James Richard Blake is a preeminent fine American Artist whose career spans six decades. His work defies easy classification. Blake’s landscapes are central to his oeuvre. The degree of their detail depends on momentary purpose. His portraits and still lives are at once modern and traditional. His ink drawings are dynamic and powerful in spirit.
Blake’s paintings and drawings are of importance and quality, chronicling some of the nation’s and the world’s most precious and shrinking resources. Today he is best known in Texas and France (to a far lesser degree). First Lady, Laura Bush commissioned James Richard Blake to paint the official White House Christmas card in 2006. He is prolific and is capable of impeccable technicality, and can be capricious, whipping off a free-but-eloquent picture of a mountain or a room, as well as a lovingly-labored oil of thousand-year-old tree.
He was born in Michigan on December 8th, 1932, the second of three children. Blake says, in annoyed voice, “I was a sick kid. I missed a lot of school and spent many days indoors.” He agrees that all those days spent at home, drawing, may have had something to do with his obsessive preoccupation with drawing, pictures in general, and the placement of things and light in a space. His family was living in Wauwatosa, WI in the late 30s and early 40s. His parents sent him to Saturday art classes in nearby Milwaukee at the Laton Arms School, when he was in 2nd or 3rd grade. He doesn’t remember the classes, but says he was disinterested in them. What did grab his interest were the paintings on the walls of the Laton collection.
When the University of Iowa became his father’s principle client the family moved to Iowa City where he attended the university elementary and eventually university high school. The above is mentioned to say to those who detect a Midwestern cant to Blake’s work that they have good reason to see it. As the family continued its inexorable path to the west, Blake graduated from high school in Phoenix. He went to the Los Angeles Art Center School where he entered, for the first time, (like most of the other beginning students) the world of intense, no-nonsense, all-day classes in painting and drawing. The teachers were, for the most part, very good and proficient on their own, but he was on a path to becoming a commercial artist. He gives full credit to them, nevertheless, for what he learned in all those semesters of drawing classes.
In October of 1960 Blake took his portfolio of work to NY, where many newly-sprung art students go to find jobs as illustrators. By the time he went back to Fort Worth for Christmas, he had come to the conclusion that the commercial world didn’t want him and he didn’t want them. The words, “Your work is too fine-artsy” became the operative phrase of the fall of 1960. Far from defeated, he rented a studio in Fort Worth and began to paint.
In 1961 Electra Carlin, the city’s doyen gallerist, when Fort Worth was still a gallery city, saw Blake’s work at a framer’s and asked to be put in touch with him. Over the next decade, and until Mrs. Carlin retired, he had many shows at the Carlin galleries. He married in 1963 and took his wife and his painting equipment to the south of France in 1964. He worked in Gouache, owing to its fast-drawing nature, and every month would send back a portfolio full of work to his gallery in Texas.
The Blakes established a routine of spending the winters in Fort Worth, the spring and fall in London, and the summers in Italy. The years were productive and exciting. In 1975 their son was born and Blake became a studio painter in Texas. The nuisance of finding a temporary studio every winter was over when Blake built his own place in 1978-79.
He continues to work there, and in his studio in Paris. He has slowed, he is quick to admit, but he goes to work, whether it is a few miles (Texas), or the next room (Paris) every day.