Digital artist James Atkins talks about his career
And how he rekindled a teenage romance 30 years on
By Sarah Becker
I’m sitting on the mustard sofa in the flat of Northampton digital artist and designer James Atkins and his partner Samantha Flavin.
A minimalistic picture of two digitally created pears stands out on the sideboard.
The flatness of the pear in the print glows.
A series of colourful modernistic pictures of crosses, symbols and shapes adorns the wall behind and on the table lies a collection of drawings based on Northampton buildings.
All of these pictures have been created digitally not from a paintbrush but from a stylus on a graphic tablet.
I ask 57-year-old James how he creates these pictures.
He explains that digital painting typically combines a computer, a graphics tablet and software such as Procreate or Adobe. The artist paints or draws with the stylus to create 2D or 3D paintings. Many of the brushes are created to represent traditional styles such as oils, acrylics, pastels and charcoals.
“Instead of a brush, oil paints and canvas, you have a programme with pencil brushes.
“People think digital painting is cheating but you still have to be able to draw; the only difference is you can press ‘undo’ and can create 20 versions of something very quickly.”
Unlike with traditional painting, there is no original painting to buy.
“People say, ‘can I buy the original?’, but that doesn’t really exist as the picture is on the computer.”
James is influenced by painters from the pop art movement of the 50s, 60s and 70s such as Patrick Caulfield or Cy Twombly.
“I like to create something that I’ve not seen before.
“You can do a façade of a building in pen and ink and I’ve brought another dimension to it by doing it digitally.
“I think the worst thing you can say to an artist is: ‘it reminds me of..’I strive to do something unique and new. I don’t want it to be like anything else.”
Roll back the clock 30 years to the start of James’ journey in art and a very different picture emerges.
Growing up in Kingsthorpe village and a student at Northampton School for Boys, he had been encouraged to apply to do an art foundation course at Nene college.
It was around this time that 19 year old James first met his future partner Samantha Flavin at a party thrown by a friend. However after that initial flirtation, their paths were to separate, not to reconverge until 30 years later when technology was to play yet another massive part in James’ life.
“At that time I was convinced I wanted to be a painter, using traditional techniques in oil on canvas.
“However, at Nene college, lecturers tried to break you down and rebuild you.
“I knew I wanted to paint. I was told ‘don’t apply to an art school in London as there are 25 people applying for every place’.
“But I was a bloody-minded 20-year-old and thought ‘don’t tell me what do to’ and I got a place at the Camberwell College of Arts! I was off!”
As James headed South, Samantha went North to study history at Leeds University.
James met some amazingly influential people during his time at Camberwell College including pop artist icon Andy Warhol and Scottish artist Bruce McLean.
“We had these amazing visiting artists who were massive in the fields of contemporary art.”
Conversely, when he finished art school, he said suddenly he didn’t want to paint anymore.
He had been attending Central St Martins art school where he had been exploring calligraphy and typography.
“Why am I being forced to use materials from the 16th century? Why should art be with a canvas and brush?”
Finishing art college, James stayed in London and his first position was in management consultancy with Deloitte UK.
Here, he began his journey into the world of digital technology as he started to learn skills in desktop publishing before going on to work for influential London design agencies creating brand design, graphic design and artwork.
Clients such as Conde Nast, the South Bank Centre and Elle magazines have featured in James’ portfolio of work.
“I took on a job working in the city of London at Liffe’s Cannon Bridge trading floor headquarters. It was exactly as you can imagine - people were shouting at each other across the trading floor. My remit was to create branding work for publications and I did that freelance for a long time. After that I didn’t want to do the design agencies anymore as life on the trading floor had been so fast moving.”
Meanwhile up in Leeds, Sam had worked her way up to becoming principal keeper and curator of various city museums and art galleries.
James decided to leave London and move to Cambridge where he helped set up the UK’s first web design agency, soon moving on to set up his own business in design consultancy.
Five or six years ago, he says, during a business trip to Geneva, Sam’s face popped up on Facebook algorithm and the childhood friends reconnected online - after 30 years.
Sam was doing an exhibition of Chippendale chairs at City Museum in Leeds and she invited James to attend.
Sam, 55, says:
“It was quite a gamble. I was 49 or 50 and the last time I had seen James, I had been 16. I thought ‘what is he going to think of me?”
Fortunately, nothing had changed in terms of connection and the pair rekindled their relationship, moving back to Northampton in 2021.
James thinks the town has changed tremendously in the last 35 years.
Looking at the town’s buildings with fresh eyes inspired his range of digital art prints called simply the Northampton collection.
Now James sells his prints in the Northampton Museum and Art gallery and at local shop 15 Collingwood – just down the road from their flat – as well as online.
Looking to the future, James says he would like to start painting again.
“I recently painted a portrait of a friend which was like going back to old school French painting. It’s as if my life has gone back full circle.”