'3 Painters' coming to Emma Butler gallery

Joan Sullivan
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Exhibit

Painters often discuss their work is terms of marks and tones, but John McDonald tosses some different phrases into the mix, like dialogue, direction and reflection.

McDonald, who grew up in Goulds and graduated from Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in 2005, creates his work within a storytelling frame of mind.

Artist Dave Sheppard, "Turning Into Gold," 15.5 x 40.5 (oil on canvas). Submitted photo

Painters often discuss their work is terms of marks and tones, but John McDonald tosses some different phrases into the mix, like dialogue, direction and reflection.

McDonald, who grew up in Goulds and graduated from Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in 2005, creates his work within a storytelling frame of mind.

The style meets at a juncture of portraits, landscapes and interior, producing a kind of film still, one frame compacted with character and story. And they are also deliberately ambiguous, unrestricted scenarios the viewer can read in their own individual way.

He's been drawing since he was little, when arthritis kept him in the hospital for protracted periods, and he spent the time honing his technical ability. His Grenfell studies also emphasized draftsmanship. Drawing, McDonald explained, is the vital undercarriage to the type of painting he does, figurative realism.

He likes painters like American Edward Hopper, with his story tableaus, Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, known for his social commentary, and Spanish Court painter Goya, whose career spanned the late 18th and early 19th century, as his art bridged the Old Masters and the Moderns. Closer to home would be Gerry Squires, Christopher Pratt and Grant Boland, all of whose work is somewhat realistic, somewhat fictive.

His work starts with his models, who are people he knows. He observes the way light falls on them, and then thinks of a setting for them. "I have the person, and I look around and I see a place and I think, that will fit." This synthesis of persona and locale sparks the dialogue, the sense of narrative imbued in McDonald's canvases. They could almost be storyboards.

"I do like film. But I'm more interested in snapshots, which can be an entire film in a sense."

"Just in Time" (all the works here are oil on canvas, and all 2009), for example, shows two young people by the side of a highway. She sits on a suitcase, while he has his thumb out, trying to hitch a ride. To McDonald, it is an environment of tension. "You don't see where the road is going. You don't see what they are looking towards. And the time is at sunset, close on the evening - just in time."

"Before The Morning" has a young woman sitting alone at the top of a staircase. Warm golden light spills out from behind her. "She's alone. To me she's contemplating, she's making a big decision, and she's in a comfortable spot. But I like to keep it open for your own narrative."

"Lately" shows a young man, head in hands, seated at a table. A woman sits mostly out of frame, with just her hands seen, resting near a mug. This is actually a self-portrait, and a narrative, too. "It's about a relationship, and he feels guilty or bad. The space around the figures is a kind of void, and openness. It's problematic to give final answers as it's meant to be open-ended."

McDonald usually directs the scenes, casting the models and placing them specifically in the light.

He has previously photographed himself at the site, to check the way the light falls. "It was to be interesting for me to paint."

A session usually takes about a half hour or 45 minutes, with McDonald snapping about 30 images. Sometimes everything clicks together on a whim, sometimes when he studies the resulting portfolio he realizes he doesn't have want he wants, and off they go once more.

He manipulates the pictures in Photoshop. For example, in "Just in Time" "an area of the landscape here has been taken out. I do whatever works compositionally." Then, he starts painting.

A single piece "would probably take the better part of a month," but he doesn't work on them one at a time, preferring to have "five or six on the go at once. I like to work on multiple pieces because you can switch focus, it's not as tiring."

Oil is his preferred medium, for its luminosity and ductility. He also works out his palette well in advance. "I spend a lot of time mixing colours, seeing how colours relate. It's very organized that way."

McDonald's work in "3 Painters" articulates a young and largely urban world. "This is my environment. Painting is self-reflective."

Still, his style and interest shifts and grows. "From one painting to the next it changes. I always look for good composition, but my colour palette changes, my brushwork changes, other painters give you tips, and you always learn something new. It's important to be open. As long as you stay open you learn more and you're better off. "

He plans to continue with figurative realism, maybe injecting some more whimsy or obscurity or play into the situation.

"I would like to paint something as real that doesn't actually exist in reality, like a person defying gravity. But that could change. I like to take it painting by painting, and let the inspiration come. I don't like to define, but just let it happen."

"3 Painters" also includes work by Jeanette Meehan and Dave Sheppard. The exhibition opens at the Emma Butler gallery June 19th and continues until July 3.

Organizations: Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, McDonald's, Old Masters

Geographic location: Goulds

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