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When did James Gurney start painting?

James Gurney is a renowned American artist, author and illustrator best known for creating the Dinotopia fantasy book series. His highly detailed and realistic paintings of imagined worlds have captivated audiences for decades. But when did this talented artist first start pursuing painting and artistic endeavors? Let’s take a look at the early life and career of James Gurney to find out.

Early Life and Education

James Gurney was born in 1958 in Glendale, California. From a young age, he was drawn to art and imagination. As a child, he enjoyed creating his own illustrated stories featuring dinosaurs, which later provided the inspiration for the Dinotopia series.

In 1976, Gurney began his formal art education when he entered the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. He graduated in 1980 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Illustration. During his education, he honed fundamental artistic skills in figure drawing, graphic design, and painting. This training prepared him for a successful career in illustration.

Early Painting and Illustration Work

After graduating in 1980, Gurney began working professionally as a freelance illustrator. In 1982, he illustrated his first children’s book, Dinosaurs of the Age of Reptiles. This project foreshadowed his future Dinotopia work.

In the 1980s, Gurney created illustrations for magazines like National Geographic and Scientific American. He also painted covers for science fiction books. During this period, he started developing his unique, imaginative painting style that blended realism with fantasy themes.

The Dinotopia Series

In 1992, James Gurney released the first Dinotopia book. This fully illustrated fantasy novel portrayed an undiscovered island where humans and sentient dinosaurs lived together peacefully. The book was a massive success, sparking Gurney’s ongoing Dinotopia series that now includes over 20 titles.

Year Dinotopia Book Title
1992 Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time
1993 Dinotopia: The World Beneath
1995 Dinotopia: First Flight
1999 Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara
2007 Dinotopia: River Quest
2012 Dinotopia: The Lost Empire

The visually stunning Dinotopia books established Gurney as an exceptionally talented painter and world-builder. His early experience as an illustrator allowed him to create the fantastical Dinotopia universe through his intricate paintings.

Painting Process and Techniques

Throughout his career, James Gurney has refined his artistic process to create his signature photorealistic painting style. Some key elements of his approach include:

– Extensive preparatory sketches – Gurney does detailed pencil sketches to work out compositions before starting a painting.

– Photographic reference – He takes his own photographic reference photos to ensure realistic lighting and textures.

– Underpainting – He starts paintings by establishing values and basic forms with acrylic paint.

– Precise glazing – Using oil paint, he builds up the details with thin transparent layers (glazes).

– Perceptual painting – Rather than overblending, he retains visible brushstrokes to recreate the visual perception of reality.

Gurney is recognized for his mastery of realistic depth, lighting, and textures. His artistic insight comes through in his Dinotopia paintings, environments, and dinosaur depictions.

Recent and Current Work

Since concluding the Dinotopia series in 2012, James Gurney has continued to expand his artistic skills. He published the non-fiction book Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter in 2010, sharing his approach to observation-based painting.

Gurney produces new Dinotopia artwork for exhibitions and limited edition prints. In 2015, he returned to the prehistoric island with Dinotopia: The Fantastical Art of James Gurney. He also remains an active plein air landscape painter.

Now in his 60s, Gurney continues to paint imaginative worlds with realistic detail. Upcoming projects include a fantasy-themed coloring book. He generously shares his knowledge through his popular blog and YouTube channel.


Looking back, James Gurney’s artistic origins trace back to his childhood imagination and early education at Art Center College of Design. After graduating in 1980, he honed his skills as an illustrator until creating the iconic Dinotopia series in 1992.

Now with over 40 years of experience, Gurney has established himself as one of the premier imaginative realist painters of his generation. His unique perspective, meticulous technique, and sense of wonder come through in every painting. Gurney’s dedication to his creative vision should inspire artists in any medium to follow their passions. Though his styles and subjects have evolved, he remains true to his artistic identity.