Art reference

The Art of Making Art: James Deeb

This selfie shows the artist, James Deeb, at his easel surrounded by some of his then unfinished “friends”.
Credit: James Deb

If one thing really stands out about James Deeb’s work, perhaps it’s the massive amount of oil paint he uses on his pieces.

He recently weighed a new 12 by 12 inch canvas before starting a piece and then compared it to the finished 12 by 12 inch painting and the difference was six ounces – or at least two whole tubes of paint in oil. The thickness comes from the method he uses to create his images.

Deeb, whose subject matter is creative, figurative pieces that primarily feature faces as the dominant element, said all artists have developed a “collection of idiosyncrasies” over time to help make their work unique.

Deeb and his wife, Linda Rivera, have devoted nearly all of their four-bedroom home to art. Both artists have their own studio and another separate room for storage. There is also a printing press in the dining room.

In his small studio, Deep has an easel, a low tool chest turned into a palette, and many paintings in the making.

“It’s set up for me,” Deeb said. “Others might see it as very narrow and small.”

He says having a smaller space means he has to spend less energy reaching for additional materials and working on different paints. The room also has a large mirror and tables with art supplies and reference books.

Many oil painters, especially those with home studios and families, struggle with the problem of solvent fumes.

Deeb says he’s managed the problem by not using solvents that contain volatile organic compounds (also called VOCs). Instead, he uses a small amount of odorless solvent to treat his brushes. He also turns on an air filter as needed when using sealants or resins.

Since Deeb also has a full-time job, most of his paintings are done after work.

During the pandemic, he worked from home, which eliminated his commuting time. He said he completed two artworks per month, one of his most productive years.

He does most of his art-related maintenance — like building and preparing canvases, framing completed works, and developing marketing and promotional ideas — on the weekends.

Deeb said he currently has 10 paintings in various stages of development, but on average he usually has six to eight.

He said working on multiple paintings at once kept him busy since each layer of thick paint takes 1-2 weeks to dry. It also allows him to observe “unresolved” works from the “corner of his eye”, he said, while continuing to reflect and evolve his vision for each piece.

This is a recent piece by James Deeb, titled “Perfect Stranger”, 2021, oil on panel, 24″ by 12″ Credit: James Deeb. Credit: James Deb

Deep also builds creative journals with drawings and sketches as reference materials for future paintings.

He said he doesn’t like to read books about artists, but almost entirely falls outside his realm of inspiration.

He reads American scientist find unusual ideas and read recently Fire: a brief history by Steven J. Pyne, on the human relationship with fire as technology, resulting in new paintings featuring fire.

Deeb explains the amount of paint he uses on each painting this way: First, he uses paint straight from the tube rather than mixing it with solvents. And second, his unique painting style demands it.

These four photographs are a glimpse into James Deeb’s process for developing his oil paintings. It was titled Figurehead (No. 1). 2020, oil on panel, 12″ by 12″ (Start at top right and move clockwise.) (Credit: James Deeb) Credit: James Deb

When starting a new work, Deeb said he takes one of two paths: linear or improvisational.

To pursue a linear path, he chooses an existing image from one of his sketchbooks and paints that image.

For an improvisational painting, he starts with a blank canvas and uses his non-dominant hand to add marks (e.g. lines, curves, etc.) of different colors onto the canvas as a first consideration for positioning the image. and the color palette. He then adds paint, spreading it around the canvas.

“I’m not an abstract artist,” Deeb said, so during this stage he watches for a form or composition to appear.

As he works, he adds more and more paint, sometimes adding to an image he plans to develop, and other times destroying a partial image he has decided to discard.

He can blur the image or mark the already thick layer of paint with the back of his brush. Ultimately, as a figurative painter, he says, “it all comes down to drawing.”

An observer of his process might struggle to see what’s changed with each layer, but Deeb said it’s important to keep editing until the details are perfect.

“The position of the eyeball and the tilt of the head can have a major impact on what is seen,” he said.

Each layer will end up with a more defined color scheme and added texture.

Once he’s happy with the base paint, he lets those coats dry completely.

Then, for the last layer, he adds a very light and saturated color to specific details which ensures that the colors are pure. He said this step is especially necessary when using yolks and whites.

Each of the layers adds significant depth to the painting, which is the second reason he says he uses a lot of paint and has very thick finished paintings.

After: The artist’s palette is “wreckage after an intense painting session,” says James Deeb. 1 credit Credit: James Deb

As Deeb works, he said, he also documents the various stages of social media posts.

He also finds that viewing these photographs, in addition to looking at the room in a mirror, helps him identify what might be “off” in an image.

When he feels that the painting is finished, he paints the edges black, adds a suspension wire, affixes the title, his name and a date. Then he takes one last photo.

To learn more about James Deeb, visit his website at to see the finished work and his artist statement. Deeb also has an Evanston Made page. To see his finished and in-progress work, visit his @james_deeb Instagram page.