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This selfie shows the artist, James Deeb, surrounded by a few of his unfinished works. Credit: James Deeb

If one thing stands out about James Deeb’s work, it might be the massive amount of oil paint he uses on his pieces.

He recently weighed a new 12” by 12” canvas before beginning a work and later compared it to the finished painting. The difference was six ounces – or at least two entire tubes of oil paint. The thickness comes from the method he uses to create his images.

Deeb, whose subject matter is creative, figurative pieces that primarily feature faces as the dominant element, said artists develop a “collection of idiosyncrasies” over time to help make their work unique.

Deeb and his wife, Linda Rivera, have turned over to art nearly the entirety of their four-bedroom home. Both artists have their own studio and another separate room for storage. There is also a printing press in the dining room.

In his small studio, Deeb has an easel, a low tool chest repurposed as a palette and many in-process paintings.

“It is organized for me,” Deeb said. “Others might see it as very tight and small.”

He says having a smaller space means he has to expend less energy to reach for additional materials and work on different paintings. The room also has a large mirror and tables with art supplies and reference books. 

Many oil painters, especially those with home studios and families, deal with the problem of fumes from solvents. Deeb says he has managed the issue by not using solvents with volatile organic compounds. Instead, he uses a small amount of odorless solvent to treat his brushes. He also uses an air filter as needed while he’s working with sealers or resins. 

Since Deeb also has a full-time job, most of his painting is done after work.

During the pandemic, he worked at home, which eliminated his commute time. He said that he finished two art pieces a month, one of his most productive years ever.

He does most of his art-related maintenance – such as building and prepping canvases, framing completed work and developing marketing and promotional ideas –on weekends. 

Deeb said he currently has 10 paintings at different stages of development but on average he usually has six to eight.

He said that working on multiple paintings at once keeps him busy since each layer of the thick paint takes one to two weeks to dry. It also allows him to observe the “unresolved” works out of the “corner of my eye,” he said, while he continues to think about and evolve his vision for each piece.

Perfect Stranger, 2021, a recent oil on board by Deeb, 24″ by 12″ Credit: James Deeb Credit: James Deeb

Deeb also builds creative diaries with drawings and sketches as reference materials for future paintings.

He said he does not like to read books about artists, but instead goes almost entirely outside his field for inspiration.

He reads Scientific American to find unusual ideas and recently read Fire: A Brief History by Stephen J. Pyne, about the human relationship with fire as a technology, resulting in new paintings that featured fire.

Deeb explained he uses paint straight out of the tube rather than mixing it with solvents, adding that his unique painting style demands it.

These photos are a glimpse into Deeb’s process of developing his oil paintings. This is titled Figurehead (no. 1). 2020, oil on board, 12″ by 12” (Start at top right and move clockwise.) (Credit: James Deeb) Credit: James Deeb

To start a new work, Deeb said he takes one of two paths – linear or improvisational. 

To pursue a linear path, he chooses an existing image from one of his sketch books and paints that image.

For an improvisational painting, he starts with a blank canvas and uses his non-dominant hand to add marks (e.g. lines, curves, etc.) of various colors to the canvas as an initial consideration of image positioning and color scheme. He then adds paint, smearing it around the canvas. 

“I am not an abstract artist,” Deeb said, so during this stage he watches for a shape or composition to appear.

As he works, he adds more and more paint—sometimes adding to an image he is considering developing, and other times destroying a partial image he has decided against.

He might blur the image or mark into the already thick layer of paint with the back of his brush. Ultimately, as a figurative painter, he said, “this all comes back to drawing.” 

An observer might find it difficult to see what is being changed at each layer, but Deeb said he feels it’s important to continue revising until the details are just right. 

“The position of the eyeball and the tilt of the head can have a major impact to what is seen,” he said.

Each layer will end up with a more defined color scheme and added texture. 

Once he is satisfied with the basic painting, he lets those layers dry completely.

Then, for the last layer, he adds very clear, saturated color to specific details that ensures the colors are pure. He said that step is especially necessary when he uses yellows and whites.

Each of the layers adds significant depth to the paint, which is the second reason he said he uses a lot of paint and has very thick finished paintings.

After: The artist’s palette in “wreckage after an intense painting session,” said Deeb. Credit: James Deeb Credit: James Deeb

As Deeb works, he said, he also documents the various stages for social media posts.

He also finds that viewing those photographs, along with looking at the piece in a mirror, helps him identify what might be “off” in an image.

When he feels the painting is done, he paints the edges black, adds a hanging wire, affixes the title, his name and a date. Then, he takes a final photograph. 

To learn more about the artist, visit his website to see finished work and his artist statement. Deeb also has an Evanston Made page and Instagram page.

Jean Cunningham

Jean Cunningham retired from the business world and is now enjoying the next phase, including writing about local artists to increase awareness of Evanston’s amazing art community.

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