Artist profile: Canterbury’s James Bland

James Bland (photo: Manu Palomeque)

James Bland (photo: Manu Palomeque) - Credit: Archant

Canterbury artist James Bland on figurative painting and the alchemy of oils

James Bland (photo: Manu Palomeque)

James Bland (photo: Manu Palomeque) - Credit: Archant

Based in a spare bedroom at his house near Canterbury, artist James Bland plies his trade. The room has a lot of direct light throughout winter as it is west facing. The light changes, which James loves.

James has been based here since 2007, following a year spent in Padua, where he studied art history while also teaching English. He now teaches art in London and tells me: “I love the energy and vitality of life in the capital, but I don’t think I could live there.”

He prefers Kent for the nature and ‘the fact that we have more countryside than people assume for such a populated part of the country.’ He lives near Blean Woods, and enjoys the proximity of the coast as well.

I ask if James had an epiphany when he knew he had to be an artist. “I drew and painted in watercolour as a child, but discovering some of my dad’s old oil paint when I was a teenager was a revelation. It was such a natural thing to work with and I even liked the smell of the linseed oil and the different pigments.”

James Bland (photo: Manu Palomeque)

James Bland (photo: Manu Palomeque) - Credit: Archant

James has no introductory ritual to starting a project, but does think about an idea for quite a while, and hopes to be alone in the early stages.

“There’s almost always an idea that stays the same, but I like to stay open to the random things that happen on the canvas and not be too controlling of the direction the painting takes.”

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His subject matter is most often representational: “Figure paintings, paintings about memory, narrative paintings and paintings done sometimes over a long time with a model,” he says.

Painting mostly in oil, he adds: “It has organic properties that are different from other paint. It dries more slowly and dries differently by oxidation, forming a skin which changes over time, like alchemy.

James Bland in his home studio near Canterbury (photo: Manu Palomeque)

James Bland in his home studio near Canterbury (photo: Manu Palomeque) - Credit: Archant

“It lets you work with it longer than other media. Even after drying it can be scraped back and the paint continues to react with air for months. It’s like playing with mud.”

Asked how he knows when to stop, James says with some emphasis: “I don’t!” Despite not having a ritual, James says that he will do some sketches for a painting, but that they are more like notes. He will plan a painting, drawing first with thin paint for a while before putting colour on.

James is a vivacious colourist and his paintings use a variety of synthetic brushes and some sable riggers. The effect is often like using a palette knife.

If he ever had to paint in just one colour, James would choose lemon yellow. “Michael Harding Lemon Yellow, made from barium, a heavy metallic pigment is a great one. It makes me happy.” We chat for a while about Kandinsky, who had a theory that yellow was the most spiritual colour.

We talk about James’ subjects and which he regards as his most exciting work. “As well as painting from life, I’ve always really wanted to paint from memory.

“After about 10 years of trying to paint a childhood memory of a fairground, I finally had some success with it this year,” he says.

“I’ve seen photos of fairgrounds that explain all the facts, but with none of the sensation of being there, so I avoided making photographic references and just relied on memory.”

His works are in varying sizes and James mainly paints on linen canvas, enjoying experimenting with different approaches and styles.

James’ artistic heroes start with the unknown artists who made the cave paintings at Lascaux. He also admires the writings of Van Gogh and his letters, which he has recently seen at the Royal Academy.

James was formally trained but notes that today you can learn from artists all over the world, thanks to the internet and the most important thing is to learn from other artists.

To a young artist starting out, his advice is that you have to be prepared to paint something to death, almost be willing to destroy it, in order to work out why the image is or is not working.

And that having your work copied is almost a rite of passage in becoming an artist.

Find out more

Find James Bland’s gallery of works at: www.jamesblandpaintings.com