Chris Morphet and I are making a film with the painter John McLean. McLean is what you might loosely refer to as an “abstract expressionist”. There is something bewilderingly beautiful about his work; shapes in just-right colours that could be half-moons, crowns, swirls, circles, float in voids of curious depth created by many layers of paint that almost reveal their story on close examination. If you own one (we’ve got one in the office) you learn something new about it every time you look at it. Maybe you are learning something about yourself too. McLean’s paintings have lovely, poetic names like, Velodrome, Chiara-Luna, Altiora and some of the titles of the works give away his Scottish childhood like, East Neuk, Claikie or Peasiehill.
We were filming in his studio a few weeks ago observing as he spent about fifteen minutes choosing a pot of acrylic colour and then mixing it with a pumice medium. John likes to use old house painting brushes that have seen better days. Just before setting a paint laden brush on a half finished canvas, he announced, “this could bugger it up”. He delicately formed the shape he thought he wanted on the canvas and after a longish pause said, “Fuck, I have buggered it…….but I think I know what I am going to do to save it”. On the first shoot he had said to us that sometimes he feels a bit like a farmer husbanding something that is already there.
The film we are making has no client, no broadcaster and no sponsor, we can do what we like when we like. Chris and I got quite excited by our day observing John in his studio. We seemed to be witnessing and recording something not often seen and rarely understood and that is; the process of making creative decisions and their consequences. McLean is making hundreds of tiny decisions every minute, he gets as much pleasure out of the wrong ones as he does out of the right ones. The creative process appears to be a kind of adventure for him and the outcomes can be equally infuriating, ecstatic or intriguing. The key thing is the “outcomes” are never known to John and he rarely plans a painting. If he knew what the painting was going to look like at the outset he wouldn’t bother to begin it. The tensions in all this are probably what we, as viewers, like looking at in a John McLean painting.
John is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and this has slowed him up somewhat. Doctors’ appointments, voice therapist appointments and travel difficulties have interrupted his love affair with painting but he is determined to carry on and with he help of his wonderful wife, Jan, he will. I hope he won’t mind me saying that the slowing of his pace has helped us see what goes on with his work in our film; a bit like watching the replay of a great goal on Match Of The Day we can see the curve of the ball and the swell of the net when he scores.