The Blood and Guts of Paint­ing

Cana­dian artist Barry Mccarthy dis­cusses the key com­po­nents of style and tech­nique

International Artist - - Contents - Barry Mccarthy

Cana­dian artist Barry Mccarthy dis­cusses the key com­po­nents of style and tech­nique

As an ex­pe­ri­enced painter of wa­ter­col­ors and oils, I try to keep my work fresh by chal­leng­ing my­self with new vis­ual con­tent, pro­cesses and styles.

Cer­tainly, paint­ing in height­ened re­al­ism taught me to hone my draw­ing skills. It forced me to or­ga­nize and plan, to de­con­struct and re­con­struct. It af­forded me a chance to sell my work, which mo­ti­vated me. Af­ter over 30 years of paint­ing in this style, I find my­self in­cor­po­rat­ing a stronger el­e­ment of im­pres­sion­ism into my paint­ings.

I am mov­ing to­ward warmer colours, looser and more open brush strokes and less at­ten­tion to small de­tails over all.

I have al­ways used strong un­der­paint­ing usu­ally with four or five bright colours di­rectly out of the tube to cre­ate vi­brant colour and light in the fin­ished work. In this series of paint­ings, I have re­stricted my­self to burnt si­enna as my base wash, al­low­ing this colour to leak through my fi­nal lay­ers and show in the com­pleted paint­ing. I keep the lay­ers (up to four in

many parts of the paint­ing) thin and keep my brush­strokes quick and loose for an open weave. As the paint­ing grows, the process be­comes more and more spon­ta­neous with the im­pres­sion­is­tic and warm look I am af­ter.

Sub­ject Mat­ter

I of­ten paint 15 to 20 wa­ter­color stud­ies dur­ing the late sum­mer and early fall. I en­joy ex­per­i­ment­ing with colour and process. My new ideas are of­ten sub­jects from our sum­mer va­ca­tions. This year I rode my mo­tor­cy­cle through the Cana­dian Rock­ies with five other ami­gos and found in­spi­ra­tion in the rolling hills, steep, strik­ing moun­tain ranges, and the rivers, lakes and streams me­an­der­ing be­low. I was con­stantly paint­ing the vis­tas in my head imag­in­ing them as can­vases.

It was hard keep­ing my thoughts on the road (which made for a pre­oc­cu­pied rider). I watched how the tex­tures in the trees be­low played off the smooth sky. The el­e­ment of

yin yang was ev­ery­where. Drama was in the tri­an­gu­lar pat­terns of the moun­tains and the sliv­ers of light al­ways slic­ing up the ter­rain. It was easy to choose sev­eral new com­po­si­tions to at­tempt in water­colour and af­ter do­ing about 10, I be­gan to try my new un­der­paint­ing tech­niques in oil.

Process and Tech­niques

Be­fore I at­tempt a ma­jor oil paint­ing, I al­ways re­fer to the water­colour study I’ve done and keep it nearby. I sel­dom steer away from the ex­per­i­men­ta­tion that has taken place here. In or­der to pre­pare for the paint­ing, I lay a wash of burnt si­enna mixed with tal­tine, a min­eral spirit, over the whole can­vas us­ing a criss­cross pat­tern to the strength of a No. 4 value. I let it dry for a cou­ple of days be­fore I be­gin my draw­ing. A loose out­line us­ing a white conté pen­cil es­tab­lishes the sub­ject. I then spray it lightly with a fix­a­tive to pre­vent it from smudg­ing.

I am not the first to at­tempt wash­ing the can­vas in burnt si­enna. Rem­brandt used the tech­nique to su­perb ad­van­tage. Cana­dian painter Tom Thom­son, dur­ing the first decade of the 20th cen­tury and his seven fa­mous friends known in Canada as “The Group of Seven,” used this tech­nique of­ten on their small Ma­sonite pan­els paint­ing north­ern On­tario, Nova Sco­tia, Que­bec, British Columbia and the North West Ter­ri­to­ries in plein air. In these stud­ies, you will find a glow or warmth even in the darker pieces. All paint­ings, es­pe­cially work­ing stud­ies, start out as an ex­per­i­ment. If you look closely at these small vi­gnettes, burnt si­enna has served as the ini­tial groundwork for the thick im­pasto lay­ers on top. These lit­tle stud­ies are masterpieces in their own right and now in many cir­cles are achiev­ing high prices at auc­tion.

I pre­fer land­scape to still life. Land­scape paint­ing al­lows me to swing the brush more freely from my wrist in­stead of my fin­gers. It pro­vides room for dab­bing, swish­ing and ac­cent­ing light as Manet and Van Gogh aptly demon­strated. It al­lows the viewer to

see the brush­strokes pro­duc­ing the drama and power in the work.

De­sign Tac­tics

I al­ways start my com­po­si­tions think­ing of the golden rule of thirds. I pro­ceed to break up my space us­ing geo­met­ric lines that in­ter­sect and play against one an­other.

At this stage, I es­tab­lish the fo­cal point and de­ter­mine the light source to en­hance the cen­ter of in­ter­est. De­vel­op­ing this as­pect of the paint­ing is fore­most on my mind. This area should be in­trigu­ing to the viewer and the rest of the im­agery should take the view­ers eye on a cir­cu­lar, vis­ual path keep­ing them in the frame. I learned how to do this when giv­ing a sem­i­nar on 17th-cen­tury Dutch paint­ing. I dis­cov­ered how these artists would elim­i­nate the light in the fore­ground to take the viewer into the fo­cal point of the paint­ing. It is there that we ex­pe­ri­ence the “wow” fac­tor. I found my eyes rolling across the fields fol­low­ing light and shadow, sub­dued tex­tures and glo­ri­ous light. Even the clouds had tri­an­gu­lar pat­terns in them that would bend your vi­sion to the hori­zon line of­ten where the fo­cal point would be whether it was a church steeple, graz­ing sheep or cattle, a fig­ure or a cart rolling through the mid ground. This is why one must study the Dutch Mas­ters, if not for the pure joy of vis­ual plea­sure then for the in­valu­able lessons they teach in how to place sub­ject mat­ter in a com­po­si­tion and then make it mem­o­rable.


I like to cre­ate mem­o­rable paint­ings, ones that are meant to haunt the mem­ory. Two of the great­est com­pli­ments I have re­ceived in my ca­reer have been: “I can smell the air in your paint­ing” and “I re­mem­ber a paint­ing you did sev­eral years ago, and I can’t get it out of my mind.” I like to ex­plore new venues, new tech­niques and new in­spi­ra­tions. I love visit­ing galleries and mu­se­ums and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing un­known painters or fa­mous painters with un­known works.

Many Amer­i­can painters have in­spired me, in­clud­ing Wil­liam Mer­ritt Chase, John Singer Sar­gent, Winslow Homer and the artist I con­sider to be the best of the best, An­drew Wyeth. I was so in­spired by his work that I named my son af­ter him. Even Wyeth had his men­tors namely Howard Pyle and Ed­ward Hopper. In April 2018, I went off to study Rem­brandt and his con­tem­po­raries at the Ri­jks Mu­seum in Am­s­ter­dam. The learn­ing and in­spi­ra­tion never end.

Sun­set in the Bay, Province­town, Cape Cod, oil, 30½ x 39¼" (77 x 100 cm)

Elora Gorge in progress

Elora Gorge, oil, 31 x 41"(79 x 104 cm)

View of the Mill, oil, 72 x 108" (183 x 274 cm)

Cove Is­land, Ge­or­gian Bay in progress.

Cove Is­land, Ge­or­gian Bay, oil, 36 x 60" (91 x 152 cm)

Guide Lines, Trin­ity Bay, New­found­land, oil, 44 x 36" (112 x 91 cm)

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