Swirling Mental Mists

Alan Macdonald on his artistic process
August 1, 2018
To Whom am I Speaking
To Whom am I Speaking

When I left Art College, I was so terribly serious about what I was doing that everything I turned my hand to seemed to fall flat. It was with the rediscovery of a childlike love of play, and a tendency to get lost in dreamy thought, that I began to put things right. Recently, it has been discovered that a human brain is far more active when daydreaming than when trying to solve a complex mental problem. That was a relief for me to hear and it would explain why some of my most original ideas have emerged from that swirling mental mist.


Being faced with a white canvas can be an alarming experience and initially your mind scrambles around desperately looking for something to paint. The trick is to let go and allow that something to emerge from within you. I learnt this after briefly dipping my toe into abstract painting, having been encouraged to do so by the wonderful abstract painter Mali Morris. It took a bit of getting used to, because you have to trust your feelings and follow your subconscious. What you seek is like an elusive thread, difficult to put your finger on and constantly flicking just out of reach. Every now and then, if you are persistent, you will get a hold of it briefly and feel the little tug of energy, like a fish on the other end.


When I applied this abstract thought to figurative painting, the results were exhilarating. I placed figures and objects onto that white canvas with no preconceived plan or design. Everything poured out until I stopped, a little confused and mentally drained. This reminded me of a story about an expedition on Everest, when one of the slightly irritated climbers confronted the hired Sherpas, who kept stopping. “Are you tired?” he scoffed. “No,” came the reply, “we’re just waiting for our souls to catch up.” That’s how it feels after you have spilled it all out onto a canvas.

Well, you soon learn that your subconscious communicates in riddles and plays poetic games that are fascinating and intellectually stimulating. You also cannot avoid what is troubling or rumbling inside. It’s all there in oil on canvas: your loves, your hates, your fears and your dreams. The conscious mind eventually works its way through that twisted maze of imagery, necessarily clarifying and simplifying, without losing the raw energy created by the painting’s violent birth.


The Candy Man

Why do I do all this? Because it’s like being taken on a thrilling journey, one in which I have little or no idea of the ultimate destination. The sense of adventure and excitement at the outset is addictive and once experienced, compensates for all the inevitable doubts along the way. When it eventually comes right, you arrive somewhere that is strangely familiar, but which you have never seen before. It’s a distant coast of you.

Alan Macdonald, May 2018

About the author

Alan Macdonald

Alan Macdonald was born in Malawi and graduated from Duncan of Jordanstone Collage of Art in Dundee. His workis instantly recognisable for its theatricality, humour and consummate skill. 

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