The Screwball Confidential Interview – Michael McNamara

“Empire State from Tribecca – Evening Lights”

For this interview I thought we might take a trip in the Way-Back machine and visit with someone I’ve known for 20 years.

Michael McNamara and I worked together right out of college at a little commercial art studio in Detroit named “Colorforms” (not the toy). There were around six or eight illustrators on staff at any given time. We serviced all the major agencies. (J.Walter Thompson, W.B. Doner, McCann-Erickson etc.) It required many full days and all nighters. It was kind of like being in the art trenches. You learned fast.

I always admired Mike’s ability and work ethic. After a long day of cranking out anything from storyboards to point of purchase display art he would often spend the evening in a figure drawing class improving his skills.

A few years ago we reconnected. He was living in New York creating wonderful Plein air paintings of New York streets and skyline.

After you read the interview be sure to check out this documentary, “New York Canvas” , on Michael done by film maker Martin J. Spinelli.

I want to thank Michael for taking time to be a part of this interview and share his work methods and techniques. (It was a great excuse to catch up again.)

“Willets Point”

James Owens – Lets play “How you got from there to here”. What is your earliest memory of art?

Michael McNamara – Throughout my childhood I struggled with a reading problem which was eventually diagnosed as dyslexia. I suppose it was for that reason that books didn’t hold much interest for me, except one section of the library on dinosaurs. Some of my earliest and fondest memories of school were scouring through dinosaur books filled with fantastic illustrations and paintings of these marvelous creatures. I began copying and tracing the images, which eventually led me to creating my own interpretations. That evolved into an interest in comic books and films related to dinosaurs and monsters. I can remember sitting in front of the television sketching when the 4:00 Movie would host Godzilla week.

J.O. – Oh man the 4:00 Movie, that is a blast from the past for anyone who grew up in Detroit in the 70s. So where are you from and where did you go to school?

M.M. – I grew up in Livonia Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. After high-school I spent a couple of years at a community college getting some of the basic credit classes under my belt while trying to figure out a career direction. My focus remained on something art related, but the college I was attending didn’t have much of an art program. I decided to take a class in commercial art at a vocational training facility called the Livonia Career Center. The instructor (and a working illustrator) Ed Hubert, was one of the best teachers and mentors I would ever have. He told me if I was serious about being an artist, I had to be serious about my education. I spent the next year busting my ass developing a portfolio, and applying for every kind of financial aid and scholarship I could find. It paid off, and a year later I was attending Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. It was through CCS (just before graduation) that I met my future employer. I have continued to take classes on and off over the years in various disciplines (I love school!) When I moved to New York I continued taking painting and drawing classes at the Art Students League, and the copyist program at the Met.

J.O. – You and I both earned our stripes in the trenches at an illustration studio named Colorforms (not the toy). Was that your first art job? How long did you work at Colorforms doing commercial work?

M.M. – I had developed several freelance clients through the Livonia Career Center with whom I worked throughout my years at CCS, but Colorforms was my first full-time art gig. I worked there for 11 years.

J.O. – When you left Colorforms did you continue to pursue commercial work?

M.M. – Not much, I was feeling burned out from the business and needed some down time. My interest had switched from illustration to painting. Over the years I had saved up enough money to take some time off and go back to school. That’s what led me to New York.

J.O. – I know you enjoyed New York even when we worked together, when did you move to New York?

M.M. – I moved to New York in early 2000, a few months after leaving Colorforms.

J.O. – Who are some artists that have most influenced your work?

M.M. – There have been many artists over the years that have had an impact on the direction of my work. Of-course I learned a great deal from all the talented people I worked with at Colorforms, especially Kevin Fales, who is one of the most gifted and versatile illustrators I have ever known. For years I also studied and enjoyed the work of Walt Disney Animation which helped me with drawing, composition, and color as well as influence the process by which I approach painting (building layers of paint from a rough gesture to a more refined image). The artworks of Glenn Barr got me more interested in urban subject-matter, as did working in the city of Detroit itself. But the artists that turned me on to oil painting were Masters such as Sargent, Vermeer, and Rembrandt, as well as contemporary painters Malcomb Liepke and Steve Huston. Once I moved to New York and began painting around the neighborhoods it was the city itself which had the greatest influence on the work, searching for the essence of what was visually interesting about a particular location. But I continued to have opportunities of experiencing great art in the many museums in New York. Studying paintings by Cezanne, Picasso, Hopper, Hofmann and Willem de Kooning opened me up to other ideas about painting that increased my enthusiasm and interest in composition and structure.

J.O. – Wow Kevin Fales, he seemed to be able to handle any medium and technique at a very young age. That’s something we were all asked to do at that time but he made it look easy. What is your preferred medium these days?

M.M. – I usually work in oil paint although I have recently been experimenting a little in watercolor.

J.O. – How would you describe the work you’re doing now.

M.M. – After ten years of painting on the streets of New York I’m taking a break from the city. I recently moved back to Michigan to work on a series of studio paintings reflecting on some of my experiences there. Some paintings are worked up from photo reference taken over the years in New York, others are compositions created from sketchbooks or from memory using a more graphic style.

“Astoria Train Station”

J.O. – What is it about cityscapes that excite you?

M.M. – Cityscapes are a terrific environment to find all kinds of graphic relationships and interesting compositional combinations. The environment also offers a great deal of cultural and ethnic diversity and interaction. It’s an exciting vibrant place of people, politics, history, and creativity.

J.O. – Do you keep a sketchbook? If so how does this apply to your work?

M.M. – Yes, I use a sketchbook for scouting out locations to paint. It’s a great way to quickly analyze compositional structure and determine the most effective proportions for a painting. It’s also good for recording ideas and developing concepts.

J.O. – After all the hours we spent cooped up and maker high you must really enjoy the plein air painting you do. Tell us about your gear.

M.M. – It’s great being able to work outside, but it does present many challenges, especially in a crowded city like New York. I tried to keep myself as lightweight as possible. The easel I use is an aluminum Testright brand. It’s durable, lightweight, fairly stable, and relatively tall for a mobile easel. The legs collapse down to a single shaft while the painting can remain clamped to it (handy when carrying a wet painting onto a crowded subway). Everything else fits into a simple tote bag: a Rubbermaid container holds my paints, a 15” oval wooden palette, a roll of cellophane plastic wrap (for covering the palette to save unused paint), a palette knife, brushes, a double clip-on cup holder for two jars with linseed oil and turp, rags or paper towels, a small plastic grocery bag for garbage, and a bottle of water for drinking.

J.O. – What is your preferred ground to paint on and why?

M.M. – I usually paint on a gesso ground applied to canvas, linen, or Masonite. I build up several thin layers of gesso applied in criss-crossing directions (similar to the weave of a canvas). I like gesso because the prep and drying time is very quick. Once I find a location to paint, I can have a canvas prepped and ready to go in two days. This is important for plein-air painting because a few weeks can dramatically affect the direction or temperature of the sunlight at a particular location. Also in urban environments, construction projects and scaffolding can pop-up at any time and block a great view.

J.O. – How large a painting can you realistically handle plein air?

M.M. – It depends on where I’m painting, and how I’m getting there. Certain locations themselves may limit the size of a painting, such as a crowded street corner or narrow sidewalk. It’s important to minimize becoming an obstruction to other people and businesses. Setting up next to an immovable object like a mailbox or light-pole can act as a great defensive blocker on a busy street. The largest painting I attempted on location measured 24”w x 68”h, (of the Empire State Building). I didn’t have too much trouble working on the actual painting, but getting a wet canvas that large back onto the subway was a nightmare.

J.O. – Fortunately you were in N.Y. so they are used to seeing crazy people. When painting outside in winter do you need to mix anything with the paint to assure proper adhesion and drying?

M.M. – Nope. The oil holds up pretty well. It may thicken a little, but is usually still manageable. I use refined linseed oil and odorless turpenoid as my solvent.

J.O. – Do you have a specific way you like to layout your palette?

M.M. – I keep it simple (going clockwise on the palette): Titanium White, Old Holland Cyan Blue, Thalo Green, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Red, Magenta, Raw Sienna, and Ivory Black.

J.O. – What kind of brushes do you like to use?

M.M. – Predominantly Flats: Signet Robert Simmons Flats #1-9, Arttec Bristle Supreme Flat, and for finer details I use Windsor & Newton University Flat #1 and #2, and Round #3 and #4.

J.O. – What is the one tool you couldn’t do without?

M.M. – Patience.

J.O. – Beside cityscapes are there any other subjects you enjoy painting?

M.M. – I enjoy all kinds of subjects, although I’m hoping to pursue more figurative painting in the future.

J.O. – Where can people find your work?

M.M. – Jan Larsen Art in Brooklyn, and at

“Canal Street”


One Response to “The Screwball Confidential Interview – Michael McNamara”

  1. Says:

    Wow. I admire the dedication and the accomplished results, even from here!

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