A Painting is Worth a Thousand Words

Kristen Harnisch interviews acclaimed Cape Cod painter Susan O'Brien McLean.

Why do so many of us enjoy living and vacationing on Cape Cod and the Islands?  We love the warm sand under our feet, the briny breeze rustling through the sea grass, and the beach plum-lined paths that beckon us to the sea.   Perhaps we love the relaxation found on these shell-adorned shores.  A mélange of these
memories is captured in the paintings of Cape Cod artist Susan O’Brien McLean.  I
recently interviewed Ms. McLean at her Osterville home, bustling with her
visiting children, grandchildren, dogs and hamster.    It is this cherished home life and Osterville’s lush scenery that inspire the love of family and wonderment of Cape Cod’s natural beauty that are the hallmark of Ms.McLean’s paintings.

How long have you been painting? About 35 years.

How did you get started?  I loved to draw as a child and dabbled a bit in college with pastels and figure drawing, but my father thought Katharine Gibbs secretarial college was more practical than art school (of course he had a point). I worked for Mademoiselle magazine as a secretary…I was the worst in the world.  It was a nightmare, but I loved working for the magazine because it was so creative…but if you’re a creative type, you have to [create], otherwise you’ll be miserable.

My painting life really began in South Africa in the 1970s where my husband and I lived for 8 years.  It was dangerous to paint outside there because of the cobras and puff adders.   In 1972, I went to Wits University in Johannesburg to take a class.  I will never forget the guy saying to me, “We don’t want housewives in here.”   I went away with my ears hanging down and my tail tucked between my legs.  Moving to England in 1978 was much better because everybody painted; it was easier to find a group, to take a class or a workshop.  Queen Victoria, Prince Charles and the Royals all loved to paint and that trickled down into society.  That was a lovely atmosphere to get going with your work.

What do you enjoy painting most?  I like to paint Oyster Harbors in the fall, children at the beach, ballet dancers, and the Charles River.  I do a lot of paths
and marshes in Barnstable.  In England, I painted a lot of cricket scenes.  I’ve done nudes, a self-portrait, landscapes, portraits and I’ve worked in charcoal, pastel, watercolor and oil.  I love painting commissions. Right now I’m working on two paintings—for sisters in New Canaan and Rhode Island—who each asked me to paint their kids in a boat at Crab Pond.

When I work, I’m simply trying to record a scene in a certain season at a certain time of day.  With any luck, someone will walk into my field of vision and I can put them in the painting…to make a memory for myself and perhaps for someone viewing the painting.

Who are the artists you most admire? My favorite painter, who was also a teacher, was Charles Sovek—he used very juicy bright colors, very different from me.  This is a great book he wrote:  Oil Painting: Develop Your Natural AbilityOther people I really admire are John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, and Richard Schmid.

What advice would you give others who want to begin painting but are too self-conscious to take a class?  I think all artists are self-taught; you have to just do it and learn.  I think painting is 5% talent and 95% hard work.   

Get up your courage and start on a still life.  That’s how I started.  The kids were at school, maybe one baby was napping, and I’d set up 3 apples on the table and paint. Baby steps, baby steps, baby steps.  I loved Helen Van Wyk's work.  She was on TV and her DVDs and books are probably still available.  You could do a value painting using only Black and White and study the "how to" instructions in her books.

Go to the library and take out a ton of books.  I have a bunch of books I recently took out because we’re going to do a painting day with the children. 

As for materials, I use a lot of these quick drying oils mixed in with my regular oils, and I use linseed oil. I use watercolors and I love pastels—that’s how I started.  I like to draw with fresh color in pastels, especially figure drawing and portraits.

Do you remember the first painting you sold?  Yes!  It was a painting of Wingaersheek Beach [in Gloucester] with children playing and I sold it while living in England. 

Has your family always been supportive of your artistry?  Family comes first.  Jac [McLean’s husband] is great—and has been very good over the years supporting my artwork.  He stretches all my canvases.  He’s so loving, proud and supportive.  I remember when I was doing still life paintings in the beginning and we went to an exhibition of a landscape artist.  Jac said to me, “Oh, you’ll never be able to do that.”  That was all the challenge I needed!

How have you changed as an artist?  I’m simplifying my work as I get older.  I’m better at taking criticism now that I’m older.  It used to flatten me.

I adore [Cape Cod]; I could paint it all year round.  I don’t have to leave Osterville.  There’s so much beauty here.  I like to be near my tea kettle, my dogs and my husband—then I’m happy.

To find Ms. McLean’s work in a gallery near you, go to:  www.susanobrienmclean.com/gallery-info.html.  To contact Ms. McLean about commissioning a painting, e-mail her at commissions@susanobrienmclean.com.

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