James Bama is one of America’s primere “Western” artists, though less in the sense that term is usually applied to artists who depict the landscapes of the American West, and more in the tradition of artists like Frederic Remington who portray the people and character types associated with the traditions of the frontier west and their inheritors, modern cowboys, mountain men and native Americans.
After a successful career as one of America’s noted illustrators, creating memorable illustrations for magazines, advertising and book covers, most famously his striking series of covers for the Bantam Doc Savage novel series, Bama moved from New York to Wyoming began to devote himself to his personal work and gallery art.
Bama’s intensely focused realism draws its power from both his keen observation of his subjects and the graphic strength his compositions inherit from his years as an illustrator.
Underlying both phases of his career is Bama’s skill as a draftsman, and that aspect of his art is brought out beautifully in a new book from Flesk Publications: James Bama Sketchbook: A Seventy Year Journey, Traveling from the Far East to the Old West. I received a review copy from Flesk and was delighted to find it full of Bama’s wonderfully realized drawings and character studies of his Western subjects.
Most are preliminary drawings on which finished paintings were based, though many were of subjects that never became paintings. The book also includes small color studies, a very nice series of travel sketches from trips abroad, notably to China, color studies from his days in advertising, and even drawings from his time as a student at the Art Students League, where he studied with Frank Reilly, among other notable instructors.
Most of the drawings in the book are done in a style that speaks to Bama’s approach as both a draftsman and a painter, in which delicate pencil outlines contain areas of graphite tones, value studies set in strong compositions against minimal backgrounds.
The character of the faces of his subjects is Bama’s main focus, but a strong second is the character of their clothing, whether the traditional and ceremonial costume of Native American tribes, the rough denim and leather of cowboys and ranch hands, or the simple dress of Chinese farmers. Bama captures them with a sharp eye and deft hand.
The book can be ordered directly from Flesk Publications, who also published a previous book on Bama’s color work, James Bama: American Realist. The latter is still available, but in a limited quantity.
Flask has done their usual superb job with the book’s production values, right down to the color and nature of the paper on which the sketches were drawn. However, even though Flesk’s online book previews are getting better, I could still wish for more and larger sample pages from the books on the web site, particularly for those who might be coming across an artist like James Bama for the first time.
Bama does not have a dedicated site that I’m aware of. JamesBama.com is the Jerry W. Horn Gallery offering limited edition prints, and Greenwich Workship has a gallery of limited editilon prints on canvas. I’ve listed some additional resources on both the new book and on James Bama below.