Lady Gaga by James Egan.
PAINTINGS COURTESY JAMES EGAN
It’s not easy to put your finger on exactly when James Egan became an artist. He has made art for most of his life, taking sketchbooks on business trips and drawing the people, places, and things he encountered on long flights, in parking lots, wherever and whenever the opportunity arose.
It was the mid-1970s, and Egan and his wife, Carol, were living in London. He worked in the oil industry and often flew to the Middle East. “There was nothing to do after work or on the weekends, so I would make drawings,” he says, adding that he’d sometimes pay people to photograph them and use the images as source material for portraits. “Conscious of the weight of my briefcase, I emptied it and left hundreds of drawings in those hotels.”
In the mid-’90s, a friend gave Egan a copy of a book, Scènes de la vie indienne en Amérique du Nord (Scenes of Indian Life in North America), featuring the photography of Edward S. Curtis. “These are incredible photographs — the shading, the values. I painted from a lot of the Curtis photographs and tried to reflect the character, dignity, and sentiments of the model — which I try to do with every painting.”
He also painted pears, haystacks, flowers, and a hummingbird outside his Rancho Mirage home. But when chronic pneumonia had him down, one of his three adult children, Jill Spexarth, gave him the advice that he always gave his kids: “Get off your ass and do something.”
Soon, Egan began painting a portrait of Judy Garland and sent a photo of the work in progress to his children. “All three called me up, said, ‘Dad, this is fantastic.’ I was on a cloud.”
Motivated by his daughters and son and encouraged by his artist friend David Einstein, who encouraged him to “Make a mark every day,” Egan got a second wind and started painting his series of Icons, honoring people he admires, from entertainers, scientists, and athletes to local philanthropists, doctors, and friends.
“THIS WILL SURPRISE YOU: I am totally colorblind,” Egan deadpans. “So, I’m challenged with red and green.” In the Army, he was told that his level of colorblindness was perfect for reading aerial maps at night.
In his studio, Egan works around the impairment and the pneumonia. “If something doesn’t work out, I can say, ‘Hey, what do you expect? I am colorblind,’” he jokes, underplaying the exacting quality of his work. “It’s human nature: When you have a weakness, you keep working at it. I started to understand the importance of a color’s temperature. Not just the value, but the temperature: Is it warm or is it cool? Somehow, my head does it.”
While color became second nature, scale presented a challenge when he started painting the Icons. On smaller canvases, he would render his subjects freehand. With the Icons, which can be as tall as 8 feet, he projects them to enlarge the key lines of the compositions.
For all his paintings, Egan works in segments, a method he learned from artist and educator Helen Van Wyk of the PBS television show Welcome to My Studio. “When she did a portrait, she would break it down by the values,” Egan says. “I took mine a step further. I would have a total of 60 different value segments in a typical face; some have more than 100 segments.”
In 2020, he switched from oils to acrylics to avoid the health risk from the turpentine fumes and to lessen the drying time, so he could complete as many paintings as he could for his exhibition, Icons: Paintings by James Egan, this month at the Artists Center at The Galen in Palm Desert.
Heart valve replacement surgery put Egan off his schedule by a couple weeks — which only motivated him to awaken earlier every day to catch up. “It’s hard work,” he says, “but when my feet touch the floor in the morning, I’m excited.”
The exhibition includes more than 60 portraits of the personalities who have entertained, inspired, and even saved him over the years.
“There seems to be a common denominator among the people who I paint: a work ethic,” he says. From Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to Michael Jordan and Selena, the personalities Egan chooses to depict are winners — successful and influential on and off their respective stages.
For Egan, the exhibition represents a milestone as he begins another series of portraits to honor philanthropists in the Coachella Valley.
“You can’t find a higher level of happiness than loving what you do and being excited to get out of bed every day to go to work,” he says. “To me, that’s the essence of life.”
Icons: Paintings by James Egan runs Jan. 8–22 at the Artists Center at The Galen in Palm Desert.