James Nunn is a wonderful self-taught artist, who after having a career in book publishing, went on to develop his creative instinct in book design and illustration. For the last 12 years he has used his background to inform his practice as a fine artist.
To welcome printmaker and illustrator, James Nunn to The Art Buyer Gallery, we have done a deep dive into the inner mechanics of his artistic practice and asked what it is that feeds his creativity and desire to produce beautiful original art.
You have had such an interesting career path, can you tell us a bit about what led you to become an artist?
I was obsessed with drawing as a kid. I was always drawing, but it was almost an unconscious thing. An inveterate doodler, I certainly didn’t think about art as a career until I did it as an A-level. From then on I planned to go to Art School, but when I was 17 my father died and I decided to move away from home and applied to do an English Lit degree. It was a life changing decision and I don’t know if I’d be an artist now if I had stuck to the original plan.
Through my early 20s I stopped drawing. After undertaking a Masters in Contemporary Poetry, my first job was in a small publisher as a marketing officer. They had some design software and by default, as the youngest in the room, it was assumed that I’d know how to use it – so I taught myself. That was when my visual mojo really came back. I found it easier to think about design by sketching and drawing and soon realised that my sketches had more energy than my graphic design, so I started to incorporate illustration into my design.
In 2002 I was made redundant and had to choose whether to carry on with my marketing career or go freelance as a designer/illustrator. I had made my mind up, I’d dropped art once before and I wasn’t going to do it again. Through the course of my self education as a designer I became interested in book illustration and from that time onwards, drawing returned to the core of my life.
Occasionally people would ask to buy original illustrations from my book covers, and other times I would have an idea that would be rejected for a cover, but I wanted to explore it further as an individual piece of work. Gradually I started to see my standalone work as a way to break away from the constraints of book illustration. It has been an odd trajectory and I don’t think I’ll ever just be an artist, but I have definitely gone from being an illustrator who sometimes makes standalone art to an artist who occasionally illustrates books!
Is there something or someone that really inspires and influences your work?
I have a tendency in my early drafts, especially when I’m illustrating something which requires very faithful representation, to pay too much attention to the mechanical detail of a subject. So I have a number of artworks that I keep in mind. Cave painting is always there, children’s drawing too, but also Mondrian’s Trees, Magritte’s Pipe, the illustrations of Mervin Peake and the paintings of Carel Weight.
All of these remind me of the tension between the subject and the finished piece and hopefully what materialises is something new and more than the sum of the parts. The subject is a way to explore the surface and the mark making, something to hang the marks on rather than the marks being a means to an end.
What attracted you to printmaking?
I love the process of printmaking. After the restraint involved in book illustration, there was a freedom in producing big work. It’s too much of a stretch to call it action painting but I wanted to be up on my feet and working with a bit of freedom. My pastel and charcoal drawings are the purest expression of this but the big prints are also physically demanding to make and that’s when I’m happiest using my whole body to produce the work.
I start by drawing straight onto the lino. I rarely make finished drawings to work from but instead rely on sketches of elements, I draw and redraw on the lino until the composition feels good. This phase is quite manic. Then everything slows down. Cutting is fraught with risks, especially big work. So it is very slow and methodical and can take several days. I have to recognise when I’m tired or beginning to rush. The printing is nerve-wracking but I hope I’ve usually thought about it enough in the drawing stage to know what the print will look like. That said, the surprises always come – usually good ones, the way the ink has taken or the way a certain cut brings some personality or energy to the print.
Also I love the connection to books and printing and, in a small way, how democratising that is, that there can be multiples and that each one is unique in its own way.
Is there something that you hope to communicate through your art?
I do really want to shine a light on the natural world. I hope that I contribute to the debate about habitat and environment in a way that celebrates our amazing natural world. Things can seem pretty gloomy for lots of species so I hope that my work reminds people how beautiful animals are and how worth fighting for they are!
People always have their spirit animal, and so many wonderful unexpected reasons for why they love this animal or that bird and if something about the way I draw them connects with someone then I’m happy. Mostly I hope that what comes across is beauty, a love of colour, texture and form. It’s back to the cavemen again, you have to live with it so I hope it’s something you’ll want on the cave wall.
I am still finding my way however, and I have only just started exploring subjects outside of the natural world. My swimmers are the beginning of what I hope is a new seam of work exploring figures in various environments.
What is the most enjoyable project you’ve worked on? And are you working on anything exciting at the moment?
A few years ago I did an exhibition of endangered and extinct species. It was primarily giant prints of creatures very cleanly printed without my usual expressive external marks picked up from the cut part of the lino. I wanted them to look eerily out of context as though in a book of extinct animals from the future.
I’m really excited about a project I’m working on right now which is a series of hundreds of pen and ink portraits made up of characters inspired by the corroded streets of my home town. They’re very weird but I’m loving doing them! I’m also drawing and printing bears for a small exhibition next year.
Do you feel that you have ever landed on a particular ‘style’, or is it constantly changing and evolving?
I think when drawing is at the core of your work you probably can’t help having a style to some degree. How you see the world is intrinsically linked to how you hold the pen, where you start drawing, where you finish, what you accentuate, what you choose to ignore – but that is always evolving too. That said, I think being self taught is an interesting state of being. Half the time you crave greater expertise and once you’ve learned more, you have to be careful not to lose what was good and original for the sake of technical perfection. I have so much admiration for proper old-school printmakers but I really don’t want to be one.
What are some of the greatest joys – as well as the greatest challenges – of your practice?
The great joy and constant surprise is when someone you don’t know is willing to pay to have your work in their house. Astonishing!
The greatest challenge is just starting new work, especially if it’s a departure from a style or a phase of work that’s been successful. You have to be prepared to try ideas and start things and accept that they might not work out, in the end nothing is wasted.
My Life in Art – James Nunn
· First piece of art you bought?
I bought a framed print of a sort of Egon Schiele style nude from John Lewis in Milton Keynes in 1989. It was £12.50.
· Favourite artist?
My Favourite Artist is Carel Weight. He painted quite unsettling scenarios in very ordinary settings.
Old Lovers by Carel Weight
Foxwood by Carel Weight
· If you could own any piece of art (even if you have to rob a bank or museum!), what would it be and why?
I would love any Carel Weight painting – but since I can’t choose (I’ve spent an hour browsing his work!) I would have Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images’ in the studio to remind me that art is not life.
Visit James Nunn on our website and have a browse of his bold and energetic prints!