by Gregory Pai.
Probably the most profound impression that I came away with after having the privilege of attending Richard McKinley’s five-day workshop was his profound sense of personal integration as an artist and a human being.
As an artist, that integration was clear in his mastery of the fundamentals of painting both in terms of its technical aspects as well as the motivational impulse for doing a painting…what he calls the What and the How of a painting…knowing deeply within yourself what you feel drawn to paint and having the technical mastery to pull it off.
In terms of the technical aspects, Richard was rigorous in presenting the basic elements of painting: composition, value, color, shape, mass, and edges. But, how he organized these concepts was particularly relevant to how they are used in actual painting. For example, he presented value in terms of “simultaneous contrast” or the capacity to see value relationships relative to the context in which an object is seen. For example, the same object may appear dark against a light background, but light against a dark background. Another concept was aerial perspective, or the use of color temperature, values, and edges to delineate objects in relative distance from the viewer. A particularly interesting concept was what he called “refraction” or the use of color intensity, value contrasts, and edges to draw attention to the area of focus of a painting.
His instruction also extended into the actual setup and preparation for painting, including equipment, pastels, papers, and the process of beginning a painting on location outdoors. He spoke about the issues of painting “plein air” and in the studio. He gave particular importance to the use of thumb nail sketches and the use of drawing on the board prior to the actual application of pastels. One particularly interesting subject was the dynamics of painting the subject matter on location, and that of responding to the dynamics of the painting itself, once the basic subject matter had been recorded.
But, probably the most interesting aspect of his work was his use of under painting techniques. He spoke about various under painting media such as watercolors, alcohol, mineral spirits, and manual techniques, as well as different types of papers and grounds. However, more important from the visual perspective was the reason why under painting was so valuable. Under painting basically functions as the “set-up” for the painting. It is the under layer that imparts to the final color the resonance that evokes the visual response that the artist visualizes. For example, if one seeks a sense of warmth or coolness, or translucence in a color that can be achieved with the appropriate under painting. For Richard, a major reason for using under painting is that it generates a sense of spontaneity, particularly with very wet and loose washes, that contrast beautifully with his more precise strokes in the final painting. It also controls his tendency to be too detailed and allows him to be looser and freer in his work.
But, all this wonderful technique would come to nothing if the artist didn’t know What to paint. Richard was emphatic in saying that all these tools were only useful to the extent that they convey a story in a painting. What does the painting communicate, what is its feeling, and what is its point? Do we have a strong sense of what we are trying to say and how do we use all the visual tools at our disposal to express that message? He emphasized that it is not as important to simply record what is in front of us, as much as it is to use the visual elements at our disposal as symbols and metaphors to tell a story, whether it be that of light, movement, a journey, sense of mystery, or sense of inspiration. Having that clarity is fundamental to the painting because it is that which drives how we use the technical vocabulary at our disposal.
For most of the participants of the workshop, however, all this came together in his demonstrations. All the mind numbing intricacies of painting technique and theory seemed to be swept away in those beautiful moments of creative silence when it all came together in work that was poetic, deeply emotional, introspective, and moving. In his words, he had taken personal responsibility for his own message and presented it with greatest degree of skill, diligence and effort that he was capable of. For many of us, that was probably the most profound message of the entire workshop.
It is that sense of personal responsibility, however, that also symbolized for me his deeper humanity as a person that under lay his work as an artist. That became apparent over time in his openness, humor, kindness, and compassion toward everyone in the workshop and his amazing ability to see and encourage the best in everyone. During the later jurying process of the Pastel Artists of Hawaii Show I saw it in his sensitivity toward the judging process itself, his understanding and appreciation for the work of all the artists, and his sense of inclusivity and generosity in recognizing merit in other artist’s works. In later conversations I also saw it in the way in which he was able to reflect on his own life journey and experience in his work. Through this all, I began to feel a sense of his profound integration as an artist and his spiritual journey as a human being. And for that, I felt profoundly moved, encouraged, and inspired.