A really super lovely interview with current Camberwell College of Arts student James Owens, whose vibrant paintings take inspiration from such diverse directions as children's book illustrations, Gauguin, and ancient Egyptian painting. I really love the way his style bounces back and forth from nonobjective imagery to scenes that suggest a narrative, as well as the ruddy palette of rich reds and yellows. Be sure to check out his recent work at the link below!
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First, I'd love to know a bit more about you! Where are you from originally, and where are you now?
I was born in Middlesbrough, and I haven't been back there for a while. The only time I’ve ever really visited was going to the Riverside stadium to see Boro play with my Dad, and I’ve always had this image in my head of a lad throwing a whole pack of Tesco Value sausage rolls at rivalry football supporters when I think back to it. My grandmother lived in a small seaside village nearby, where I used to stay every summer when I was younger, and that is where the fish came from in my paintings, as it’s representative of my grandfather who was a volunteer of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) & also a fisherman.
I moved down to a tiny village near Cheltenham in Gloucestershire when I was 4 years old, and lived there until I was 18. Not too much went on in the village; we had one small shop which me and my mates used to go to after school to get a Mars bar, and a knock-off branded can of Cola for a pound, then go sit on the swings in the park and talk about girls we fancied, and football. I didn't really know much else than that, and making art was only a hobby. I like going back occasionally for walks with my dog Florence, to take a break from the city, and to breathe in the fresh air. B its too slow for me, and I do feel disconnected after being there for a while.
Now I live in southeast London, East Dulwich. There is a very happening music scene and lots of small, creative movements are being formed, so when going out in Peckham socially, it's a great meeting point where I’m constantly introduced to passionate, interesting people. Although I’m a ‘country boy,’ I never really took part in being one, and I think I just wanted to see the capital and live there since I was very young, as I knew there was so much more to discover and find out about myself. I’m way more content in London, and I think I properly grew up here, and I want to live here after I’ve finished university.
Are you currently in art school? If so, what has that experience been like so far?
I’m currently at Camberwell College of Arts. Having my own studio space to work anytime, and to be surrounded by like-minded people makes you feel like you've already made it in the art world. I had no idea what to expect before coming to university. But since I settled in and started making friends, I’ve never felt more free to do what I want to do, and to just accept anyone for their kindness instead of this idea of trying to get in the ‘popular group,’ which every kid struggles with at school. You sort of realise you've wasted your teenage years getting so hung up about that sort of thing, and it means nothing.
I live with two very good friends of mine, Pete and Ollie, who are talented painters, who also go to Camberwell. Coming back to the house after working at university is just great, as we’d all sit and paint or draw together, discussing ideas and artists all the time. Also, my girlfriend Rachel, who is a talented fine art photographer, is always motivating me with her spontaneous picture-taking in the middle of the street when we are on days out visiting museums and galleries. So I'm constantly learning every day -- wouldn't change any of it, as I feel very privileged to be at art school and I enjoy every aspect of it. Especially being around the people who inspire me the most.
What first interested you in making art?
I think the first time I properly knew I enjoyed making art was when I used to copy Star Wars characters and draw scenes with little stick men fighting each other. I don’t think I knew what ‘art’ was back then, but I remember my grandmother giving me a box of materials she had left over from when she enjoyed making art. I remember having this feeling of excitement when she gave me it, because all the paints, pens, and pastels that I could only use at school were now at home for me to use whenever I wanted, so I just went mad and drew and painted all sorts of things.
I think once I started to do art at GCSE, I knew always loved it, but at this point even though I was making copies of David Hockney’s ‘A Bigger Splash,’ I just knew I wanted to make a career out of it. I loved it so much that I used to bunk off business studies when I was in sixth form and hide away in the art block, hoping my teachers wouldn't find me. They caught me out a few times, but it was the only time I had to myself at that age, where I could do what I loved, so I carried on doing it. I used to get a kick out of winding up my head of year, as he always said I wouldn't make a career out of it; I just couldn't believe that ever. But back then I had no idea what trying to be an artist was like, so I’m sure he was only looking out for me. But at that time it was like a form of therapy for me, as once I started to make art all the stress and pressure of teenage life went away. The art teachers didn't really mind; they were always on my side. I kind of owe it to them really, I’d like to go back soon to say thank you properly, as they really did give me the time and support.
Can you tell me about your practice? What interests or influences you?
Drawing is the thing I seem to do the most. I feel like that is always the first step to creating a final piece that you're happy with. My interests and influences always change, but I always find looking at children’s books and cartoons for colours and characters to be a good place to start. My favourite children’s book that got read to me a lot when I was younger is ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ by Judith Kerr. The tiger is suggestive of the Nazis pre-World War II, and the book is representative of Judith’s life as a child, when she and her family had to leave Berlin and move to London because of what was happening at the time when Hitler became a leader. This message and meaning is what I find interesting as most of the objects and people in my work reference nostalgia -- and things that have happened in my life also.
I’m always hugely inspired when looking at Gauguin. His works are just so beautiful, and seeing the work in person, the paint strokes and the canvas, which looks like a potato bag, gives off this warm feeling of complete paradise, and I love their handmade quality. I’ve also always loved Peter Blake’s work, Paul Klee because of his fish, Tove Jansson’s illustrations of a magical world she's created and Wifredo Lam.
I’m currently massively into Egyptian paintings, as I’m completely mind-boggled into what that ancient period was about. I went to see the paintings that were in the tomb-chapel of Nebamun at the British Museum, and I was just blown away compositionally, and just puzzled by the detail. I’m now deeply curious about the Egyptians, and I have been referencing them a lot in my recent works.
What is your process like? How much do you plan your pieces before starting?
I usually will draw a lot first from life, imagination, or from old photographs, and then stick them up on the wall next to the canvas. I’ll also put the drawings on the wall alongside photos I’ve taken or, some from old family pictures which I find interesting. I’ll also look for artists I may like and I’ll just have a book of theirs open next to me for colours or shapes. Camberwell College has such a good library, so I always find something new every time I wander in. It’s never really planned; I just pick and choose bits I like from different images I’ve drawn or from photos that I think represent certain things, and either draw them first with pencil or just go straight into getting some colour down for a background.
I’ll change things throughout the painting, I’ll take things away that I don't like with primer and then add more in places I feel that are empty or need more work. I love painting with acrylic as it dries so quickly and you can add layers and always change anything or even just start again at any time. I think the most enjoyable part is that you start a painting having no idea how its going to turn out. It’s like a film, when you go through all the scenes until you find out what the end scene reveals itself to be.
How would you describe your studio or workspace?
My studio space at Camberwell is located in the oldest part of the university, which was established in something like 1898, but redeveloped in the 1920s. So when walking up to the studio there’s beautiful stained class windows, terracotta tiles and old sturdy staircases, like something you'd see at Hogwarts. The light coming into the studio’s is something which I can’t get working from home, so I feel extremely lucky and I try to make it into uni as much as I can to get on with painting or drawing. It’s all so relaxed at Camberwell and everyone is so friendly, even when going for a break to grab a cuppa, I’m just always in a good mood.
At home it is the exact same positivity. We live on the top of a hill and we have a living room with a balcony looking out to the whole of London. We’ve set up a small kind of DIY style studio where me and my house mates work in. So there’s never a time when I can’t work. We eat dinner, chat about art, and also help each other out by giving good helpful feedback to one another. It’s something I’m going to miss deeply when university comes to an end.
Do you have a favorite tool or object that you couldn't live without?
At the moment, I don't think I could make paintings without gesso primer. I have to use it to layer up the paintings, and to make it clear for me to paint something new when I’ve gone over something else. But I think the most important object would be my iPod or some form of music that I could play whilst working. I think music adds a rhythm to creating work, and it always puts me in a comfortable head space when thinking about how to make a painting better. But sometimes when you're up late painting at 4 am and ‘Imagine’ By John Lennon comes on, you know it's got a bit deep and its time for bed, so it can be a good way to tell when its time to stop working for the day.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
I think the best piece of advice which I hear from tutors, family, old teachers, and friends is just to enjoy what you're doing and take every opportunity as it comes, and work as hard as you can. I don't want to be sat doing a 9-to-5 job in a office, it’s just not for me, never has been. So even though I do enjoy making art and I don't treat it like a chore, I still work hard and take it seriously. It can be hard at points, but nothing is easy.
What do you do when you find yourself in a creative rut?
Yeah, creative ruts can be frustrating. I think I just eat bad food and jam with my housemate Ollie on the guitar singing ‘Take It As It Comes’ by The Doors, then talk about how we are never going to make it as artists, and then somehow compare ourselves to Rembrandt, and are like ‘Fuck it we are going to make it!’ It’s a laugh for sure, and definitely gets me out of the rut. I think the best way to get out of a creative rut is to just occupy yourself with something else for the day, as talking and making art all the time can get quite intense.
What do you feel is the most challenging thing about pursuing art, either creatively or professionally?
That’s a big question to answer but becoming an artist is a very complex thing. Like becoming a football player, you have to train hard everyday but at the end there’s no guarantee if you'll be selected to play in the Premier League. But creatively, I aim to enjoy making and learning in the now.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you're currently working on?
Me and my good friends are planning on putting on a group show in summer and I’m also currently working on a very exciting collaborative project with my year group to have an illustration art fair where we will be selling all sorts of illustrative artworks, ceramics, posters and gifts.
Find more on Instagram @jamesowens_!
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