Interview with James Bullough, Part 1

As artist James Bullough creates a mural at 905 U Street, NW, The Phillips Collection asks him a few questions about his vision and process.

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Photographer Tim Calver captures underwater images of models for the mural James Bullough will be creating at 905 U Street, NW.

What is your creative process like?
The very first step for me in starting a mural is seeing the wall. In most cases the shape, size, location, and any other special elements will dictate to me what the artwork should be. Once an idea is sparked and a concept developed, I set out to find the models and produce the photos. As often as possible, I like to use local models in my murals, which brings an extra connection between the artwork and the location. Once I’ve got my concept and my reference photos, I get to work on the computer distorting and manipulating the figures and mocking up the finished artwork onto a photo of the blank wall until I am happy with the overall composition. This process can take hours or weeks depending on the wall and the complexity of the image. The next step is getting the image up onto the wall either by freehand or with a projector if available. From there the fun and tedious task of rendering the image with spray paint begins.

My process may seem to some as a dry and calculated formula, but in actuality, each step of the process is a chance for creativity and invention. My concepts and images change and evolve as I go. Each stage of the process is a new opportunity to see and approach the artwork differently and re-examine the composition. I like to think of it as a built-in periodic quality control check-up.

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Artist James Bullough directing one of the mural models.

What themes do you most often pursue?
My mural work and my studio work are quite different. In the studio, I explore more edgy and challenging themes which can be a bit too strong for murals and public art. When I’m working on the streets I try to be as responsible as possible and considerate of the people and culture of the area I am painting. Regardless of where the artwork is, my work almost always centers around portraiture and how we as humans relate to one another and perceive ourselves and others around us. Beyond that, I think it is important for an artist to leave their work open to interpretation, especially with public art. I like to leave my work vague and mysterious. When people ask me what the work means or represents I like to turn it back on them and ask what it means to them, what it makes them think about when they see it.

Much of your work is figurative. Is there a reason you focus primarily on the human body?
The human form (or the human condition) is possibly the oldest and most repeated theme in all of art. I can think of no other subject in the realm of imagination more fascinating, tantalizing, familiar, provocative, and graceful than the human body and the endless possibilities of its positioning and movement. The human form is something that all people can relate to and connect with and is a perfect tool to create mood and emotion in a painting.

Furthermore, the endless subtleties and complexities of the human flesh have become something of an obsession for me. From the wrinkles in an elderly man’s hands to the smooth and glassy highlights on a young woman’s legs, the challenge of making skin believable is immense, especially when limited to the color range and technical limitations of spray paint. The feeling of accomplishing this feat and have other people experience it in their neighborhood or on their daily commute is immeasurable.

Your work often appears fragmented or slightly broken down. What is the significance of this technique?
Like most artists, I arrived at my personal style and painting techniques through years and years of experimentation and passion for the craft. True artists should be constantly pushing themselves and trying new things. Every success and failure leads to a new discovery, and every once in a while you can land on something that really clicks. A year or so ago I began fragmenting and distorting my subjects and people have really responded to these paintings. I don’t like to give away too much about the meaning or significance of my work because that is up to the viewer to decide. What I will say about my technique is that most of the decisions I make during the conception and execution of a painting are aesthetic and my main concern is always to create a work that is both powerful and beautiful.

Phillips-at-Home Summer Series #7: Exploring Shapes and Colors

This project explores the artwork of an American icon, Roy Lichtenstein. Known for his contributions to the Pop Art movement and inventive use of the Ben-Day dot, Lichtenstein’s Imperfect series uses bright colors, thick lines, and bold patterns to subvert the concept of perfection. What do you think this means? Can you spot the “imperfection?”

According to Lichtenstein: “In the Imperfect paintings, the line goes out beyond the rectangle of the painting, as though I missed the edge somehow.” Each painting of the series incorporates this protrusion, creating a disruptive element within a geometric design. Keep this concept in mind as you begin your own Lichtenstein inspired piece!

Roy Lichtenstein, Imperfect Diptych, 1988. Woodcut, screen print, and collage on museum board. Gift of Sidney Stolz and David Hatfield, 2009.

Roy Lichtenstein, Imperfect Diptych, 1988. Woodcut, screen print, and collage on museum board. Gift of Sidney Stolz and David Hatfield, 2009.

LOOK CLOSELY: What colors do you see? What shapes do you see? What kinds of patterns do you see? Are some lines thicker or thinner than others? How does this change the composition? Do you think the print looks static or dynamic? What makes you say that?

Now, let’s play “I Spy!” Roy Lichtenstein called this print Imperfect Diptych (it is part of the Imperfect Series) because there are slight differences between the two sides of the composition—can you find them? Hint: Look at the colors, shapes, lines and patterns of each side.

ABOUT THE ARTISTIn Roy Lichtenstein’s work, popular culture and high art collide. Using cartoon strips, magazines, and commercial advertisements for inspiration, his early artworks combined and enlarged images to create paintings that were both formally and narratively appealing. Lichtenstein’s artworks challenge the concepts of originality and reality. His “cartoon” style proposes the question: what is real and what is artificial?

Lichtenstein began the Perfect/Imperfect series in 1975 and continued to work in this theme through 1995. Often considered the most abstracted paintings in the artist’s portfolio, this series broke away from Lichtenstein’s former reliance on printed imagery. Instead, Lichtenstein allowed line to take precedence in the Perfect/Imperfect paintings, with thick, black lines dividing the compositions into flat planes of colors and patterns.


  • String
  • Tape
  • Scissors
  • 2 pieces of 8.5’’ x 11’’ graph paper
  • 1 larger piece of paper or posterboard (approx. 24’’ x 33’’ recommended)
  • Black sharpie
  • Glue stick
  • Markers or sharpies


  • 7 and up


  • 2–4 hours


1. Tape the back of one piece of graph paper (Graph Paper A) to a flat, solid surface. This will be your art-making surface. Your graph paper can either be horizontal (like a window) or vertical (like a door).

2. Cut a piece of string the length of your arms—you will need a friend for this step!

3. Tape one end of the string somewhere along the edge of your paper.

  •  Tip: Attach the piece of tape to your art-making surface, not your artwork.

4. Pull the string taut diagonally across your paper and secure with tape along the edge of the paper. Repeat 5–10 times. Your last diagonal should meet at the same point where you started! How many lines did Lichtenstein use in his artwork?

“The idea is that you can start with the line anywhere, and follow the line along, and draw all the shapes in the painting and return to the beginning.”       Roy Lichtenstein

5. Trace the lines created by the string with a black sharpie (thick sharpies are recommended). Make sure the string is securely taped down so it will not move as you trace! The string should help you draw a precise and straight line. You can choose to trace one side of the string (as seen in Example B) or both sides of the string (as seen in Example A)

Step 5

Step 5

Step 4

Step 4















6. Trace a few lines more than once to make some lines slightly thicker than others.

7. Securely tape your second sheet of graph paper (Graph Paper B) on a flat workspace nearby.

8. Using the same piece of string, repeat steps 3 & 4

  • Tip: Use the graph paper to help you create the same diagonals. Counting the number of squares between lines will ensure that graph paper A and B are the same.

9. Time to change things up! Remove one of the pieces of tape on Graph Paper B and alter its location slightly. You can move it left, right, or further outside the bounds of your paper. Watch how the shapes and lines you have created change as you move this point.

10. Repeat step 9 with at least three of your points on Graph Paper B. One line should extend beyond the bounds of the paper just like in Roy Lichtenstein’s Imperfect artworks. Once you are happy with your alterations, trace the lines with a black sharpie.


Step 8


Step 10: Notice how the lines on Graph Paper B (right) are slightly altered from their original position

“In the Imperfect paintings, the line goes out beyond the rectangle of the painting, as though I missed the edge somehow.”     – Roy Lichtenstein

11. Use a glue stick to attach Graph Paper A and Graph Paper B side by side on a larger piece of paper. Maintain a 1-2’’ border around each piece of paper to create a framing effect.

12. Using a medium of your choice (markers and sharpies are recommended because their colors are more vibrant), fill in the quadrants created by your line on Graph Paper A. Each section can be one color, multiple colors, or a pattern.

13. Now color Graph Paper B. Try to keep some of the sections the same colors and patterns as Graph Paper A, but just like you changed the lines a bit, you can also feel free to change some of the colors and patterns. Have fun and make your artwork your own!

Step 12

Step 12

Step 13: Artwork by Hayley Prihoda

Step 13:  Can you spot the changes? Artwork by Hayley Prihoda










When you are finished with you artwork, trade with a friend or family member. How many changes they can identify? Did you make big changes or little changes? Are they hard to find?

Example 2: Artwork by Julia Kron

Example 2: Julia chose to expand all of her lines beyond the edge! Her artwork is reminiscent of a star. Artwork by Julia Kron


Thank you for participating in our latest Phillips-at-Home Summer Series project! We hope you found beauty in “imperfection.”

Hayley Prihoda, K12 Education Intern

A Mural for 905 U Street

mural mockup

Street view of the wall space at 905 U Street, NW where artist James Bullough will create a site-sepcific mural, surrounded by artist renderings of the proposed mural aesthetic.

If you’re walking by 9th & U Street, NW, next week, be sure to peek down the alley at 905 U Street. Under the auspices of The Phillips Collection, DC-born artist James Bullough will be creating a site-specific mural on the eastern wall of a SPMC Urban Properties commercial and rental space beginning Monday, September 21. Bullough’s mural engages the architectural site in a direct and innovative way.

According to the artist, the mural will feature “One or two large figures floating out from the alleyway, as if under water, and appearing to peak around the corner onto the sidewalk. The figure(s)…will interact with the front edge of the building, possibly bracing themselves by holding onto the corner with one hand. Their facial expression(s) will suggest wonder and anticipation of what is around the corner. The figure(s) will be slightly fractured and shifted in my trademark fashion. The entire mural, figure(s) and background, will be painted in light bluish tones, with some flesh-tones in the skin, with lighter blue and white texture resembling the reflections of light passing through rippling water.”

The mural will be in process through Monday, September 28. Check back here for updates.


James Bullough is an American born artist living and working in Berlin, Germany. His paintings and monumentally scaled site-specific murals are phenomenal combinations of realist painting technique and graphic punctuation. Inspired by gritty urban graffiti as a young artist growing up in Washington, DC, Bullough harnessed its energy in his work, and perfected a realistic oil painting technique from his study of the Old Masters. Combining the momentum of the one and the technical precision of the other, his work is about staging compelling contrasts and juxtapositions. Working in everything from oil, spray paint, and ink on canvas, Bullough creates a balance between realistic figurations and stylized interruption to challenge the viewer’s perception.