a chat with JAMES DRINKWATER, by Ryan Williams / by Ryan Williams


All images by  Alex McIntyre

All images by Alex McIntyre

From my reading this morning, I can see that James has been painting nearly his whole life. From the age of five to now in his early 30’s, Drinkwater has immersed himself in his creativity. He is constantly in and out of the country, firstly to Berlin, then as a result of winning the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship in 2014, Cité des Arts in Paris, followed by a further three months travelling from Ireland to the Balkans.
I interrupted the very amazing James Drinkwater’s Monday night family dinner over a glass of red to talk about his practice, the upcoming Phantom show at Newcastle Art Gallery, and rumours of his past life as a karaoke king.


I'll start off by apologising - I'm sure you've been asked all of these questions already.

I guess we have to start off and talk about the Phantom show coming up at Newcastle Art Gallery. What has it been like working on this artwork? I understand you need to reimagine the comic book Phantom somehow?

“I've really known Dietmar Lederwasch [exhibition curator] forever. I went to school and used to go drawing with him and his daughter, Aleta, at a class in town when we were both really young. I've probably been visiting Dietmar's house since my early teens, looking at his collection, admiring things he's acquired and being very impressed by the immense mountain of incredible objects, posters and paintings everywhere. These things weren't just the reflection of a collector but one of a die-hard enthusiast of The Phantom. I remember he used to have a comic shop in town - he still does in the west end. He was really an enigma. All the other dads just went to work and that was it.

I got into comics for about three minutes when I was about 15 [laughs]. From there, I went to painting or whatever else 15 year olds do, but I always remember Dietmar being into it. There were so many projects over the years with different artists, often taking the opportunity to immortalise his children in different stages of The Phantom's genesis. When he asked me to do it, that was my response - an opportunity for me to do the same. I wanted to pay tribute to Dietmar's life's work as much as paying tribute to The Phantom's life. So I painted my son as The Phantom as a child, by the sea, looking onto a very busy, incredible life.”

I'm not really sure where The Phantom normally hangs out, but is your reimagining outside of the comic setting? 

“Yes, it's a different context for sure. Certainly as a child; I thought was a very interesting place to put him. When you're an adult you look back and see how wonderful as well as gruesome, beautiful and scary the world can be. It was really obvious to me to do it this way. I looked over a whole lot of Phantom stuff; Dietmar gave me some old comics and things to look at, and I knew I had to put Vinnie in this. It's within my pictorial language for sure - relatively abstract or expressionistic, but it certainly is him to me. Standing quite full frontal, staring straight at the viewer. I put a big, black, slightly gothic frame around it - it seems to tie in really nicely with the whole thing.

Conceptually, I definitely had a whole lot of intent, while I'm not really a big Phantom buff. I was kind of coming at it from how Dietmar's interest and life ricocheted into mine.”

It's really interesting to hear this perspective - directly from the artist. I walk around galleries and must miss a whole side of things.

“There's really no entry sometimes without all this background.”

So where do you start with a painting? You mentioned you did a bit of the background research with this Phantom work, but does it come from sketching? Or does it really evolve on the painted surface?

“I'm just always thinking about it. It's not something that ever really leaves me. When I start a painting, I literally follow a series of impulses. I want to put blue down, I want to put lines on that, the lines on the blue tell me I want to put pink on top of that in a shape, and that shape informs a theme that re-enters my head that I was thinking about. It's all very intuitive. No particular rhyme or reason to it. There is a method to the chaos, but I often set off on a voyage. You strap yourself to the mast in a stormy sea [laughs]. You let it take you there. I respond to things that are afflicted upon me from the first action. Maybe laying down a colour, or a series of marks; anything. Whatever is around.”

It's almost what is around you at the time can really affect the finished product - you reach to the table and happen to pick up the pallet knife, etc.

“Definitely. Toward the end of making a picture, it becomes a slower paced, heady, slightly more complicated thing. When you're resolving an image, it's different to setting out. You're approaching land and you have to negotiate how to do that properly without scratching the bottom of your vessel. There is the part where it's very instinctual, and then there's the formal aspects that come in when resolving an image.”

What's your favourite part?

“The whole thing. It's doesn't really end when I leave the studio, I get the same thing with cooking, being with my kids and my family, anything.

It doesn't stop.

I suppose if you talk about someone having a gift or a talent, mine is that I am fortunate enough for it all to be one thing. I am able to make no divide between work and life. Even when it get's tricky and hard or whatever, it's all what I go through. 

From a very young age - probably around the age I met Dietmar - I fell in love with paint and it's materiality and physicality. The way it behaves and moves, excites and disappoints. I love that material. I'm fortunate enough that I can go to my shed every day and push that material around until it pleases me. The whole thing is very weird.”

In my research for this interview, I was actually looking at a video of you at Monash University.

“You saw that?”

Yeah! You were working with metal, amongst other materials.

“It was great. It really opened up a whole large field of terrain that I could explore. My language – with all new materials.”

So you hadn't worked with metals before?

“Metal and ceramics - things I hadn't really used before, or maybe just dabbled in. I hadn't really ever entered the 3D sculpture world before either. Thinking of things on a really big scale.”

Are more opportunities like this coming through for you?

“There are a lot of interesting projects on the horizon. A couple that I can't share yet because they're not completely confirmed, they are still bubbling away. As far as confirmed things, I've just gotten back from Tahiti where I had a two week residency and painting trip over there. I'm in the studio now, responding to that experience. That work will be shown in April next year. I've got a pretty good 10 to 12 months to let that distil and do its thing properly. It's the first time in a long time where I've taken a good stance to let a series unfold as it needs to. It was amazing.”

If the Tahiti series has a long lead up on a body of work, what is your timeframe like normally?

“If I'm really charging in the studio and depending on where I’m at and what sort of mood I am in, I can make a whole lot really quickly. Sometimes I want to make 10 paintings in two weeks, others I want to make 15 in a year. It just depends on where I'm at with a theme I'm developing. Again, it's intuitive. I'm painting at a nice pace now but I'm holding some things back. Making things, putting them away, pulling them out a few months later, reviewing, do I like them, was it good enough, why is this good, why is this bad. All that kind of push and pull stuff can only happen at a small pace. I'm not 25 anymore either. When you're a younger painter, you're not in a rush, but there is an urgency to what you do. Now I curve it a little bit. I still have it, I could have it every day if I wanted in the studio, but outside in the art world, it doesn't have to happen as quick. It happens as quick as it needs to.”

I will ask one more question - I've heard rumours of you moonlighting as a karaoke king. Can you tell me when he'll be making a return?

“That was an old friend of mine that used to do that. I knew him really well. Almost like he was myself. [laughs] 

He was The Phantom. 

I haven't seen him in years. If you see him, please be kind.”