Interview with Shawn McDonald
By Amy Hutcheson
Resident Rock Star Magazine: When did you first get into art and how did that grow into the artist that we see today?
Shawn McDonald: I got into art as a kid, probably ten years old, or eleven years old. I was drawing my favorite hockey players, the Boston Bruins. I would take an old hockey card and colored pencils and draw Ray Bourque with his visor on and thought that was a tricky color technique. I got the how-to-draw Marvel comics the Stan Lee way and drew my favorite super heroes. I think that changed me a lot because it showed me how to do perspective and shading because it showed how to draw dynamic poses.
RRS: How has your background as a tattoo artist set you up for a career as a painter?
SM: Incredibly, I think. I think being a tattoo artist, as far as imagery goes, is going to be more people giving you ideas, you’re not going to just come up with something on your own every time. You’re going to be tossed an idea that you have to develop and you get to be a little more creative and out of your comfort zone a little bit. Say you have to draw an angel, and you’ve never drawn an angel before, so you look at old paintings or something and that gets you inspired, or you need to draw something Hindu and that leads you into researching about Hinduism. A Japanese ghost or demon you research leads you to find out what a Tengu is, instead of it just being a weird dude with a big fucking nose.
Tattooing gives you these little journeys, these little adventures where you must find out about what people are looking for. I think it leads me to find other interests that I wouldn’t have otherwise been into. I would say that tattooing is so instrumental, it’s taught me to draw things that I can then translate into my paintings.
RRS: Does the tattooing help with your time management and work ethic during the painting process?
SM: If you’re on a deadline and trying to draw something for a client and you have a week or need something ready by the weekend, then you know what you are going to have to do. You must prepare, do some homework, stay in and maybe do four or five revisions of an idea before getting to something substantial enough to tattoo on a person permanently.
RRS: Can you tell us about your background in street art?
SM: I started doing graffiti when I was twelve or thirteen years old in Boston. I would do it on the bus, my friends and I would skip school and tag up the bathroom and shit like that. When we first got into it, it was just about being a little hood rat and causing trouble. It was before the internet got so big, so it was kind of like you were influenced by the graffiti in your town or graffiti magazines so you were trying to go out there and just paint a wall to get your name on something and have that kind of anonymous fame. people would see your tag on a building and not even know what it was but you could drive by with your friends and be like, “there’s my shit!” But after a little while of doing that the internet came around and started showing us outside influences of graffiti and I started doing more elaborate walls and painted murals. It’s what led me to be a tattoo artist because I ended up painting a mural for a tattoo shop and got offered an apprenticeship. Graffiti was the first real art form I ever took on and it was a huge instrumental piece to me becoming an artist.
RRS: What is your favorite art medium?
SM: For painting, right now it’s oil because I set out to become an oil painter. Before I even started tattooing I wanted to paint like Caravaggio someday. I was naïve to the idea that it could ever be possible, but I was also ambitious enough to get there eventually. I didn’t start oil painting until about four years ago when I was thirty-three. I went to New York for a guest spot tattooing and all I kept thinking about was wanting to buy some oil paint while I was there. They had some nice art stores and I did it. I jumped in and my friend Katherine Smith showed me a few things and helped me kind of get started in oil. Then it was just trial by fire. I kept fucking up paintings and learning how to do them and make mistakes. It was one step forward and then two steps back just about every time. Oil painting gave me patience.
I love water color painting and acrylic painting because they are both instant gratification. They’re something that you can pull together relatively quickly if it’s a small painting but because of graffiti I wanted to paint huge paintings. I wanted to paint murals, not necessarily frescos, but enormous paintings like Peter Paul Ruben-style. The impact that a huge painting makes on a person, especially when they’re not expecting to see it, then all the sudden, boom, it’s right there in your fucking face. That makes me love oil paint. Besides spray paint, it’s about the only thing you can get on such a large level. I must say it’s probably easier than acrylic and water color too, in my experience. I think both of those helped me become a better oil painter but when people are reluctant to start oil painting it’s because they’ve heard that it takes so much time and patience. Most of that is bullshit. If you’re serious about oil painting just look past that stuff, because it’s just a matter of time before you are fast at painting.
RRS: How and when did you get into oil painting?
SM: Four years ago, I got into oil painting. I think that I got into it because I love history and I always liked the old master style paintings. I’m not religious in anyway and when I would look at old master paintings of religious stuff I thought “wow, that’s cool I like the painting technique they used”. I grew up in Boston, so I would see stuff like Renaissance and baroque-era art because Catholicism was using that stuff to tell their story, and using that kind of imagery. I think I’ve been interested in oil painting for so long that at thirty-three I just said, fuck it I’m just going to do this all the time and make up for lost time. I was so fearful of it because I thought it was going to take so much to learn and thought it would be impossible to be an oil painter. My biggest regret in life is probably not trying it sooner.
RRS: What other styles of painting do you enjoy?
SM: I think they both watercolor and acrylic painting have their advantages. I wish I had two hundred more years on earth so I could become a sculptor, too. All those things go together. And I’ve painted on just about anything. I painted a VW bus before. After a while of taking commissions I look for things that might be interesting, rather than worrying about needing the money.
RRS: What painters-modern or historic-do you relate to or take inspiration from the most?
SM: Caravaggio and Ruben. A lot of guys that most people wouldn’t know off the top of their head. It’s like music, when you get into music you have your favorite bands. Your tastes get more refined and you look for people that are great painters and just as well known in their own countries but maybe not in America. A lot of my favorite painters have been more Dutch painters, Italian painters, and French painters exclusively from the baroque to the rococo era. As far as modern painters go, I love tattoo painters. There are a lot of guys in tattooing doing amazing paintings like Mike Davis. He does kind of renaissance and baroque style stuff. He’s a tattoo artist and one of the most underrated painters in America. I like Timothy Hoyer, who’s a great watercolor painter and a great tattoo artist. I think he brings a lot to it. I also like Walton Ford, he paints in the Audubon style but also brings new messages and new allegories and the guy is prolific.
RRS: How do you relate to the baroque and renaissance style painting periods?
SM: The biggest thing with those guys was religion. For me, it’s being able to take the renaissance or baroque style and apply it to something I’m more interested in. I might want it to have more violence, or I might want it to be more sexually charged. Back then, painters were limited by the people that were giving them commissions, which was mostly religious, but the baroque-era style starts getting a little more violent with Caravaggio and I think it gives me a lot of ideas.
RRS: What can we look forward to in the future from you?
SM: Well I did an art show last May called Lore and it was a great experience. I’d been painting every night for months and months and months, not going out. That experience made me see the discipline that goes into a solo show but I also liked it. It made me focused and made me better, but months of painting and not going out, and eating like shit and not working out takes a lot of work out of me but I would still do that in the future. I’d like to try to paint a little bit more and tattoo little less; just focus on the tattoos I want to do and I’m passionate about doing. Solo shows, in the meanwhile, and I’ll be trying to push my oil paintings out there as much as possible. Getting them into other galleries out of state and stuff, and I would love to work on more elaborate projects. I try not to think too much about the future. I try to think more about, like, the next two weeks.
RRS: Where can people see more of your work?
SM: Right now, they can see my work at Magnetic Gallery if they were to come by. We have gallery shows all the time. I’ve got paintings scattered all over the states like Maryland and Massachusetts, but you can also see them online on my Instagram and Facebook. I recommend seeing them in person though.
You can see more of McDonald’s work online via mcdonaldpainter.com and by following him on his social networking sites.