1) Tell me a little about your creative process. Once inspiration hits, how do you approach the panel/canvas? In other words, do you always start a piece the same way even if the source of inspiration is different? How do you know when a piece is completed; is it that sense of fulfillment or that a particular experience/idea is re-achieved?
I don't always start the same way, but let me give you the overview of my typical creative process for an imaginative painting. I start with small thumbnail sketches in pencil, pen, or watercolor. If it’s an architectural subject or a dinosaur, I’ll often build a little maquette to establish shadows and angles. Sometimes I’ll do a small color study or comprehensive sketch.
If the painting requires scientific or historical accuracy, I consult with experts at every stage of the process and incorporate their suggestions. After all these studies, I work up the line drawing—and sometimes a full charcoal drawing—and finally begin the final painting.
The final painting is usually in oil, and may take anywhere from a couple days to a month to complete, depending on complexity. If I do my planning right, the finish won’t take very long, and I won’t have to change or rework any areas. But paintings don’t always go according to plan, and they almost never live up to my purest vision of the scene.
2) Could you dive into the process of a specific work that will be featured in the article? Perhaps you could recall when/where/how you were moved to create it and the process involved in its realization?
(Image: Waterfall City: Afternoon Light) Waterfall City is a combination of two places that always fascinated me: Niagara Falls and Venice. It's a place at the center of my imagined world of Dinotopia, the island where humans and dinosaurs coexist. The creation of the original painting predated the conception of Dinotopia, and my earlier career set the stage for it.
I began my professional art career painting animation backgrounds, paperback covers, and National Geographic illustrations. I had only vague inklings of lost worlds and utopias and epic stories. Looking back, I suppose that illustration work was an ideal training ground for the kind of visual world I was trying to develop, because I was called upon to paint all sorts of subjects: dinosaurs, ancient cities, space ships, aliens and mermaids. I particularly enjoyed painting scenes from archaeology and paleontology that were accountable to the truth of fact. My specialty became painting realistic images of scenes that can’t be photographed.
I traveled to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome on assignment for National Geographic. It was a huge inspiration to see those famous old cities. I spent time with Rick Bronson, an archaeologist who was just like Indiana Jones. He led me through overgrown jungles to find little known Etruscan ruins, and we descended down ladders into newly-discovered tombs. Sitting around the campfire at night, Dr. Bronson and I would talk about dreams of discovering a lost city along the lines of Machu Picchu or Troy. I realized that I could always make a painting of such a lost city, and that led to painting Waterfall City, an image that took me several months to complete.
3) There are, obviously, infinite ways in which the body can express different ideas, narratives, and feelings. Can you talk about your attraction to figurative work what it means to you and your art? Perhaps you could extend this discussion to your plein-air / imaginative realism?
I don't think in terms of painting bodies or figures or heads, but rather people. I’m usually motivated to capture a specific character or individual. This is important to me because I think art students often get stuck thinking of people in generic or anonymous terms. When that happens, they miss out on the chance to animate their subjects with living souls.
Not that I do that every time, but it’s what I’m trying for. If I'm painting a portrait from life, I'm usually talking to the person to try to understand how they tick in addition to how they look. I'll be documenting that process in a new video called "Portraits in the Wild."
If I'm creating a work of imagination like Dinotopia, I enlist models to act out the characters. Usually my models are friends or neighbors, but I have hired professionals. I’m trying to imagine a certain person doing something for a particular reason. I either take photos or do tone paper sketches of the models. I have a large mirror mounted in the studio and often draw myself posing in costume to get the basic action.
4) What are your primary goals in art making? What do you hope your audiences take away from your paintings?
If I’m doing paleoart, my goal is to create a bridge to a forgotten world, to be an eyewitness to life that has long since vanished. Paleoart is wildlife art for the time traveler.
I’ve always been interested in creating an alternate universe that my readers can travel to during those moments of daydreaming during the day. I’m not conscious about morals or hidden messages; I simply enjoy telling a good old adventure story.
Another big goal for me is capturing the world in my personal sketchbooks and location painting. It’s the flip side of my imaginative work. The one side of my art feeds the other.
5) Which artists, historical or contemporary, have influenced you the most and why? Is it purely conceptual or aesthetic? Both?
When I was a student, I read everything I could find about Salon and Royal Academy artists like Alma Tadema, Bouguereau, and Gerome. As much as I love those guys, I also adore painterly realists like Repin, Kroyer, Sorolla, and Zorn. From a young age I recognized that all these artists were part of a tradition that continued unbroken through the Golden Age illustrators, particularly in the work of Rockwell, Cornwell, and Lovell. I pored over editions of the Famous Artist’s Course from the 1950s, where great story illustrators shared the secrets of their craft. I also read avidly about the life in the ateliers, particularly the Prix de Rome images and the history paintings. I was very curious how they painted such lifelike scenes from their imaginations.
Lately I’ve been extremely inspired by the the drawings and the gouaches of Adolph Menzel, and I edited a book of his work that will be released later this year from Dover Publications.
The appeal of all those artists is more basic that just being just conceptual or symbolic. It’s a very deep response to sensual life that pulses through the work of all these artists.
6) Talk to me about your surfaces. How important is the surface to your art? Why or why not?
I work on everything from watercolor paper to illustration board to canvas. I prime it in a variety of ways. But surface is not a huge preoccupation for me. I’m always trying to pass through the surface. It’s easy to make a painting look like paint. The challenge is to dissolve the surface and see into the depths. If people praise my brushstrokes or my canvas texture, something is wrong with the painting.
7) What has your journey to becoming a successful artist been like? Were you always interested in art?
I went to the University of California at Berkeley, but I didn’t take any classes in the art department there. I sought out the archaeology and paleontology professors and asked them if they needed an artist to render artifacts. They let me loose in the vast Kroeber Museum collection. One of the things I was permitted to do for school credit was to render Egyptian scarab carvings for a scientific publication. After participating in an actual archaeological dig, I decided to major in anthropology. I then went on to study drawing and painting at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, but I soon was hired out for paying work in the movie industry, and that’s where I learned to paint.
As a kid, I liked dinosaurs and ancient civilizations because I knew they were once real, even though I couldn’t see them with my own eyes. Outside my bedroom door was a shelf of old National Geographic magazines dating back to 1915. I would tiptoe into the hallway late at night and read about pilots in biplanes flying over uncharted Incan ruins. After school I would dig excavation pits in my suburban back yard, hoping to find a dinosaur bone or maybe even a lost temple. The neighborhood moms quit letting their kids play at my house because they always came home covered with dirt. Even though I didn’t find much of what I imagined, I made up for it by sculpting it out of clay or drawing it on paper.
I wanted to be an artist, but I was interested in so many other things. I was interested in that place where art intersects science and engineering. I find most scientist are kids at heart, with a sense of wonder and imagination about worlds that they must imagine from scraps of evidence.
8) Finally, where are James and his art in 5 years? How do you see your career and artwork evolving in the future and what are some things you seek to achieve?
I have kept several doors open all through my career: writing, freelance illustration, and books published the traditional way, and I’ll continue to do those. I’ll continue writing for the art magazines and for the art instruction press.
But lately I’ve been doing more self publishing, particularly in the video art instruction category. I have released six DVD / downloads already, with three more in the pipeline. I also have new story worlds that I’m developing, and I expect to continue with my blogging, which I’ve done daily since 2007.