It took James Owen a long time to figure out what he wanted to do when he grew up. Why he's still not entirely sure and what is his affinity with old Gangsters?
So who is James Owens?
I’m from Detroit, known around the world as the Motor City. Cars are kind of in my blood. My grandfather went to work for Henry Ford in 1926. He worked there for 40 years. Both my grandfathers worked in the auto industry in Detroit. My father also worked in the auto industry. My brother is a designer for General Motors. It’s a company town and when you live in a company town like Detroit you work in the auto industry. I fell in love with cars as a young boy, especially the old American cars. I am unashamedly an American-file when it comes to automobiles. There’s something about America cars. Only in America would they build a 1950 Buick with that waterfall chrome grill. That grill probably weighs as much as a Prius and only here would you get that car. It’s such an outrageous, beautiful, large, rolling piece of sculpture. I fell in love with those cars.
By the time I came of age, there was not a lot of work to be had in factories. I graduated from high school at seventeen years old and I thought that I would either go into the military or I would go to art school. I know that seems like two ends of the spectrum [laughs]. I applied to the Centre for Creative Studies in Detroit. It’s a very well known school for car designers. I, however, went into the illustration department. At that time, the department focused on preparing artists for work in the advertising field. I was very lucky to be hired at an art studio in Detroit before I even graduated from college. They serviced all of the major companies in the automotive business. I spent my early 20’s working at this art studio, doing literaly hundred and hundreds of storyboards for car commercials and point of purchase displays. Any kind of advertising art you can think of, I’ve done it – airbrush, ink and wash, coloured pencils, all of it. As I’m sure you know, advertising is a demanding business. It’s hard on relationships. I made a lot of money but I was never very happy.
After I realized I needed a change of direction, I moved out of Detroit and to Knoxville, Tennessee. I actually started acting! I acted in television commercials and ended up in Los Angeles. I loved it – both the city and the acting. California is also paradise lost. The cost of living is extremely high, as are taxes and I found the acting work much more difficult to come by. After I left the advertising business, I didn’t draw or paint anything for over a year. I was so burnt out. But being in LA and not getting the volume of acting work that I had anticipated, I had time to start painting again.
I said to my wife, “I want to make a go of making my own paintings and prints but I don’t know what to paint!” She told me to paint what I like. I’ve always been crazy about old gangster movies and film noir. And I’ve always loved cars. So I started going to shows and studying the work of artists like Tom Fritz. I’ve always said they are the best at what they do. I combined my love of old movies with the automobile and that’s led me down the path I’ve been on the for the last five or six years.
Some of your work varies in style. For instance, in some pieces you use collage and while others are oil paintings.
Working in the advertising industry as I did for over a decade has been both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, I’m not known for a specific style but on the other, I’m able to execute whatever comes into my imagination. I love graphic work and posters. Street artists like Banksy and Brian Ferry intrigue me. In some of my more recent pieces, I combine airbrushed acrylic work with the more rendered oil painting.
Other paintings like “Tip Off” are completely oil-based paint. In that particular piece I actually painted each individual letter. They were kind of a nightmare but finishing it had great satisfaction.
Photo-realistic oil paintings of some of the more simple things in life are very popular these days.
I get an idea in my head of something, an idea of how I want a piece of art to look and the piece requires a certain technique. I’m inclined to let the work dictate the medium rather than trying to force a technique onto a piece of art simply for consistency’s sake. Some pieces that I do want a certain style.
I go to a lot of car shows and I always have my camera with me. Anyone who tells you that they do automotive art without reference is lying. I photograph a lot of automobiles. Sometimes I don’t know what draws me to something. For instance, I’m building a Hudson Coup. The rear end on that car is really long and rounded. It’s very simple and it is exquisite. But then I look at the open hood of a ’32 Roadster with an open motor and the bolts on the head of the flathead. That is highly mechanical but it also has a beauty of it’s own. I can’t explain why that’s beautiful, but it is. My job is to find a composition that shows the beauty of that item as well as I can. Sometimes it takes a lot of experimenting – and a lot of photographs! And even after my reference photos are taken, I will push and pull with the composition. I’ll do preliminary studies to solve lighting and composition problems. There are so many choices to be made with each piece.
An artist once told me that he thinks using photos for reference is taking a risk because you’ve got to be so careful with lighting and reflection. For instance, wanting to combine two photo images in one painting and not adjusting the light.
You have to use a great deal of thought when you combine reference. You can’t be a slave to your photos as far as lighting and reflection. Many times, I’ll use a reference photo simply to ensure I’m drawing angles correctly. I had teachers in art school who would say that the painting would never be better than the original drawing. So the first thing that has to be done is to solve your drawing problems. On a car, that’s pretty easy. If you have the angle right, you can draw an outline of the car. Once you have your basic drawing done, you can change the lighting as you see fit. It’s best to take photos of the subject from as many angles as possible so that you can really understand how light is reflected.
I have a piece called “Roscoe Said Goodbye For Me”. Roscoe is an old American slang term for a pistol from the 1930’s. The painting is of a woman standing with a pistol in her hand in from of a 1953 Cadillac. It’s in a dark alley at night. Obviously, this situation didn’t unfold before me. First, I had the idea. Then I shot reference of the alley, the automobile, and the woman. None of these photos were taken during the day. But that’s where being an artist comes in. You study lighting and you study how light falls on things at certain times of the day so that by the time I was finished my samples and drawing problems, I had also solved the drawing problems.
It’s important to me to paint all my subjects realistically. I also love pin-up style. One of my favourite pinup artists is George Petty who worked for Esquire magazine in the 1930’s. They painted women realistically – stylized images of the feminine form based on reality. I use models for my work. As a matter of fact, I used one model for the majority of my pieces. She’s a friend of mine named Amie Barsky and she is an actress and model who lives in California.
Tell me about your piece “Memo to Dean Martin”.
When I was creating those pieces, “Memo to Dean Martin” and “’Nuf Ced”, I did not have a specific story in mind. They came to be because of some images I had in my studio. I’m constantly surrounding myself with images that I find interesting or fascinating or glimpses into the 50’s and 40’s. This was a time when sex was taboo and not something you’d talk about. Now we tend to thing that sort of memorabilia that was so controversial then is very quaint. The images in the paintings aren’t really related so much as things that spoke to me in a similar way. The Dean Martin piece in particular has a couple of graphic paintings of Betty Paige, a rocket ship from Flash Gordon, or the crew from Memphis Bell. We had a very romanticized version of these times – of war and manhood. I’m so intrigued by those times.
Those paintings and anything else that I’ve got that looks similar is all oil-based paint painted on top of vintage newsprint. I use newspapers from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. I’m so fascinated by this time. I just collected them and wanted some way to incorporate them in my art. I’m not a found-item artist and I don’t really like true collage as much. But I needed a way to incorporate them into my art so I attached them to the canvas.
Are there any other pieces that you’ve been dreaming of creating?
After so many years of working, I’ve gotten to the point where if I have a desire to paint something, I can do it. I had this epiphany a while ago: I’m not a wealthy man and I love automobiles. I would love to have a massive collection of vintage automobiles – but I can’t. I don’t have the time or the space or the money. Through my paintings, I can own any car that exists. I am living my dream. I have no complaints.
What I am in the process of learning now has nothing to do with the paint that I put on a canvas. I have a 1952 Hudson coup that I’m building from the ground up. I’m customizing it. Lately, I’ve been learning to weld and do metal work and different customization. To me, that is an art form. I’ve never had the time or lived in one place long enough to try this yet. I consider automobiles to be rolling sculpture.
It’s been about five or six years since I’ve done any shows because I moved from Southern California to Knoxville, Tennessee. This coming year I’m hoping to do a handful of car shows where some of my work will be for sale. I’d love to do some of the Concord shows or auctions. I will keep you in loop in terms of events and places that I’ll be.
Want to see more of James Owens' work or interested in buying, visit his site at James Owen Studio.