The Progression of James Bullough: The Berlin Artist Paints The Female Figure Unlike Any Other Artist We've Seen
From the Moment He Picked Up A Brush, James Bullough Has Painted The Female Figure. From Canvas To Murals, He's Mastered His Craft. And It's Just The Beginning.
First thing you do when you wake up? Snooooooooooze.
How do you spend your time when you’re not “art-ing’'? My two daughters are the coolest and most fun people in the world. If I’m not working, I’m with them!
Name 3 things you can’t work without? Music, Coffee, Podcasts.
What kind of music do you listen to? Drum and Bass, 90’s Hip Hop, Yacht Rock, any and all chilled out electronic music.
What is the weirdest part of your creative process?
I spend way too much time on tiny insignificant details that nobody would ever notice. I know it’s not worth doing while I’m doing it but I can’t stop myself.
What advice would you give a new artist on how to turn their passion into a career?
Make sure you have another source of income or enough savings that you can afford to not have to worry about making money off of your art for a while. Otherwise you’ll be chasing money and the artwork will never be what it could be if you are just making work you want to and experimenting and perfecting your craft.
How has your style changed over time?
The first style that I sort of developed for myself which most people know me for is the fractured floating figures which has kind of been my staple for the entirety of my career. One of the things I like most about this style is that it’s just a basic framework but there is so much I can do within that framework to keep things fresh and exciting. Every time I shoot with a new model they bring something new to my work and every image I create can be fractured in an infinite amount of different ways which allows me to keep things fresh and try new ideas while having a through line that keep all the work connected. A few years ago I started playing around with this “peeling technique” that really had my interest for a while and then more recently I’ve been trying to bring more design and abstract elements into my paintings and pay closer attention to color. Each step I take in a new direction helps me reevaluate what I am doing and I’m able to mix new ideas and techniques with the stuff I’ve been doing since the very beginning.
Do you ever run into creative blocks? If so, how do you overcome it?
I rarely get hit with a flash of creativity or have a vision of a painting that I want to make. It happens occasionally but usually when I take it to the studio and start to flush the idea out it ends up not being as great as I had anticipated. More often I just simply grind away working on lots and lots of sketches over long periods of time. I’ve got somewhere between 30-50 sketches on my iPad at any time and I constantly bounce around and revisit whichever one strikes my interest at the moment. This way, if I do come to a roadblock on a particular sketch, I’ll just leave it alone and work on something different. There can be months between sessions on a sketch and coming back to it with fresh eyes is often the best way to make new discoveries. Usually I’ll get a little spark of an idea which gets me going or I can take that spark to a different sketch and see how it works there. If that spark doesn’t come then I’ll just bail and work on something else until it does.
Much like asking a parent who their favorite child is, do you have a favorite piece you’ve done to date?
I am a parent of two little girls and they are both my favorites… but if one of them grows up to be a professional athlete, or a successful comedian, or cures cancer or something then their name might come up slightly more often in conversations. Similarly, one painting of mine had a huge impact on my career and for that reason it holds a special spot in my heart. Back in 2015 I painted a mural inside the Long Beach Museum of Art as part of the Vitality and Verve exhibition. At the time I was a virtually unknown artist but through a few serendipitous factors I was invited to take part in the exhibition that was essentially an all-star lineup of urban contemporary artists painting murals inside a museum. Surrounded by a museum full of my heroes, few of whom even knew who I was, I painted the strongest piece I was capable of at the time and put everything I had into it. It became one of the highlight pieces in the show for many people and put me on the map as a player in the mural scene. Since then it is one of my most popular paintings and I recently painted a version of it on canvas which was the centerpiece of my last solo show.
You’ve done many large scale murals, any wild stories from the scaffold?
Does calling the cops in Virginia from inside the lift because two guys were having a knife fight at the base of the lift count as a wild story? No? How about turning around and looking down from the lift in DC only to see a woman pooping on the tire? Still no?!?! Well there was also the time in Berlin when I was fully extended in a cherry picker about 5 stories up and felt the entire lift jolt forward only to look down and see that a delivery truck has just backed into the lift which almost certainly should have killed me. But the truly craziest story was the time I was hanging crooked for hours from a broken swing stage about 10 stories up in the Ukrain with with a strange man who didn’t speak english trying to release the cable from the basket (which certainly would have killed us). The insane circumstances that led to that situation and the ensuing actions over the following days are far too complicated and unbelievable to get into so you’ll just have to trust that it was for sure the wildest moment for me.
When you spend so much time working on a piece, does it feel bittersweet once it’s completed, or is there more of a sense of relief and accomplishment?
I do spend a huge amount of time on each piece and it’s extremely hard to know when to stop working on something. I would say I’ve never truly finished a painting, I just decide to stop at some point usually because of a deadline. There are always little things I would like to keep working on and small things I’d like to fix so when I finally decide to stop I honestly don’t have a sense of relief or accomplishment. I fixate on the flaws and want to work on it more. I have a really hard time backing up and seeing the full painting and enjoying it. Luckily this feeling usually fades rather quickly and once I start working on something else I look back at the finished piece and start to see it with fresh eyes and let myself love it. That’s when the feeling of accomplishment sets in.
What other artists do you look to for inspiration?
Ten years ago I was looking at almost only realistic portrait painters and pulled most of my inspiration from that area of the art world, but more and more over the past few years I’ve noticed that I’m far more interested in abstract art and good clean design.
What is it about the female figure that makes you want to paint it?
Other than the typical Freudian motivations, I’m not really sure why the female figure has become my main focus. I started painting women the moment I picked up a brush and haven’t stopped since. I love painting flesh and find it to be extremely challenging but also rewarding. As my work progressed over time hair and movement became much more of a staple which reinforced my focus on the female figure. I can’t really explain it but I’ve painted regular objects and even animals before but they don’t have the same excitement for me as painting a human figure. I have painted men and even children in the past but have definitely tended to work with female models more often but I’ve got few male models lined up for shoots this year and hope to have a wider range of photo references to work with in the future.
What is the most fulfilling part of your work?
As an artist, everything I’ve created started as a simple idea or a sketch. After months of nurturing that idea and putting time and energy into it and revising the plan, and then breaking through roadblocks, eventually a piece is finished and this object that represents so much thought and effort exists in the world. This object that started as nothing, as simply a thought, now holds space in the real world. I can touch it and show it to people and eventually this object will become a thing of value in someone else's life and perhaps pass through other people's lives beyond that. The sense of accomplishment and gratification that comes from knowing that I have created something with substance and value out of literally nothing is one of the greatest feelings I can imagine.
How do you collaborate with other artists?
Every collaboration is unique and depends on the project and the people involved but I feel that the single most important factor in a collaboration is trust and admiration for the other artists involved. If everyone feels that the others will lift the project up and elevate beyond where any one individual would have possibly taken it then that is a recipe for success. Once this has been established then the strengths of each individual should be identified and highlighted as you come up with the concept and further as you produce the work. I’ve been lucky to be part of some really successful collaborations (and some which were not) and have evolved as an artist way more from these projects than any others.
Do you have a dream artist you’d like to interview for your podcast Vantage Point Radio?
Conor Harington was my biggest artistic influence as I was first getting into making art and I have always dreamed of sitting down and picking his brain. Ironically I find myself really intimidated by some of the artists I admire the most and dread having to interview them for fear of it not going well or me overlooking something important to talk with them about. It’s crazy though because I’ve interviewed over 130 different artists for our show, most of whom are huge figures in the scene and massive influences on me and it always goes great. We’ve had such an amazing track record with the guests we’ve had on the show that almost every artist that was on our original “wish list” back in the beginning have now already been on the show. It’s been a great privilege to do VantagePoint for all these years and I am really proud to say that nearly all of the past guests are now friends of mine which is an awesome feeling.
What would you be doing as a career if you weren’t an artist?
In Berlin, the sidewalks are not poured concrete like they are in the US. They are made up of an elaborate mosaic of small squared stones that are hammered into place one at a time by hand. The guys who do this job kneel all day long with a small hammer and a pile of these tiny stones and just tap… tap… tap. Any time I see one of these guys working I always stop for a bit and watch them work. It’s monotonous as hell and is probably murder on your back and knees but there’s something about it that is mesmerizing to me and if I could feed my family off of this job I could see myself doing that. Maybe I’d change my mind after a week but there’s only one way to find out.
What upcoming projects are you working on that we can stay tuned for?
Like many people who have small kids, most of my time and attention over the past two years has been diverted from my work to my family due to Covid and school closings and so forth. My plan for 2022 is to get back into a full time practice with fewer interruptions. I will be working on a bunch of commissions that have been on hold for far too long and I will be putting a greater focus on traveling around and painting more murals, especially in cities I’ve never been to.
Famous last words?
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