Meet The Artist: The Eye-Popping Pencil Drawings Of James Ma
Meet The Artist

Meet The Artist: The Eye-Popping Pencil Drawings Of James Ma

The Toronto-based illustrator on bringing horological universes to life.

By Rhonda Riche

While the detailed, figurative drawings of James Ma seem a million miles away from action painter Jackson Pollock’s drippy abstractions, they do share an important characteristic in that the physical act of creation is a crucial part of the finished artwork.

Ma is a full-time, self-employed illustrator. We first became aware of his watch-influenced work on Instagram where he goes by the handle @jamesma.illustration. He also has an influential YouTube channel that chronicles his process with time-lapses of his work as well as behind-the-scenes videos of his daily life.

We finally met up with Ma in person at the Canadian launch of Watchonista Vol. 4 at the Breitling Bloor Street Boutique in Toronto. He was there drawing a Premier Chronograph in real time.

As a crowd gathered to watch Ma at work, we were also impressed by his focus. He fielded questions while drawing. The most popular query was how long it takes him to complete a piece. “It depends,” he replies, briefly looking up from the 8x11 paper in front of him. “Something like this takes about 40 hours.”

Action Man

There’s something immensely satisfying about watching Ma’s process live or on video. The works are so detailed that it’s a bit like watching a high-wire act — one slip of the pencil and hours of work could be lost. And if you’re into ASMR, there’s the gratifying sound of perfectly sharpened pencil lead scritching against the tooth of the Arches paper.

Ma is also the sum of many decisive actions. A native of Great Britain, he grew up in many places in the south of England. His fascination with timepieces began when he was around nine years old when he became fascinated with an Omega pocket watch at his grandparents’ house.

“At first I just liked to open it up and then it just kind of spiraled,” he says. Throughout his teens he was into watches, but mostly the cheap and cheerful variety. About five years ago he got more interested in higher-end horology and decided to draw watches for a university project.

“My first drawing was my TAG Heuer,” says Ma. As he became more interested in watchmaking he also became aware of other artists who work with horological themes. “I saw Julie Kraulis doing these drawings on Instagram and that inspired me to [explore] social media.”

Ma’s posts quickly gained a following of watch enthusiasts and insiders. This led to him participating in many live drawing events for clients such as Breitling. Popularity means more practice and the more illustrations Ma creates have made his subjects more meaningful. “I’m drawing it physically,” Ma explains. “But at the same time, I’m discovering it.”

In a way, he’s working like a sculptor, chipping away at stone to reveal the forms within. Even though Ma is an expert in capturing the tiny details of a timepiece (the rendering of a leather strap, for example, is so realistic that you just want to touch the page to make sure those stitches aren’t real), he gives as much thought to the negative spaces – the air that separates the lugs from a band for example.

Going Global

The internet helped Ma find a following outside of the traditional gallery system. Making connections outside of the art world also gave him the encouragement to leave England. “I just fancied a change – a fresh start,” he says. “So about a year ago I moved to Toronto.” There, Ma was quickly embraced by the watch enthusiast community.

Ma’s fascination with watchmaking has also grown. His favorite new brand is Brew (“I discover something new every time I draw one.”) As for the classics, apart from the Breitling he is currently working on, he says he loves drawing “any Heuer, the Zenith Primero 410 and the Vacheron Constantin 1921. Particularly the movements.”

As a fan, Ma also likes to wear watches. “My favorite across the board is any Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. I have a soft spot for a rectangular case.”

Drawing dream watches has helped manifest a few onto his wrist. More importantly for collectors, purchasing a print of Ma’s drawings is an affordable way to own a great watch (visit his Etsy shop to see his offerings). He’s also available for commissions. As for the future, Ma’s ambitions are clear.

“I like to wear good brands and I would like to design a watch one day.” He adds. “I just want to be able to draw every watch that I like.”

For more information, please visit James Ma’s Instagram, YouTube, and Etsy pages.

(Images and videos © James Ma)

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