#TheArtist: An Interview with James Vaulkhard
James Vaulkhard is a Kenyan-born, London-based visual artist specialising in classical realism and statutory arts.
He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History of Art from Leeds University and has trained and taught at Charles Cecil Studios and Studio Della Statua in Florence, Italy. His present work revisits his roots in portraiture, taking subjects from popular culture and crafting images that are naturalistic—representing a commitment to the rendering of optical reality but also incorporating a multi-media approach with elements of collage work at the forefront. His London studio was the backdrop for The Artist Collection.
Turnbull & Asser: How did your career begin?
James Vaulkhard: Painting was always something I enjoyed doing growing up in Kenya and I continued to do so through school and university, until I decided to go to art school in Florence aged about 21. Out there, I learnt to draw the figure and the portrait in a traditional classical technique. I loved it and subsequently stayed out there to teach for a few years and also joined a sculpture studio where I learnt techniques in the statutory arts.
T&A: Talk us through the process of creating your artwork.
JV: My training in Italy involved working entirely from life. We made studies from plaster casts to train our eye to see form through light and dark. Once that was perfected (which was 1st year!) we were allowed to start drawing life models and later move into oil paint. It was a slow and disciplined process and as well as developing a technical ability through hundreds of hours of studio time, we also began to understand a philosophy of seeing—which for me was the most important aspect of this training. Since leaving Italy, I have used this training as a foundation… but someone once said, ‘learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.’
T&A: How would you describe your style of work?
JV: I wouldn’t say I have a specific style, rather, one thing has led to another. I could not have created the Bond collages without my experience in Florence. The technique is similar but the styles are far removed. The collages are pop-y with a traditional foundation. I recently described my work as an eclectic gyration of classical oil painting, street artistry and contemporary pop… I quite like that.
T&A: What was the inspiration behind the Bond artwork?
JV: In 2016, I was asked to take part in a show celebrating the Bond character. The title of the show was Bondage, which could have been taken as ‘the Age of Bond’ or the slightly provocative alternative. At the time, I was out of my studio but was keen to take part in the show so I set about designing a piece of work which I could start to do abroad and finish back in the studio a few weeks later. Collage work was not something I had attempted before but I was keen to try the new medium and take on a new challenge. The title provided me with the idea for the content of the work. I went about the hard task of collecting erotic images. Once I had enough, I placed them in categories of lights, darks and mid tones and printed off a selection of different sizes. The next task involved making the template of the portraits for the collage work to be placed on. And finally the process could begin.
T&A: Can you elaborate on the creation and process?
JV: In Florence, we worked from plaster casts to train the eye to see form and proportion. We were asked to create an accurate outline of the cast, then a shadow line and finally to block in the values and slowly model the drawing by softening and sharpening edges. This is essentially the process I used to create the collage works. Each image was carefully chosen for its value but most importantly how it best imitated the contours and planes of the face. It was a leap of faith as I had never worked like this before. It was incredibly slow and demanded huge amounts of patience.
Two portraits were originally planned for the show but due to the slow technique only one was finished in time. The portrait of Daniel Craig representing James Bond caused quite a stir at the exhibition, which prompted me to work and complete seven portraits of the actors who played the part. Over the next year or so I worked in between other projects and commissions and completed the full series in June 2017.
T&A: What influences your work?
JV: It is difficult to pinpoint a single influence. I like to explore life through my art. If I visit a country, I may experience something which will inspire me to look into creating an art work. Or I’ll find a book which leads me to explore a narrative. At the moment, I am working on a series of cave paintings which play around with the rise of AI and algorithms currently influencing our lives. I won’t say too much else at this stage! Ultimately, I think they will be interesting to look at. The more I delve into these different narratives, the more they feed back into my curiosity.
T&A: Do you have any exhibitions of your work open at the moment?
JV: I am taking part in an exhibition in October 2018 during Frieze, where I’ll be showing the new rock art work. I’m also preparing the next series of collages which I’ll be showing in March/April 2019.
T&A: What would you like to explore next in your work?
JV: With growing up in Kenya, wildlife and environmental conservation have been close to my heart my whole life. My dear brother, George, was a keen conservationist but passed away a few years ago. He had worked on some very special projects including the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust where he was making waves. Before his death, on a holiday to India we talked about collaborating on a show or a fundraiser. I haven’t forgotten about that conversation, and have been silently working on some ideas.
Follow James on Instagram: @jamesvaulkhard