Just Back Up and Let the Painting Breathe

Early Morning by Keith McCulloch, 12 x 16, oil painting.
Early Morning by Keith McCulloch, 12 x 16, oil painting.

Artist Daily Member Spotlight: Keith B. McCulloch

When I first saw Keith McCulloch's paintings, I took a deep breath. It was an involuntary reaction but a telling one—the airy, openness of his paintings made me instinctually breathe in the wide-open ambiance of his work. The sense of atmosphere was welcoming, and how Keith uses light and spatiality in his work has a lot to do with that. Here's what he shared with me.

Artist Daily: Is art-making your occupation?

Keith McCulloch: Painting, art-making, looking at art is my life and passion…although I do have to fit it around a full time job with health benefits.

AD: You are drawn to landscape painting. How did you come to realize this?

KC: I remember laying on a hill with my brothers and sister, staring up at the shifting clouds and seeing elephants morph into funny faces. As a teen I was awed by the paintings of the Hudson River School. In college I admired the abstract expressionism taking hold in American art, some of which, to me, were just landscapes of color. Yet at the Art Students League of New York, I studied figure drawing and painting and became addicted to the beauty of gesture drawings. This has been very important to me because my best plein-air landscapes are in fact gesture paintings. They show the gesture of how the light reveals the elemental character of the forms of nature.

Wakulla Beach by Keith McCulloch, 16 x 20, oil painting.
Wakulla Beach by Keith McCulloch, 16 x 20,
oil painting.

AD: For your studio paintings, how do you keep the look and feel of the outdoors so fresh?

KC: Most of my studio paintings derive from my experiences onsite. In the studio I use onsite color notes, my memory, and photos. The color notes are critical, the relative tones are so important. I can do anything but I don't dare change those relationships. 

AD: As a plein air painter the process of working outdoors can be challenging. Do you have any methods for when you work en plein air?

KC: The biggest challenge to me is working fast enough before everything changes, especially early day or late in the afternoon. I take a photo before and after I finish for reference. Overcast, cloudy mid-days give me a chance to work longer because of a lack of long cast shadows. Many times I try to go back to the same scene at the same time to get more information.

AD: What oil painting techniques are particularly important in your process?

KC: Working wet paint into wet paint is my normal process. But many times, especially on larger pieces, I will have to paint over dried areas. In that case I apply a retouch varnish or a thin layer of medium before applying fresh paint. 

Mossy Glade by Keith McCulloch, 24 x 18, oil painting.
Mossy Glade by Keith McCulloch,
24 x 18, oil painting.

AD: Are there any great resources that you can share?

KC: Looking closely at good original work is some of the best instruction you can get. I have collected a large library of how-to art books, and now am collecting some videos of masters doing demos. I find the Internet to be a huge asset in finding art. There is something called the Art Project powered by Google. You can zoom in at incredible levels to see details of Old Master paintings. The site needs more images by a million fold but it is a great start!

Keith also told me he's a strong believer in artists getting and receiving encouraging remarks and critical analysis from instructors and peers, and I couldn't agree more. Working so closely on a painting or drawing can sometimes give us blinders, so actively seeking different ways of seeing can really help you better assess your art. Mark Mehaffey's DVDs, from Light and Shadow in Plein Air to Painting Waterfalls in Watercolor give you a top-notch instructor's take that can help you better evaluate what you've got going on in front of you. Mehaffey give quality instruction, guidance, and tips that viewers can really grow from, improving their process and evaluation skills. Enjoy!

And I hope you'll add your own recent drawings and paintings to the Member Gallery—I'd love to see what you've been up to!


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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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