One of Paul James’s clearest first memories is that of re-creating the likeness of ‘Dr Who’ characters whilst at playschool at around the age of four. Quite how ‘like’ the Daleks and Cybermen they were hasn’t really been established by the now critically acclaimed contemporary animal, wildlife and landscape artist, who’s latest artistic directions have turned a touch surreal and a sight more humourous. James also recalls with ease sitting drawing under the watchful eye of his father, himself a reasonable talented amateur artist who indulged purely as a hobby. Indeed, James cites his artistically-blessed father as his creative inspiration and together they would sketch cars and steam trains for hours on end.
In tandem with James’s drawings, and spurred on by the encouragement metered out by both his parents, he ventured into different mediums when the mood took him, experimenting with plasticine and Mechano as most schoolboys of a certain vintage did it would be fair to say. Around this same period – and relying on what is clearly an excellent memory – James recounts visiting his grandmother on a Sunday afternoon and always being transfixed by this beautiful, large piano in her front room. And once his cousins had grown bored of bashing away in a haphazard fashion on the ivories, James would tinkle away himself, straining to hear and effectively learn which notes complimented one another. Cue the birth of James’s other great love in his young life (and one which has nearly always shared equal billing with his art), music.
As with many ‘creative’ types, James didn’t take well to structure and regimental instruction, which of course was always going to be a problem in an educational environment. A self-confessed reluctant pupil, James freely admits that he felt different to his school peers and objected to the formality of it all. So it is no great shock to learn that this character trait followed him through to a higher educational institution where adhering to establishment ways was even more advisable. To cut a long story short – and after winning a place onto a graphic design course at Art College – James grew tired with the rigid and what he perceived to be, disciplinarian approach and prematurely terminated the course. This wasn’t written in the stars though, as despite long since giving up on the idea of being a concert pianist (and thereafter, rock star), James did harbour dreams of being an artist.
In James’s defence he had never really expressed an interest in the more technical and structured aspects associated with graphic design and only really pursued this course of action to appease his secondary school art teacher who insisted that this would be his making, whilst he himself brushed it off as a ‘silly notion’. And while supposedly studying at art school, James instead would spend more time hanging around the local Ferrari dealership painting exotic and classic cars. As well as obviously been fascinated/in love with fast cars, there was a little more method in James’s apparent madness, that being the hope that one day a rich and famous (Ferrari dealer) customer would commission him to paint a picture of their car. We like his style. Unfortunately his grand plan never bore fruition and instead he had to find a proper job once jacking in Art College.
A proper job turned out to be a host of individual money-spinners which comprised of painting people’s dogs and cats, playing the piano in pubs, clubs and wine bars and even spending one particular summer entertaining holidaymakers at a Butlins’ holiday camp for his sins. On a more serious note, James eventually settled on running his won business in the motor trade and therefore being around his beloved cars in one way or another. But then ‘settled’ wasn’t really the right word, as the unfulfilled artist in him was always niggling away, and it all came to a head in 1986 when he decided to make a go of it. Nothing ventured nothing gained and all that jazz (although we think he had given up that side of his performing repertoire).
As a bona fida artist James continued inviting commissions for pet portraits, as well as embracing anything illustratively associated with cars and anything mechanically-orientated, and as such became a member of the Guild of Motoring Artists. Yet in the end James arrived at the conclusion that cars – in spite of it being a passion of his in life per se – was not the right subject matter for his own particular brand of art. So instead he looked towards alternative muses, running the graphical rule over people, landscapes, birds, sheep and cattle at first, however landscapes stood out of this pack and James soon developed a painting style that he was ultimately happy with and could call his own.
In recent years and as James’s body of work and now substantial portfolio has grown, he concentrated on animals as much as his landscapes and it’s arguably for this genre that he’s perhaps best known and most-sough after today. Animal and wildlife-wise, he’s tackled everything from cows and ducks to gorillas and polar bears, and of late has removed them from their natural habitat to pastures anew. Very anew. Set against exceptionally urban vistas of graffiti-peppered motorway underpasses and the like, the surreal contrast between the two illustrative commodities is welcomely stark and visually arresting.
But then this is James all over; a creative soul who hates being hemmed in and longs the freedom to express himself and his ideals. Which also goes a long way to explain why he chooses to live his life on a narrow boat, rather than the more conventional bricks and mortar favoured by other contemporary artists. Incorporating his studio aboard his floating home, James is offered the best of both worlds of perpetual inspiration by one day electing to moor amid the tranquillity of the countryside, while the next pitching up in the hustle and bustle of a town or city. Which is the nomadic lifestyle choice that he’s manifested for himself since 2007. In fact, it’s this ever-changing panorama which inspired his latest artistic direction, and spending many hours casually observing the art of the street so readily available beneath bridges and alongside the UK’s network of waterways.