The Net Gallery speaks to UK artist James Earley about the development of his career, his relationship with his subjects – many of whom are homeless – and the powerful realism of his art.
An exceptionally talented painter, known for his magnetic, hyperrealistic portraits, James Earley has risen to attention by shining a light on the dispossessed and ignored. His paintings of homeless people have been particularly acclaimed, recording on canvas the vital energy and individuality of his subjects and eschewing the tradition of limiting portraiture to the upper echelons of society.
Like many artists, Earley’s plans for 2020 have been disrupted by the coronavirus crisis. Set to exhibit at The Other Art Fair’s March edition at London’s Truman Brewery, the fair’s postponement meant putting preparations into reverse, cancelling accommodation, moving artwork back to galleries and contacting collectors, friends and acquaintances to notify them about the news. As an artist, though, Earley can at least continue to work from his studio in Salisbury, England and there is little chance he will be derailed for long.
Describing his work, Earley says that it is “about where we are today, it is social and political art. It’s my way of shouting out, screaming I guess at the injustices in the world.”
Richard Unwin: What does ‘hyperrealism’ mean to you as a term to describe your art and is an increasingly realistic, photographic or mirror-like quality something you specifically aim towards?
James Earley: I love painting in a realistic way. The term hyperrealism was foreign to me until I had a solo exhibition in Madrid and was described as a hyperrealist artist. Emotion is everything in my work and for me the heart of the picture is the person’s eyes, I have to get the emotion in the eyes. Everything else stems from that emotion, the tempo of the painting is set once the eyes are done. At that moment I can then decide what text to add to the work, if any, and what colours to use. There is always a balance as I want to use the text and background colours to allow a focus on the eyes, yet I do not want the background to be so harsh that it dominates the eyes and kills the emotion.
RU: How did you develop the style and precision of art? Is it something that you have refined over time – and feel like you are continuing to refine and develop – and did you do a lot of drawing and painting when you were a child?
JE: I am self taught. I was the kid at school who was a bit weird because he could paint like an artist. I had a lot of attention, people would come in to the school and see my paintings and I sold almost all my work as a kid. But as a young boy, I didn’t like being seen as the weird kid etc. etc. I wanted to escape from the attention, so I ended up practicing law and not picking up a paint brush for twenty years. A series of really traumatic events pushed me back towards art. I found it as an escape and a way to calm a manic mind. I am now a full-time artist and I will never turn away from art, as this is my passion and my meaning.
I spent my childhood years in art galleries looking at the works of the masters. I would then go home and practise and practise. I follow this same way of learning today. I am often told to stand back at galleries and not put my face just millimetres away from a painting.
I intend to keep learning as I am determined to be the best artist that I can possibly be.
RU: When you stopped painting when you were younger, was it something that happened very abruptly? And did you have a lingering urge to paint or draw, even though you’d decided to stop?
JE: I stopped painting suddenly, I guess it was some form of rebellion. From then on there was always a burning light, a need to paint inside me. This feeling got stronger and stronger as the years passed by. I would often go to bed at the end of each day knowing that it was another day that I did not paint, another day wasted.
I think that this inner turmoil could not go on: you either end up dead with a heart attack or you have a nervous breakdown. Luckily, for me, I got back into art before it was too late.
RU: Now that you are a full-time artist, are you back to painting, drawing or sketching almost everyday?
JE: I paint and sketch every day. It consumes me. I am so determined to create as many works as I can. If I am not working, I feel like I am cheating. I think that I have been given a gift and I must do all I can to maximise it and allow it to grow.
RU: Do you mainly work from photographs that you take of your subjects, or do you also do sketches and smaller drafts while you’re with them?
JE: I take photographs and I sketch my subjects. The sketches are so important and I only work from those when I paint the face. I use the photos to help me with background and clothing. Sketching really helps me get to know the subject and it breaks down so many barriers. People really open up whilst you are sketching them. I will never just paint solely from a photo, as I must establish an emotional bond: sitting with and sketching the subject creates this bond. Ultimately, I want this emotion to flow from my paintings.
RU: Do you find that a lot of people you approach are reluctant to be painted? And for the ones that you do paint, how do they respond to seeing themselves depicted in the final work? I imagine it must be a powerful but also strange experience for the subjects to see themselves brought to life on canvas.
JE: I must get to know my subject before I ask to paint their portrait. Most of my subjects are homeless. I will normally approach and chat with them to build up a friendship. If I feel there is a bond between us, I will ask to sketch them. I normally do about ten sketches of a subject over a period of two weeks. I will then go to the studio knowing the subject’s face, but also knowing their personality, their story. My aim is to create a portrait that screams with emotion and I think that knowing the subjects so well helps me achieve this.
I always enjoy showing the portrait to the subject. It can be a really emotional and humbling experience. The subjects know that it’s not just the wealthy and famous who have the right to a portrait, everyone has this right. I am honoured to have the opportunity to get to know and paint such incredible people.
RU: Do you have any particular themes or subjects that you would like to tackle in the future, or a new project or series that you’re currently planning to work on?
JE: I want to do a series of political paintings. I am so angry about what is happening in the world today and I can communicate and display my anger with my paintbrush, whereas most people use their words. In November, hopefully after the current crisis has passed, I plan to go to New York to paint portraits of those who have been wrongfully convicted by the US judicial system and subsequently exonerated. I have been invited to do this by The Innocence Project and I hope that this process of me getting to know my subjects and then painting them will be televised in the US. These portraits will then be displayed in London and New York.
Interview by Richard Unwin.
All images courtesy of the artist, James Earley.