James Drinkwater studied at the National Art School, Sydney (2001) and has held solo exhibitions since 2004 in Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle and internationally in London and Singapore. A survey exhibition The sea calls me by name was held at Newcastle Art Gallery in 2019.

James Drinkwater’s work has been included in group exhibitions throughout Australia and internationally in Berlin, Leipzig and London. He has been awarded the Brett Whiteley Travelling Scholarship (2014), the John Olsen National Art School Life Drawing Prize (2002) and has been a finalist in the Wynne Prize, Sulman Prize, John Glover Art Prize, Paddington Art Prize, Doug Moran Portrait Prize, Dobell Drawing Prize and the Salon de Refuses.

James Drinkwater has undertaken international residencies in Germany, Kenya, Paris and Tahiti. His work is held in the collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Artbank and several significant regional and tertiary collections.




There is a physicality in paintings by James Drinkwater also evident in footage of him at work in the studio. He attacks his surface with thrown paint, hits it with rags, slices with the palette knife and scrubs frenetically with fists. When he turns the painting upside down or on its side and declares it finished, there is a kind of head spin and theatrical presentation that takes Drinkwater’s aesthetic into a subject matter that is driven by his life.

The intensity of his practice, which he characterises – hair on end, t-shirt and beard paint-encrusted – as “hammering away,” is prolific, with a powerful work ethic and a level of success to match. “When you are available, working away in the pits, you become a satellite and it, that special other, can visit.”

Drinkwater began drawing aged five, spending hours at Ron Hartree Art School in Newcastle as a teenager before going on to study at the National Art School in Sydney immediately after graduating high school. Early success saw him win the Brett Whiteley Travelling Art Scholarship in 2014. By then, he had already spent three years in Germany (2009–12), during which time the Marten Bequest Scholarship took him to Leipzig – and Kenya (2012). He also explored the Northern Territory in 2015, before the Whiteley Scholarship took him to Paris in the same year, after which he spent time working in Tahiti (2017). However, the decision that he (and partner Lottie Consalvo) made, to return to live and work in Drinkwater’s hometown of Newcastle, is central to the narratives he draws on in his practice.

In a figurative expressionistic style, his painting, drawing and sculpture open into enigmatic narratives explored in series. In recent years, Drinkwater has delved into family stories, such as his mother’s recollections of her grandfather in Looking for Urchins and Louis Ferrari (2018). Then a note from his son inspired I Love You More than Paintings (2020).

In Drinkwater’s practice, the past, Australian art history and the world are pummelled into the present. Reflections about painting itself, the ability to explore a creative life unfettered, are writ large in his body of work in a style that conjures up iconic Australian painters (Gordon Shepherdson, Sidney Nolan, Margel Hinder, Grace Crowley, Fred Williams) – anyone, Drinkwater says, who “has that extra thing about the material.” There are also references to European and American artists – Lee Krasner, Pablo Picasso, Georg Baselitz, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, William Scott. Drinkwater describes his approach as post-ironic modernism. “That is the best description. Those guys are my heroes. I converse with them in my studio all day as I try to shed their influences. I talk so directly with them that I want them to come out.”

In 2019, a survey exhibition of Drinkwater’s work was developed by Newcastle Art Gallery under the title The sea calls me by name. The show celebrated his connection to the coastal and industrial city he calls home, and the family heritage that drew him back. The biography explored in his work is defined by this place, discovered anew as his own two children become imprinted by Newcastle. This echo of the experiences Drinkwater had as a child decades earlier is visible in the layering, the subject matter, the resonation of place and pace in the paintings. Intriguingly, the exhibition includes work from as early as 2009. This earlier work is more abstracted, yet in colour and spatial sensibility pays homage to the artists who preceded and continue to inspire his practice – as does the Australian landscape.

In the catalogue essay for The sea calls me by my name, Anne Ryan writes that in Drinkwater’s work we see “the primacy of the personal; [his] identification as an artist is parallel to his work, which is indivisible from his response to the world around him. More recently, as his family responsibilities have grown, the smaller orbit of family life has provided new inspiration for his work, finding the microcosms of intimate relationships and daily life to be infinite in their potential.”

Every work is a new stage on which Drinkwater’s art life plays out, extending meaning and energy into other places, entering and exiting – the sea, the table, the studio. “All these things play out in those theatres; their stars are your loved ones. Intimacy becomes material and as relevant as a piece of clay.” It is palpable, this sense of Drinkwater in practice, in his place, echoing the past with the present and building a richness of personal and artistic influences from his version of the pits. An alchemy performed within the theatre of his studio.

extract from Louise Martin-Chew 'James Drinkwater: In the Pits' in Vault, issue 34, 2021, pp 46 - 51


Place the sea shells we found at my feet

across rock pools

diamonds are freckles on the sea

sun kissing your new cheeks


my shoulders will hold

until the girl is gone

how will you let me know?

when you enter the ages


So aim your bow into flowers

until Parnell’s park lights turn on

you are a lamp upon my shoulders

when you are making your smashing star



You march in like a brass band

and I wonder if you know

tesoro bella

guitar strings decorate the column




My son Vincenzo said this to me at the Victorian iron school gates one clear winter morning. An excerpt from life which placed my heart in my mouth. This is probably the clearest example of how I work, a conception point which heralds a new group of paintings.

I AM A COLUMN. WITHOUT ME YOU ARE RUBBLE, WITHOUT YOU I AM ONLY DECORATION - I said to my family as the house was waking, the working harbour nearby sounding its horns. Columns like picture frames, like boats perform many functions ... protection, safety and aesthetics are all at play. A column has a decorative finessed veneer with a tough interior of stone, concrete and steel. They hold up structures and ensure the bundles are safe, for they need care.

My primary function is to preserve, protect and carry those that I love. I AM A SUPPORT, YOU ARE MY LIFELINE. I will hold my ground if you take a blow, I won’t leave you to wreck and ruin.

James Drinkwater

September 2021