Oil Painter & Illustrator
James Griffin is an oil painter and illustrator who lives and creates in Sarasota, Florida. For over 38 years his illustrations have graced the covers of books around the world. Ranging from Romance to Mysteries to young adult to Modern Fiction, his work has helped sell millions of books. James graduated from Pratt Institute with a BFA in 1972. His work has evolved exponentially throughout the years.
James was a child of the international world, growing up in Canada, United States, Peru, Brazil and England. His years in London in particular were very influential on his art, being exposed to the great span of art history up to the emergence of pop art of the 1960s. He absorbed a fusion of cultures from the Beatles and Carnaby Street, to the high Andes to Tropical Brazil, to Norman Rockwell’s apple pie America, the Beach Boys, the Hippie years of peace and protest. He was an artist from a very young age and when he found out there was such a thing as a professional artist, he turned his passion to it and never looked back. He poured over Saturday Evening Post covers, Sears Roebuck catalogs, comic books, Gustave Dore’s engravings for the Divine Comedy and any art book he could find. It was in London where he really came face to face with great art in person. And not just the classics. London was teeming with new artistic ideas. For instance, the first Pop Art exhibition was held there in the early 1960s.
Throughout his life, James has straddled different worlds and cultures, America and the rest of the world, the classics and the modern pop culture, abstract and realistic art. All these varied influences come through in his paintings. He works primarily with realism, but always with a consciousness of the abstract just beneath the surface. Even the psychedelic experiences he had in the early 1970s show up in his brushwork, which can dance into flights of fantasy. As an artist, he is truly the product of the world he experiences. Subject matter varies widely from vibrant tropical and rocky northeastern landscapes and seascapes to large, expressive floral paintings. Currently he is working on a ballet series and a large painting of a violist working her magic, for the Itzhak Perlman Music Program. Running throughout is a keen sense of light and shadow, color and form.
His paintings are emotional. His years as an illustrator have taught James to communicate clearly and powerfully in visual terms. On the bookshelves, a book cover has to immediately grab the potential reader. It can have layers of subtlety and complexity, but first has to get noticed. This concept shows up in James Griffin’s paintings, which catch the viewer’s attention, but then have lasting interest as they unfold over time.
“Every painting is a chunk of your life that in a way you somehow wrestled into paint,” James Griffin says.
And it seems that James Griffin has mastered the art of seduction. You can find his steamy artwork in most bookstores, and many avid romance genre readers have owned his work at some point in time. But, Griffin is more than just a cover illustrator. In fact, he started as a realist painter living as artists live: in a hovel with an $80 monthly rent, he says. At first, Griffin was determined to remain non-commercial. But, when the opportunity arrived, the income was as provocative as the covers he’d end up creating for the next 30 years. Time spent illustrating these fanatical covers gives his gallery style and landscape art a fresh perspective and modern approach. The 64-year-old’s love for realist work started in elementary school when a teacher’s assignment, “Draw yourself,” yielded a result she wasn’t expecting. His classmates excelled in stick figures, while his self portrait included every detail from the rubber tips of his sneakers to the stitching on his blue jeans. “I guess it was then that I realized I was doing something different,” he says. The soft-spoken man sits at a high-top table at his new home and studio on the North Trail. The walls are decorated with his varying work: illustration-style portraits of women; plein air; distinctly Florida landscapes and distinctly Maine landscapes, where he also has a home; and the energetic scenes of New York, where he lived before moving here in 2005.
James Griffin grew up in the middle of five children, and he found that art was a method of appropriate attention seeking from his parents. His late mother, Gibson, wasn’t the type to tell him he needed a backup plan. She encouraged him because she was an art student, herself, before having children. His father, Vincent’s career in international business helped shape Griffin’s passion. Griffin was born in Ontario, Canada, and moved to the U.S. for a couple of years before moving to Peru (no one in his family spoke Spanish), then back to the U.S. By the time he was 11 years old, they had moved to London, where Griffin spent has adolescence being exposed to classical art. He not only got the sense that he could do anything he wanted as far as art was concerned, but he also got the feel for paint — literally. In those days, there weren’t museum guards. His curiosity as a young artist urged him to reach out at museums and feel the priceless Monet, da Vinci, Turner or any painting he could. Even though he knows he shouldn’t have been touching them, it gave him a special feeling for creation he wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Following his study of art at Pratt Institute, he stayed in Brooklyn, N.Y. He worked as an artist and a carpenter until a neighbor, Charles Gehm, saw his work. Gehm created the covers of romance novels and needed help. Being an assistant quickly evolved into Griffin doing the work himself, and then it became his career. But he would always continue his non-commercial art on the side. Cover art is planned. It comes from photo shoots that use models followed by illustrating and painting the scene. Over the years, the cover-art process has evolved to creating pieces digitally. Sometimes, Griffin will use this process to help plan what he’ll paint for a gallery-style piece.
One consistent theme in his series is that all of James Griffin’s works tell a story. For instance, Forces of Nature uses women to portray a part of the natural world in a realistic way. For instance, to portray the energy of Florida’s daytime, he painted a portrait of a woman reaching for a grapefruit — she is posed similarly to the Columbia Pictures iconic image. And, even if the piece doesn’t contain an obvious story, his objective is to make the viewer feel what he was feeling when he painted it. “I think an artist is always inventing, or reinventing himself,” Griffin says. “It’s kind of a strange thing because it’s like a meditation … does what I’m putting down really represent what I am feeling?”
Six things that inspire James Griffin:
- Light — It’s the most basic. It shows or hides. It gives everything form, too. I can do a whole painting of somebody’s driveway with just the shadow coming across it; that’s inspiration enough right there.
- Color — I don’t use color the way people normally would think of using color. The sky is not always blue; it’s blue, red, green and yellow. And so is the grass. So is everything else.
- Observation — The more you look, the more you see in nature. Or, if you’re doing a face, you look into a face, and you see more and more the harder and longer you look.
- Music — I used to play a lot of music. My dad was a pianist, and I always have music playing in my head. (See James Griffin paint to music on the J. Petter Galleries YouTube Channel.)
- Pattern — Pattern is really interesting to me. I like to create patterns, and I like to break patterns.
Telling a story — Every painting is telling a story … the main reason you paint is not just to move pigment around on a canvas — it’s to actually reach out and communicate with somebody and to touch somebody. If they can feel a little about what you were feeling, even if it’s just a glimmer, that’s a really cool thing.