Anna McNeil won the Portrait/Figure Award in the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with her work Les Amoureux. Her approach to painting is a fine balance between the abstract and figurative and through this, a distinct sensuality is revealed in all her works. Here she discusses the stages of her painting process and the vast array of materials and tools she uses.
Above image: Anna McNeil in the studio
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Anna: I have painted a lot and often, since I was very small. Somehow it always gave me a personal, quiet, concentrated space to balance the excitement of life’s discoveries or to escape into. It seemed a natural choice for a BA degree, which I did in Bath in 2002, but I’d say my continuation on an autodidactic path and self motivated studio practice in the 10 years after finishing that had a greater impact on my artistic development.
Moving to Barcelona since 2007 and being surrounded by and involved with contemporary theatre, music, puppetry and circus arts as well as plastic artists doing their own thing, mounting their own exhibitions has been a great inspiration and self motivating element in my practice. More recently in 2015/16 I took part in the Salzburg Art Academie Summer school residences tutored by the painter Varda Caivano. Discussions with artists whose work you admire can be really motivating and inspiring.
This experience influenced me to apply to the Turps Studio Program and spend some time in London 2016/17, during which I was fortunate to discuss my work with many contemporary London painters whose work I had been really interested in. Also being part of a contemporary painting community and sharing thoughts and feedback on each others work in the studio was illuminating and reassuring.
I have continued my connection with turps this year on the correspondence course 2020/21.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Anna: My process starts with thinking about or musing on an interaction, a sensation, or the memory of a moment experienced or imagined. I make multiple drawings of figures, usually in ink but sometimes elaborated into watercolours (from source material or memory) images that just catch my eye or come into my head bearing a loose or little considered relationship to the original thought I use the same intuitive selection process to decide which sketches to work from, maybe starting one or a few canvases at a time.
Working from the drawing as a basic compositional motif I begin building thin layers of oil paint in floating shapes – often on a plain coloured background or on previously prepared abstract colour fields covering discarded paintings that actually have quite a few layers of painting memory underneath. This gives weight and a depth that can be felt to the painting whilst allowing me to keep my top layers light. This first stage of my painting practice is quite free and intuitive and I always really enjoy it.
The second stage to my painting process involves going back to consciously considering what is the sensation/emotion of the scene that I want to communicate then focusing in on parts of the composition that embody that using colour or thicker paint to highlight. Sometimes in a specific place otherwise as an all over movement. This can be complicated as it requires finding a balance between the conscious mental process of the figuration and an intuitive expressionist objective.
The last stage involves a lot of looking, and a few decisive considered interventions. Sometimes this final part of my process does not happen for some time after I have left the middle stage. I often take the work and hang it somewhere else – live with it for a bit until it tells me what needs to be resolved. Sometimes the last stage does not happen at all as it becomes clear the painting is already finished.
Clare: I love the way your work appears to be abstract at first and then very quickly, these sensual figures appear. Can you talk about your painting practice in terms of how you desire to represent the figure?
Anna: The figures are present as a body as a motif but my main objective is to try to use the paint to communicate a sensation primarily in a relatively abstract way. So the figurative elements take second place to this. They serve to allow a certain narrative structure that can be recognisable but yet remains open.
Clare: You seem to use a variety of materials and surfaces, but many of the works here are oil on canvas. Can you talk about your process and materials for thinning oil paint and how painting in this loose style informs your work?
Anna: I make a large amount of watercolour and ink drawings in my painting practice. Making multiple works at a time quickly allows me to be really free to play with mark making, application and materiality. This process influences the way I use the oil paints also and I like to thin them right down with zest-it mediums and solvent. Especially for the first layers which are similar to the sketches I make in watercolour. The fluidity of materials I use informs my work incorporating movement and happy accident – a chance for the process to dialogue with my intention something which I find most engaging in the practice of painting. The loose intuitive mark making relates to the sensuality of the moment or feeling I am trying to represent or provoke. On one hand it is decisive and on the other it is ethereal and ambiguous.
Clare: What would you consider is the greatest source of frustration in your creative life and do you have any tried and tested ways of overcoming this challenge?
Anna: I have always started lot of paintings at once in order to get into a rhythm with my mark making and to not over think things. So In my studio I have always had many half finished paintings hanging around that have begun to feel like they are crowding the space and emit an almost audible background ‘noise’ of unresolved ideas. Some of them that hold something really interesting I just turn around but Recently I have been adopting a method of destroying or finishing the majority of them. This has been liberating in a cathartic sense by creating abstract backgrounds of fields of colour out of not-quite-right pieces that have been present but not active for some time. Or allowing me a freedom to play games with recreating scenes out of unresolved compositions, free of pressure for them to work out and trying out new compositional elements. If they don’t work they get rubbed out or painted over anyway.
Clare: Can you tell us about what kind of brushes, paints and surfaces you prefer?What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Anna: I have a large collection of brushes of all shapes and sizes: a few beautiful, professional quality, others decorator brushes, recycled brushes, gifted calligraphy brushes, antique, semi destroyed, broken off, extended, cloths, sponges etc. My favourites can come from any of these types. I like to have a variety to play with mark making but will often limit myself to say 4 different ones, or 2 for each different layer of the painting. On paper I use a lot of ink, especially Parker black ink that has so many blue shades in it and works really well with bleach. Coloured inks, wood dye, pigments, watercolours, solid, liquid, sometimes mixed with mediums, acrylics, charcoal and recently oil pastels too. On canvas I use mainly oil paints; I like strong translucent pigments at the moment but I also mix a lot of chromatic blacks and greys. Recently I have been playing around with more water based paint and acrylics but most of the time they end up with oil layers on top. I use fine medium grain Belgian linen which I find better if it is pre primed, but then the surfaces often get built up to varying degrees by being painted over.
I also have a large collection of recycled cotton linen and paper which sometimes I use just sized and with the marks of their history or even an embroidery detail showing through. I like drawing with sticks and painting with my fingers or rubbing off with cloths just as much as using more professional tools. My new paint tube squeezer tool is very useful.
Clare: Can you tell us about your studio? Where is it? What does is look like and often do you paint?
Anna: For many years my studio has been at home but I have been fortunate to have it as a separate area in the house where I can close the door and be in my own painting world. This has been by far the most practical solution for me as it is accessible at any time and I have been pretty good at just going there and disappearing rather than getting distracted by being at home. My home and studio have been located next to the sea in a town outside of Barcelona. The studio is on the top floor of a beautiful old house from the mid 19the century and has two large rooms with balconies. It has high ceilings, some period features such as the tiled floor, is full of objects I have made or found and above all materials. It is spacious enough to allow me to work on several canvases at a time. Over the past few years I have also had an Acme studio on the edge of London and the shared Turps space in south London for a period of time. Typically I have always painted every day, and my painting practice has for many years been my passion, obsession and profession so I have spent really a lot of time in the studio. However in recent years my routine has changed and now I tend to have more concrete working periods with a defined length and some days away from the studio. Actually I have found having some time limitation beneficial as in some way it pushes me to be more considered and efficient in my practice, and with what I want to do, helping to focus my work.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Anna: I’d say that my work is influenced indirectly or directly by an array of different artists that is constantly changing or being added to. I may be influenced by a shadow puppet show I have seen, a conversation I have had with a fellow painter, a friend’s Turkish folk concert, an Agnes Varda film. In Painting El greco, Artemisia Gentileschi and Titian. Egon Schiele, Mark Chagall, Edvard Munch and many painters that can be called Expressionists. I love the abstract painters Varda Caivano, Jade Fadojutimi, Martha Jungworth Joan Mitchell. And contemporary figurative painters Marlene Dumas, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Jenna gribbon Jennifer Packer. And of course Maria Lassnig, Alice Neel, and Louise Bourgeois to name but a few. In each artist’s work there is something unique and personal that connects to me, makes me feel or teaches me something.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Anna: When I have been able to maintain a sense of playing with the painting – a dynamic, fun or surprising interaction/conversation with the painting that leaves it free to develop and surprise me. When something has been resolved, not necessarily finished but understood, discovered or revealed.
Clare: Can you tell us where we can see more of your work online or in the flesh?
Anna: I will be taking part in an exhibition online at Cohort Art in mid November with other painters from the Turps Correspondence Course this past year. My website is annamcneil.com and my instagram is @studioannamcneil