James Gurney Interview

The Paleontology of Chris Wildrick Is Overrated: Artist Interviews: James Gurney, 2007

Email exchange with Hugo-winning James Gurney, creator of the Dinotopia series.

MY QUESTIONS (edited for brevity):

Dear James,

One thing I am especially interested in as regards the use of dinosaurs is how sometimes, within storytelling, they are given personalities, or at the very least characteristic sets of behaviors.  This is the first topic I would like to ask you about.  In Dinotopia, you endow your dinosaurs with personalities.  What drives your conception of the individual personalities—is it directly linked to their species, or is it more generally suggested by their diet, age, size, or speed?  To what degree do you like to have them “play against type,” by for instance having a cowardly tyrannosaurus or a bullying duckbill?  Which comes first, the decision to use a particular species, or the desire to have a particular personality in the narrative?

The second topic I would like to ask you about is basically your take on my overall endeavor, that is, what perceptions do you have of the overall field of dinosaurs in the visual arts (book illustration, museum exhibition imagery, movies, toy and game models and images, posters, etc.)?  As someone who has worked in this field for some time, do you see any tendencies in the way artists are treating dinosaurs in the visual arts today, in contrast to 5 or 10 or 25 years ago (such as making them more or less illusionistically drawn, more or less scientifically accurate, more or less colorful, more or less violent, more or less educational, more or less anthropomorphic in their personalities, etc.)?  One theory I have is that “dinosaur art history” may follow to a degree the standard art historical pattern wherein art cycles from classic to mannerist and back again.  That is, classic artists make their work based on direct observation, while the later mannerist artists end up looking increasingly more at the classic artists’ work than at the original object, thereby ending up with work that (while perhaps just as interesting works of art) is increasingly inaccurate in regard to the original object and more a result of stylistic extremity and imagination.  I could see this applying to paleo art, where, for instance, one artist makes an illustration of a dinosaur based on the best evidence possible, then a later artist bases his work on the original artist’s rendition, and so on through successive generations, leaving the culture with, essentially, mannerist dinosaurs.  Of course, this cycle would be much less stable than in previous centuries due to the diversity of images available through today’s communication technologies, it doesn’t take into account the parallel accrual of changes in scientific knowledge, and obviously any number of artists will exist outside this cycle simply through the strength of their own vision or their desire for authenticity.  But paleo art is a very widespread phenomenon that includes many amateurs, as well as professionals who are not paleo artists per se but are only day-jobbers, so to speak—they have to illustrate a dinosaur for a board game, and then move on to something entirely different the next day, so they don’t have time to go back to primary evidence on their own—and it may not even be to their advantage, since part of the public may by this time even be expecting mannerist dinosaurs.

I suppose the question that is hidden within all this is, have you observed anything like this?  What does the public seem to want and appreciate in its dinosaur art?  And has the field of dinosaur art changed dramatically in any way over the past few decades, due to the artists’, the public’s, or the industry’s habits or desires?

Thank you for your response.  I completely understand your busy schedule and am very much willing to wait for an answer.  I appreciate your time and consideration.


Chris Wildrick



Hi, Chris,

Thanks for your thoughtful questions, and apologies in advance for a hasty reply. I wish you could come to one of my presentations, because I think I touch on many of the themes you’re looking into.

In a nutshell, I’m not influenced very much at all by what I suppose to be the public’s expectations for my dinosaur reconstructions, nor by what other paleoartists have done. I talk to paleontologists, look at fossils, and study analogous animals and birds for my inspiration.

For Dinotopia art I’m also moved by the demands of the story to endow certain dinosaurs with personalities to suit the needs of the fantasy. But even then, I try to make the physical appearance of the dinosaurs as consistent with science as I can.

Sometimes I play against the type or the cliche, especially in the case of T.rex, who is usually shown as a one-dimensional attack machine. I’m much more interested in T.rex as a more fully-rounded animal with vulnerabilities–as all real predators have been shown to be!

Your classic/mannerist analysis is interesting, but I think both tendencies are happening all the time. Certain artists look mainly at other artists’ work for their inspiration, and others look to primary research. I believe the vast majority of paleoartists are empirical in their work, and that accounts for the high level of the field, both in 2-d and sculpture, in recent years.

I hope this answers your questions, and I wish you well with your project.

James Gurney

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