An Interview with James Warren Perry

Painter James Warren Perry talks about self-regenerating art, giving thanks, and why he aims for irony-free, unrepentant beauty.

Sanctuary #3, 42" x 72" acrylic on canvas,  private collection. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.

Sanctuary #3, 42″ x 72″ acrylic on canvas,
private collection. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.

What helps you generate new ideas?

Travel is a wonderful way to feed your creativity. You’re taken out of your normal context and can assess things in your daily life from a different point of view. I paint all over the world. When I’m off in Southeast Asia and then come back to Northern California, the shapes that seem very familiar to me on a day-to-day basis somehow seem quite exotic.

Do you have any day-to-day habits that you rely on?

I’m really glad that you used that word — “habit.” Honestly, most artists that I know who have had sustained periods of productivity — people who have made careers of it — are very regular in their working habits. They just get up in the morning and they do it. Getting in the habit, that’s the thing that will sustain you much more than the stereotype of the artist who’s in the throes of creativity.

If you look at how artists have been portrayed in films, most of it’s not great. [laughter] I always think of Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life. He’s in the throes of madness. Most people I know that are pretty darn good artists, they’re just somehow regular people. They just get up in the morning and work.

On your website you talk about the importance of quieting your mind and giving focused attention. Are there any techniques in particular that you use to accomplish that?

I’m a lousy meditator. Or, let’s say I’m a very undisciplined meditator. But on the other hand my painting is very meditative. If I’m out on location, I’ll find something that really speaks to me. And I’ll set up and just take a big deep breath before I get going. And I’ll meditate.

I’ll also give thanks. I have a ritual: I paint with water-based paints, and every time I clean out my bucket, I always drop a little bit of water on the ground. It’s just my way of giving back and saying thank you and being very present about what it is that I’m going to receive. Even the most mundane moments can be very special, if we choose to be conscious.

I remember I was at a bit of a stuck point in my life. And I went off to India for a few months. And I had an amazing experience. Everybody thought that I was going to go there and have a religious conversion. They all asked me, ‘What did I learn?’ And I said, ‘Man, I’m gonna balance my checkbook.’What goes into selecting the subjects for your still lifes and landscapes?

When I’m painting a still life, I have a tendency to use very common things — things that you would find in your everyday life and just put out on a table. I also have a tendency to choose very neutral backgrounds. I don’t want to get into a narrative. I want to focus on what these things look like, what the shadows they cast look like. It’s a very formal type of painting.

When I’m painting a landscape, there are a lot of, again, formal considerations — what’s happening with the light and the space. There are also a lot of just plain old logistical considerations that go into my decisions. I don’t work from photographs. I will probably paint for two or three hours at a sitting and come back over the course of a number of days. So it’s got to be an environment that I am physically comfortable and somehow emotionally comfortable in.

I want my work to be very celebratory, and I want it to be unrepentantly beautiful. I want to pick places that I really enjoy being in. And I want to depict them without a sense of irony. It’s very, very straightforward. And that, I find, is a very powerful kind of painting.


James Warren Perry is an independent realist artist living and working in Northern California. His work has been featured in over 100 exhibitions at institutions around the world, including Riverside Art Museum; Palm Springs Desert Museum; Museum of Art, Kochi, Japan; Masur Museum of Art; Art Museum of Los Gatos; Bolinas Museum; Texas Artists Museum; United States Embassy, Reykjavik, Iceland; Oliver Art Center; Stanford University; University of the Pacific; Merced College; and the State of California Attorney General’s Building. He’s the recipient of a full fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center and a Marin Arts Council Individual Artist’s Grant. His artwork has been featured in numerous publications, including New American Paintings, American Artist, andArtweek.

On the Web:

When I was looking at your landscapes, I registered that sense of awe. How conscious are you of the viewer’s reaction as you approach your work?

I’m very aware of that. And that’s one of the reasons why I don’t paint figures in my landscapes because, again, I don’t want to deal with a narrative. I also want to have the viewer provide the humanity. A writer one time said that he felt that there was an incarnate viewer — that you could always feel the presence of the viewer looking into my work by the way I framed it. And I think he’s got a point there.

Do you ever worry about burning out?

I don’t. I can always go to a new environment. I’ll find a new way to paint it. I mean, there are times when I get tired and I need a break. And if that’s the case then, honest to God, I’ll go take a hike and look at a beautiful landscape. [laughter] Getting outdoors, rolling around with my dog. It can just be ten minutes and I’ll be back, ready to go.

It sounds like one of your core creativity techniques is the art itself — it’s a self-regenerating process.

Absolutely. I chose the kind of painting I do because of that. And I chose it for its meditative aspect. A long time ago I did a lot of work that was quite different. It was very pop oriented. I was painting these big paintings, literally, of garbage. And portraits of people on television. It was this very photo-real work that was kind of a suburban exorcism. I was dealing with all of the things about our consumer society that I have a distinctly love/hate relationship with. That work, I did get burned out on because, in essence, I was just kind of bitching.

I find that this work — the work that I’m involved in now — is by its nature very meditative. It’s very positive and it’s something I believe in. A lot of these places that I depict are places that have been set aside. A lot of them are parks. They’re places where mankind’s is not the most evident voice being spoken. It’s important to celebrate these things.

Is there one thing you’ve learned over the years about being artistically productive that you wish you could go back and tell yourself twenty years ago?

Balance your checkbook. I remember when I was a kid in art school there was this sort of faux Bohemian aspect: “oh, money doesn’t mean anything.” And I remember I was at a bit of a stuck point in my life. And I went off to India for a few months. And I had an amazing experience. Everybody thought that I was going to go there and have a religious conversion. They all asked me, “What did I learn?” And I said, “Man, I’m gonna balance my checkbook.”

It’s very difficult to have a successful spiritual or creative life if the pragmatic aspects of your life are out of whack. At least, personally, it doesn’t work for me.

A number of years ago somebody was talking to the King of Bhutan. This was a Westerner saying, “Hey King, you’ve got to open up your country to the West, and these are all the wonderful things that we’ll be able to give you. We’ll be able to increase your gross domestic product.” And the King responded, “What about the gross domestic happiness of my country?” Your central happiness has a lot to do with how creative and how effective you will be. So take the time to be happy. Take the time to be appreciative. Take the time to surround yourself with love.

Category: Visual Arts/Design

5 comments on “An Interview with James Warren Perry

  1. beautiful painting james. and thanks, cecil, for another great interview.
    this one suggests a way to think about this that’s new to me, of the work as meditative–both as process and product–rather than as, say, angst-ridden expose. plenty of room for both (and everything in between), but i enjoyed hearing about how it works for james in practice.

  2. Hey, Cecil–How great to wake up and read this with coffee! I am totally digging these. This is this style of painting I love. His work reminds me of the late Thomas Hart Benton. And interesting that here is another great artist who I read doesn’t work from photos. I may have to chuck the whole photo thing. Good work.

  3. Wow! What a great interview. I love James’ story about returning from India with realization that creativity can and does coexist with the practical parts of life.

  4. This series is really helping me deal with the leap from inspiration-based creativity to the joy of daily work. I’m loving the series.
    And I really appreciate being introduced to such a wonderful artist. It’s so wonderful to see the landscapes I’ve come to love portrayed with such breathtaking calmness and joy. It gives me hope for this land. Thank you.

  5. the painting above reminded me immediately of eyvind earle.

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