Oil Painting: Gene McInerney: The Delicate Engineer

0610mcin1_450x300_1This Pennsylvania artist combines alkyd with oil to achieve poetic paintings of his local landscape using a closely controlled technique.

by John A. Parks

Gene McInerney paints delicate views of his beloved Pennsylvania countryside with a fullness and completeness that is utterly satisfying. In his scenes it feels as though every leaf, every blade of grass, each ripple on a lake or pond has been lovingly savored and rendered for our pleasure. But careful as they are, the paintings do not show any signs of stiffness or overwork. Rather, they convey a quiet and thoughtful feeling—as though the artist understands how everything sits in its place. As might be expected from paintings of such structured accomplishment, a considerable amount of planning and forethought goes into them.

Village Stream
2002, oil on board, 20 x 28.
Private collection.

“I’m really something of an engineer when it comes to painting,” says the artist. “I tend to look at my work as a series of problems to be solved, and I like to solve those problems as early on in the process as possible.” After many years of experimentation with various media, McInerney finds that using both alkyd and oil is the best solution to these artistic challenges. As a young man learning to paint in a local evening class, he adopted a very painterly approach to oil in which he could complete a figure painting in only a few hours. In the 1960s he discovered acrylic and relished the control that was possible with a fast-drying paint that could be built up in thin layers. The artist’s work slowed down, becoming tighter and more rigorous as he developed his ability to render complex forms and situations. After many years of acrylic painting, however, he became dissatisfied. “In the end, however you use it, acrylic still retains a somewhat plastic look,” McInerney says. “The color just looks richer and more splendid in oil. When alkyd came along I realized that I could get the best of both worlds: the fast drying I needed to build thin layers quickly and the richness of oil. By working them both together I can get the exact combination of properties that I need.”

Before employing his carefully controlled process, McInerney first seeks out his subject matter from within his native Pennsylvania landscape and almost always works from photographs. “My work is very much about what’s going on here outdoors,” the artist says. “I’m generally painting subjects within a few miles of my house, which allows me to go out and take a look or make a sketch if I need to check on something. Using photographs cuts down on the variables and increases my control. I don’t have to worry about the light changing or the weather or things getting blown around.”

Canal Lock at Glendon
2005, oil on board, 18 x 24.
Collection the artist.

Having decided on a subject, the artist begins by making a small black-and-white sketch, usually about 4" x 6", in which he explores the weight and balance of the composition. “I like to look at the tonal distribution at this stage,” he says, “and get a sense of whether there are any particular problems that are likely to crop up in the broad composition.”

Referring to the information in the sketch, McInerney determines a proportion and size for the painting and then prepares a Masonite panel sealed with two or three coats of Liquitex acrylic gesso. “I have a particular way of preparing the surface to achieve an almost glasslike texture,” the artist says. “I apply the gesso with a short-handled, three-inch roller, getting it as smooth as possible. Once it’s dry, I take a razor blade and carefully scrape the surface flat. I do this for each layer I put on. It’s a little time-consuming, but the resulting surface is perfect to work on and takes the paint very well. It has excellent adhesive properties.”

October Gold
2006, oil on board, 15 x 24.
Collection the artist.

McInerney next makes a full-size drawing on tracing paper in which the entire composition is delineated precisely. This he transfers exactly onto his panel. He then uses a small sable brush to paint a thin linear drawing of the composition, using burnt umber or burnt sienna mixed with ultramarine blue. “Once this drawing is complete, I rarely change it,” he says. “At this stage I want it to be a very reliable underpainting—something that I don’t have to worry about later on.”

After the artist has finished this linear painting he works up the image to achieve the illusion of three-dimensionality by using the same thin monochrome wash to lay in the shadows. “At this point I want to be sure I have solved any rendering problems that are going to come up in the work,” McInerney says. “If there is a difficult form in the foreground, for instance, I want to tackle it at this stage.” The artist is careful to leave the lights in the painting an open white. “I rely on the brilliance of the white to work in the picture later on,” he says. Working thin, he uses the transparency of his paint films to generate as much light as possible.

Spring on the Towpath
2004, oil on board, 12 x 14.
Private collection.

It is at this point in the process that McInerney finds the combination of alkyd and oil most advantageous. “I like to work in thin layers,” he says, “and alkyd provides a fast drying time. My first monochrome layers can contain almost 50 percent alkyd, which allows me to work on a dry painting the next morning. Later on in the work, I can control the drying time by adjusting the amounts of alkyd and oil with each color.” For this reason the artist will have two versions of many of his colors out on his palette, one oil and the other alkyd. Determining how much of one or the other to put into a mixture is a matter of judgment and experience, he says.

Once McInerney starts painting over his initial monochrome rendering, he tries to get as near as possible to the color he will eventually need with his first pass. “The only color I don’t do this with is the greens,” he says. “I find that if I keep them a little redder at the beginning, things work better later on.” Like many artists, McInerney has discovered that saturated greens can easily start jumping out of the painting. Often he will mix varying amounts of dioxazine violet into his greens to shift them grayer and redder.

August Sky
2002, oil, 24 x 18.
Private collection.

McInerney uses a variety of brushes as he builds his paint. In the early stages he will use a beveled flat made by Loew-Cornell, from their American Painter 4400 angular series. This has a synthetic bristle made from a substance called taklon, which combines resilience with flexibility. “I like this shape of brush because it allows a quick change from broad marks to small marks,” he says. “I find that
I can rapidly develop an impression of detail with it.” Once the painting is established, the artist begins to work into it with smaller brushes. Often he uses Winsor & Newton Cotman rounds in Nos. 2 to 6. The continuing work involves being increasingly more precise about detail and light and requires him to use progressively smaller brushes as the painting proceeds. Although he enjoys the ability of color and tone to suggest the wealth of detail in a scene, McInerney observes that, in the end, if you really want to be truthful to your subject matter, you have to carefully observe a considerable amount of minutiae. In the late stages of the painting, McInerney finds himself working with a No. 2 Cotman round. “This brush has a combination of sable and synthetic bristle,” he says. “Sometimes I will use a Winsor & Newton Cirrus brush, which is all sable. Nothing matches the delicacy and control of sable when it comes to very close work.”

In the very last stages of painting, the artist will increase the ratio of alkyd to oil in the paint so that the surface takes on a uniform appearance. Once the painting is finished, the artist covers it with a single coat of alkyd medium. “I like the slightly matte appearance that alkyd has,” he says. “I toy with the idea of using a removable varnish, but I’m a little suspicious about its adhesive properties. I don’t want it to be lifting up in a few years.”

Indian Summer Day
2004, oil on board, 20 x 12.
Private collection.

Despite McInerney’s intense interest in the technique and procedure of painting, his pictures are anything but cold. Rather, he manages the subtleties of color with great delicacy of touch. The work retains a meditative quality as we are invited to consider the wealth and variety of color and texture in his carefully composed landscapes.   

About the Artist
Gene McInerney is largely a self-taught painter whose subjects are predominantly still lifes and the landscapes of his native Pennsylvania. He has exhibited widely for many years and has received numerous awards, including those bestowed by the National Society of Painters in Casein and Acrylic and the North East Watercolor Society. In the 1990s he was a member of Winsor & Newton’s first Artists Advisory Panel. The artist is currently represented by the Uptown Gallery, in New York City. For more information on McInerney, visit www.uptowngallerynyc.com.

John A. Parks is an artist who is represented by Allan Stone Gallery, in New York City. He is also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and is a frequent contributor to American Artist, Drawing, Watercolor, and Workshop magazines.

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7 thoughts on “Oil Painting: Gene McInerney: The Delicate Engineer

  1. I love this work. Hopefully I can accomplish the same look in my paintings. Switching from canvas to masonite boards will be my first step. Being mostly self taught I appreciate the help from such talented fellow artists and in my eyes artist McInerney stands a head above. Again, I love his work.

  2. Gene is not only a superb painter but a tremendous person. He is gracious, supremely talented, generous and humble. He is my favorite living landscape painter. He really captures the true soul of rural Pennsylvania where he lives. Uptown Gallery is very fortunate to have an artist of his caliber showing there.

  3. for the past year i’ve been experimenting with alkyd paints and I like the fast drying aspect.Mr.McInerney’s technical explanation was very helpful.His work is beautiful

  4. I am happy to say that I have had the privledge to meet Gene a few times throughout my life.He is my mother’s cousin. I remember going to one of his shows in bucks county. I was a bit young to be around such beautiful works but luckily didn’t break anything! His stories are as amazing as his art.

  5. I have a painting by an artist named McInerney that I received from my aunt’s estate. It is of just a train caboose. It is so realistic. Is this the same artist that is on this website and is so where is his studio.