In his backyard, past the pond and up the green carpeted stairs, is James Williamson’s art studio. The space, which the previous homeowner made into a community hangout spot, is now full of art supplies and informational binders on tugboats.  

Williamson was born in Pennsylvania in 1949 and attended McKeesport Technical High School where he learned drawing, painting, perspective, design, lettering, and color theory. After high school, Williamson served in the Air Force for four years as a graphic illustrator drawing charts, maps, brochures, and pamphlets for the military.  

“I actually did learn a lot in the service,” Williamson says. “It was before computers, so everything had to be done by hand.”  

He attended Northern Michigan University and Western Washington University–expenses paid for by the Air Force–and graduated from WWU in 1978 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. He enjoyed the Bellingham area so much that he decided to stay and make a living as an artist.  

“Art has really been extremely important for me to keep me on an even path,” Williamson says. “After I got out of the service, I had accumulated so much knowledge and work experience that I, from that time on, haven’t done anything but art in some form or fashion.” 

With his military background, Williamson is not afraid of painting technical subjects, which is why about half of his work involves industrial subjects such as tugboats, oil tankers, military subjects, and fishing vessels. However, he also is inspired by the Pacific Northwest’s scenery to create stunning pieces of wildlife and landscapes.  

Williamson prefers watercolor, especially for his industrial work, because it is a faster medium than oil. His process begins with research. His collection of binders on tugboats and tankers includes photos and facts about each, as well as information on related subjects (such as the higher-ups at Foss Maritime, a company who commissions work from Williamson often). 

“I’ve assimilated that knowledge about creating notebooks to easily find things,” Williamson says. “I was in high school and they said: Collect files about the subjects you’re going to do.” 

In high school, he also learned the pencil technique he uses to this day to sketch out his subjects. He takes a photo of the sketch which he projects onto watercolor paper and begins painting. A commissioned piece, such as a painting of a Foss tugboat, takes him about a week. 

“I found that after I do one of these intense paintings, I’m kind of worn out,” Williamson says. “I just don’t want to do anything. I’ll rake the yard or something.” 

Williamson is disciplined when it comes to taking breaks and separating work from home– despite work being in home’s backyard. During the pandemic, his routine didn’t change much at all. Him and his wife, Norma, who is an artist herself (they met at a framing shop she worked at downtown), hunkered down at home and continued creating and selling art.  

Since 1975, Williamson has been a member of the Whatcom Art Guild (WAG), a nonprofit organization in Fairhaven that provides artists an opportunity to display and sell work in it’s gallery and online. He also sells his work on Fine Art America and his own website, which includes prints, canvas, acrylic, wood, and more. 

Ferndale, 360.734.5497,