Art Tools of James Gurney

For this installment of Art Tools and Gears, we have guest artist James Gurney from the USA with us.

Originally from California, James is based in the Hudson Valley of New York State. James is a full-time painter who paints in both oils and water media, and is a lifelong sketcher.

He co-authored The Artist’s Guide to Sketching, in 1981 and is also the author behind the well known illustrated book series Dinotopia, as well as Imaginative Realism, and Color and Light.

We have invited James today to share with us some of his paintings and the art-tools that he uses, as well as offer some tips for aspiring artists.

Qn: Will you be able to let our readers know more about you and your artistic journeys?

As a kid I loved the old adventure classics illustrated by Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth because they had the best pictures in them. I discovered M.C. Escher and Norman Rockwell in middle school, and they taught me how art can reach people through the printed page.

I also loved science and writing in high school. I wanted to be an artist early on, but I was worried that if I went to study illustration right away, I might miss out on those other interests. So I put off art school and spent four years at the University of California, Berkeley, studying a little of everything. At first when I started at the university I thought I’d be a medical illustrator, but I abandoned that when I started doing illustrations for the anthropology museum and I discovered archaeology. I fell in love with archaeology and paleontology, because of the deep mysteries of those fields.

In my spare time from college work, I made a latex gorilla mask with realistic resin teeth. I lived in a bad neighborhood and often rolled in late on my unicycle wearing the gorilla mask and a security guard uniform, and I never had any problems.

By the time I finished college, I had taught myself to draw fairly well, but I couldn’t paint yet. I had no job prospects. I had just enough money saved up to move to Los Angeles and my goal was to learn to paint. I got a job as a background painter for animated films, and that started the ball rolling. I learned on the job, working with Ralph Bakshi, Frank Frazetta, and Thomas Kinkade.

Qn: Do you teach art?

I’ve lectured at lots of art schools, and I teach a few workshops. I’ll be doing some teaching and demoing at the Portrait Society Conference this spring, and at the Denver Botanical Gardens and the SKB Workshop in Wyoming this fall (2016). For those who can’t make it to those, there are my books and videos, and plenty of free content on blog posts.

Qn: What are your art-tools and materials (paint, brushes, board, easel etc) used for your oil paintings?

I assume you mean oil painting in the studio. I paint on a drawing table, and mix paint on a palette affixed to a taboret. The taboret is a small cabinet on wheels that sits to the right of me. It holds paints, brushes, pens and pencils.

The white palette surface where I mix my paints rests on a hinged board which can be set at any angle. If I need to refer to the color wheel (see posts on color), I can place it above my mixing surface.

Here’s what I keep on the taboret above:

  1. The blobs of paint squeezed from the tube rest on a 3x18 inch paint shelf. This is a wooden plywood surface that is lifted above the mixing surface.
  2. I mix paints with a palette knife on standard white freezer paper, which is coated with polyethylene. The roll of paper hangs on a wooden dowel below the paint shelf.
  3. Mixing cups with Grumtine and Liquin. Little wedges nearby hold the paper tightly secured.
  4. Peanut butter jar with kerosene for cleaning brushes. There’s a screen halfway down inside the jar to give something for the brush to scrub against.
  5. Jar of Liquin, an alkyd based medium. It dries fast, but with a dull sheen that needs to be varnished later.
  6. Plastic tub from restaurant take-out food. I cut a rectangular hole in the lid with a mat knife. At the end of each day I scrape down the paints on the paint shelf using a palette knife, and the scrapings go in here. When it’s full, I dispose of the whole tub.
  7. Paint rag with a wiggly wire to hold the brush handles. This is where brushes sit while they’re in use.
  8. Note the door hinges under the mixing panel. This allows the whole panel to be raised up. Unseen beneath the hinged panel, is an adjustable sliding clamp that fixes the slope at any angle I desire.
  9. Brushes are mostly bristles and white nylon flats.

Here’s how the freezer paper fits under the edge of the tip-up palette. Fresh paper unrolls with the plastic side up, and constantly gives a new surface for mixing. The used paper tears off on the right of the palette.

In drawers below the tabletop are pencils, pens, markers, paints, and mediums.

Qn: How do you pack when you do outdoor (plein air) oil painting? (What bag do you use? And what goes in there?)

Everything fits into a backpack that I can take with me through airports. The backpack has built-in wheels, allowing it to roll around. I’ve done a few painting trips on buses, trains, or hitchhiking.

Inside the pack is a pochade box. I use the Open Box M pochade box. The paint palette and adjustable panel holder mounts onto a camera tripod. The advantage over the traditional French easel is that you can turn, tilt, raise, and lower your work very easily, and the pochade box also weighs less. I added a side panel with graduated holes for holding brushes and Nalgene palette cups containing Gamsol solvent and Liquin alkyd medium. On the mixing palette is disposable white freezer paper.

I can use this setup either standing or sitting. I either clip a rag to the side or hang a paper towel roll underneath.

Above is an oil painting called “Trail to the Beaver Dam” which I did in two consecutive three-hour sessions. It’s very tiny, only 6 by 12 inches. I was attracted by the glimpse of a distant view through the trees on the right, and the profound darkness on the trail ahead on the left. The illumination in the foreground comes from the trees that were cut down.

And immediately above is a watercolor sketch done while sitting outside on a rainy day while my car was being worked on by a mechanic.

Qn: What are your art-tools and materials used for your watercolor paintings?

For my water media kit, I bring art supplies that are totally cross-compatible: a fountain pen, water-soluble colored pencils and graphite pencils, water brushes (one filled with water and a couple others filled with water-soluble colored inks), a small Schmincke watercolor pan set, and a few tubes of gouache. You can use any of those in any sequence.

Here's my portable expedition rig for both painting and making videos. This kit fits on my belt or shoulder straps so that I can walk through any museum.

  1. Tripod stool with shoulder strap.
  2. Compact tripod for video camera, Zoom recorder, or LED light, strapped to chair with bungie cord.
  3. Paint rag tied to the outside to allow it to dry (looks a bit weird).
  4. Belt pouch. Contains: pencils, brushes, water cup, gouache set, mini watercolor set, watercolor sketchbook, and LED headlamp.
  5. Flip video camera
  6. Zoom ZH1 sound recorder.
  7. Still camera.
  8. Canon Vixia camcorder

Here’s what’s in my bag. See BoingBoing for detailed information on each item.

My little pack includes a mixture of water-media drawing and painting tools. I use whatever media or methods convey the most information or mood in the time available. And of course, I only bring out what is reasonable to use in a given situation, such as a concert hall, a subway, or a restaurant.

I carry these art supplies practically everywhere. Following is some more information about some of the basic elements in my kit, including sketchbook, paint box, brushes, watercolor pencils, a rag, and some water. They're all listed in detail below.

Watercolor Sketchbooks

I have often used the Moleskine Watercolor Album (5 x 8.25 inches) I like the fact that it opens flat and I like the horizontal (landscape) format. It has 36 pages—72 if you paint on the facing pages. It has a fake leather hardbound cover, an elastic strap, and a pocket in the back. The paper is 90-pound weight, which is rather lightweight for very wet watercolors, but it's OK if you're doing mostly drawings rather than juicy paintings.

I also recommend the Pentalic Aqua Journal (5 x 8 inch), which is priced about the same as the Moleskine but has better paper — 140 lb (300gsm) cold press, acid-free 100% rag paper. With the heavier paper, it has just 24 pages. But they'll hold up to wet washes or even light impasto, such as with casein.

Colors--Here's a basic set of 12 half pans. These are really all you need.

Or you could limit the selection even more.

I use a Nalgene 2-Ounce Jar with three 1/4 x 1/16 inch Neodymium Magnets, held on with Magic Sculpt Epoxy Clay. You could also use a generic epoxy plumber's puttyinstead of the Magic Sculpt. The magnets are powerful, so keep them away from your credit card and phone.

More on my blog

Watercolor with colored pencil for texture.

Can you tell us more about your pencil drawings? What pencil/paper/colored-pencil do you use?

These add a lot of options and variations to traditional watercolors. I recommend trying a few test pencils from several different brands to see which ones you like. My favorite brand is Caran D'ache Supracolor, but I also like Derwent Inktense Pencils for rich, saturated colors.

I started with a Caran d'Ache Supracolor Set of 18. Over the years I have added and subtracted individual colors from the standard set. Below are the colors I take with me most often. It emphasizes warm colors that I like for portraits and animal drawing.

What was the most interesting or memorable experience you had painting/drawing?

Rather than the most interesting, how about a few random examples of crazy things that have actually happened to me?

  1. Menaced by a bull in the middle of a field.
  2. Heavy downpour starts (fatal to watercolor) and wind blows rain under umbrella (eventually shuts down oil painting).
  3. Forgot the chair, and no place to sit down.
  4. High wind makes easel impossible to set up.
  5. Subject (person, vehicle, animal) departs.
  6. Drunk guy in bar keeps bumping hard into sketching arm.
  7. Tide comes in, eliminating setup area.
  8. Donkey puts head in lap.
  9. Sketching from drawbridge; drawbridge lifts.
  10. Goats keeps nibbling sketchbook.
  11. Kicked out by guard/ harbourmaster/ cop/ farmer/ railyard bull—and once ejected by a nun!
  12. Easel blown over and washed down waterfall.
  13. Scheduled steam train (my ride home) must depart.
  14. Folding chair collapses in museum.
  15. Biting insects become too unbearable.
  16. Unseen people on overlook above keep spitting on me.
  17. Forgot key supplies (brushes, solvent, paints, or panel).
  18. Fog comes in and covers view.
  19. Shop opens or doorway becomes active.
  20. Sub-freezing temperatures freeze watercolor.
  21. Automatic sprinklers turned on in garden.
  22. Car or truck parks in front, obstructing view.
  23. Lights turned on, killing mood; or turned off, obscuring sketchbook.
  24. Tour bus unloads gaggle of annoying tourists who hover around snapping pictures and asking inane questions.
  25. Portrait subject approached, waving a finger, superstitious about being drawn.

Tell us more about your book Dinotopia? (What inspired you to come up with this book? How do you get your ideas for the illustrations?

In college I was an anthropology/archaeology major, and later I got a dream job traveling to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome on assignment for National Geographic magazine, and 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 like Machu Picchu or Troy. I realized that I could always make a painting of such a lost city, and that led to Dinosaur Parade and Waterfall City. After that, I drew a map of an unknown island and came up with the idea of a Victorian explorer who discovers this island and reports about it in his journal.

What did you use to draw the Dinotopia images?

All the Dinotopia paintings are done in oil. Sometimes I’ll start with a pen and ink drawing or an acrylic wash-in. I often work on heavy weight illustration board, and sometimes on oil-primed linen canvas.

And how long did it take you to finish the book?

Some pictures only take a day. Most take a week. Big ones with lots of people take about a month. Most of the time is spent in the preparatory stages. Each Dinotopia book takes me about three years to write and illustrate.

I see from your website and your YouTube page that you do art instructional videos too – can you share with us more? (What do you cover in these videos? And what can one expect to learn?)

What I try to cover in every video is both the how and the why of making a picture: What I’m doing with my brushes and paint, but also what I’m thinking as I do it, and I think that’s even more important. In my videos I let the camera have a front row seat, so that when you watch it you feel like you’re right there with me. Fantasy in the Wild

I think my fascination for creating videos comes from the fact that I figured out art on my own. All through my youth, I never got to watch anyone else drawing or painting from life. I was kind of a loner. Once I arrived at art school and started meeting other artists, I was completely captivated with how other people made a picture. And I was fascinated to learn what they were thinking about as they did so.

I believe that drawing from observation is an intensely magical act, like a form of conjuring. What I’m trying to do with my videos is to try to bottle that magic, to catch the fish and tell the fish story at the same time.

The other answer to what makes it worthwhile is that over the past few years I have been building a library of instructional videos for sale showing in detail how I use various media and how I solve various problems.

Do you have any tips on the choice or use of art materials and painting/sketching generally that you can share with us?

Yes, it’s easy to get carried away with buying a lot of materials, but I would suggest taking only a few tubes of paint with you on a painting challenge and see what you can do with a limited palette. When you’re painting anything, the first step is to simplify it so that you can focus on the nuances that interest you.

The other tip is to alternate between imaginative work and observational work. I don’t think a person is a complete artist unless they do both, and inform one with the other.

Have you read any art-books by other artist/s or instructional mediums related to art?

I owe most of my art education to instructional art books. I developed my own curriculum of self-teaching based on The Famous Artist’s Course from the 1950’s, Andrew Loomis’s book Creative Illustration, and the teaching methods from the 19th century French academy, which involved fairly detailed anatomy and cast drawing. The best book for learning about French academic painting methods is The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century by Albert Boime, 1971.

Lastly, which other artist/s do you think we should feature next?

Joseph Zbukvic, Nathan Fowkes, and Kim Jung Gi

We are thankful to James Gurney for sharing his artworks, art-tools and experiences in this informative interview. For more about James and his artworks, you may visit his website or his blog.

James regularly shares his artworks on his twitter page and he has posted numerous Youtube-videos on art.

James also has a daily feed on Instagram.

Check out other artist interviewees at


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