By Bonnie Gangelhoff
George James strives to keep his watercolors fresh with intriguing concepts and designs
When the prestigious American Watercolor Society opened its annual show in April at the Salmagundi Club in New York City, George James’ painting of a boy playing the violin hung among works by top watercolorists in the country. In such a highly regarded group, James holds a unique distinction. While most watercolor artists paint on traditional papers with brand names like Strathmore and Canson, James creates works on synthetic paper. Since the material isn’t absorbent, the paint sits on the surface and brilliant colors emanate as a result of light hitting the paint and “bouncing back to your eye,” he says.
Among his fans, James is known for pushing the envelope of the medium. But to some watercolor purists, he is considered a heretic of sorts. “I can paint a whole picture and then hose it down and start all over again,” James explains. “Traditional watercolorists find that troubling.”
Not content to keep the secret of his technique to himself, James has been conducting watercolor workshops around the country for the past few years. The workshops have become so popular that a South Carolina group has booked the artist for sessions in 2008. “I couldn’t even find a calendar that far ahead,” he jokes from his home in Costa Mesa, CA.
In the same conversation James reflects on his 50-year career, quoting advice from an influential art teacher: “Think of watercolors as shorthand, not longhand, and as suggesting, not rendering, a subject. But most importantly, think about watercolors as a visual haiku, a short insight into a moment or a feeling,” he recalls.
Today, it is easy to see where James has applied these principles to his art—spontaneous slice-of-life pieces that depict everything from a young couple flirting by the beach to a group of women sipping tea to scenes in his own home during Sunday-morning breakfast. James’ visual poetry walks the line between representational and abstract, but he is probably best described as a modernist. The artist’s signature contemporary style employs sharp-edged shapes and complex compositions that seem to be inspired by cubism.
However, James’ artistic roots actually go back to the California Scene painters, a group of watercolor artists who rose to prominence in the 1930s. In fact, his influential teacher—the one he is fond of quoting—is the legendary Rex Brandt [1914-2000]. During college in the early 1950s, James interned at Brandt’s painting school in Corona del Mar, CA. Like the early Scene painters, James usually sticks to subject matter close to home: an area in Southern California where he has lived since 1954, and near where he has taught art at California State University, Fullerton since 1968.
James is known as a man of ideas, according to Gordon McClelland, the author of several books on the California Scene painters. “[His paintings] are never boring or dull,” says McClelland, who has followed James’ career since the 1950s. “Even when he chucked a painting because it didn’t come off, you could still see it was a great idea.”
James says that his concepts develop while observing everyday life. Even during this interview, he was sketching as he answered questions. Thus far, the drawing portrays a man under a table quaffing tea, he describes. A teapot sits on the table along with a bowl of flowers. The artist says that he often goes on “sketching binges,” churning out stacks of drawings as the ideas flow.
The idea for his award-winning piece chocolate ruby ketchup came one morning as he watched two teenagers flirting and giggling over breakfast in a ’50s diner in nearby Huntington Beach. “Their body language, the whole ritual, and the little dance of gestures they were doing seemed fun and interesting,” he recalls. Later, in his studio, James pieced together the scene, sketching from memory.
When the painting was completed, he turned his attention to the title. While some artists use straightforward descriptive labels like beach at high tide or red sun over the ocean, James says he enjoys language too much to leave it at that. “Part of the fun for me is coming up with a title,” he explains. “chocolate ruby ketchup came to me because the diner was named Ruby’s, and it was all red and white décor. The three words seemed to fit together like a glove.” The lyrical quality of the phrase and its rhythm reminded him of a Japanese haiku. “Titles bring another dimension to the pieces,” he adds. “And why pass up any opportunity to engage the viewer?”
In sunday nougat, James moves from capturing strangers in a diner to a scene in his own living room—his family having coffee and reading the newspaper on a Sunday morning. One day several years ago it occurred to him that the traditional Sunday scene was a “sweet moment,” and he snapped a picture with the disposable camera he keeps handy for such occasions. After the work was finished, he once again ruminated on a suitable title. “It was a delicious moment, and conceptually I started looking for a word that was sweet,” he says. “Nougat came to mind.”
In a deeper, more subtle painting, James honors one of his mother’s favorite traditions as well as her memory. the last tea, which originally depicted an empty chair and a table, began as an assignment for a how-to article in an art magazine but evolved into a far more personal piece. After the story was published, James found himself reworking the painting, thanks to his synthetic paper and a dry tissue. Before long he was painting a rocking chair and adding a male figure into the background, thinking about his parents’ life together.
“My mom and dad used to have tea in the afternoon,” James explains. “But when she passed away in 1990, that left in my mind this concept of my dad alone after this lifelong marriage and also alone in this once-shared daily ritual. The empty chair is a metaphor for her absence.” The piece that was meant to be a routine lesson for painters eventually entered his innermost thoughts. It became more personal, he says, as he let his “inner eye” guide him through the creative process.
It is not unusual for James to reconstruct a painting to achieve his artistic desires. A piece inspired by a visit to Ireland received a similar overhaul. While at a Dublin museum, the artist felt drawn to a glass case that displayed a ceramic death mask of Michael Collins, an Irish hero and founder of what later become known as the Irish Republican Army. When James returned home to California, he couldn’t stop thinking about the way the mask stared at him, and he began to make sketches of the scene at the museum. About the same time, he watched the 1996 film biography Michael Collins. As James worked on the painting, he brought some of the film into the piece by including a faint image of actress Julia Roberts, who played Collins’ love interest in the movie. When the watercolor was finished, James submitted it to a show competition. Not long after, the piece was returned with a rejection letter.
Undaunted, James began to study the watercolor again. Soon Julia Roberts was history—he replaced her image with a rose, enlarged the couch and the figure of Michael Collins, and added checkerboard patterns similar to those he remembered from the hats of the Irish police. Voilà. Today, the painting hangs in his house and remains a favorite piece he has refused to sell. “Sometimes you can’t make it better unless you deconstruct it and take it to another place,” he says. “You don’t terrorize it; you just reconstruct it.”
Continuing along the path of artistic exploration, James recently completed coursework in three-dimensional animation at a local college, where he studied movies like Shrek to learn how to produce complicated objects in motion. Obviously, he can’t make the objects or figures in a painting move, but he is experimenting with creating the illusion of movement in his work. “I feel a major shift in my traditional thinking,” he says. “Right now I am trying to overcome my classical education. Can you imagine if Picasso or Matisse had this? They would be blowing the wheels off the art world with all the stuff that’s out there today. It’s mind-boggling, and people reject it because it’s not traditional.”
Standing on tradition is not a criticism likely to be hurled at James. For 50 years he has insisted on having his own way with watercolors. When asked about the progress of his most recent idea—the sketch of a man under a table—James says he has already made some significant changes to the drawing. He’s moved the man farther under the table, placing him in dim light, and has blanketed the tabletop with more flowers and teapots. “It’s gloomy underneath and light up top. Maybe it will [stand for] life outside and inside the mind,” he says enthusiastically.
Soon James may move into his studio and begin painting the scene. But talk to him on another day and don’t be surprised if he is in the back yard hosing the whole thing down to start again.
For more information on James, visit www.georgejameswatercolor.com.
Featured in July 2005