James Hall – The Painterly Photographer

“My tools are photography and digital technology but I am a picture-maker, not a photographer. I believe the boundaries between painting and photographer have largely disappeared and I want to operate in the overlap.” (James Hall)



James Hall Nude Study


An astounding delectable clarity distinquishes the work of UK artist James Hall. The velvety darkness of his portraits and still life pictures have a sumptous brilliance, refined beautifully within digital assemblage. From Hall’s way with composition and the process of “painting” over surface emerges a series of breathtakingly radiant images that remind one of the fantastic depth of masterworks in oil.

While James Hall is self-taught, and holds a university degree in business, the artist grew up surrounded by art, his father in fact was the Keeper of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. James is constantly looking for ways to use the potential of digital painting to create photographic images that move beyond recording beauty, but rather to create it.


I am increasingly excited about digital painting integrated into photography as a means of dissolving the boundaries between painting and photography.”



James Hall Autumn, Four Seasons

Nevertheless, he remains connected to genre painting such as still life, botanical studies, the life study, allegorical imagery and more. For example, the series Four Seasons is a group of allegorical images inspired by the work of Antoine Watteau and François Boucher, evoking a sense of pleasure. In many ways, the work functions as an imaginary hybrid of contemporary digital photography and eighteenth century courtly delights.



James Hall Renaissance Flower

Likewise, Renaissance Flower is related to the Dutch Golden Age flower still life genre, and grew from the artist’s interest in Celia Fisher’s book Flowers of the Renaissance. In the picture, Robert seeks to “gently subvert the role of butterflies and other insects so often pictured in the Dutch paintings by including some small nymphs in the image.”




James Hall Adoration of the Keepers


Adoration of the Keepers responds to the  Rembrandt’s Adoration of the Shepards. Fascinated by the way the great master depicts light emanating from the infant Christ in the crib, Hall notes:

Rembrandt firmly places the scene in his own time, as a way of reminding the viewer of the contemporary relevance of the story. Hall’s Adoration of the Keepers seeks to replicate the same sense of a central light with all the figures illuminated from the direction of the crib. It is also deliberately contemporary, featuring a local team of game keepers, hunters, and their families. The setting in a disused church adds another layer of symbolism.”


Layers are a way of making a new model of beauty. In keeping with this way of working,  the artfully assembled work Lest We Forget is influenced by Paul Nash’s remarkable war paintings. Within Photoshop,  James combines motifs from traditional portraiture, classic memento mori genres and contemporary images of Remembrance Day. Slowly constructed over a period of more than a year and a half, the picture began as a simple still leave featuring objects from those lost, heirlooms of sorts from WW I.



James Hall Lest We Forget


Rosa: What types of cameras, props, model and or digital tools do you like to use?

James Hall: I try to avoid as much as possible being sucked into the photographic arms race, because I meet too many photographers who seem more interested in their equipment than their images. I am lucky enough to have a house large enough to accommodate a home studio based around a Canon 5D camera and some Bowens lights. I use Lightroom and Photoshop to manipulate my images.

RB: And the process?

The process of creating my final images is a highly collaborative one; very much a team effort. I work with two highly creative stylists, Claudia Oliver and Suki Miles who create costumes and looks for the images, and a wonderful lady called Paola Sammartino who helps me fine-tune the pictures in post-production.

And of course there are models themselves, a combination of friends and professional models. Each one of them contributes ideas to the process and consequently helps shape the final result.



James Hall Pan


RB: Art historical canons are clearly important to your work and thematic, how did you come to focus on these transformations of “familiar” iconic images?

JH: I started to read extensively about the history of art and artists in parallel with my developing interest in photography. One of things I quickly realized is that the C20 view of art worships novelty and has an as essentially romantic view of the misunderstood artist alone with his or her genius.  In this view of the world, Van Gogh is the prototypical artist, not Titian or Veronese with their large ‘commercial’ studios. But this is a false view; in the broader history of art there has been a much greater focus on learning from what has gone before, developing craft skills and managing a team to operate a successful studio. Major artists like David Hockney still work that way. These are concepts which came very naturally to me from my experience in business and which I decided to put to use. It is why I have always sought to work with people who know more than I do, and why my initial focus on old master paintings as a source for photographic images was with the intention of using them as a tool for learning. However, I was so pleased with the results that it is an approach I have continued to develop, though very much with the intent of using them as a starting point for inspiration rather than as an image to be in some way copied.




James Hall Nude Study


RB: Your Nude Studies have an Ingres like coloration and light, please share more about this group of works.


JH: The Nude Studies are influenced in part by Horst P. Horst and Edward Weston. Mastering the life study has always been central to the development of artistic skill. It a challenge of both composition and execution as success is not simply about reflecting reality but about creating an image that conforms to accepted notions of beauty.


As Kenneth Clark said, in our search for physical beauty “our instinctive desire is not to imitate but to perfect.”


The photographer does not need to master the cores skill of drawing or modeling. But in many ways the challenges of composition, and the use of light to create a three-dimensional image in a two-dimensional plane are exactly the same. It is task of endless fascination and challenge, which bears repeated practice and experimentation.


RB: And your connection to the past?

JH: The reality is that there are only so many ways of effectively composing a female nude. It is therefore inevitable that any image you create builds on what has gone before. For me, that is something to be embraced. Historically, artistic learning was always based on learning to imitate the masters. The constant attempt to break with the past is a recent and temporary phenomenon. Today as much as ever, great artists draw on and openly acknowledge their debt to what has gone before.



James Hall Renaissance Flowers



To learn more please visit James Hall’s website Just Add Pictures

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