The Jackson’s Art Blog meets painter James Bland ahead of his new solo exhibition at The Lilford Gallery in Canterbury to discuss his mysterious compositions and his recent election to the NEAC.
James Bland is the newest elected member of the New English Art Club, and rightfully so. His paintings are inventive, romantic and sensuous depictions of domestic scenes that have a quiet, brooding quality. Rich earthy hues are paired with bright reds, bottle neck blues and saturated yellows to describe interiors, still lifes and figures. The imagery is ambiguous; in ‘Night Studio’, a beautiful, alert figure appears to be waiting for an arrival (the viewer?), whilst stroking a cat, sat next to two model battleships, a motif that repeats in a few of Bland’s recent paintings. The image is arresting and mysterious – there are no obvious answers to what is really happening, but there is a sense that something is about to happen. The richness of his work is created with a sophisticated colour sense, combined with an imaginative approach to applying paint to canvas which often collages contrasting brushmarks together in a way that makes the painting’s surface sizzle. We wanted to learn more about James Bland’s world.
Lisa: Can you tell us how you learnt to paint?
James: I was lucky to find a degree course where the option still existed to work from the model two or three days a week. I had already started painting in oils as a teenager, mainly making copies of artists like Constable and Van Gogh.
Lisa: What do you explore in your work?
James: Memory, folklore, dreams, drama, light, illusion, touch, scale, sight, depth.
Lisa: What paints do you enjoy working with?
James: I use artist quality oil colour. I like Michael Harding and Sennelier and some Winsor and Newton colours. I sometimes buy one or two by Old Holland. I used to use cadmiums and other very saturated pigments, but now I prefer a mixture of saturated pigments and earth tones. The texture of the paint I use is very important; I like a mix of translucent and opaque colours on the palette. Lead-based whites are my favourite, if I can get hold of them; the weight and resistance of the paint enlivens everything.
Lisa: The question ‘Is Painting Dead?’ continually rears its ugly head in arts journalism. How alive is painting in the contemporary art world? Do you think it is particularly difficult to make it as a figurative painter in this day and age?
James: I think there are signs that figurative art is coming back into fashion. The internet is helping by undermining mainstream ideas about what contemporary art should be – there are more channels by which people find out about art than just the mainstream press and I think this frees people to assert personal taste, which benefits figurative art. Also there are more ways to reach an audience and sell your art than just the conventional galleries and art fairs.
Lisa: Who are your favourite painters?
James: At the moment I really like Duccio, Fra Angelico, Rembrandt, Pieter De Hooch and Utamaro. Uglow, Cezanne and Balthus are enduring influences. Some living painters I admire are Jean Pierre Ruel, Catherine Kehoe, Emil Robinson, Ilaria Rosselli del Turco, Joe Morzuch and Mark Daniel Nelson.
Lisa: What does it mean to you to be elected as a member of the NEAC?
James: It’s an honour and I’m looking forward to participating in the show this summer, though it’s a daunting prospect when you look at the high standard set by the other artists. The club was founded by forward-thinking painters like Philip Wilson Steer and John Singer Sargent; Walter Sickert and Gwen John were in it later. I hope being in the club will put pressure on me to stay ambitious. Incidentally, despite it being called the ‘New English’, of the four painters I mentioned, one was German, one American and one Welsh.
Lisa: In many of your paintings, the paint looks to be applied in quite a dry manner – do you use any mediums with your paint?
James: No. Sorry! I try to keep things simple.
Lisa: Texture plays such an important role in your work. How do you achieve these alluring textures – do you build the paint up in layers or is the work painted ‘alla prima’?
James: I’m glad you like the textures. It isn’t something I pay conscious attention to, but I feel it’s an integral part of the paintings. I use thick opaque paint most of the time so there isn’t usually any deliberate layering, but often the paintings are built up over a long time so that paint layers interact. Scraping back through the paint when wet or dry is something that really helps, along with using a combination of new and old brushes. I also recommend lead-based white.
Lisa: What do you use as visual reference – do you paint from life, from photographs, or both? Do you think painting from photographs will produce a different result to painting the same subject from life?
James: I usually paint from life though I have nothing against working from photos – it’s the idea, not the reference that makes a painting work. Personally I feel I need to move about when I paint and look at the subject from various angles, so a photo reference doesn’t usually work for me as well as a session working from life.
Lisa: What are you exhibiting in your forthcoming exhibition?
James: Most are paintings of figures in interiors, paintings of my long-suffering partner and some other people I managed to persuade to sit for me. Some involve a series of theatrical props I’ve made, including a cardboard cat, to enhance the potential of the studio for making unusual spatial effects and to help give a narrative feel to the work. Some are from memory, others from life, some in between.