Quinn McNichol grew up outside of Philly in Glenside and attended school at Pennsylvania College of Art and Design. She is chiefly a painter, but also draws, and is known for her figure work and landscapes. She cites her aunt, Jane McNichol, as her introduction to art and the biggest influence on her work. Her website is quinnmcnichol.com and her instagram is @quinnmcnichol.
Interviewed by Bryn Friedenberg
Edited by Lea Eisenstein
*Responses have been condensed and edited for clarity
What are you working on at the moment?
I was doing a lot of landscape paintings in the summer, but since it’s cold it’s kind of nice to hibernate and work in the studio. A lot of my paintings come from drawings that I’ve done in my sketchbook from life, and then I take them and do a bunch of studies of them and turn them into a larger painting. I did a sketch at my friend’s house on New Year’s Day, and I kind of have this idea that how you spend New Year’s Day is how you spend the rest of the year. Like it’s an omen or something. I started to do a bunch of drawings from that in my studio and now I’m turning it into a larger painting. So, right now my studio is filled with a lot of different versions of this sketch.
Is there an artwork of yours that you’re most proud of?
It’s been hard for me to figure out how to make drawings from my sketchbook turn into a painting, and I feel like I’m finally starting to get to that point where I think I can translate it properly. Like, I have a vision in my head but I don’t really know what that is. This time last year, I did a painting of my aunt at her home in Colorado, and I felt like that was the first time that I was able to paint it so that it spoke to the original drawing but was still a painting on its own. I guess there was this concern with having a big painting; it was sort of intimidating, like I wanted to flesh it out and everything. For some reason in that one painting, I was able to find that boundary between the drawing and what my idea of a painting needs to be. So, it sort of sits in between. That one is called “The Midnight Sun in Arvada.”
Can you talk more about that sketch-to-painting process?
I did a lot of figure painting in school, and then would have assignments of works from life. I really liked the idea of figures interacting in an interior setting. In college, I used to try to set it up where I would have a few paintings at different friends’ houses, and when everybody was hanging out, watching TV, playing video games and stuff, I would stand there and paint them. That was really exciting for me because I loved working from life but I wanted to get that more intimate setting that you don’t get with a nude figure in a studio class. I think that’s where it started. But that was really hard to do--working in oil paint in somebody’s bedroom or living room. It was a really intricate setup. I did a lot of big drawing in those spaces too, but then I started to realize that I could take information in a smaller way and then expand on it in my studio. It’s different because in the paintings I did in people’s houses, I was able to capture the movement as things changed. Now my paintings look different now because they’re studio paintings, but I’m glad that I’ve gotten to this point.
What do you do when you’re not creating?
I like to go on hikes a lot, and I like bird watching. Seeing friends. Going outdoors a lot is really important.
Does feminism play a role in your work?
Not necessarily feminism. I am a female artist, and that’s important to me and a lot of my influences are females, but I guess it’s not something I think about too much--it’s not the first thing that comes to my mind. My aunt Jane was my first big influence, and her friend Marcia Jones was my teacher for a while. Going into college and everything, I had a lot of powerful female artists in my life, and that’s huge to me.
Who are some of your other favorite female artists?
I can give you a huge list: Martha Armstrong, Deborah Kahn, Barbara Grossman, Alice Schwager, Dorothy Frey, Heidi Leitzke, Stephanie Pierce. I could go on.
How did you start making art?
I think it was just my really young, intuitive self. I drew a lot. I think I knew I was going to be an artist when I was five.
Your art is very colorful. How do you go about coloring your paintings?
That’s always been a challenge for me because I really love color. But when I was starting to paint, I naturally used color as a way to express, and it sort of got to a point where I was using all of the colors all the time, and it got kind of muddy and dark even though I was using bright colors. I think what I figured out that helps me a lot is limiting my palette. What I’ll do now is mix a few colors--maybe 4 or 5--and paint with just those, almost as if they were crayons or pastels. That way I have limited colors--one brush for each color--and that helps me to organize it a little better. For each painting session I’ll mix a new set of colors and I’ll branch off and mix something else if I need to. I think limiting the palette makes the paintings brighter, and the colors speak more strongly.
What inspires you in your artwork?
I think looking at art is a huge inspiration. And going out for walks in the woods is also very inspiring--just taking in the beauty of the natural world puts me in a good headspace and makes me feel like I want to be myself, and myself is my creative self. Being out in nature is helpful, and looking at what other people do. Sometimes just little moments of seeing somebody sitting a certain way is totally inspiring. Sometimes I think I just find myself in perfect moments, and I’m really lucky when I have the time to draw it. That happened with the painting with my aunt. The way it was set, I was just sitting there, and I looked. She was sitting in the chair and the bright sun was above her, and then there was a bouquet of flowers, and far off in the distance were people working on a roof and a curtain in between. It was just laid out so perfectly. I get lucky sometimes.
In your opinion what are the best and worst parts about being an artist?
Well, I think it’s the same thing: you can do whatever you want. If you’re an artist, you have total freedom to do whatever you want, and that is so awesome because it’s like you and your materials and the canvas and the whole world--and you’re totally free. But then that’s also terrifying and paralyzing sometimes because I can do whatever I want, and then I have to figure that out. So, I’m always really happy about being an artist and I don’t know what else I would do, but also, I don’t know what else I would do. It goes full circle a lot.
Is there something in your studio you can’t live without?
I have a picture in my studio. I had done a drawing marathon at the New York Studio School in 2011, and for one of the assignments, Graham Nickson, who was the teacher there, gave us these Egyptian Fayum paintings. We all had a different one and I felt like he gave me the perfect one. It was just this beautiful young female figure. And ever since drawing that, I’ve had her hung up in my studio and she’s traveled with me. I feel like she’s my muse. She’s perfect.
What do you think is the most important issue facing artists today?
I think being real and true to yourself. It’s really important, and it’s hard because there’s always so much going on and everybody’s making art. And when you see all of that, and then you’re alone in your studio and you have to figure out what you’re going to do, I think the most important thing is to make sure you’re doing what you need to do and not what you’re supposed to do, or what somebody else says or does. I know that’s my biggest thing: trying to find myself and not being somebody else.
Do you have any tips or inspiring words for young artists?
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do. If you want to be an artist, you just have to keep doing it. Even if you make a million horrible paintings, that’s better than not making any paintings. Just keeping your hand moving and stay engaged with the world, the art world, or just your world. Whatever it is that inspires you, keep trying to do it. I had to find ways to sort of force myself to do it sometimes.