James McGrew – My Life in Painting

As a child, I fell in love with Yosemite and nature, and I remember clearly, always wanting to draw and paint the world around me. When I was 8 years old, my aunt gave me some soft pastels and I began making pastel drawings of trout from photographs and illustrations in books. During summers, I drew trout on a regular basis and eventually by age 12, I could accurately draw most North American trout species from memory! Then I began creating more elaborate pastel paintings of Yosemite. When I was ten, my father gave me his oils from college and I began learning how to paint in oils. My first painting was a landscape of Nevada Falls copied from a photograph my father took in his late teens. I remember drawing almost every day and taking every art course I could manage throughout my school years. My sixth-grade art teacher had a strong impact on me, because she told my parents that I was one of the most talented students she had ever seen and one of the few she would recommend to consider a career as an artist. Everyone in my life was strongly supportive of my artistic development.

When I first started drawing and painting, I drew from memory or used photographs that others had taken. However, in high school I began taking my own reference photographs, which I then used in combination with my strong visual memory to compose my paintings. As a senior in high school, during a painting class, I wanted to create a pastel from one of my Yosemite photos from a recent trip. The teacher wanted me to create a crosshatch technique with pastels and I chose instead to create my own style, reflecting on the way I remembered the scene, using a combination of layering the pastels, some areas blended with my fingers and other areas rougher to create the vibrance of broken light. The teacher gave me a D on the painting for not following directions, but then placed it in the school art show front and center, as one of the best pieces in the school for the year! I grew frustrated with art teachers and sought to study my subject more personally – to discover how I wanted to make art, not how someone else told me to make art.

I went to college to earn a degree in Biology but quickly discovered the interrelationships between other sciences and added minors in Chemistry and Geology. I think those degrees were all very instrumental in helping form my art career because knowledge of nature ultimately helps every aspect of my painting, from understanding the chemistry of oil paint, to the anatomy of humans and animals, to the anatomy of landscape (aka geology) and finally, the physiology of the human visual processing system. Also, in college, I began painting and illustrating direct from life during a biological illustration course and then took black and white traditional darkroom photography and started using an SLR film camera which led to purchasing a Mamiya 7II. I loved working from 6 x 7cm transparency film as references for my paintings. My study of photography has always helped me think more critically about my art and the ways that cameras “see” differently than the human eye and brain. Shooting in black and white helped me learn about design, composition and values.

Working en plein air was critical to the development of my mature painting style that you see today. My work is looser, more impressionistic, and more emotional. Being outside in nature allows me to harness with my brush and canvas all the energy and feelings I experience in the moment, whether chasing the changing light, the movement of scudding clouds or the power of a waterfall – it is all poured into the paintings I create. Figure drawing and painting were also highly beneficial to my development as a landscape painter. A group of artist friends in Oregon began getting together for weekly figure and portrait painting sessions. We would get 6-10 artists together once a week and bring in a model during the Oregon rainy seasons. Learning to paint portraits and figures greatly benefited my landscape work because of the need to work extremely accurately and quickly with a challenging subject. Yosemite is more like portrait painting than landscape painting, because the features are so well known that inaccuracies are easily recognized by the public.

While still a teen, I purchased a copy of John Muir’s The Yosemite, illustrated and annotated by Galen Rowell. That combination of eloquent, inspirational writing coupled with Rowell’s photography from unusual perspectives inspired me to find my own adventures and visual interpretations.
Throughout my life, I have drawn inspiration from historic artists, most notably Rembrandt, Monet, Sargent, Hill, Moran, Bierstadt, Bouguereau, Kensett, and Church. Ansel Adams inspired me not only with his powerfully stunning Yosemite photography, but also his writings.

Throughout my life I have dedicated myself to learning all I can about Yosemite and the natural world. I hope that in sharing my paintings with the public they will be inspired and come to know the magic of Yosemite, and then they will share their experiences with others, creating a virtuous circle which will ultimately lead to understanding and stewardship for these irreplaceable lands that we all hold dear.