Painter James Ettelson Reflects on the Satisfying Feeling of Making Something Out of Nothing

The Sydney artist talks purpose, pointillism, and pulling out of art school.

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Jan 20 2017, 7:15pm

This article is part of our VICE Weekends summer series, presented by Weis

James Ettelson is a Sydney-based artist whose work makes good use of bright colours as it explores the chasm between normality, banality and humour. He's also self-taught, employing a painstaking technique of small dabs and dashes to create work with layers and depth. 

We spoke to James about his artistic practice and influences, having the confidence to pull out of art school, and what he needs around him to make work.

VICE: How would you describe your art?
James Ettelson: I straddle the stylistic spheres of pointillist mark making, painterly pop aesthetics and cartographic imagery. 

What does pointillism involve? 
My large-scale acrylic works comprise a tapestry of dashes and unbroken lines in a riot of vibrant colours. These are very time consuming with a lot attention on detail.

High end, by James Ettelson

Did you come from a creative household?
My parents got divorced when I was two. My mum was very creative, always making things. My dad was a bit more eccentric, he was a strategic planner in an advertising agency. I guess it was a nice combination.

Tell us the story of how you came to make art. I understand you're self-taught?
I always loved art and painted from a young age. I used to be a fashion photography assistant. One day I realised it wasn't for me. From that day I started painting and produced my first body of work, never having a real plan of where it might take me. People started showing interest and paintings starting selling. I was offered a place in the National Art School but pulled out. 

What made you decide not to do it?
I was confident in my style and I didn't want anyone influencing my formula. I've had six shows since and I haven't looked back.

When did you realise that painting could be your career?
I think I realised that after having my last three shows sell out. It's such a relief after working on a show for eight months. 


Can you tell me about some of the people and places that inspire you? 
As long as I'm near the ocean and have my good friends hanging in my studio I seem to stay inspired. The environment that surrounds me plays a big role, I'm a very sensory person. 

Your works explore motifs of contemporary culture, such as emoticons and cameras. What led you to that story?
Those were old paintings. At that time I was exploring the fascination of technology and iPhones, apps etc.

What's your work focused on now?
It's very garden-core. My last show was called Garden Crashers and was inspired by an underground Instagram I had where I secretly photographed peoples' gardens. What might be mundane to some people I find very funny and I try to express this through my art.

Laying down the lawn, by James Ettelson

Who's had the greatest influence on you?
My friends and lots of artists. I need to be around people that make me laugh. At the moment I'm inspired by Danny Fox, Rhys Lee and Christian Rosa–all new contemporary artists.

What kind of atmosphere do you need in order to be creative?
I find myself moving around a lot. Every eight months I seem to change location, often back and forth from farm life to city life. I like having a lot of space when working and if I can get in the ocean every day I'm happy.

What do you enjoy most about painting?
I find painting very therapeutic, it gives me a purpose. The feeling of creating something out of nothing is very satisfying. 

What does a typical workday look like for you?
I wake up, get a coffee, then go for a surf. When I come home I lock into work while listening to an audio book or music. I also like having my friends visiting throughout the day.

What are you looking forward to in 2017?
I'm planning on doing more travel this year. I'm actually heading off to Japan next week, which I am very excited about. Looking forward to coming back inspired and ready to create new work.

You can follow James Ettelson on Instagram

This article is presented by Weis

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