From the Studio of… Ian McLean

What is your medium? I paint with oil. Some of the underpainting stuff, however, is usually done with acrylic because that stage of the painting is very impulsive for me and I need things to dry quickly as decisions are made. Nothing beats a sexy slow-drying oil, though.

What themes do you pursue? The environments I paint are intended to suggest a certain familiarity despite the fact that they are often imagined or embellished. I want to convey an indeterminate tension in efforts to contain, control, manipulate, or avoid circumstances of nature in highly groomed and domesticated environments. The implied narratives usually reflect a desire for comfort or beauty or distraction.

How many years as an artist? I’ve been at this professionally for about 25 years.

Sketchbook? Do you use one? What type? I work out very loose drawings in my sketchbook. I tend to use it a little more for writing down thoughts.

What was the best advice given to you as an artist? Make everything in a painting significant and necessary. Work like mad at your craft. Get to work even when you don’t feel like working. Have something to say. Go to openings and meet people. Save all your rejection letters.

See artwork from Ian McLean

Process> Concept or Process<Concept Art really works when process and concept are considered equally.

Art school or self-taught? Art school. I can pick out a self-taught artist a mile away. You need the art history and the act of defending your work in a group critique to toughen you up.

Tattoos? I can’t commit to a font or a favourite song so I certainly won’t commit to a tattoo. Absolutely everyone has a tattoo now, though, and I feel left out.

Prefer to work with music or in silence? I need silence when I’m planning or when I’m stuck on something. It’s like I need to balance with the left brain for a bit. But when I get into a painting I need very loud music. My taste is all over the place but Radiohead is a good standby for me. I have been rediscovering stuff I listened to in the 80’s like Jesus and Mary Chain and Gary Numan.

iTunes, Spotify, records? iTunes, CD’s, records, cassettes. Until a few months ago, I had some massive tower speakers on an old unit a friend gave me. I played everything on it because it had a turntable, too. I decided things were getting a little too loud for my nice neighbours so I pitched the whole thing in favour of a discreet little  boombox.  t is boring and I miss my tower speakers.

View Ian McLean’s portfolio here

Succulents or cigarettes? Succulents. You should see my garden.

What’s around the corner from your place? We’ve got this massive lake – Lake Huron – one of the “Great” ones – just a block down the street. It looks like an ocean almost. The summer feels like California with surf and sunsets and in the winter you can fool yourself into believing it’s an infinite field of Arctic ice. Oh, and there’s a decent little pub down the street in the other direction.

If you couldn’t be an artist, what would you do? There is something about a grocery store  – the produce section. I can’t put my finger on it.

Day job? I’m a high school teacher. I teach Art.

Food or sleep? I don’t sleep much and could use a little less food.

Finish the sentence: “I would never be caught dead….” Wearing black socks with runners.

Favorite contemporary artist? Eric Fischl, Nigel Cooke, Elizabeth Peyton

If you could only have one piece of art in your life, what would it be?
I would like to have Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa” in my living room but I have a feeling it could be a little awkward with guests around. I think it’s just that anguish and ecstasy thing I keep coming back to. Otherwise, I would like to have a Rothko.

“Filtration Chamber”

Is painting dead? There is talk of it dying but it seems to be taking something like 30,000 years to actually kick the bucket. There is nothing like the effect of thick, viscous, oozing  painted matter that a digital image just can’t compete with. Of course, there is a lot of bad painting out there but when you see something that works there’s nothing better.

Favorite brush? I can’t throw a brush out. I probably still have some from the 60’s that my grandmother used. There is always a certain kind of mark you need to make that the scuzzy, stiff ones are perfect for.

Monet or Manet? I idolize Manet. He knew how to wield a brush and to fool us into believing he was just making pretty pictures. His work was so edgy and subversive but also alarmingly beautiful. That is such a difficult balance to strike.

See more work by Ian McLean


  1. Jill Moloy says:

    Hey Cousin,
    Great interview, however I am crushed that I’m not on your favorite contemporary artist!! Just kidding!
    Lots of Love,

  2. Amongst the rare studio artist presentations that i liked from the first look! Great atmosphere, Iain-can relate!

    For the laughs: a picture from my studio from this summer, also with a swimming pool thing in it:!/photo.php?fbid=10150901182652098&set=pb.749997097.-2207520000.1354334847&type=3&theater


  3. Hermit says:

    Y’know, I misread the title of the swimming pool picture as “flirtation” chamber – lol!

    But a good piece and a good interview :)

  4. you sound like a good guy and I liked your thoughts. and your paintings

  5. Jay says:

    Hi Ian, I love your colours, its really inspired me…where i can get yr book?
    cheers Jay

  6. Holly says:

    Hey Ian, great interview and love the work! Congrats on the Saatchi spotlight! ;)

  7. Billy Warhol says:

    Yer Tunez Rock Dude+ yer Paintings + Colourz are Fab! Great to see a fellow Southwestern Ontario-ite in da Saatchi spotlight* ;)

  8. dan adams says:

    Great work & article. I was surprised by your comment about self-taught artists, then I saw you were a an art teacher. Funny. I’m sure you know that Francis Bacon was self taught. I’d match him against any teacher in a critique about art history any day.

    • Hermit says:

      I think it probably depends on the person who’s being criticised. I’d agree that you don’t need to have had artistic training to have the backbone to stand up to criticism. I’ve seen many people crumble in the face of the slightest bad comment and others stand their ground well under overwhelming abuse.

      With artwork, it’s a question of being able to justify the work that you’ve done. If you can justify it 100% then you’ll be able to defend it much easier. If you have any doubts about it, then you become an open target!

      I went to art college, and we were always put throught the critique grinder. Many hated it, but I relished it! It was like standing in the middle of the Colloseum just as the lions were being set on you. You felt good when you fought off bad comments about your work and you quickly learnt how to take the hits from the ones you couldn’t.

    • Ian says:

      Thanks Dan. You know, I think that maybe I was a little too flippant and hasty in making that remark. There is certainly no way I could have ever held my own in front of Francis Bacon. In fact, exposure to art history is usually a humbling experience. I realize, increasingly, that there is so much more that I don’t know both technically and theoretically. I think that is the value of studying art history as a practicing artist.
      I must eat crow. I cannot spot a self taught artist ” a mile away”. There are so many self taught artists out there who are well grounded in their craft and who can defend their practice confidently.
      By the way, I checked out your work Dan, and it is fantastic!

  9. Pete says:

    I guess I would have read this awesome article earlier if I hadn’t let my subscription run out. Shame on me. Actually it answered some of the questions I was going to ask you tonight. now you don’t have to answer them again and i don’t have to remember all my questions. We both win !
    Look forward to seeing your new art

  10. Ian says:

    Ha! Thanks Pete! Whew! no more questions!! Fun to see you at the opening!!

  11. Hi Ian, I really appreciate your work very much! It is bold and creates an uneasiness in me because you juxtapose realism with abstraction blatantly.
    I love your use and chose of colors and appreciate your skill with painting nature!
    Probably because of where you live, haha! Really!! I am commenting on your work because it captured my eye on Saatchi Online Magazine. I would also adore having a Rothko in my living room!!! I am interested in what I think you are saying, “you try to create beauty, distinction and draw the viewer into your paintings?” I can clearly see that in your work, and I too think there is beauty in uneasiness or anything for that matter when using your imagination. So, I have a question for you? I have a formal background in Fine Arts and have most recently been working and painting and learning about Art Therapy and the Healing arts at Naropa University. I was in a very traumatic automobile accident on January 2nd which left me injured badly. I am being treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I want my next series of paintings to be about passages, because I think I can go many places with that theme? I want my first painting to be about the car accident mostly because it marked the beginning of my New Year. Do you think it would be a good idea to paint about this incident or not? I am just putting out the question to people and artists I admire who will give me Honest Feedback, like in your old critiques? By the way I loved mine too!! Thank you very much for your gifts and sharing your art! I look forward to hearing from you! Blessings, Denise

  12. love your work.

    Best wishes Andrew Macara

  13. Nicola Bennett (New Zealand) says:

    Hi Ian,
    Really enjoyed reading your interview responses. Fantastic paintings – your colour pallete is so warm, energetic and… I can’t really explain it. Almost makes my mouth water. Love it. I’m about to start my career as an art teacher after a bachlors and masters in fine art and lots of random jobs and just recently completing my degree in teaching. I was amazed how creative I felt while working in schools. I’d be interested to here whether teaching inspires or exhausts you? Well, obviously it doesn’t kill your creative juices as your work is so amazing. I don’t know whether is being round the energetic inspiring teenagers or just talking about art so much that gets my ideas buzzing.

    But… my problem is if I don’t act on that idea straight away (and convert the buzz of the idea into something). Then the energy is lost as another idea comes along.

    All the best,
    If I had the money I’d definately buy some of your work…..

    • Ian says:

      Hello Nic,
      Thanks so much for your nice comments.
      It certainly can be a challenge to balance an art career and a full time teaching career. I have always been determined, though, to not get too defined by one or the other. Do I get exhausted by teaching? You bet! It can be very draining and sometimes at the end of the day, the last thing I want to think about is more art. However, I think it is good for me to go through the struggles that every artist has to make me a better teacher. I think my students appreciate that I am serious about this business and that am able to put myself out there and take some risks. And yes, working in a creative environment every day with young people is never dull.
      So keep at your own work as your continue with your career but cut yourself some slack when it gets a little overwhelming. I would love to see what you do. Best of luck,


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