The gap between us and them is smaller than you think

James Gurney models Treetown

When I was fourteen years old and exploring Falling Water for the first time, my tour guide told me something that was devastating to my ambitions as a creative person.  He said this: “Frank Lloyd Wright was such a genius that he developed the blueprints for Falling Water entirely in his mind.  He altered windows and doors and moved walls and stairwells all in his mind.  Only when Madame Kaufman announced that she was on her way to see his floorplans did Mr. Wright put his pencil to paper.  He completed the blueprints, without error, in three hours.”

This story didn’t hit me right away, but over time it corroded my confidence that I might have the capacity to succeed as an architect, a concept artist, or an industrial designer.  I thought that superhuman spatial reasoning skills and photographic memory were prerequisites for success in these industries,  so I explored other pursuits.  All the while, my need to create led me to take art classes on the side, but I never would invest all my resources toward that one end.  Design would be just a hobby, and I had no confidence that I could stand among the few and the proud that would make it big in those fields.

I focused on developing writing and research skills because I could apply these to any profession, and I discovered psychology, philosophy (did you know that George Soros majored in philosophy?), economics, and anthropology.  All the while I was winning awards for my artwork, but I supposed that I was lacking mental capacities necessary for real world success as an artist or designer.  Those fit to be artists, I imagined, could keep a clear picture in their mind’s eye and could easily paint what they imagined.  They could sit in an empty basement room with no reference material and draw from memory or from invention.  I could only invent using reference photos.  They could predict complex shadow effects and draw humans, animals, and complex draperies from imagination.  I could not, nor could any of my classmates.   So I supposed that my classmates, like me, must lack the necessary gifts.

During and after my undergraduate days, I satisfied my drive to produce content by other means.  As Seth Godin says, the drive to produce creatively is NOT medium-specific, and Tim Burton would have been illuminating manuscripts or designing dark and bizarre stained-glass windows had he been born five-hundred years prior to the age of filmmaking.  So I wrote, I designed experiments, I got into photography, and I learned everything I could about psychology, after which I even produced some theories of my own.  Designing objective-driven unit plans for high school art programs would later become my creative outlet (the time demands were often such that I did little other creative work).  Just as well, I might have strutted my creative stuff as a campaign manager or as a lawyer building cases, but I wanted to stay connected to the design world even if I’d be on the outside looking in.

If the tour guide’s Frank Lloyd Wright testimony corroded my confidence slowly and gradually, an event ten years later rehabilitated my confidence rapidly.  On Christmas morning, I unwrapped a new book by James Gurney called Imaginative Realism.  Gurney, with his lavish illustrations of a world as big and rich as Narnia, inspired me at a young age more than anyone else, and this new book revealed his secret process.  His process was this: he modeled his cities in clay before lighting them and photographing them.  Furthermore, he used live or photographed models for any humans he would draw.  I had no idea!  I’d supposed that Gurney, like Frank Lloyd Wright, built his fantasy cities from imagination.  I’d supposed that drawing from imagination, without models or props, was the requisite skill for illustration or concept art.  Finally, I’d supposed that an impenetrable barricade separated people like me from people like Gurney and FLW.  His book revealed otherwise: that Gurney was like me–a problem solver.  He was such a talented problem solver, in fact, that he has probably netted more money than any other illustrator.  He probably has as many disciples and fans as any living illustrator.  In all likelihood, his success and his achievements surpass hundreds if not thousands of illustrators who can isolate themselves from reference material and just draw in photorealistic detail from only their imaginations.  There was no barrier between my capabilities and Gurney’s.

I’ve not chosen to follow Gurney’s career path as a concept artist or illustrator, but the lesson stays with me.  We can usually surmount the barrier that separates us from achieving what the geniuses in our area of pursuit have achieved.  Achievement requires problem solving.  The Pixar team depended on a tiny bug’s-eye-view camera to visualize the world depicted in A Bug’s Life.  Don’t let it depress you that you cannot conjure a bug’s world in your mind’s eye, because most of the Pixar team can’t do it either.  The more useful talent seems to be the problem solving skills that lead John Lasseter to build a bug’s-eye-view cam, and those that lead James Gurney to improvise rapid modeling techniques with which he brings Dinotopia to life.


I was privileged to meet James Gurney last fall for lunch.  He’s a cool person and a great teacher.  Learn more about his process here.

The gap between us and them is smaller than you think