My recent paintings are intended as a snapshot of contemporary western life. I think of them as a form of historical record. Like artifacts at an archeological dig they are fragments, reflecting very small pieces of our time in history.
Each picture features a specific place, and has a story that goes with it. Nothing really newsworthy– only the small everyday experiences that make life interesting.
For example, the photo/research part was especially fun for the painting of the bison. We went to the National Bison Range in Charlo, Montana, a section of native prairie where a handful of bison have enjoyed protection since the early 1900s. Driving for endless miles over a one-way, dusty mountain road, our engine hummed its way up and up forever and then descending down farther and farther on the other side. At the bottom we met the herd. In the quiet afternoon we found ourselves sitting motionless with the windows down, smelling the golden prairie grasses and listening to the deep voices of wild bison sometimes grazing an arm’s length away. I wondered how it goes with auto body repair when something unexpected happens here.
Back in the studio I rooted through hundreds of photos, finally choosing one of a nice cow bison and sketching her onto a 42″ x 48″ canvas.
At first I painted her in monochrome with only earth-tone pigments – mostly burnt umber and raw sienna. Over this base I continued with layer after layer of paint, adding to the earth-based colors with combinations of blue, yellow, and red. With each layer I noticed more and more detail, forging onward until the painting seemed somehow complete.
At that point I took a photo of the painting itself, and transformed that into a black & white, “grayscale” image. Usually this tells me quite a lot. With the bison my grayscale looked great, but the color seemed off. I went back to painting, making changes and taking a photo, repeating this exercise over and over until one day the photo looked like the bison I was hoping for.
There’s an intangible quality about painting — something like a flavor, where we know the difference but it’s not so easy to describe. For me this is at the center of what art is all about. Art is a universal language known to all, but mostly experienced in a very personal way. Training helps, but some of the most important parts depend upon raw intuition.
It also has a lot to do with reflection.
A painting can be seen as the two-dimensional reflection of a three-dimensional world. It is a reflection of ourselves, our culture, and our time in history. My paintings are a reflection of myself as the painter, and of each person who looks at them. A painting can easily become a point of inner reflection, and catalyst for entering more deeply into our own thoughts.
I love painting, and I love the west–the frozen and sunbaked landscapes, bustling cities, sleepy towns, seaports, ranches, and the people living in these places. For me this series is an opportunity to share a part of that, and some of the joy that I find in being here.
Alan McNeil created the 2009 La Quinta Arts Festival Poster, and has worked as an independent studio artist for almost 40 years.
A graduate of the University of Montana (MA) and Colorado State University (BFA), his paintings have been included in recent group and solo exhibitions at Missoula Art Museum, Museum of Art and Culture (Spokane), Yellowstone Art Museum, CM Russell Museum, Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art, Waterworks Art Museum, and Hockaday Museum of Art.
In 2017 an exhibition of his work was presented by the Clymer Museum in Ellensburg, Washington–supported in part by a grant from the Montana Arts Council, an agency of the State Government.