(born 1966, United Kingdom)
James studied Fine Art (Painting) at Camberwell School of Art in London, graduating in 1988. Tutors and visiting artists included Ian McKeever RA, Anish Kapoor RA, Eileen Cooper RA, Dr Jonathan Miller and Bruce Maclean.
From an early age he had an interest in typography and letterforms and is an early adopter of technology to make images. He became a graphic designer in the early 1990s, working freelance at some of London’s top branding design agencies. He subsequently moved into web design and helped create one of the UK’s first web design agencies. He set up James Atkins Design in 1997.
Throughout this time he continued to paint and make artworks but rarely exhibited his work. In the last few years Fine Art has once more become his focus, with a particular interest in those boundaries of traditional painting, drawing and digital art.
James has work in private collections in France, Italy, Switzerland and the UK. He is currently based in Ariege, South West France and in Hertfordshire in the UK.
In my current work I have returned to a lexicon of shapes and forms that I developed some thirty years ago. This visual language emerged out of drawing practice (landscapes initially) and repetitively drawing the same subject. I reduced to a minimal set of marks that were as much to do with handwriting as drawing. The cross or X is a particular form that repeats. A cross can be a vote, a negative, a crossing out, a selection on a web form, a kiss, the signature of a person who cannot read or write, or have religious connotations. It’s a simple shape made of two strokes –– one step above the fundamental prehistoric human marks of handprint stencils found in the caves of the Ariege in South West France.
Most technology tends to hide the visual artist’s hand. Whereas electronic music can have texture and atmosphere; computer games can often seem more real or engrossing than real life, ‘2D digital art’ is usually discounted as cold, characterless or generic. The digital world has an aesthetic – high-key colour, repetitive beats, samples or a library of ‘sprites’ (elements or characters) in programming or computer games. In the same way I reuse some digital ‘sprites’ over many works and attempt to create a digital texture. I’m interested if a line made on a tablet can record the human touch as much as a pencil on paper without looking like ‘digital’.
I’m not trying to replace painting or mimic painting, more like bringing painterly process to digital. Instead of contemplating the next mark or colour or composition on the studio wall, a working screenshot might appear online, on Instagram or as a desktop background, and I will ‘live with it’ for while. Friends might ‘like’ a piece and unknowingly become part of the process. I might see a work on a phone screen with a fresh eye and consider areas that need work or colour changes. ‘Painting out’ whole areas involves manipulating layers or adjusting colours, removing, recomposing, adding new. The artistic decisions are the same. Even trashing a whole work where the delete button is the same as painting out a whole canvas.
Inevitably as with traditional painting, changing one element affects every single other element. The images are just as ‘hard won’ — and there are only so many ‘undos’ that you can rely on. Many artists have several paintings on the go at the same time – they inform each other; themes emerge, elements evolve, obsessions become evident. I work in that same way. Some pieces will take a long time to make – several weeks, in other cases a few days.
With digital, the conventional idea of ‘an original’ no longer fits –– my work exists virtually and goes online first, until it’s made physical. I like the idea of ‘responsive editions’, where images remain as ‘zeros and ones’ until a physical copy is ordered (and then I obsessively digitally control and archive the master files and record each edition). Editions can even be different sizes according to location and material.
Print technology has moved on hugely in the last 10 years or so, and I get the same sense of excitement seeing an image being tested on a new digital press as I did when an image emerged from chemicals in the darkroom or a first impression of an etching revealed. I’m now trying to push print technology to its limits particularly in terms of colour gamuts in digital print, inks and substrates.
I’m interested in challenging the ‘idea of painting in the 21st Century’. What painting looks like and how people perceive and consume images; what happens to them when they appear online. Equally what is ‘painting’ to programmers and app designers – the ’paint’ tools – and how inadequate they usually are, bearing little resemblance to actual paint, ink or pencils. I’ve often been asked if these works are ‘oil on board’ or ‘acrylic on canvas’ or ‘can i buy the original?’ For me these are wholly outdated perceptions developed in the 500 or so years up to the 20th Century about what painting is, the function of the art and what artists actually do today.