Los Angeles-based artist Nick McPhail had little interest in painting until, “out of desperation”, as he tells it, he transferred from Audio Production at Michigan State University to their Studio Art programme, having “hated” his previous course. He says: “It was like the lights had suddenly been turned on for me. I was immediately obsessed, not only with painting but also the history of the medium.” Listing his influences in modern and contemporary art history as Edouard Vuillard, Giorgio de Chirico, R.B. Kitaj, Laura Owens, Fairfield Porter, Rebecca Morris, Helen Lundeberg and Ken Price, Nick creates illustrative, layered paintings that feature landscapes and architectural elements, using a colour palette of cool pastel and bright neon tones.
Describing how his practice developed, Nick tells us: “In undergrad I started regularly taking walks out of the studio in order to get my mind off what I was working on. It was really a coping mechanism to deal with my anxiety – a way to get out of my head and become more present in my environment. I started to notice natural compositions on my walks, and I became increasingly interested in architecture and its relationship to our perception. Things like power lines, bars on windows and fences break up our field of view constantly, yet tend to go unnoticed. I think that my painting practice is really about reallocating attention to objects that often reside in our periphery. It has also become a way for me to embrace anxiety and put it to use in my painting practice.”
Nick’s “landscape-based representational paintings”, as he refers to them, are made with oil paint, watercolour and paper collage, drawing on the layering methods expounded by historical art practice. He states: “I really feel a strong bond to the history of painting and I use many traditional painting techniques. For example, I’ve always been very interested in the use of underpainting during the Renaissance and how that initial ground colour comes into play and affects the final layers of the painting, so that the paintings literally seem to glow.” Nick’s merging of Renaissance painting techniques with his contemporary vision for chromatics, texture and line work produces paintings that display all the geometric detail and compositional ingenuity of modern art, suffused with the luminosity of Botticelli’s angels or Raphael’s incandescent Transfiguration.
This radiating haze and saturation, beaming through the gauzy layers of paint, perfectly captures the sun-soaked streets, blinding white buildings and lush greenery of Nick’s LA home. Taking us through his process when it comes to making these paintings, Nick says: “I usually start with a source photo that I’ve taken and then begin doing drawings based on the photo’s composition. From there I start thinking about colour relationships and how the underpainting will interact with the overpainting. Once I move onto the canvas I usually stop referencing the original source photo and I start thinking more about making the painting ‘work’. I often change light sources, reinvent compositional elements, and add layers of images that have no relation to the initial photograph. For me, a successful painting is one that ends up surprising me in its final state.”
With his 12-foot painting on aluminium, Power Lines, recently publicly installed on Sunset Boulevard in LA’s Echo Park, Nick is looking to continue upscaling his paintings and adding to his stock of materials. He tells us: “I’m leaving soon for a residency in Idaho where I’m planning to concentrate on large scale landscape based paintings for an upcoming solo show at Ochi Projects in Los Angeles. I don’t really have any firm plans for the paintings, but I hope to experiment with different approaches, ideas, textures and different ways of looking at the world.”