Originally from Cronulla Beach, James McMillan is a self-taught, multi-disciplinary artist. With over three decades of experience he has established himself as a painter, a best-selling author and also an accomplished photographer.

Following in the footsteps of his father, Kenneth, who painted and sculpted, James began nurturing an art practice of drawing and painting from his early teens. At the age of 18, after his father’s passing, James inherited Ken’s homemade brushes and oils, from which he quickly discovered his own preference for acrylics, incorporating this medium into his favoured mode of expression along with ink, spray paint, pencil and oil sticks.

In 2006 after the successful publication of his book, Blue Yonder, James relocated to Byron Bay where he established a live-in studio nestled in the mountains behind Mullumbimby. During this time, he embarked on his popular Waterbird paintings featuring large-scale pop-surrealist landscapes which gained him representation in Retrospect Galleries Australia and The Greenroom Gallery in Tokyo, Japan.

Most recently James has ventured in a new-ish direction, approaching his larger-scale works in a more impulsive, less structured manner incorporating his unique and familiar iconography, symbolism and stylised (or sometimes not) fonting. With elements of his Waterbird paintings, and similar vibrant colour palette, James is drawing from his more personal experiences and curiosities around human conditioning, spirituality, nature, religion and life & death. This new work represents an evolution in the artist's oeuvre, showcasing his growth, artistic exploration and vulnerability to venture into new, somewhat parallel, painting territory.

Beyond the visual arts James is the Founder and Creative Director of the Byron BaySurf Festival (2010). He has completed various major projects including his book and short film, festival murals, numerous zines along with commercial work for Dr Bronners, Volcom, Hurley, Levis and Stone & Wood. His paintings and photography have been exhibited in both solo and group shows in Sydney, Tokyo, LA, San Francisco, Texas, Hawaii and Byron Bay.

James, please tell us the story behind your unique, fun and playful art?

I was doing these pop surreal landscapes from around 2005 to 2020. There were a lot of commissions towards the end of that period and in particular to re-produce this one painting that had come to be popular. It did become a little monotonous doing this same painting over so on the side I always had another large canvas where I'd naively play with some broader ideas and different subject matter and placement.

Basically just exploring and having fun. These paintings became the basis of a new direction for me, which is what I am showing at Rainbow Studios today. I mean I did tighten things up a little but I try not to pilot too much control and instead trust in my 30-ish years of painting for the unfolding of each work to align with what I'm wanting to communicate or express so it has a sense of coming from a pure source. I understand that people do feel these things on viewing an artwork.

Where do you find your style of art came from?

From a young age I always liked Brett Whiteley, Reg Mombassa and also Australian Contemporary Indigenous art. In 2005 when I moved to a studio up on the mountain behind Mullumbimby I started experimenting with deeper meditations and longer periods of time alone. From this place and perspective I started painting my versions of the
landscapes around me, and out of this emerged my style and colour palette, some recurring symbolism and also a fixation with clouds. I like what they represent as well as the process that I have developed to paint them.

Which part of your process do you enjoy the most?

Those moments where an idea is now formed and it's just my job to sit quietly and make it.

What has been your biggest achievement in life so far?

In the arts world I'd say having a 5 year run of art sales and representation in Japan. Also exhibiting at one time or another with most of my favourite artists from the US, Australia and Japan. Publishing a best selling surf book. Outside of art it would be raising my 3 amazing sons, overcoming 14 years of depression and Founding the Byron Bay Surf Festival.


What do you enjoy most about being an artist?

I love going to my studio early in the morning... The bit when I first open the door and see all my works in progress, and then I get to pick which work to continue on with. It's satisfying. I also like the problem-solving aspect to painting and that the longer I paint the faster I get at making the next decision of colour or subject matter. I like that a work is sometimes under-appreciated and that the only people that even get what you've achieved are other artists. Art has a certain mystery to it and the idea of connecting with buyers and collectors on that level feels very real and authentic.

If you could show your art anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

I'd love to have a solo show outdoors in a forest with paintings and installations. I think having people interacting with and perceiving my art in the organic setting of nature would have hugely contrasting effects on them to that of a gallery space. So either doing that or showing at MONA in Tassie would be fun too.

What excites you most about showcasing your art with us here at RS?

I appreciate the diversity of art that you show and represent here, which I also feel reflects the area that Rainbow is in. I think diversity and inclusion are important for a healthy community. My very first showing of art was at a store/gallery in Newtown Sydney called Resist Records. It was a Hardcore music label and Scott, the owner, who was lead singer in the band Toe to Toe, gave me that opportunity. I was a teenager and since that day I've felt like an artist. My Dad was a painter too and he'd just passed away around that time so I felt some connection to him through what I was doing.

Coming back to Sydney 30 years later to show my art feels cathartic and I sense an opening to new opportunities is happening.


Mcmillan's work, created for the RS Art Curation Series 004, is a collection of larger-scale works featuring an impulsive, unstructured manner, incorporating his unique and familiar iconography, symbolism and vibrant colour palette, created exclusively for this project.