Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Wilson McLean

Washington, DC

Miles and Sonny by Wilson McLean. Oil on linen.

Even the most casual of listeners would be able to identify jazz if they heard it. But would you know it if you saw it? For painter Wilson McLean, visually conveying the spirit, history, and personalities of the music are central components of his work. His jazz and blues series offers a visual narrative to chords, riffs, and refrains, and seem to bring to life the stories behind the songs. We caught up with the native Scotsman via email to talk about his work and his views on what it means to be an artist.


NEA: What is your version of the artist’s life?

WILSON MCLEAN: In my case, it has gradually moved from a working life with long hours of solitude, interspersed with gregarious comradeship at the completion of various projects, to living in a small town in upstate New York where there is less social interchange. [I now have] a quieter life and focus more on the quieter quality of the work, trying to define what I’m doing and where it’s going.

NEA: How did you first become interested in jazz and blues? What moved you to explore this music through painting?


MCLEAN: As a young teenager in the 50s, I was exposed to jazz through late-night radio stations beamed in from Radio Luxembourg and the U.S. Armed Forces network from Germany. (I was in a suburb of London.) I loved the music. It was mostly swing at that time: Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Ellington, Basie, Satchmo, etc. This was the beginning. I later graduated to more modern music.

I’ve been in the U.S. since 1966. I was concentrating on a career in high-end illustration and did many album covers, so the visual connection was always there. Later, when I moved out of New York City and was focusing more on painting, I had the urge to revisit that subject in a way that the practical restrictions of working for a client perhaps would not allow. It was my tribute to artists I admire and also a farewell to part of my past.


NEA: How do you view the intersection of visual arts and music?

MCLEAN: I believe they come from the same source and enhance each other. When I look at a De Kooning, I see free modern jazz. Likewise, classical music also conjures up visual pictures. The connection is indispensable and certainly I feed off the music.


NEA: Besides jazz, what or who are some of your other influences or sources of inspiration?


MCLEAN: Influences don’t stand still; they change with time. What affects you at a certain period is left behind and I think things shape one’s direction without it being totally realized. In admiring various artists through the years, I hope something has rubbed off. Artists like Turner are a standard for me; his use of paint was prescient. Balthus, Degas, Ingres, mid-range Kitaj, Bacon, Freud…Also Hockney was an early influence on me. I had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of times.


NEA: Can you describe your artistic process?


MCLEAN: I work very often from photos or a compilation of scrap material I pull together. Obviously with the jazz paintings, I had to do this, as [the artists] are in jazz heaven. I sketch ideas, rough layouts of what I may do, then I have to find the pertinent reference material of people and locations I need, filtering out the uninteresting stuff and adding other thoughts.

Gessoing the canvas has usually taken place by this time, sanding gently with a very fine sandpaper. Sometimes I mix an ochre or light Venetian red to the gesso so that I have a colored ground to paint on. Sketching the picture on canvas is next. Drawing with graphite is my preferred way of starting, then I tend to lay in scumbled areas with a hog hair brush and a mid-range hue, not too light or dark. Then I like to get some darks down to gauge the overall tonality of the piece…roughly speaking I paint dark to light. [When] I am working in oils, [I use] a combination of brushes, often using sable to finish.

The landscape paintings are based on photographs I have taken over the years, which I print and enlarge somewhat. Landscape is a more recent venture for me as an illustrator. In the past, I did a great deal of figurative work, so I have avoided that in painting to some extent until I’ve figured out another way to paint them.


NEA: What do you see as the role of the artist in the community?

MCLEAN: Artists in my view are mostly too involved with their own work to be engaged in the community. There is not much left over, other than perhaps teaching. But I’m probably reflecting my own attitude.


NEA: Conversely, what do you see as the community’s responsibility toward the artist?

MCLEAN: The arts should be supported in general for they have a civilizing effect on daily life, opening the imagination to beauty and intellectual stimulation. Conversely, [they’re] a weapon in the struggle against ignorance and the dumbing down of culture, not to mention the horrors that seem to abound in the world today.


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