 4, 2013
This book is one of the most useful for painters and illustrators. All of the sections have been very well designed. We can see inter alia in this book different steps of the process to create an illustration. The experience of the author is clearly visible by the quality of his advice.
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on November 14, 2016
Fantastic book, of course! I purchased this to replace a copy I had spilled ink all over. It is an essential in any artists library young and old. James Gurney has a wonderful way of teaching that really breaks things down and helps you to understand as you're going along.
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on June 18, 2016
I bought this book along with "Colour and Light" by the same publisher, and they are both really great guides to improve your drawing/painting abilities, if you take the time to read them and apply the knowledge to your work.
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