Visual Photography Blog by Dan Kosmayer

Review: Books by James Gurney and 3D Total

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With Christmas and the end of 2009 fast approaching, we’ll take a look today at two of my favorite how-to titles of the year. Though one book is strictly digital and the other is based on traditional materials and methods, they both offer a ton of useful content for readers of Digital Image Magazine. In fact, that’s probably the trait they both share more than anything: they’re simply crammed to the hilt with information. Plus, they’re both gorgeous books that are a pleasure to browse through. If you haven’t submitted your list to Santa yet, you’ll want to add both of these.

The first is by the wonderful illustrator James Gurney, titled Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn’t Exist. Though Gurney is a traditional artist working in oils, he has a lot to teach us digital types, especially those who are into fantasy and sci-fi. Gurney is the creator of the “Dinotopia” series of books, and he’s won three gold medals from the Spectrum Annual of Contemporary Fantastic Art. Beyond the awards, he’s one of the most imaginative and prolific artists alive today. In addition to his book writing and illustration work, globe-trotting for various events and research, somehow Gurney manages to maintain a daily blog (that’s right: every day) that’s interesting and informative. His knowledge of art history is simply encyclopedic.

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Gurney’s thorough grounding in the foundations of art shine through on every page of his new book. There are a few pages devoted to traditional materials and methods, but most of the book contains information any artist, digital or otherwise, will find helpful. Even if you’re not painting fantasy images, you’ll find useful techniques for composition, altering lighting, color schemes, focus, directing the eye, telling a story, and so forth. Gurney gives quite a few examples of how he creates models, known as maquettes, to paint from. These help with composition and lighting. You may find that, instead of learning a complicated 3D package to create buildings and space ships for your paintings, all you really need is some Sculpey. Need a reference for a mountain? Take a hike and look around for some craggy rocks. Sometimes we get stuck in a “digital fishbowl” (I just made that up, but you know what I mean), and forget that sometimes the old methods are still the best.

The other book in our review today is Digital Painting Techniques: Practical Techniques of Digital Art Masters, by the folks who bring us 3DTotal.com. This is a book for the beginner that’s been needed for quite some time. There’s lots of beautiful “coffee table” books out there, showing off the work of top digital artists; there are also books that teach advanced techniques. Until now, though, there hasn’t been a good, solid beginner’s book for learning how to paint digitally. Digital Painting Techniques fills the gap nicely. This is a nice, big, solid book, running to nearly 275 pages, divided into the following sections:

  • Custom brushes – learn how to make and modify brushes in Photoshop
  • Speed painting – find out why these artists are in such a hurry!
  • Matte painting – combining photographs with painting for movie backgrounds, etc.
  • Creatures – similar to the Gurney book, learn how to make up stuff
  • Humans – portraiture with a digital pen
  • Environments – landscapes, cityscapes, tornados, etc.
  • Sci-fi and Fantasy – knights, planets, spaceships
  • Complete projects – putting it all together

This book covers a lot of ground, as you can see, and it does it quite well. Obviously, you won’t learn everything from just one book, but with this one, you’ll be off to a great start.


Update: another of the books reviewed here earlier this year, Luke Ahearn’s wonderful book on creating 3D textures, is now out in a revised, second edition.

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