Nick McPhail first started painting when he was a sophomore at Michigan State University with his first creations being photorealistic oil paintings of East Lansing landscapes. Now a seasoned artist with a wealth of experience under his belt, McPhail has gained a large following of fans and collectors with his use of bold colors and geometric shapes.
For McPhail, who graduated from MSU in 2006 with a BFA in Studio Art, his artwork is a way to locate himself and his place in the world. He finds beauty and interest in the relationship between architecture and nature, and through his paintings, he creates a portal to a dimension beyond the everyday.
“It’s a little bit like therapy, or like a mantra,” he said. “It’s paying attention to where I am, trying to locate myself.”
And pay attention he does as he immerses himself in his surroundings and captures the essence of his environment through photographs, which then serve as starting points for his paintings. From there, his imagination takes over as he melds his initial inspiration with other images and creates something entirely new that he continues to refine throughout the artistic process.
“I use a lot of photos and memories of different spaces to start paintings,” McPhail said. “Usually, it’s just a starting point compositionally, and I branch off from there and use my imagination. I’ll bring in other photos or just completely invent a new situation, and then I react to the painting. So, it’s very intuitive once you get going, but there’s an in-the-studio, out-of-the-studio cycle going on that feeds the process.”
“I use a lot of photos and memories of different spaces to start paintings. Usually, it’s just a starting point compositionally, and I branch off from there and use my imagination. I’ll bring in other photos or just completely invent a new situation, and then I react to the painting.”
McPhail, who lives and works in Los Angeles, also finds that moving between his ceramics studio and his painting studio stimulates his creativity and helps him overcome artistic blocks. He has found that both forms of art influence and inspire each other, and that it is the cyclical process that helps him stay motivated.
“They feed each other when I’m getting a little stuck,” he said. “When I’m working on paintings, I’ll switch over and work on ceramics and just keep working through stuff. When I’m painting, it inspires me in ceramics, and when I’m working on ceramics, it inspires me and gives me ideas for painting.”
As an artist, McPhail has many sources of new creative energy and inspiration, from the art of his contemporaries to the love of music he shares with his wife.
“My wife is a musician and super involved in the new music community in LA. So, we have a lot of music going on and actually have studios next to each other,” McPhail said. “I play music too. I’m in a band and play drums. There’s a rhythm and a meditative state you can get into with music, but I think it can cross over into visual art.”
Becoming a Full-Time Artist
McPhail’s own journey to becoming a full-time artist wasn’t straightforward. After graduating from MSU, he worked at a gallery in Santa Monica, California, before transitioning to a job in landscape architecture. Despite this career change, he still continued to pursue his passion for art, spending his free time creating in his studio.
“I was working three or four days a week, and then I spent the rest of my time in the studio making art,” said McPhail, who persistently balanced his day job with his art for 12 years. But as his art gained recognition and his schedule began to fill with a steady stream of shows and residencies, he decided it was time to focus solely on his passion.
“I started getting more shows and residencies, and I had two back-to-back residencies and two back-to-back solo shows,” he said. “I quit my job. That’s when I went full-time. I’ve just been exhibiting work and doing that ever since.”
McPhail has had solo exhibitions at Amélie Maison d’Art, Paris, France (2022); Ochi Projects, Los Angeles (2020); Untitled_1983, Geneva, Switzerland (2019); and Holiday, Los Angeles (2018). His residencies include Untitled_1983, Geneva, Switzerland (2019); Holiday Forever Residency, Jackson, Wyoming; Ochi Gallery, Ketchum, Idaho (2019); 100 West Corsicana, Corsicana, Texas (2018); and Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, Vermont (2017). His work also has appeared in several group exhibitions across the country and internationally.
“Our belief in art school was, ‘we’re never going to make any money’…And it’s not true. There are lots of ways to make money. There are lots of ways to have a balanced life, even if you’re not making a lot of money off your art, you can still have studio practice.”
Architectural design and the natural world form the foundation of his inspiration. His stylistic journey began with photorealistic depictions of East Lansing, but after relocating to Los Angeles and immersing himself in the art scene, his style shifted to a more abstract form. Though he still used his trademark techniques of layered paints and textured surfaces, his paintings became more enigmatic and elusive, leaving the viewer to interpret and create their own stories from them.
McPhail’s work now has returned to a more repetitive style that is reminiscent of his early work, while maintaining its elusive edge and open-ended nature. He also started to include figures in his paintings, something he had never done before.
McPhail believes that art is more than a one-way conversation between the artist and their audience. For him, art is about creating a space for people to connect with his work on their own terms, and to find their own stories and meaning within the work.
“One thing I love is when an audience has their own relationship to a painting. It’s not what I’m telling them to take out of it. They relate to it for their own reasons, and their own history,” he said. “I love it when people leave an exhibition and start noticing things that remind them of the paintings that they hadn’t really noticed before. I love that, how people are affected by it a little bit.”
McPhail has several pieces of advice for the next generation of creatives and says to not buy into the myth of the starving artist. The key, he says, is to find a way to balance artistic pursuits with the practical realities of life – just as he did for the first 13 years of his career.
“Our belief in art school was, ‘we’re never going to make any money. We’re going to be starving artists.’ And it’s not true,” he said. “There are lots of ways to make money. There are lots of ways to have a balanced life, even if you’re not making a lot of money off your art, you can still have studio practice. So just go for it.”
McPhail’s work is currently on display at Massey Klein Gallery in New York City. The show runs until July 15. He also has a solo show opening in Richmond, Virginia, at Reynolds Gallery in September 2023.