Land Artist ‘Paints With Pebbles’ to Make Masterpiece Portraits and Lifelike Faces in Jungles of Thailand

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Inspired by esoteric Tibetan sand mandalas and their corporeal impermanence, one UK-born artist uses natural landscapes as his canvas, and paints with pebbles of various colors, shapes, and tones to portray earthwork likenesses of Michelangelo’s David and Mark Zuckerberg.

A challenging juxtaposition to be sure. But beautiful. And extraordinary.

That artist, 45-year-old Justin Bateman, now based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, believes that artwork should connect with our natural environment, and draws inspiration from land art sculptor Andy Goldsworthy and Philip Guston, who challenged the notion of “high art.” And so, Bateman set off into the forests, jungles, and beaches of Thailand and Indonesia to create his masterpieces.

“It begins with meditation,” Bateman told The Epoch Times. “Both suitable site and stones must present themselves. If the subject, site, and stones do not align, the work is not made. If they do, then I begin by creating color maps of the subject.”

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A pebble-painted rendering of Michelangelo’s David. (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)

The subject matter for Bateman’s pebble portraits arise from a sense of spontaneous human “curiosity” rather than a mere contrived ideology. Like ephemeral Tibetan mandalas, Bateman’s philosophy transcends mundane, worldly troubles. “Instead of worrying about finances or world order etc., I can focus on locating a particular hue or tone of sepia,” he said jokingly. “In some ways, it is a mindful practice, but that’s not to say it isn’t without its own issues! I just prefer these issues to worldly ones.”

More specifically, Bateman often “paints” in stone old masterpieces from art history. Besides Michelangelo, he has portrayed Leonardo’s La Scapigliata, a Rembrandt self-portrait, a Raphael cherub, and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus—all of which betrays an awareness of art’s cultural content.

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Bateman puts the finishing touches on a work based on a famous painting by Johannes Vermeer. (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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A painting in rock after Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring. (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)

But Bateman’s work also explores a broader awareness by portraying real individuals—famous and unknown, living and long passed—for example: Mark Zuckerberg in a piece cleverly titled “Facebook Fossil,” the late Pablo Picasso and Nelson Mandela, actor Robert Powell playing the role of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as a local Chiang Mai “Cattle Herder.” In addition, George Washington, Queen Elizabeth II, and Frida Kahlo make cameo appearances.

He describes his creative process: “There are so many unknowns and variables. I am on the journey with the work, the outcome is as unknown to me as a spectator watching the process. I start with a test, making the eyes, if the eyes don’t work, the piece must be abandoned … The work must establish a soul.

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“Pebble President” (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)

“As the pebbles become pixels, there can be many surprises. Sometimes the stones can interlock in very satisfying ways, at other times it is like forcing a poorly made jigsaw together.” Like nature’s creations, Bateman’s earthworks are fleeting. After toiling for as few as 3 or as many as 30 days to produce a splendidly detailed likeness, the visage will adorn its agrarian gallery without walls, for passersby to marvel at in wonder, until it’s eventually reclaimed by the earth.

Bateman’s “pebbles are my pixels” portraits—as goes his motto—are nevertheless an outlier placed in the long line of mosaic tradition, he acknowledges. “Historically, there have been strict rules around mosaic practice,” he said. “Around 200 B.C., more random stones were being replaced by materials cut into a cubical or regular shape. In mosaic practice, this is called ‘tessera.’ The most common material became marble, for its durability and gloss finish when polished. My work returns to a more ancient practice. I guess you could say it is the sculptural equivalent to cave painting!”

Here are more of Bateman’s extraordinary lithic portraits:

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“La Scapigliata” after Leonardo. (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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“Cattle Herder” (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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A reproduction in rock of The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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“The Birth of Venus” after Botticelli. (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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After a self-portrait by Rembrandt. (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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“Cherub” after Raphael. (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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“Masonry Messiah” (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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“Dostoevsky” (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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“Refugee” (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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Bateman puts the finishing touches on a rock reproduction of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, which he titled “Stona Lisa.” (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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A local peruses Bateman’s “Pebble President.” (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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A pebble portrait of a Buddha in Bali. (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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“Fisherman” (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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A dog portrait in pebbles. (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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“Stray” (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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“Lady from Lombok” (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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“Nunzia” (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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This time-lapse series demonstrates the Bateman’s creative process; the work depicts Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the former Turkish president. (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)
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“Pebble Picasso” (Courtesy of Justin Bateman and @pebblepicassos)

You can see more of Justin Bateman’s work on his Instagram pebblepicassos.

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