James Hayes was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize 2020 with his work Coping. In the foreground, two figures contemplate a wild, sprawling coastline, while behind them, the earth and the weight of the open sky close in on one another. Here, James tells us about his cinematic compositions, his sketchbook practice and how the colours of the surrounding landscape make their way onto his palette.
Above image: Being in the world, 2020, James Hayes, Oil on canvas, 150 x 100 cm | 59 x 39.7 in.
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
James: I’ve been making paintings and drawings since I was very young. I was always creatively inclined and aware of a certain sensitivity for these kinds of things. Though as I was growing up I wasn’t quite able to understand or appreciate the burgeoning compulsion I began to feel to make paintings. I think now looking back it has always been my default state to make images as a way of making sense of my experience of the world. But I think it can be hard for young people sometimes to recognise or articulate something so impactful within themselves in real-time. Particularly in the absence of clear way-markers or encountering an obvious mirrored reflection of what they’re experiencing. I was one of those young people I think.
While continuing to paint all the while, the path my formal education would take ultimately led me first to a career in architectural design. I studied architecture at University College Dublin and then the University of Westminster. So in this respect I guess I am very much a self-taught artist. I worked in architectural practice in a primary capacity for a time both in Ireland and the UK. I will always find architecture conceptually fascinating and it does channel certain creative impulses. The broad design and visual education it provided has definitely informed how I now work, as it brings with it a particular way of seeing. However as time went by, I think I gained a greater degree of clarity and conviction surrounding a longstanding latent ambition to make my artwork the priority. To this end, in recent years I have focused on developing my arts practice which is centred around a phenomenological exploration of the complex relationship that exists between the self and surroundings. Today I operate primarily as an oil painter, but also as an illustrator dividing my time between my personal artwork, private commissions, and select commercial or editorial illustration projects.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
James: For me, a painting can begin from a wide variety of places. In a sense the initial inspiration for a piece of work could be anything, and can often be something small and seemingly innocuous or fleeting. It might be a particular temporal condition I’ve felt and observed -a particular sky, a peculiar light condition, the glimpse of a view (captured or remembered) from the window of a moving car, a particular bodily posture or expression I’ve observed on someone’s face, a moment in an old photograph I’ve taken while out walking days (or years) previously, or just a prevailing mood I’m experiencing at a given moment in time.
In terms of beginnings, the main thing is that there is an undeniable pull towards whatever that initial fragment of an idea might be. This is important as if the idea or this feeling surrounding it isn’t robust enough and doesn’t persist in me, I find I won’t be able to sustain the level of engagement required to give myself a chance of translating it or to make something affecting out of it.
In overview, I would say my process is partly intuitive and partly analytical. It starts with periods of observation and reflection to uncover one of these “beginnings”. I use a mix of photography, drawing and note-taking as a means of doing this. I take hundreds and hundreds of photographs. Each photograph is like a glance that might act as a prompt for a future piece of work. Sometimes an idea will arrive fully formed, other times I have to sift through all of the recorded reference material attempting to draw from various sources of experiential and auto-biographical reference; be they recorded, remembered or part-imagined.
In terms of the actual painting part of the process, I lean on a lot of conventional methods. I heavily prime my canvases and experiment regularly with different toned grounds. I will always complete a pencil sketch of the composition on the surface of the canvas as a basis for the painting, sometimes using a grid. The degree of detail of the sketch varies from subject to subject.
Clare: As well as a painter, you’re an illustrator and an architect. Do you find the two latter have a big influence on your painting work? Do you find any crossover in terms of the specific tools or materials you use for each discipline?
James: Yes they do have some degree of influence on my painting work, but also vice versa. I think there’s lots of crossover in terms of specific tools and techniques. This is primarily associated with the act of drawing, relating to representational systems or perceptual theory. Where I studied there was an early emphasis on making architectural hard-line drawings by hand which gave me a grounding in those kinds of skills.
The sketch is certainly the common thread between the three disciplines, though I think there is also a lot of crossover just in terms of a general sensibility that relates to considerations of light, form and colour. It is true each one ultimately exists as a distinct discipline with their own separate prerogatives out in the world, but from my own point of view, my experience of each over time has seen them become increasingly intertwined. At this point it feels to me more like they’re all a part of the same visual, perceptual and spatial conversation.
Clare: To me, many of your paintings could be the opening scenes of films that explore loneliness and isolation and the archetype of man alone in nature. Are you influenced by cinema in a narrative or visual sense?
James: Yeah I think I am definitely influenced by cinema and cinematography, albeit somewhat indirectly. I think the influence possibly comes down more on the side of the visual than the narrative, in a sense, -in as much as, the narratives or sub-themes embedded in my paintings, like loneliness and isolation as you’ve identified, will always be drawn primarily from my own auto-biographical experience in the first instance. This is the only way I know how to make paintings really.
The work of cinematographers like Roger Deakins, Robert Elswit, Hoyte van Hoytema, and films by directors like Christopher Nolan, Lenny Abrahamson and the Coen brothers would all be influences. I think I relate to cinematography strongly because the considerations involved map so closely with those which I value in painting. I like the emphasis it places on composition and crafting images in such a way as they might quietly reinforce the literal narrative or capture the sense of a place. I’ve always been interested in the concept of suspended narrative in painting, and in many ways I’m a kind of narrative painter. Though I don’t like to think of my painting as telling stories in any sort of didactic sense.
Composition is very important to me in painting. I like to take a lot of care with the subject I’m tackling. I spend a lot of time creating various versions of sketch compositions before I get to the point of actually picking up a brush. I do this by playing around with pencil-sketches on the drawing board or reference photographs in photoshop. Different parts are taken, combined, and transformed until some form of outline composition emerges. I don’t treat these as being locked-in by any means, the process of making the actual painting is a whole new phase of translation in and of itself anyway. So there’s always scope for compositions to evolve on the canvas, and they often do. But I guess I like to front load the process with this kind of preparatory work because it feels like it frees me up to focus on the mark making and to just immerse in the act of painting itself.
Clare: Due to your creative range I’m going to assume you have a sketchbook and a regular drawing practice. Can you share with us the materials you use, where and how often you draw?
James: I do use a sketchbook and have a drawing practice, however it is not necessarily as regular as I’d like. Sketchbook culture is definitely one of those things that I picked up at architecture school. When I was younger I used to make a lot of quite careful pen and pencil drawings from life in my sketchbooks when I’d find myself somewhere interesting (and still do from time to time), but exposure to the world of design has shaped the way I use them over time. I’m much less precious with them these days. I mainly use them as a way of thinking things through quickly on the page, so the form of the content is often diverse and a bit messy. They are mainly full of half finished littles sketches testing draft compositions for paintings or more graphic ideas for illustration projects. There are also lots of little written notes, which there is some jeopardy surrounding, as some of which I confess are incomprehensible to me later. But equally, sometimes all you need are the right words to bring you straight back into a particular thought or visual idea. I love the power and economy of the written word. But hopefully there’s the odd hidden gem of a pretty sketch to be found in them amidst the scrawl.
Clare: What can you tell us about your colour palette? Which colours can you not do without?
James: In my painting work to date my palette has been hugely influenced by the colours of the landscape where I’m from. So the paintings tend to hover within a particular low-key naturalistic tonal range, broadly leaning on the use of cool blues and greys in combination with warmer richer earth tones. I’m not keen on imposing rules or limitations on my palette, except maybe at the outset of a piece when I’m underpainting where I may use just two or three colours for expediency. I will then work outwards from a base of maybe 10 core colours, but ultimately will select from a full range of colours as I see fit as the I piece progresses. I mix paint quite intuitively for the most part. By the end of a painting I struggle to necessarily identify how I’ve mixed certain colours. I use what feels right and natural to me in a given moment. When I’m mixing colours the considerations at the back of my mind mainly relate to colour temperature. I would say the colours I can’t do without are; my blues, Cobalt, Ultramarine and Prussian, but also Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Alizarin Crimson and Titanium White.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
James: When it comes to painting I’m quite traditional I think in that I tend to stick to brushes for the most part. The main deviation from this is a relatively recent habit of scumbling paint with my fingertips. I have about 80-90 paint brushes and they are a real mish-mash of types and sizes. Some are 20 years old at this stage. I’ve always liked to think that each of them does it’s own individual job relative to a particular phase of a painting. And in some cases this is true of course, say for blocking-in something of a certain size or in the case of fine detail work etc. Though as time has gone by I find the more specific and particular, yet simultaneously, the more general my selection of brush is getting. That sounds kind of contradictory I know but I guess I mean that I drift between phases of varying levels of concern regarding the brush that I pick up to make a mark. I think this is because the longer I spend painting the more I understand that any brush is really just an open-ended disposition to respond in an endless number of ways. Essentially a “it’s not what you’ve got but how you use it” approach I suppose. This being the case my favourite brushes vary depending on what I’m working on, but if I had to pick, I would probably say my ever replenishing little collection of tiny finely pointed synthetic rounds for the detail work.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
James: At the very beginning of the pandemic there was a brief shock phase associated with the whole thing. After this subsided and the lockdown had set in, it’s true to say it didn’t significantly impact my day-to-day in startling ways, mainly because I work from home and there’s a degree of isolation and focus on my everyday surroundings inherent in the type of work that I make anyway.
As time has gone on it has challenged me a little more mentally. In the same ways I think it has challenged everybody really, -in terms of that sense of the broader contraction of possibilities out in the world and in terms of the limits it has placed on personal contact and interaction with other people. One of the practical challenges presented of course was the absence of physical exhibition opportunities as a direct means of showing and sharing work. This did prompt me to get a bit more creative presenting my work online though. I began experimenting with sound -whereby I trialled pairing my paintings with accompanying audio, -working with collaborators to create original music compositions, that would sometimes integrate relevant select spoken word samples.
I suppose I was seeking to stretch my conventional physical and visual interaction with the medium, and present my paintings in a new way that would perhaps expand an underlying narrative potential or nod to latent notes of literary inspiration. The mixing of the media is not a staple of my work, partly because of misgivings I initially had in relation to overly guiding the experience of the work, maybe with the effect of narrowing potential interpretations. However I decided to treat the pairings as snapshots, like ephemeral juxtapositions at a moment in time. The audio and visual elements ultimately exist independently in physical reality, but at this particular moment in time, on the digital platforms only, they are existing alongside one another so as to be in some manner of conversation. They can still be viewed on my IGTV via the link below.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
James: It’s so hard to narrow down favourite historical artists, there are so many. If I had to name just a few I would probably say people like Edward Hopper, Edvard Munch, Pierre Bonnard or Cézanne or Turner. I am of course drawn towards particular facets of the work of each for a variety of different reasons in terms of style, aesthetic or handling of specific subject matter. Too many to expand upon here perhaps.
But I think if there is a base common strand of attraction for me in the case of each, it is probably what I recognise as a certain kind of intensity of expression and clarity of vision. A powerful capacity for the authentic translation of their own unique embodied experience of the world as each had encountered it, in ways that are both beautiful and poetic. I will endlessly respond to and be attracted by this quality in a painter’s work. There is something that Edward Hopper is credited as having said that I keep coming back to and speaks to this a little, -he is recorded as having said that the beginning and end of all literary or artistic activity is, ‘the reproduction of the world that surrounds me by means of the world that is in me’.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
James: I find I make my best work when I’m able to access a quite particular (and often elusive) headspace. It’s a kind of a “void” which I can sometimes slip into. The only way I can think to describe it is a state in which all the degrees of separation between myself and the thing I’m making have started to dissolve. So the little gaps between, eye, mind, hand, brush, paint and canvas shrink to the point that they feel they could almost be a single unified field. It’s a kind of sweet spot I suppose. A mode of being that exists somewhere between levels of reflex and reflective activity, where everything I’m doing will feel fluid and I’m no longer consciously aware of the multiple micro-decisions I’m making. I guess it is just a heightened state of concentration or attentiveness. There’s a great buzz that comes with it in any case. I think It has a lot to do with physicality and embodied experience, as it’s not dissimilar to a feeling I get when immersed in the moment playing sports.
But this is not something that I can access at will (unfortunately). So, I think a good day in the studio for me is ultimately one in which I have firstly been able to wrestle a hold over this mode-of-being, and then crucially been able to hang on to it for at least a little while. I find the best way to facilitate this is by happily indulging in little rituals related to my immediate environment, so for example by getting my easel and work area set up just right and by putting on some music that I enjoy and that vibes with what I’m working on.
Clare: Can you tell us where we can see more of your work online or in the flesh?
James: My debut solo international exhibition, BEING TOWARDS, is currently hanging at the Ashurst Emerging Artist Gallery in Spitalfields in East London. I was lucky enough to be invited to have this exhibition as the winner of the Ashurst Emerging Artist Prize – Choice Award for 2020. Luckier still that the exhibition is in fact being staged, given the nigh on unprecedented circumstances we’ve all been living through this year. So I’m very thankful to be able to share work with people in a physical setting at all at this time.
The exhibition is a small body of work inspired by my own personal and phenomenal experience of particular people and places that form the landscape near my home in the south-west of Ireland. At time of writing, If people would like to visit they can email their name and a desired time to email@example.com at least 24 hours in advance to book a viewing slot. The exhibition will run until the start of April 2021 so hopefully there’s plenty of opportunity to visit if people would like to. I also currently have a piece hanging in the Royal Ulster Academy’s annual exhibition at The Ulster Museum in Belfast, which can be visited until the 31st of January 2021.
Otherwise my work can be viewed online via my website theliminalpage.com or my instagram @theliminalpage