GEORGINA COBURN: Your solo exhibition Until The Day Break at Kilmorack Gallery in the summer of 2010 was a landmark show for you both personally and professionally, can you comment on the evolution of that particular body of work?

ALLAN MACDONALD: The work for Until The Day Break was built up over two years. When I know I’m having a solo show I keep painting as always, putting work aside, but all the time I’m waiting for a dominant theme or focus that holds it all together.

This last show the most significant event that happened was my Father passing away. The morning before he died I walked out of Raigmore and I saw a crescent moon, it was a beautiful image – very pale, just a little crescent of light in shadow. I thought about that and realised that shadow comes into a lot of my work.

I have always loved shadows. Ordinarily what’s in shadow is obscure, there’s no clarity – then you come into the light and brightness where things are defined. I flipped that on its head using the C S Lewis idea of the Shadowlands, we’re living in the Shadowlands; distinct, defined, familiar and what’s to come, the brightness, is less well defined. I had this at the back of my mind and kept painting.

I used a lot of blistering light, even in the portraits, which maybe gave the work a slightly transcendent feel, if that’s not too grand. The idea of permanence and flux also surfaced in the last show, I like painting things that have been and will be around a long time, which are also in a constant cycle of motion; the moon, the sea, the seasons.

Perhaps that’s one reason my landscapes are devoid of pylons, fences, houses, signposts and roads, all the things that form the fixed, frail finite web we weave. I’m more attracted to constant change. The genius of the creative world as I see it is that things are in a constant state of change but always the same.

GEORGINA COBURN: Direct engagement with the landscape is central to your creative process. What draws you to a particular site in terms of working outdoors? How do you begin to capture an essence of place or are there larger forces of nature shaping the work?

ALLAN MACDONALD: It’s both place and larger forces. In terms of location I like remoteness, the more remote the better, that’s what I look for. You capture the essence of a place by knowing it – its colours, seasons, echoes and memories. I have never understood artists who go to Morocco or somewhere for two weeks then come back and have a one man show, assuming to know something of a place that they have barely breathed in. I do paint a lot from memory as well as going out on location.

GEORGINA COBURN: Do you do a lot of oil sketches while out in the field?

ALLAN MACDONALD: No, I’m not a sketcher. I like full on painting. If it’s freezing cold I’ll go out and batter out something in an hour. Because it’s done quickly it has a lot of energy. I may work on it again when I get back. Some things come off the brush in one go, others take a lot of labour but I don’t really do sketches – the idea of going from a small sketch to a larger painting, from less information to more information, doesn’t appeal to me. I will sometimes work from a larger picture to a smaller one but on the whole I paint on the spot.

GEORGINA COBURN: There is a transcendent quality of light in your work; not just physically in the ever changing nature of the landscape you’ve chosen to work in, but symbolically and spiritually. How important is faith for you personally in the making of art and how do you see your role or responsibility as an artist?

ALLAN MACDONALD: My faith is behind everything, not at the forefront, generating energy quietly behind everything I do. I wonder what I would do as an artist if I didn’t believe that the world was intentionally beautiful or wilfully sublime. I don’t see the world as a hostile, detached place.

GEORGINA COBURN: I think even in the darkest and most turbulent of your paintings there is always a signature flash of blue and the presence of light. There is always optimism, even if there is a sense of struggle – this was certainly true in the last show, that sense of energy, life and light was all-pervasive.

ALLAN MACDONALD: I glad you mention optimism – my friends think I’m a hopeless pessimist, but I feel differently. Michel Faber said when reviewing an earlier show of mine that “…his bleak Northern scenery might be expected to add up to a gloomy effect… yet somehow the opposite happens”.

Some art can, like prayer, be introspective, private, even secretive. Or it can be like praise – outward, exuberant and inclusive. I hope mine has elements of both, but probably veering to the latter. My faith also helps me keep perspective on art. It is not an end in itself. It is not the Holy Grail. Sometimes in our Western society, it appears as though the arts (film, TV, visual arts, literature, music) are themselves worthy of worship. Actors and musicians are almost deified.

GEORGINA COBURN: Is the act of painting redemptive?

ALLAN MACDONALD: It may be. It is a release. I am drawn out of myself by what is around me – the sky with its sense of infinity and the land with its tangible familiarity. When I see a red moon come up over Suilven in the winter time it isn’t enough for me to look at it, to enjoy it, I want to do more. I need to get the paints out, if I wasn’t doing that it would be very frustrating, so in that sense perhaps it is redemptive.

GEORGINA COBURN: For many people Highland landscape painting is entirely about a scenic view, we are still bound and tethered to the Victorian aesthetic of the Highlands as a vast wilderness or leisure park as depicted by Horatio McCulloch, Landseer and others. How do you view these kinds of representations of the landscape you live and work in and how do you feel this inheritance affects perception of contemporary work both within and outside the Highlands?

ALLAN MACDONALD: I think at the heart of my art form is authenticity. Were MacCulloch and Landseer, and Walter Scott for that matter, authentic? To be genuine you have to know, to know you normally have to experience. I’m not sure there is much difference to Landseer’s view of the Highlands than from some present day artist going abroad on a two week painting trip. I try and understand my small corner of the world, aware that the earth is full of many small corners. You try and know and expand in reference to a wider humanity.

The international symbols that identify Scotland (kilts, bagpipes, whisky) are all Highland in origin. I wonder if that still affects perceptions of everything else that’s done here. I know there has been the odd artist (like Will MacLean) from the Highlands that has become established, but it’s pretty rare. That may be partly our own fault, but I think most good artists in the Highlands (and there are a few) have little interest shown in their work in Glasgow or Edinburgh. People seem to think its just boring old landscape.

GEORGINA COBURN: I think it is about getting beyond the scenic view of the Highlands. For me your most recent work transcended the genre of Highland landscape painting, there was an emotional and psychological dimension to the work that made me conscious not just of the landscape itself but a human mind perceiving it. In a previous solo show, Signs of Life (Browns Gallery 2007), there were glimmers of a more expressionistic sensibility starting to emerge – were you conscious of this ongoing development in terms of paint handling and choice of palette? How do you feel these elements enable greater depth of exploration in relation to subject matter?

ALLAN MACDONALD: My work has changed, and like all best changes it happened without trying. Quite a simple thing happened. I used to use thick layers of paint, it could be heavy but dead. I began to look at the roof of my studio, everybody who comes into the studio loves the roof – I love it. It’s all my random paint marks.

GEORGINA COBURN: (Looking up) Yes, there’s a lot of energy up there!

ALLAN MACDONALD: It is a great surface to work on. So I transposed the chance colours and marks on to blank boards and canvases instead of the roof. Over this ground I apply layers of thick paint, but also washes, still allowing what’s beneath to come through. I think this gives some energy to the paintings, a bit like how a boat lying in the sand becomes buoyant when the tide comes in – this heavy thing suddenly becomes lifted.

The best paintings are the ones that are least contrived, where the artist’s hand is largely unnoticed. It’s a fine line between the intentional and the unintentional, and I think I’m learning to juggle these elements. The constant battle you have as an artist is to transform inert pigment into light – your biggest friend is also your biggest enemy – white paint.

Introducing random colours and marks that come through as part of the ground, and learning how to balance warm and cold with colour, especially in the larger pieces, has changed the work. It’s also a way of looking – being aware of the landscape rather than staring at it, and new techniques have helped this way of seeing.

: Your work can be seen in the context of a Northern European Romantic tradition and as part of a national lineage of Scottish Art through the work of the early modernist William McTaggart and others. Can you comment on some of your formative influences and those within the current body of work?

ALLAN MACDONALD: I read a book by Robert Rosenblum on the Northern Romantic spirit and it at last put my work in context.

: I’m thinking of the front cover, which has Friedrich’s Monk By The Sea on it (Modern Painting and The Northern Romantic Tradition. Friedrich to Rothko by Robert Rosenblaum).

ALLAN MACDONALD: Exactly. Broadly he describes Southern Mediterranean art as more decorative in approach and Northern Art as more inwardly spiritual; artists such as Caspar Friedrich, Munch and Nolde, I have always loved this work. Climate plays a large part in the North European psyche, as it does with our music. Nobody in the South of France was ever going to write a pibroch. My formative influences were Caspar Friedrich, Turner, Nolde, Kokoshka, Munch, Georges Roualt also. But all this came after the Canadian artist Tom Thompson.

GEORGINA COBURN: What are the qualities you admire most about Thomson?

ALLAN MACDONALD: When I saw his paintings it was love at first sight, and it’s never dimmed. I haven’t tried to analyse this, it’s not healthy to analyse love. I’m not so keen on others in the Group of Seven, I thought he was well ahead of the rest. To me his are outstanding paintings; immediate, physical, joyful, perceptive. I know when I look at them that what propelled him in his kayak around the Canadian wilderness is the same stuff that takes me to the remote corners of the Highlands.

More recently, Auerbach, Eardley and Barbara Rae are painters I’ve enjoyed. But I’m not a great art watcher, I tend to paint in a bubble slightly. I know this can be unhealthy, but it’s a big beautiful bubble.

GEORGINA COBURN: How does work in other genres such as figurative, portraiture and still life inform your approach to landscape and composition?

ALLAN MACDONALD: I’m more daunted when it comes to portraits and still life. I’m trying to introduce the positive qualities, the freedom and confidence of my landscape painting to the rest of my work. I started doing really big heads to try and get that freedom.

: Like dealing with a landmass.

ALLAN MACDONALD: Yes. I feel I’m bringing the landscape work and the figurative work closer together.

GEORGINA COBURN: While there is consistent emphasis in the contemporary art world on conceptual art and that which engages with the latest technological upgrade, one could argue that the art of painting remains embedded. Artists have continued to devote themselves to the medium and there is something timeless, immediate and physically tangible about human engagement with drawn marks, brushstrokes and pigment. What fundamental need does painting satisfy for you and where do you feel the art of painting sits in relation to contemporary art practice?

ALLAN MACDONALD: I don’t think painting will ever die. There will always be an audience for one man/woman, a guitar and a good song. So also with oil painting. On a very basic level people have walls and you can’t hang installations on walls! You mention mark making and it’s a good point. Use and mastery of a medium is a process largely neglected in much of what passes for modern art practice. If I play the violin and I want to express myself, I must have some mastery of my instrument. Otherwise my great ideas will lie dormant, or be poorly conveyed.

Conceptual art appears low on visuals, high on concept. Other newer art forms, maybe like street art or low brow, seem high on visuals, low on concept. Sweeping generalisation that, I’m sure. I’m not a big fan of work that needs adjacent essays to explain itself – more often than not, actually adding layers of inexplicableness.

Painting will survive because we’ve been there before – remember the glass of water on a shelf entitled ‘This is a tree’? I think a far greater danger to painting than conceptual art is TV and cinema, with its bombardment of changing images, endless choice and high octane interpretation of the world around us. And a flat screen TV fits perfectly on the wall where a painting should be!

For me painting is an outlet. A gold moon jumps out round the corner of Suilven, early evening. Winter … how on earth can I respond to this? Mountainous seas, grey herds as Neil Gunn called them, unleash themselves on an old headland, this is something to be shared, but how?

I’ll get my paints out.

© Georgina Coburn, 2011