The passing of time – interview with Egypt-based painter James Crabb
James Crabb’s colourful, energetic and detailed paintings are a testament to the time and care he puts into them. Here he shares his influences, working process and future plans. To see more of James Crabb’s work, visit his website: jamescrabbpaintings.com
Being an artist
Please give us a few words of introduction about yourself
I am a British artist who has been living in Egypt for most of the past twelve years. As an artist I am fascinated by the nature of time passing and Egypt is an endless source of inspiration with its tremendous history and also the social changes that have been happening recently.
When did you decide to pursue art as a career?
That would be when I dropped out of the Business Studies degree that I had started and very soon realised that it was not what I wanted to do in life. I had been spending a lot of time drawing and painting during my school years as a diversion from academic pursuits and because it gave me the opportunity to express myself. It became an ever growing presence in my life.
What training did you have?
I went on to study Art with History at degree level. Rather than learning to paint which is what I wanted to do, I gained a good understanding of the process of making art and the personal creative journey. Apart from that my painting technique is very much self taught. I also trained as an art teacher and taught art to a wide range of students. I have learned so much about visual expression from my students.
What has been the high point of your career so far?
That is most definitely my first solo show, in April 2013. It has taken a long time to get to the place where I am as an artist right now, which is where I feel I have found my voice as a painter.
What’s your favourite quote?
‘I do not seek. I find.’ Pablo Picasso. I find that making art and especially painting is a state of mind where I am open to receive things a visual way. The media such as paint leads me to places I would never otherwise know.
Who is your favourite artist?
I really love medieval painting. I have also been very interested in JMW Turner, Marc Chagall, and Joseph Beuys.
What are you aiming for?
A complete and total degree of freedom in the making of my art, where there is no sense of ‘I’.
How will you get there?
By watching how the media behaves and understanding its needs. It is very easy to fall into the trap of interfering with the creative process by allowing elements of ‘self’ come into the work. I find that the more disciplined I become in my approach to painting, the greater the level of real freedom there is to be experienced as an artist.
Is anything holding you back?
Making art is very much a privilege. To be focused and attuned as an artist requires time and space. This needs to be financed. Finding a balance between time spent on gathering finance and time making art is an art in itself.
You and art
What feelings or reactions do you hope to arouse in people who view your work? Are you ever surprised by reactions that you get?
How my art is perceived by others is something that exists completely outside the act of making art, as it would be at odds with my creative process. However I am always surprised by what people say about my work. They often see things that I was not aware of while I was making it, or say things about how it makes them feel that shows it has touched upon something inside them.
From start to finish, how long does it take for you to create your work?
Some pieces are made quickly while others evolve over a long period of time, sometimes several years or more. Once I have become attuned to a particular element in the work it can really take over and results in the work pouring out. The trick is in becoming attuned to whatever is coming to the surface, and that takes longer. I have found that ‘art time’ and ‘real time’ bear very little resemblance. It is more similar to the way time behaves in a dream.
What music do you like to listen to when you work?
It depends on the nature of the task I am doing and the time of day. Recently I have been listening to a lot of Spanish guitar music while I am working. Sometimes it is better not to listen to music because it is a way of time to impose its measures on what I am doing and that leads to distractions.
What are you working on next? Any future plans or projects in the pipeline that we should look out for?
Having just completed a series which featured ‘anonymous’ heads, I am now working on a short series of portraits that are about a very specific identities and which explore psychological states.
I have also been working on some small mixed media pieces which revive themes I have explored before.
Being inspired by art
Who (living or dead) inspires you? and why?
I am fascinated by artists’ lives and their chronologies. I want to know what they were doing at a specific age or stage in life and how they developed. From those artists who are no longer alive I find Joseph Beuys inspiring. His life and work were so richly fused and he had such a deep sense of humanity. I find the British artist Jenny Saville very inspiring. She is a great painter with a real mastery of her craftsmanship and I admire that very much.
What feelings, subjects or concepts inspire you as an artist?
I am intrigued by the nature of time passing. I like surfaces that have the patina of age like old doors. They resonate on various levels, like the experience of walking through an old part of a medieval city. I am very interested in how we deal with the passage of time as people. Our capacity for nostalgia, hope, and protest are deeply woven through our psyche.
What is your favourite work that you’ve produced so far and why?
My recent work. I believe I have really started finding my voice as a painter and I am very excited about that. The work is more honest and real than anything else I have done so far. I am really enjoying drawing and using line and I am finding that this is working in a very free and open way for me. I am very excited about making some new work.
an artist’s advice
For those thinking about turning a passion for art into a career, could you give any advice?
Keep believing. Be prepared to make sacrifices. Master your craft. Seek out what you love in the world around you and in the work of other artists. Be disciplined in your work. Don’t be afraid to ask the big questions.
Any tips on how to get your work seen and get the commissions coming in?
Believe that you are good enough and show your work at every opportunity. Be professional in the way you deal with people. Let your passion shine through. Look at what is being displayed in homes or buildings you visit and try to imagine your work there instead.