ML - To start at the very beginning…what was your first encounter with art?
HM - I know I was always into drawing as a kid, but mostly cartoons, with pencils and pens spread out on the floor. I was also dead into Lego. I don’t want to big it up, because lots of people love Lego, but I was pretty obsessive about it, the colours had to match, or be in some kind of pattern. I liked building bases, and having secret compartments that came out of the side of hills.
This might not be ‘art’, but I think the building, making and decisions involved have carried on into my practice – though hopefully they’ve expanded!
Alongside this I grew up watching lots of films on the TV (like lots of people!), but as I talk about film in reference to my practice now, I feel the films I watched back then have some how seeped into my art work. Certainly Steven Spielberg, John Candy and any number of 90’s action adventure films.
I visited galleries in London with my Dad when growing up. Shows at The Royal Academy like the big Monet Water lilies exhibition, or a Frank Auerbach retrospective. I think Auerbach was a turning point, as it was on whilst I was at Foundation, and the act of staring at a painting, and trying to figure out how it works, how each bit relates to each other to make a complete whole, that was and still is very important to me.
But ‘Encounter Art?’ that seems a deeper question. Hmmmm. Taking an artistic view of something maybe? I think my GCSE and A Level English teacher was certainly influential in getting me to look a bit deeper at things. Particularly symbolism and double meanings and enjoying the conversation around art. I remember dissecting the opening passages of the two Lord of the Flies films to death!
ML - What was it about foreign landscapes and adventuress times that led you to capture it as a painting?
MC- It is a way of trying to prolong the memories from that period! I encountered huge amounts of contrast, from crazily busy Indian cities full of action all around, to the extreme opposite of sparse mountain ranges in New Zealand. Combine this with the contrast in cultures, from Hinduism and the colour and rituals of it’s temple complexes, to the deep green and out doors approach of Kiwis!
When traveling for a longer period of time than normal, you have the luxury of being able to view landscapes, experiences and cultures from a different perspective. You can take your time and ponder things, trying to absorb elements that you might miss if you were in the normal rush. This is important when trying to lock these memories in your mind, to draw upon later. Though they will probable get morphed and twisted – which is half the point!
To let these moments fuel and inspire my paintings opens up an alternate mode of thinking in the studio. Where the activity of painting goes hand in hand (or does battle!) with the memories I’m drawing upon. I want to bring a sense of life and personal associations into the paintings, and drawing upon the heightened sense of space and atmospheres, encountered when traveling, allows me to do this.
ML - Your Paintings seem to conjure a mixture of landscape, emotions, movements and weight, do you try to find a balance in your practice or does intuition cover this notion ?
MC - It’s a tricky one. When trying to work through a subject such as a memory from traveling, it’s hard to say what takes precedence. Do I surrender everything to the memory I’m trying to communicate? Or do I let the painting takes it’s own course? It’s a mixture of the two, but I see intuition as the glue that binds it all together. When I get worried and over angst about a painting, If I push further, then I normally stop thinking and start reacting and responding – this is when something new and exciting comes up
When I’m focusing on these experiences, I’m often torn between painting the physical look of the place or moment, like where the chairs were, what colour the compartment was, but then equally I’m trying to capture the emotional angle of this. It’s almost like ‘where do you paint from, your head or your heart?’ The heart is what I aim for – but it takes time to learn to really trust this and go with it!
Patrick Heron had a good quote, along the lines of ‘painting is what happens when you’re putting brush to canvas and responding without thinking. All the thinking is done before’
ML - What is your preparation before your practice?
MC - The first thing is that building up a rhythm in the studio is crucial. Routine and organisation are also important. I find it helps to have an organized studio, from the mixing pallet, order of colours, easel set up etc. That way, if the painting starts to go all over the place and I’m working instinctively, I always know where a certain brush, colour etc will in the heat of painting. It sounds a bit romantic, and it’s not half as organized as it might sound, but to be aware of the routines and systems that surround the making of the painting is important and gives me peace of mind. If the painting is full of so much unknown and instinctual actions, then it’s good to have some concrete procedures to fall back on.
With current paintings, I have been drawing on my travel diaries, as reference points for the memories I’m working from. Once I have picked a particular situation, I will then write some stream of consciousness thoughts and recollections about the moment. This helps me get a handle on the moment, and focus my mind, before the painting starts. (It’s also good to refer to these notes for titles!)
How to start the painting, what mark to make first is a tough one! Often I might come at it sideways, by staining the whole of the support, with a colour as some kind of background – a setting for the action to take place in. The trick is to catch yourself off guard, when you don’t realize your painting, and then follow it through. If I worry and over think the painting then it will loose it’s sense of fun.
ML - Your work is presented on a smaller scale than to a lot of contemporary painters, what is the main purpose for this ?
MC - The smaller scale allows me to try things out without the pressure of a larger canvas. It allows me to make gestures and marks that on a larger work would take a lot of doing, but here I can make a big decision (like to completely cover over an area) without much fuss.
Saying this, the pressure and physical act of making bigger marks is something healthy for my painting, though it takes some guts to actually see a large painting through to the end!
Painting for me is about getting lost in the moment, and on a large canvas there is far greater scope for you to get lost in it, there’s more possibilities, more danger, more risks. This makes it more exciting, but it’s a challenge. I often run back to the smaller work to ease up a bit, but I always know the big work is there, taunting me to have another go.
It’s often about pushing through, of keeping returning to a painting to try something different, a new way to resolve an issue. On a large canvas there is far more space to try these things out – a small painting can only take so much!
ML - Which movement in art would you say you best resonate with?
MC - Abstract Expressionism is the starting point for me, as it ticked lots of boxes when I was discovering painting on Foundation. Paintings by artists like Richard Diebenkorn have an energy and dynamism that I was bowled over by. It seemed to fit with my idea of feeling coming through in form, with each brush mark resonating with a sense of why it’s there and what it does to the canvas as a whole. Jackson Pollock was also an influence in terms of getting in the zone and improvisation, but the spatial elements of Diebenkorn and his relationship to the landscape of California got me hooked!
Going through Art School you being to question the macho and romantic notions put through in Abstract Expressionism, particularly as it was superseded by Pop Art, Minimalism, Pos Modernism etc. The challenge at the moment is how to reinvigorate those ideas but in a relevant way for today’s climate. If push comes to shove, I’m probably more on the traditionalists side of the fence, holding onto the core of painting. I’m interested in artists that work with that tradition of abstraction but inject a new personality into it. The London based artists Vincent Hawkins is making some fun abstract work at the moment.
ML - Are you keen to make people notice things about the world ?
MC - I’d like, through looking at my paintings for people to have a visual experience where they can get absorbed in something in front of them. Hopefully it will be a personal experience, particular to them. If that experience then triggers something in their everyday life, where they notice things differently because of the painting, then that’s great, but it’s not what I set out to do.
It’s about being honest in my own work, where the final image relates what I’ve gone through, both in the studio and also in the experiences I’m drawing on. I’m talking from my corner of the world, and through the act of producing a painting, opening it up for other people to take part in. As it’s abstract, there will hopefully lots of entry points!
On a side note, I’m interested in how people can happily get absorbed in a piece of instrumental music, yet often find it harder to get emotionally involved in an abstract painting. For me, they’re almost two sides of the same coin. To learn more about these different reactions is something I want to explore further.
ML - What is next for Hamish McLain
MC - In October this year I will start a Masters Course at Chelsea College of Art and Design in London. It’s a big step for me, as I’ll be moving away from Liverpool for the first time since starting Art School here almost ten years ago. I’m looking forward to being put through the mill again, and challenged on my practice and painting, particularly by the variety of artists and tutors there. London will also shake things up a bit – but that’s a good thing! To come out the other side with a strengthened reasoning behind my practice and how it fits into a wider context is top of my priorities.