“A narrative artist’s thoughts on drawing and painting”
I started this blog with the intention of sharing thoughts and insights on drawing, both my own and those of other artists and designers. I have created the “Featured Artist” category as a way to share other artist’s insights. The following interview launches this new section.
Today’s featured artist is my friend and colleague Sharon McNeil. We met at the Savannah College of Art and Design where we both teach in the Foundation Studies Department and both share a passion for structural yet gestural drawing and narrative art. Sharon’s artwork is grounded on drawing and storytelling, her background as a painter, stage designer for theater and college professor have shaped her development as an artist and her approach to creating art. This written piece covers a little bit of her professional and cultural background, what inspires her art and insights into her process.
You can find Sharon’s work online under Sharon McNeil and her pseudonym Christina Mehelis. These are links to two of her websites:
(Adriana Burgos) Hi Sharon. Thank you for agreeing to be the first featured artist on my blog. Let’s get this interview started. What inspired you to go into a career in the arts?
(Sharon McNeil) For as long as I can remember I loved to draw. Crayons and paper were always a good present for me as a little kid and my parents were very encouraging. I never thought about doing anything else it was just the most natural thing for me.
(A.B.) There is a strong sense of story in your drawings and paintings. Do you consider yourself a narrative artist?
(S.M.) Yes, I do. It may be my background in theatre or that I come from a family of writers, but I think in terms of narratives and how they express an idea or feeling. I even think of my still-lives as being narratives in that they are a location where something has taken place.
(A.B) You mentioned your background in theater. How has working in theater affected your creative process as an artist?
(S.M) My style tends to be on the theatrical side. I prefer dramatic lighting and arrangements that suggest a narrative. I am also very accustomed to stepping back and looking at my work from a distance. In theater, when a backdrop is highly refined in detail and has a smooth finish it usually dies on stage. So I have taken this idea to heart in my own work. I prefer slightly ragged edges with rough scumbling in my technique rather than having things blended smoothly. The idea is that you clearly see how it was painted up close (the brush strokes and marks) but when you step back these all pull together to make a powerful image. I believe that if your eyes have to work a little to pull the image together, they are more stimulated and makes a richer viewing experience.
(A.B) What inspires your images/stories?
(S.M) My inspiration comes from a combination sources and experiences but it is an organic process for me. I may be inspired by a novel and that story will seep into a still life I am setting up that gives me an idea for some figurative work. The one theme that seems to run through all my work is the relationship to our past. I have always been interested in my Greek heritage which has inspired a lot of my work and now that I am learning about my Scottish heritage, it has begun to as well.
(A.B) In regards to your interest in your Greek heritage, you went back to the island of Nysiros a few years ago, where you had spent a summer in your freshman year of college. This was an important trip for your research as an artist. What were your goals during that second visit?
(S.M) It had been a dream of mine to do some plein-air work in Greece and creating work was a chance to show what the island means to me. I wanted to show what beauty there was in this place that has been so overlooked. I worked towards an exhibition in which I wanted to show how densely layered with history this tiny island is. I even did a drawing from a Satellite image of Nisyros and marked the locations the paintings were from to give the show a real sense of “place” for the audience.
(A.B) How did this trip affect your work?
(S.M) I have become much more comfortable with sketching on location while traveling and it has given me many more ideas for future work. Right now there is another series I am planning that would show the views one sees while walking through the village and up the passageway to a church that holds a holy icon. It is a common trip for spiritual pilgrims.
(A.B) As a narrative artist what types of art forms influence your work the most?
(S.M) I would say mostly paintings but different kinds for different reasons. I look at some paintings to see how things are done. I have looked closely at the work of John Singer Sargent, particularly the watercolors and oil sketches he did in Italy which I saw at the LA county Museum, when I am trying to understand how there can be so much color in white, gray and tan. In his case he has a sort of perfect pitch when it comes to color and his brush strokes are painterly but accurate which I really admire. I also look at Cezanne and Van Gogh to see how they push color for expressive purposes but always from an honest vantage point. I am drawn to the work of artists like Chagall and Redon not so much as an influence but for the feeling their work gives me.
(A.B) Who has been your most influential teacher?
(S.M) The artist Domenic Cretara, who I studied with at Cal State Long Beach has been the biggest influence to my work to this day. He did a series called the large drawings in 2007 that I keep going back to look at again and again. It is too much to describe here but what I can say is that they are just lyrical in the way the forces play out on the page. You can look at his work by growing his website.
(A.B) How do you orchestrate and design the storytelling images in your drawings and paintings?
(S.M) I work from a combination of still life set ups, and photographs. I also sketch a lot just for fun, especially when I travel and that often either inspires and idea or is useful as reference material.
(A.B) I know from working with you as a fellow faculty member that you are very good at staging setups and creating props. Do you work from staged settings or still lives when drawing or painting?
(S.M) For me they are the same thing. A still life can be objects on a table or windowsill but there could also be a tree growing out of the table or a window to nowhere. I think it is the contradictions in a setup that make it really interesting. So I look for really interesting props and I glue, wire, or duct tape them together to arrange them in interesting ways. I have never felt the need to draw the wire or the duct tape. I would rather have their assembly be a bit of a mystery. I enjoy the process of staging a still life and often this leads to more ideas. It adds to the organic nature of my ideas.
(A.B) Do you work regularly from direct observation?
(S.M) I do work regularly from direct observation, especially in my sketchbook or when I draw from a model. However, the observational drawings or paintings are not usually part of the work I do as a series where a lot more intention and planning is involved. There, I use photographs and create specific set ups.
(A.B) Do you ever work from memory?
(S.M) I don’t usually work from memory. I need something to look at. It is usually through the practice of really looking at something that I come up with some of my best work, however sometimes I find it necessary to take artistic liberties.
The role of drawing in your work
(A.B) What is the role of drawing in your creative process?
(S.M) Drawing is the process. It is the most enjoyable part and for me painting is drawing with color. I don’t draw and then paint I draw with paint.
(A.B) I would like to remark on the formal quality of your drawings. Your work shows solid volumetric form through the understanding of structure and lighting yet with a very loose handling of line. What are your thoughts on the importance of gesture drawing in your own work?
(S.M) It is essential. I never really compose without the gesture. It is the beginning and end of a piece and what makes me want to draw in first place. There is nothing more fun than starting out a big expressive gesture on a large piece of paper when you have a great model with dynamic poses. I know a lot of people do those little tiny gestures in their sketchbook to save paper but I am a bigger fan of the one to a page. However, it is not just about the beginning, it is about being able to maintain that energy and excitement even to the end of a piece, even after hours and hours.
(A.B) How does a solid understanding of form and space impact your expressive intent as an artist?
(S.M) It is not just about being able to draw what I want to, but about being able to come up with visual ideas. Good visual work is really driven by form, space and composition and without this understanding ones ideas are limited.
(A.B) What role does mark-making play in your drawings?
(S.M) Marks affect drawings in so many ways but more than anything I want them to be felt and to remain somewhat loose. Sometimes they work as a contour but it is usually best if they come and go and are not solid. Other times they work better to describe a “plane” or to actually “be” the plane. That is where the sense of feeling and conviction is so important to a mark.
(A.B) This insight in to your work and your creative process has been very inspiring. Thank you for bringing new viewpoints into this blog through this interview. In addition to this blog post some of your sketchbook work will be showcased in my next Sunday Sketchbook feature.