James Bates: Artist Interview

Artist James Bates' latest limited edition releases, ‘Mechanical Butterfly’ and ‘Clockwork Bird I’, have caused quite a stir at artrepublic. These two metallic limited editions beautifully capture the delicacy and fragility of the winged creatures and are reminiscent of vintage clockwork animals and Victorian automata. We wanted to know more about the prints and the man behind them... 

What inspired the new series?

The series evolved from me struggling for months with a butterfly image. I had set myself this task to make a butterfly image (I find getting started is the hardest part), which took me months to get right. I had tried so many different approaches that I was continuously getting badly lost. Then I’d get excited, get so far then completely change my mind again on what I was trying to do. But as far as inspiration, it was probably in a flash after struggling with something in the wrong direction - sometimes inspiration strikes only when you are not looking. A bit like luck really, (‘oh look, a £50 note on the floor, been looking for one of those my whole life’). 

We hear that your new series started with the idea of chaos and yet it appears so measured and controlled…

As the image emerged, I was playing with the idea of a kind of mechanical, drone-like butterfly, made of discarded imaginary parts which made a nice contrast with the delicacy of the subject. The butterfly idea tied in directly with the idea of chaos and the butterfly effect (not a pun, honest). Inside the images it’s chaos, held together by the ordered silhouette. Order is found within the disorder. The more this developed, the more the idea of the mechanical, robotic, automata started to evolve. Coincidentally, in the news Google had just announced that they had started a robotics division, parallel to the rise in use of military drones to do the dirty work.

How do you think your prints capture the essence of Victorian etchings and automata whilst remaining contemporary?

I guess the graphic treatment gives them a contemporary feel. The actual silhouette is from a Victorian hand-coloured etching I found. With the birds the idea of the automaton became clearer and then just kept on developing from there. If you look at how birds behave, they exist in a sped up reality compared to us slow old ploddy humans. Go and have a look if you don’t believe me. The birds know something we don’t… They are also pretty sarcastic which is impressive.

Are you interested in the relationship between the natural world and the man-made machine world?

I guess unconsciously yes. From watching the 'Time Machine' (The 1960 Gerorge Pal version) as a kid I loved all those cogs and oddness, then the film 'Sleuth' (the 1972 version by Joseph L. Mankiewicz) with all it’s odd automatons. Alongside all this, my dad used to work for Gerry Anderson / Century 21 on things like 'Thunderbirds', 'Joe 90', 'UFO' etc, so alongside animation - the fascination from puppets brought to life is all probably the same to me. Every day a new breakthrough is made in science, humans seem obsessed in creating life, cloning, robotics etc. The relationship is a delicate balance, I trust the natural side all the way.

What is it about winged creatures that suits this series?

The mechanical characteristics. Fluttering; I remember seeing a hummingbird when I was a child just hovering outside the kitchen window - fluttering like a mini high speed machine, manic and calm at the same time. The next bird print reminds me of Hawker Harrier Jump Jet, but thats probably because I built a massive model one when I was 10. But I think other animals may gatecrash the series…

How important is the use of metallic ink in the prints?

It reflects the idea of mechanical, clockwork etc, but generally I love its iridescent sheen, it makes them feel precious and people go ‘oooh’ when they see them… Impossible to photograph though. I also love Fluro colours, colour varnishes, all the colours - yeah!

What made you become an artist? My parents are artists so it was inevitable I think, also  it was all I was good at at school. I used to love drawing comics, making models, then as a grown-up, record covers etc. I work as a graphic designer doing all sorts of stuff, from animations upwards. The creative side becomes less and less so art is a great way of expressing your creativity. Lately seems to become more of a necessity.

How did you get started? Going to art school I guess? Although, I work as a designer to make a living, I try to spend as much time as I can making art to try and balance things out. Going back to screen printing was the big change. I love the magical change from making an image to finally printing it, it becomes something else of it’s own. I did a bit of hand-cut stencil screen printing at school, then a bit on the graphics course, then none for years. My wife then booked me on a local screen print course… I also used to be obsessed with making scrapbooks and collages, something which I’m starting to do again.

What would you say are the main themes you pursue? Tricky to say, I tend to just think - that’s a good idea, lets try that. All a bit abstract and wobbly, my colouring in tends to go over the lines when I get excited.

How do you choose your subjects? Sometimes they find me, turn up at my door and demand to be put on paper. I love trawling through junkshops, antique shops, picking up interesting bits of rubbish, again, no coherent passage. 

Where do you find inspiration? Everywhere and in everything, mainly where I'm not expecting. It’s lurking everywhere.

Which of your works are you most proud of? Hard to be objective, but it would have to be ‘Insert Title Here’ as it was shown in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition last year. That was and is, entirely nuts…

Do you care whether people like your work? Of course. Always a billy bonus. Who likes to be despised on a general basis? But it’s not the main intention though, I do it because I get excited; something takes over and it just has to be done! But if I really like it, someone else usually does too. Honestly though, I never really know, it’s not until I see someone’s reaction whether I know if people will like it. Always been like that.

What memorable responses have you had to your work? The legendary Paul Dewis at the print studio said on seeing one of my etchings that "it looks like the workings of a mad man." I took this is a compliment of the highest order.

What is the greatest threat to art today? Art will never go away, it’s just something people (And some birds - you know, those amazing colourful nesting/mating display things - google Vogelkop bowerbird) just have to do. But the first thing to be cut by government when things get tough is the arts. They might try to demote its value as frivolous and petty, but then why do paintings sell for so much?

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you? ‘You should really get a sensible job?’ - No I shouldn’t.

What have you sacrificed for your art? Nothing, it’s such a joy to do. Everyone should do it. I did taxidermy a mouse a couple of weeks ago, but it had already hung up its mousey boots so maybe that doesn’t count.

Do you suffer for your art? Got a bit puffed out carrying 100 sheets of paper home the other day. Had a lie down so everything is OK now. Thanks for asking though.

When are you happiest? Thursdays to Sundays. Was genuinely taken aback by everyone’s positive reaction to this series - mind you, that was on a Monday. I do get a bit addicted to getting overexcited - every time I sell a print, find some new music or art etc.

What work of art would you most like to own? I cannot answer this as I am far too greedy to be happy with 1. But if I had to say one thing, I’d say Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. I have collected, found and won some wonderful things. Mind you, that Picasso bloke’s quite good isn’t he? I’d be happy with one of his old tea bags.

If you weren’t an artist what would you be doing? Designing things, making noises, writing nonsense.

Describe an average day in the life of James Bates - Exceptionally average with moments of excitement. Laughing hysterically at least once a day. Daydreaming. Bumbling about. Working. Playing. Sleeping.

View all James Bates prints



artzine your guide to everything that's happening in the art world

Leave a Reply

Sorry, you must be logged in to post a comment.

Scroll To Top