After six months’ work, it would be impossible to guess how many lines there are on Birmingham 2012, the simply-named vision of the city by its creator, James O’Hanlon.
But he can reveal how much the ‘paint’ cost: £3.
Two small tins of black, Airfix enamel are all that it took to create what looks like a sketch but is actually a painting on a sheet aluminium base.
Slightly bigger than 8ft x 4ft, the picture will take pride of place at the entrance to Birmingham: its People, its History – an £8.9 million exhibition about the city’s history which will breathe new life into the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s top floor when it opens tomorrow.
Last month, James was reacquainted with Birmingham 2012 after one month apart.
And he admits he was pleased by what he could finally see with the benefit of fresh eyes.
What he was determined to create all along was an ‘unromantic’ view of the city. And one that he could walk away from.
Initially a photographer at the start of his career, James scoffs at tourist pictures taken by people who only see the iconic image they want to see.
“A painting is about looking,” he says. “Tourism is about views. When tourists go to Venice, what have they seen? I don’t know.
“Being romantic is all about how you feel, not how it is.”
Birmingham 2012, a panoramic view of the city from the top of Alpha Tower at the end of Broad Street with the Council House on the left and the Rotunda on the far right, was based on his own photographs.
One was blown up to be about 2ft x 1ft to work from, the rest stored on his laptop so that he zoom and zoom again in search of details.
He loved nothing better than adding the clutter of things like rooftop chairs, satellite dishes and window cleaning rails.
A few key points were coloured black. The Wesleyan sign, for example, at the gateway to Colmore Row, and the top of the Rotunda.
The overall effect is that the longer you look at Birmingham 2012, the more you see.
And, just like 2D movie formats have sufficed for generations, the eye begins to turn the flat ‘screen’ picture into a 3D image. No dark glasses required.
In layman’s terms, James agrees with my observation that as something to look at, Birmingham 2012 is in a place between a photograph and the kind of images that some autistic people are able to create from memory.
Interestingly, while he’s one of many people who can’t remember his own mobile phone number, he only has to look at each little section of the painting to remind himself of the specific Radio 4 Extra programme that he was listening to at the time, even though it wasn’t something he was conscious of while painting.
Born in Essex and living in Birmingham for the last six years, James’ creative talents were inspired by photographers Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Later, his art works were turned into building-sized images and he began to travel widely to places like Oslo, Berlin, Moscow, the West Bank in Palestine and China.
It was during a visit to Tokyo, when he went up the highest building in the Japanese capital, that he found a city he could not see the end of and he felt compelled to recreate it with a painting of lines.
Study Birmingham 2012 and you will not see a horizon there either. The top of the painting features lines crashing into each other with rapidly increasing density to mirror how, even on a clear day, things in the distance just merge.
One of the most interesting features about James’ paintings in general and Birmingham 2012 in particular, is that you will not see his signature on the front.
Here, his name is on the top right side and, even though it is all but out of sight, it is printed, not signed (his paintings are signed on the back).
“I have always been interested in creating images that are not romantic,” says James.
“I like the ability of looking at a city where you can see air conditioning and heating ducts. Washing. Plastic chairs. That’s what really interests me.”
Look at the drawing closely and, although you will see cars, there is nobody in any of them.
“The minute you put people in a painting you are creating a narrative,” James reasons.
“I decided I would make it as anatomically correct as I possibly could, but I also missed out tons of cabling over the top of the railway lines in the bottom right hand corner because it would have made the area too difficult for the eye to decipher.”
“I think it has a natural look to it, but you have to remember it takes up to four hours to dry so I would work on little different bits of the painting at the same time.
“I am not playing with light, just reducing a city to a pure state and dismantling perceptions – which is also why the painting is hanging on a wall that has also been painted white.”
Birmingham 2012 is, then a ‘pure’ and unromantic’ view of the city.
Like virtually all of his works, it’s also one that James has no emotional attachment to once finished.
“I am an artist who can let things go because I am always thinking of the next one.”
His wife, Louise, is a former psychiatric nurse who turned to working education via the MAC and is now running a centre for advance training scheme (CAT) at DanceXchange.
Together, they have encouraged their children to pursue dreams more than money.
Eldest daughter Billie Rae is a 25-year-old burlesque dancer touring the world, son Mickey O’Hanlon is on a fine art course in Bristol and youngest daughter Erin, 14, “has already chosen the dress she will wear when she becomes an Oscar-winning film director.”
For his next big job – James is currently working out how to get to Pyongyang and climb the tallest building in the capital of North Korea.
He then wants to repeat his Birmingham feat by reducing a place he likens to Planet X to a series of unromantic lines.
“I like cities that are blank and I want to see that view,” he says. “I’d love to go to the capital of Kazakhstan.
“Most European cities have lots of history, but there are many modern cities which are bigger than London and less than 20 years old.”