​Richard McKinley: A painting is not a destination - it’s a journey

Richard McKinley has reached dizzy heights of success in his 40-50 year career as an artist. This year was Richard's second visit to Australia to teach offering the opportunity for fellow pastel artist Desley Stewart to sit down with Richard and get into the nitty gritty of being an artist and all round amazing human. I was gutted I wasn't there for the entire conversation. On my return to pick up the group of workshoppers for dinner that night there was a 'buzz' in the air as everyone kept talking about all of the amazing things that Richard shared. Enjoy the read!

Richard McKinley: A painting is not a destination - it’s a journey

Q: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned on your art journey?

A: To be present. I think in our mind we want to understand and control and figure things out, but what we lose is we don’t listen by being present with the scene, especially in landscape.

It’s the same in people. I have a good friend who needed to travel to the other end of Oregon. It’s about a five-hour drive and his wife said: “Richard I can’t go, why don’t you ride with Bob on this trip?” So I did and literally Bob talked the whole way! It was interesting – he’s a fascinating man. We did the appointment and drove back. That weekend his wife told me: “Bob said you’re fascinating!” I looked and her and said: “I didn’t say a word!” She laughed and said: “Bob kept saying how fascinating you were” and I told her: “I listened”.

And that, to me, is what I learned when I’m out painting - to not look with prejudice, to try to be innocent and to take it in and be present and to see what comes out in the painting.

Q: What’s currently on your easel at home?

A: A lot of unfinished, unresolved paintings! I love what was shared earlier about how our friend here finishes everything, because that really was kind of my nature – but there was a point where I would always ‘over-finish’. Many decades ago I started setting things aside and then becoming obsessed on something else.

People are telling me they can’t sleep at night because they’re still trying to resolve a painting they are thinking about - which can sometimes lead to being bad friends or bad parents because you’re not really present when you’re thinking about what’s on the easel.

So I acquired the ability to set it aside. When I come back into my studio I keep a few of my paintings up visually – not too many because you can become overwhelmed by your failures – and I’ll start leafing through and go: “Oh, today – you and I are going to play”. And that one goes on the easel, and we play until I say: “Ok, I’m going to put you back in the stack for a little while now…”

Interesting studio point – if every time you walk into your studio everything in there is telling you how bad you were, you don’t realise how negative you become. The rest of the world never sees that part.

Q: How did you narrow in on your current painting style when there’s so much subject matter available?

A: I keep talking about self-exploration and my encouragement is for people to become introspective. I call it a rear-view mirror. If you keep looking at: “does this feel right, is this enjoyable?" and you don’t talk yourself out of it, you find those things.

It can be a ditch or a pile of rocks and you say: “I shouldn’t paint that because I’m here and there’s all this” or “this is the current trend” and yet you keep glancing back at it and saying: “but I’m fascinated by that”.

It really is giving yourself permission about what you want to do with colour or subject matter and then you go with it. And it changes. There’ll be times when it’s an obsession with low horizons or high horizons, or something happens with rocks or a body of water, or a ditch or roads - and everywhere you go you’re looking for pathways and roads. And they’re all out there.

Q: All artists hit a brick wall from time to time. They get frustrated with their current level of ability. What advice would you give to overcome this?

A: Look at ourselves as humans. Think of the frustrations children go through – and we all went through this – because you’re crawling and you see people walking and running and you want to do that. What happens is you climb up something and you’re very awkward and you fall down and cry and scream and somebody comes and rescues you. But you get back up and then pretty soon you’re running, and then pretty soon you get to my age and you’re falling over again!

I think the painting experience is a bit the same – the wall becomes an overwhelming sense when you first experience it.

Another analogy is the angst of those first teenage love experiences when they come home saying: “the world is over because so-and-so isn’t speaking to me anymore”. And because we’ve ridden the roller coaster of disappointments and exhilaration, we say: “Oh, you’re going to be fine – just relax”.

Again, bad days come up in painting - you’ll hit walls and get into trends where nothing seems to be working. Go for a walk, pull back, put things in perspective and realise you’re going to come out the other end. You always do. Just don’t get bogged down in that singular moment. A painting is not a destination - it’s a journey.

Q: What piece of advice would you give people attending a workshop or art retreat to get the most out of their experience?

A: Figure out on your own: ‘Why am I going?’ It doesn’t have to be profound.

You know the point about camaraderie – painting is an isolated thing. It’s you and a blank surface, it’s you and your space, it’s you out panting – so we need to share a commonality with other people who are in that journey too. You can mourn the failures together and celebrate the successes.

The learning part is: “what is it I really like about this person’s work?” Do your homework in advance and say: “is it their subject matter, is it their style – what is it I’m hoping to gain from this experience?”

If you take that responsibility going into a workshop, and the teacher is open to a dialogue, you’ll walk away with your needs met or at least encouragement about where to go – instead of thinking: “I need to paint exactly like that”.

Q: What piece of advice would today’s Richard McKinley give to a young Richard McKinley just starting out?

A: There was an artist I worked with in the New England area and his father was National Academy, had raised a big family and was a legendary artist – a little bit like the Wyeth legacy. So this son decided he wanted to be an artist. He went to his father and his father said: “oh, you really don’t want to be an artist.” He said “no dad, I really want to be an artist.”

His father said: “well you’ve grown up in this – you need to first look at the negatives because whether it’s music or writing or whatever, art is not a stable career” - which is why most parents don’t encourage their children to do art. Then his dad said: “Well I’m not going to teach you because we will kill each other. But I’m going to send you off to be trained.”

So the first piece of advice is – embrace training. In western culture we’ve become so immediate. We want it now! Instant gratification! Pace yourself. Lighten up on that intensity.

He went off and really focussed on his training. When he came back and put all his paintings in front of his father, his father walked up and down, stopped and said: “Well young man, you can paint a painting! The world doesn’t need another good artist. What are you going to do with it?”

So it’s about training, patience, pacing yourself, lighten up - it’s not the end of the world that you’ve had some bad paintings or that you were rejected (in art that’s a daily occurrence). But it’s also:

  • What do you hope to do with it?
  • What’s the connection for yourself?
  • Why are you doing this?

And a lot of people can’t answer this.

Q: So why are you doing this?

A: For me, it’s a form of communication – it’s a base instinct that we all in some degree will pour passionately into a project. Why did we invent musical notes? Why did we come up with symbols that become a vocabulary?

I’m mystified by the caves in France - why did they think anyone would find this? Anthropologists are still studying that because one: it’s pitch black in there and two: this is not a high traffic flow! It isn’t like they put a ‘Gallery’ sign above the cave! And yet man felt they needed to leave this mark – something that you might find, that I did.

It’s not about ego or putting your signature a mile long across the bottom. You just hope that at some point, somebody wants to sit and look at your work and it brings them pleasure or calm. And maybe they then look at the world in a different way because of what you gave them permission to see - whether it’s colour or the objects you’re painting or the angle of vision you’ve composed it in - and they start looking at the world differently because you chose to paint that. 

Richard will return to teach again in Australia in 2021 - make sure you add yourself to our mailing list (at the bottom of the web page) to get updates and our first round of offers for workshops with him.

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