Color and Light, James Gurney

<em class="BookTitle">Color and Light</em>, James Gurney

Andrews McMeel, 2010, 224 pages, C$28.99 tp, ISBN 978-0-7407-9771-2

You’d have a hard time guessing from these reviews, but I do buy and enjoy a lot of Science Fiction and Fantasy art books.  One of my most cherished sections of my library is the one where Michael Whelan art collections sit next to those by Donato Giancola, Chris Foss, Stephan Martinière and a few others.  But enjoying those books is simple; reviewing them isn’t when an appreciation of most of them boil down to “pretty pictures; skilled artists; will buy next volume”.  I get bored just thinking about writing 500 words to explain that.

But James Gurney’s Color and Light is something different.  Billed as “A guide for the Realist Painter”, it’s a book-length tutorial by the creator of the SF/fantasy series Dinotopia.  Aimed primarily at visual artists, it studies topics of colour and light using examples from Gurney’s career, either produced for the commercial market or as a personal study.  Far from a basic “Here’s how to paint” manual, Color and Light tackles questions that even season artists will struggle to master.  A sampling of page headings: Overcast Light, The Mud Debate, Is Moonlight Blue?, Subsurface Scattering; The Hair Secret, Golden Hour Lighting; Snow and Ice; Mountain Streams…

For artists, this isn’t Gurney’s first instructional book: In 2009, Andrews McMeel published Imaginative Realism, a similar book that provided artists with a toolset on “How to Paint What doesn’t Exist”.  It covered ways to adapt the familiar into the unknown nature of fantasy illustration, but also discussed topics such as visual composition.  Color and Light is a natural follow-up to Imaginative Realism, describing in more details an essential set of visual skills.  An interesting part of the book’s approach is how it uses modern tools such as digital photography in order to explain traditional canvas-based techniques.

Not being an artist, I can only guess as to the true worth of what Gurney outlines here.  What I can say is that Color and Light feels like a backstage peek at the mind of painters as they learn to see the world with far fewer assumptions as the rest of us lay viewers.  The book deconstructs elements of color and lighting in order to highlight the subtle ways that reality influences our perception, our understanding of what we see, and even our moods.  Some professional artists may have a near-unconscious understanding of topics such as pigmentation, lightfastness and caustics, but for non-artistic laymen such as myself, Gurney’s explanations hint at the depth of accumulated knowledge that come to rest behind the eyes of a painter.  Part of Color and Light’s impact is in presenting enormously complex topics in a manner that is simple to understand, yet complete enough to suggest the hidden depths of the idea.

This being said, you can appreciate Color and Light as an art-book if you want to.  There’s some great art on nearly every page, as Gurney uses examples from his own professional and personal work to illustrate the topic at hand.  Much of it comes from Dinotopia, of course, but a lot of them are from Gurney’s personal work and sketches, sometimes reflecting where he traveled around the world.  It is, in its own way, an impressive testimony not only to Gurney’s technical credentials as he meticulously explains art history and techniques to readers, but also a demonstration of his willingness to constantly improve his own understanding of the art and distil his wisdom in a few hundred pages.  I don’t think any professional ever sets out to coast on what they know for the rest of their career, but Gurney demonstrates the opposite, and how he is, even at the height of his own personal success, still trying new things, still daring to expose himself to criticism by putting together an instructional book.

For those who are curious to see what Gurney is now working on, you can always follow his daily blog for regular updates, artwork and ideas.  Also get ahold of Color and Light, preferably alongside Imaginative Realism: Beyond being a good look at Gurney’s career so far, it’s an astonishing peek at the mind of a working artist, and the compromises with which they work in nearly every piece.  It’s not just an art book worth buying, not just an art book worth studying, it’s an art book worth reading.

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