You can’t let someone in that far, there’s a line. QA with painter Erin McSavaney

I wouldn’t like someone watching me work.

I never watched anybody paint, I was never interested in watching someone. I think the way I learned as a student essentially was, I could see something and I understand how it was done. It was always about studying the painting itself and figuring out the sequence and steps. When I started painting on canvas in my late teens. I was doing it with the intention of being an illustrator. Every second, because I wasn’t a very social person, was spent at my old drafting table painting.


What were your major influences?
A: I would see people like Mark Frederickson, Jerry Lofaro and Hajime Sorayama in airbrush action magazine. I was heavily into those guys. I was making sci-fi airbrush illustration in high school, that was my thing. My background beyond that was Star Wars, graffiti and comic books. Actually they just produced a book about the history of Canadian Graffiti. It was really cool to be part of it.

That’s how everybody learns right? You get inspired…
A: …and hopefully you move beyond it. It’s funny, when I’m doing this I still see pieces of that stuff in there. Fine art kind of happened by accident. When I graduated I had this idea of being an illustrator and I met all these art directors and showed everybody my portfolio. When I looked at what i had and compared it to what they wanted my reaction was like, hey wait, you guys don’t want painting anymore? And what the fuck is this? I’m seeing cartoon hands holding french fries and clip art type icon things. I’m thinking what happened to the great stuff from the 60s and 70s. Bernie Fuchs, Bob Peak, Robert Cunningham. By that time, these were my heroes. I didn’t understand that what I wanted to do didn’t matter anymore because of things like photoshop. So I started driving a forklift, and I was painting in the bedroom. With the same drawing table from my teenage years. Just continued painting oils and illustrations, making the paintings I wanted to make.

I had no outlet so I started showing work at smaller local galleries and as my work progressed the places I showed adjusted fairly accordingly. Now I have a great people to work with in Equinox Gallery in Vancouver and Parts Gallery in Toronto.


How has the work evolved since then?
A: There was around a 10 year learning curve after college to catch up on what I didn’t know about art history really. College taught me how to paint but not really how to critically think about art. Plus I suffer from ADHD so for me to spend a lot of time reading takes a great deal of effort. As I pushed through I became aware of people Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Bechtle and Frank Stella. When your mind opens up, your painting starts to change.

The issue you become faced with is now that you know how to speak, what do you try to say? The struggle has always been what do you paint as an artist in the 21st century. In this dialogue of painting that’s been going on for so many years where do you sit and how do you contribute? Every time you make a mark as a painter you are referencing some other mark made in art history. That can become quite daunting. So that became the big question. After some years I eventually reached the point of understanding for my general direction. So I started making landscape paintings that contained architectural elements. After that the focus turned to strictly architectural paintings. Say, around 2008-09.

After that I moved back towards landscapes but this time more rural. With things like cattle shelters forming the architectural element. Last year I did an exhibition of paintings done from photos taken from a moving car. These paintings often included the edge of the car window in them. They were accompanied by a sound installation. Now I feel I can pull from any of these previous explorations to make a painting. It’s a very rewarding period.

Do people ever talk to you about the nostalgia factor that your paintings have? It feels like there’s a lot of nostalgia.
A: Some of the paintings are incredibly personal and nostalgic for sure.  Some are made from reference material shot by other people so it varies. I would say as a person i’m somewhat romantic or nostalgic and I‘m a little embarrassed about that. It doesn’t seem like it’s a very fashionable notion in contemporary art at the moment.

Do you still draw people?
A: I actually just finished a piece with a person in it. It just worked too well for the composition to leave the figure out. (Which I usually do.) I think if figures work for the composition, fine. I don’t think i’ll start making y’know, figurative paintings anytime soon though.


When you take these photos, do you drive at the same time?
A: No (laughter). But, I used to. My wife drives now. It’s almost embarrassing I find, going out to take photos. I feel like I’m stealing something when i’m out doing it. Like I’m getting away with something. It’s kind of strange but exciting.

How do you go about finding your subject, what’s your thought process?
A: It’s shapes a lot of the time, and how these shapes fit together. It’s very simple. when you’re taking a shot, there’s so little time when you’re in a moving car that it’s when you see two shapes align or a certain shape and then you just snap it, and figure out the hard part later. I’m very selective but impulsive as well. The fun of it for me is trying to piece together some meaning out of this inherently quick moment. Is there something in there that people who drive by, miss? Part of the draw for me is seeing manmade structures and nature interacting and forming relationships. The way a building sits within the ground for example.

Can you talk about the tools and materials you use for your work?
A: After school I used oil until 2006. Once in a while in the past I’ve had panic attacks, but then I started having panic attacks around the mineral spirits in my basement and I was like, is this the problem? Maybe I was tripping out, I don’t know. Anyway, I got rid of the oils. Also, my wife was pregnant at the time and we didn’t want the toxins in the house. When I was working with oils I always had daydreams about how awesome it would be to apply paint and then just dip your brush in water and you’re good to go. Over all it took about a month to switch to acrylics.

For acrylic paint I usually don’t use any mediums. sometimes i’ll throw in some matte medium at the priming stage but that’s about it. If I work on paper the gesso is a little different. Thinner, I guess. For the work in the shows last year (2014) I wanted the appearance of raw canvas so it’s two very thin layers of gesso. I like the way paint physically sits against raw canvas. It reminds me of Helen Frankenthaler’s work.

This acrylic looks alive.
A: And that’s the thing when I made the switch to acrylic, it was how do you not kill them? Because they die pretty easily. It’s taking the time to apply lots and lots of translucent layers. I don’t use thick paint. Every time I do a painting twice, it’s better the second time. If this all burns down, I know I can make a better version tomorrow. Painting is millions of tiny decisions the entire time you’re doing it. Usually after I’m in the studio, I don’t want to make another decision for the rest of the day. Ha ha.

It seems like you have a very supportive family.
A: You’re right, Jen has been very supportive, amazing throughout this whole thing. I wouldn’t be anywhere near this without her. I don’t want a studio out of the house, she’s in 2 in the afternoon. We get to hang out so much as a family it’s ridiculous, we’re very lucky, I wouldn’t trade anything for that.

Prior to getting your work out there, did you decide by yourself or did you get the opinions of other people?
A: It’s integral to be dedicated to your vision and know where you stand. at the same time other people’s opinions are often what further your career.  it’s hard sometimes but you can’t let other people’s thoughts in the studio too often. It messes with your head and subsequently the work.

What do you think are the hurdles you have to work out?
A: It’s endless. I’m always learning. Part of me says I could be more social and go to more openings and things but honestly I’m not that social a person. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t be a painter.

Erin is represented by the Equinox Gallery in Vancouver and the Parts Gallery in Toronto. To see more of Erin McSavaney’s work, visit

note: This interview was done in September of 2014 and was just recently published 1 year later.

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