Voices of Experience - John MacDonald

Voices of Experience

John MacDonald

Berkshire October, 12 x 16", Oil, © John MacDonald
Berkshire October               12 x 16"              Oil

"Ultimately, I wish to leave some mystery

in a painting, something unresolved

that allows a viewer to enter the world

of the painting and make his or her

own discoveries within it."

   John MacDonald shared with us thoughts on his lifetime of creativity—the stunning sunsets of the open vistas of Indiana which inspired him growing up, his twenty years of illustration work in New York, and, now, his return to full time fine art landscape painting. MacDonald's work is in both private and museum collections across the United States. He has been featured in multiple national arts publications and now shares his skills and inspiration with students, teaching workshops throughout the year.    

   Was art (or were other creative pursuits) a part of your childhood?

   I was lucky in that artists were in both my parents’ families. Although primarily a businessman, my father was very creative and had terrific design and drawing skills. Both he and my mother were supportive of my interest in art. I grew up i
n the midwest, in the flat farmlands between Indianapolis and Chicago. Being so flat, the northern Indiana landscape was quiet and simple, but it afforded spectacular skies. It was there I fell in love with light.

Early Dusk, LYRS, Oil, © John MacDonald
Early Dusk                         8 x 16"                                Oil

   Did you have a teacher or mentor who was a strong influence on you and your work?

   Barry Schactman at Washington University in St. Louis was one of the finest teachers I’ve had of any subject. He taught figure drawing and anatomy and dramatically improved my drawing skills and my ability to see. And, I was lucky to be friends with and a painting buddy of Curt Hanson.

Campus Oak, Oil, © John MacDonald
Campus Oak                     12 x 24"                           Oil

   Do you feel that your illustration work has informed your fine art painting?

   My illustration work was very different from my painting and I wanted to keep them separate. As an illustrator, I worked in scratchboard, adding color digitally. But the constant drawing and the self-discipline needed to survive as an illustrator helped significantly with my focus and habits as a painter. I was represented in New York by Renard Reps until she retired. Several years later, I left the illustration field and began painting full time.

   Now that you are working full time on your landscape painting, have you participated in any plein air events?

   Only the non-competitive events sponsored by Eric Rhoads and Streamline Publishing. My painting process is slow and deliberate—the paintings develop over days, not hours. Consequently, the time restrictions in plein air events don't fit my working methods.

The Green River  Plein Air Study 12 x 16 Oil John MacDonald
The Green River (plein air study)               12 x 16"               Oil

Green River - March ,9 x 12", Oil, © John MacDonald
Green River - March                    9 x 12"                    Oil

   Would you tell us a little bit about your process and inspirations?

   Generally, I try to paint plein air at least several times a week. It’s important training, but I paint exclusively in the studio when working on large paintings.
   When painting plein air, I will always create one or more small tonal sketches before painting. The sketching stage allows me to warm up my eyes and focus on the two most important elements in any painting: the composition and the value structure.

North Wind, 30 x 40", Oil © John MacDonald
North Wind                         30 x 40"                         Oil

   In the studio, I also create tonal studies but may also paint a small, full color study before moving to a large painting.

   On an emotional level, I’m looking for mood, which is most often conveyed by light, atmosphere, and values. If I feel inspired by a place, I then look for interesting and varied abstract shapes. The landscape (or photo) has to have good “bones”–an underlying structure that can lead to an interesting composition.

   We’d be interested to hear more about your creativity coaching. (MacDonald is certified through the Creativity Coaching Association as a creativity coach.) Are there key components that you have learned that help you with your own creativity and in teaching others?

   After training as a creativity coach, I realized that to do it justice it would need to be a full time job. So I stopped coaching but use much of what I learned in both my workshops and in my own work. So much of not only our happiness as painters but our productivity and growth depend on our ability to manage our personalities: our fears, anxieties, need for perfection or praise, etc., etc. It’s helped me be more creative, content, and productive.

June Dusk. 12 x 16", Oil, © John MacDonald
June Dusk                         12 x 16"                         Oil

July Haze, 12 x 16", Oil, © John MacDonald
July Haze                         12 x 16"                         Oil

   Have you had the opportunity to travel to paint in other landscapes around the country and/or the world?

   Being a studio painter, I rarely travel just to paint. And living in New England, I have access to such a variety of landscape forms, I don’t feel the need to travel for variety much as I did when growing up in Indiana. Most of my painting in the U.S. has been in the east and midwest. In 2016, I spent two months in Europe. Although it wasn’t specifically planned as a painting trip, I tried to paint plein air every day.

   Venice was particularly inspirational to me. I rarely paint urban scenes but after spending two weeks in the city painting every day, I fell in love with the colors of the buildings, the atmosphere, the water, and the amazing light.

   Have you worked in mediums other than oil?

   I’ve worked in watercolor and would like to someday spend more time in the medium. But the challenges of oil still seem endless and I’m happy to continue to concentrate on it.

   Tell us about your materials.

   I work in a limited palette: White (50/50 Titanium and Zinc), a non-toxic Cadmium Yellow hue that I mix, Prussian Blue, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Dioxazine Purple, Raw Umber, and Paynes Grey. I no longer use any toxic pigments or materials.

   I work on oil primed linen panels and aluminum panels. I use two grades of linen panels: an inexpensive brand for plein air and a higher quality brand for studio work. As for the aluminum panels, I will either apply oil ground directly to the aluminum surface prior to painting or will paint directly on the aluminum.

   Solvents aren’t necessary for painting. I use oil (linseed and safflower oils, 50/50) for thinning my paints and cleaning my brushes. I store the brushes in oil, never using solvents or soaps to clean them. Without solvents, I don’t need to ventilate the studio.

Silver Light, 12 x 18", Oil, © John MacDonald
Silver Light                         12 x 18"                         Oil

Closing In, 12 x 16", Oil, © John MacDonald
Closing In                         12 x 16"                         Oil

   Are you currently teaching workshops?

   I teach from four to six workshops a year, although I’m planning to retire at the end of next year (2022) to concentrate on a possible book. I may continue to offer an occasional Zoom workshop depending on demand.

   Any words of wisdom you might give to beginning artists?

   Fall in love with the painting process and don’t become too attached to the final product. Creating paintings that don’t succeed is normal and part of the learning process. If a painting fails, try to discover why it failed, then move on to the next painting. It’s not a tragedy to create a lot of bad paintings—it’s how we improve. The only tragedy is to let those failed paintings stop us from painting entirely.

Sunset Flurries, 9 x 12", Oil, © John MacDonald
Sunset Fluries                         9 x 12"                         Oil

   If you could sit down and have a long conversation over dinner with an artist from the past, who would you choose, and why?

   George Inness. I’d love to gain insight into how he approached a painting. Almost all of his later paintings were pure inventions. When lost in the painting process—in his case it was often a painting frenzy—he would often change paintings completely, letting them spontaneously evolve. I’ve always wondered what he was thinking as he was painting. 


Photograph of Artist John MacDonald

To see more of John MacDonald's work,
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All artwork copyright John MacDonald



Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
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