Michael McNamara's Urban Plein Air Tips

New York Canvas: The Art of Michael McNamara Interaction Media American Artist July/August featured artist Michael McNamara offers some tips on painting in a very congested city such as New York.

Painting in the Urban Jungle

by Karen Frankel

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Location, Location, Location
McNamara’s first advice: Find a spot where foot traffic won’t run you over. “Look for a stationary object to paint next to or behind, such as a mailbox or a lamppost that pedestrians will have to go around anyway,” says the artist. He reminds other painters that busy cities can be unpredictable. Delivery trucks will come and go, and people may ask you to relocate while they unload their truck. “Also, in the summer, the city can get like an oven, with the concrete absorbing the heat,” he says. “So you’ll need to find some shade, which can be difficult.”

Simplify Your Equipment
You may not have to hike as far with your gear in the city as you would in a very remote area, but the hiking will likely be more strenuous. McNamara recommends painters carefully choose their easel. He favors an inexpensive aluminum model made by Testrite. For him, its light weight compensates for its somewhat diminished stability. The artist filed down the easel’s sharp edges so it wouldn’t injure him or other subway riders. He packs all his gear in a tote bag: small jars for linseed oil and Turpenoid, a small Tupperware tub filled with paint tubes, and an oval palette. He carries his brushes exposed in a tube inserted in an exterior pocket so the hairs don’t get bent. Although he partially cleans the brushes after a painting session, McNamara says he still must remain very aware of their presence while in transit so he doesn’t get paint on anyone. “It’s a good idea to avoid rush hour on the subway,” he comments dryly.

The Natives Have Questions For You
With several million people milling around his painting location, McNamara is inevitably engaged in conversations. He says for the most part this doesn’t bother him—in fact, it’s a way for him to further interact with the neighborhood. And the artist optimistically points out that for this reason and others, painting in the city develops a high level of concentration, which is useful for painters. “I’ve had other artists suggest that I put out a tip cup—that might keep people away,” he says. “But generally people ask very short questions, so it’s not a problem.”

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