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.

A Mural for 905 U Street

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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.

ArtGrams: Allusion of Gravity

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Instagrammer @thepaulrudolph captioned this close-up of Alyson Shotz’s Allusion of Gravity with a Herman Melville quote: “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”

Alyson Shotz’s Allusion of Gravity, on view in Intersections@5, has been captivating audiences and taking over our Instagram feed. For this month’s ArtGrams, we’re highlighting a few of the most creative shots of this mesmerizing piece.

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Photo by Instagrammer @a_colbs

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Instagrammer @wolfofkstreet snapped this photo during a Phillips after 5.

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Photo: Instagrammer @abby8ken

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Instagrammer @uglyguckling_: “ALL the feels today.”