DEEP RIVER — A self-portrait drawn as a first-grader set award-winning watercolor artist and teacher Alan James on a path to his destiny.
“I was enamoured with it. My teacher had to take the pictures down after a while, because I would stare at it all day, thinking about how can I improve it,” he said.
James will be the guest of honor later this month when a film crew from Australia’s “Put Some Colour In Your Life” television show will shoot an episode at his studio in Deep River Aug. 31, as part of its “Hot August Nights” tour.
Turns out, James will be appearing on one of his favorite shows, featuring artists from all over the world in a 24-minute segment during which he will be interviewed by host Graeme Stevenson about a painting he had just completed.
“It was a really nice feeling. It made me feel all the hard work paid off,” said James, 62, who grew up in the North Haven, New Haven and Wallingford areas. He also is an accomplished musician who traveled the country from 1993 to 2012 pursuing his music career.
James is self-taught in art and music.
In elementary school, every weekday morning after breakfast, as he waited for the bus in his kitchen, James would take out his sketchbook and get lost drawing.
In junior high school, that turned into a daily visit to the library to read books on the masters.
“That is where I used to study Rembrandt and Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo when I should have been studying my math and all this other stuff. It was a passion from the beginning,” said James, who never went to university.
Now, his studio is filled with hundreds of books and DVDs he uses for reference.
Hoping to be featured, James applied for the show through the website, and found out not long after that he was among six artists selected from Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine and California.
James took drum lessons as a teenager, but received no other training. His main instrument is guitar, but he’s accomplished on banjo, mandolin, bass guitar, penny whistle and “enough piano to get me in trouble,” he said.
The musician retired in 2017 from his solo act after his last gig in Nantucket. He had found it too laborious competing with “karajoke,” multiple TV sets turned to sports channels, disc jockeys, blenders making mixed drinks, and more.
“It changed. It was not a fun place to be anymore. The respect level changed completely,” he said.
Teaching art now has become his “bread and butter.” That, combined with commissions, have allowed James to be a professional impressionistic artist for the last two decades.
“To me, putting in every detail, you’re not allowing the viewer to use their imagination and finish the painting in their minds.”
“Hyperrealism, to me, is not art, it’s illustration. When you become an artist, you learn how to capture the essence by what you leave out, not what you put in,” said James, who employed the style early on.
“There was never a strong feeling of fulfillment. It was more laborious and work-like.”
Then, he discovered the French impressionists.
“A light bulb went off. That’s what I was searching for my whole artistic life. I saw (Claude) Monet and (Édouard) Manet and (Pierre-August) Renoir and (Edgar) Degas and (Berthe) Morisot, (Marie) Cassatt, and I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ I fell in love. It’s a knowing.”
He’s known as “the New York City-scape dude,” James said. “I love to paint rainy days in New York City, because I love the light, reflections of the people in the street, and the cars in the street and the streetlights. All that reflects into the street. It does something for me, so I love doing it,” he said.
The artist takes photographs to use as general reference pictures, looking for light values and shapes. “It’s never literal,” he said.
James may have been a perfectionist at 6, but the self-taught artist and musician has come quite a long way from those days.
Children are taught by their kindergarten teachers or parents to color between the lines. “That’s the exact opposite of what you need to do when painting,” James said.
“In watercolor, you’re going to fail more than 50 percent of the time, so I have a box I keep my favorites in to remind me what not to do. The watercolor medium requires you as much as possible to paint with one stroke so you keep the clarity.
“The light shines through the paper and back at the viewer. That’s called clarity.
“If you muck about and try and move the paint around and around, over and over, trying to get it perfect, you’re going to ruin the painting by overworking it and making it look muddy.”
One has to surrender, James said.
“If you make a brush stroke, and it wasn’t what you wanted, then you have to say, ‘That’s what it wanted,’ and strictly leave it alone.”
Understanding that concept, James said, will guarantee one becomes a better painter.
“If you have to make a painting, spend 55 minutes choreographing it in your mind and five minutes to paint it,” is James’ best advice to his students.
In life and art, James keeps an optimistic view.
“I’m not a picketer: I won’t scream what’s wrong with the world, but I will scream what’s right with the world,” he said. “Let’s take the good stuff and make it a part of our lives.”