Natural Talent


Natural Talent


Date: October 9, 2013
by: Mallory Gnaegy | A&E Editor


Sarasotan 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.

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 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.
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.


‘Season of Color’ — See James Griffin’s work alongside eight other Dabbert Gallery artists in this show.
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 6 to 9 p.m. first Fridays of the month. Runs through Oct. 29.
Where: Dabbert Gallery, 76 S. Palm Ave., Sarasota
Cost: Free
Info: Call 955-1315

See video below to see James Griffin talk about some of his different styles of work.

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Currently 1 Response

  • 1.
  • How grand, to come across this article about my favorite cover artist from my years with Fawcett/Ballantine div. of Random House. He was kind enough to tell me once that I paint images with words. It's a pleasure to know where he is now, and that he's still creating his stories with paint.
  • Jennifer Blake
    Fri 25th Oct 2013
    at 12:06pm
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