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Artist of the Week: James Barnes

While some portraits glorify the way a person looks, 22-year-old art major James Barnes depicts, in each of his paintings and drawings, every flaw his subjects have.

Courtesy of James Barnes
Courtesy of James Barnes

“I feel it’s the real them, whether it’s good or bad. Not showing them is doing them a disservice.”

The Early Years

Barnes hails from Yucaipa, California, a small town in San Bernardino County that lacks any real artistic community.

“There’s no artistic opportunity out there. There is an art community growing, but it’s not at a point yet where it can help up-and-coming artists,” Barnes said.

“It’s really conservative and it shows in their art. A lot of landscapes and paintings of cowboys. It’s not a place for new thinkers.”

Barnes was homeschooled until age 18, and then began his studies at Crafton Hills College, a community college in his hometown, where he became inspired to experiment more with visual art making and gained the training necessary to do so.

“I was able to grow from being homeschooled,” Barnes said. “It gave me the freedom and time to explore my creativity.”

At Crafton Hills, Barnes first enrolled in a contemporary sculpture class. Positive feedback from his professor and the chance to enroll in more studio art courses allowed Barnes to flex his artistic muscles further, and when he took his first figure drawing class, something clicked. He mastered the ability to draw several facial features and found that he most liked drawing eyes.

“Eyes are constantly taking. They’re the greedy organs. I think people respond to images of eyes. You get a sense of soul through eyes. If you remove the eyes, the figure becomes dead. Eyes make everything real,” Barnes said.

Courtesy of James Barnes
Courtesy of James Barnes

For a young artists competition at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego several years ago, Barnes drew “Europa,” a graphite portrait of a woman, named after an all-seeing mythic goddess, with nine open eyes on each side of her face.

Today, as a first year transfer student, Barnes studies painting and drawing at UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts, and works as a docent at the Beall Center for Art + Technology, one of several gallery spaces on campus.

The Technique

“I really enjoy Da Vinci. His work is pretty stylized. We imagine in our heads that it’s realistic but it’s really not at all. He would go around finding the strangest-looking people. He was looking for interesting imagery to capture,” Barnes said. “That inspires me.”

The subjects of Barnes’ portraits are usually his own friends, and he generally draws from his photographs of them, rather than from life.

“Sometimes I look for odd qualities. I met one girl who had an amazingly big nose, but I thought it was beautiful,” he said. “I took several pictures of her.”

During his final semester at Crafton Hills and the summer prior to his first quarter at UCI, Barnes created “A Tinge of Life,” a series of five pencil-drawn portraits with thick sections of watercolor shapes painted over specific parts them.

“The inspiration was portraying a person but also portraying an interaction — a physical interaction with color,” Barnes explained. “Advertisements use color. It plays a big role in trying to control people. My interest is bringing up color and trying to think about how color affects us.”

One of the five portraits in “A Tinge of Life” is a depiction of the head and shoulders of two fraternal twin sisters standing side by side, their heads connected by long flowing locks of hair, and flat, pink trapezoidal figures over each sister’s eyes.

“One is what you would consider a classical beauty,” explained Barnes. “She’s tall, good proportions. Pretty thin. Her sister is pretty asymmetrical. I thought it was fascinating that they were such close sisters, born on the same day, same parents. That they were so different was such an interesting thing.”

The girls’ expressions are different, yet the slabs of watercolor paint obstructing each one’s vision are identical.

“They’re wearing color. They’re blinded by color. The colors become sunglasses and it’s the only thing they see. It can change their point of view,”  Barnes said.

What He’s Doing Now

For Barnes’ next series of images (he likes to work in fives) Barnes will be creating several collages, composed mostly of images ripped out of magazines, over which he will paint.

“We have all these images bombarding us and it can become a whole other form on its own,” Barnes said.

In the future, Barnes hopes to continue his artistic career by exhibiting his work in public spaces. He dreams of one day having a solo show at the Palace of Versailles.

“Realistically,” he said, however, “I just want to make my work and live off it and make people think about how they live their lives and open up their minds about everything. I want people to look at life and see that life is beautiful.”