Anyone who creates, whether it’s paintings or songs, novels or pastries, has a weird and special role in the culture. It is the job of the artist to take the intangible nothing of their ideas and turn them into something that the rest of us can touch, taste, or hear. This is not a mystical process—it is work. And it can be hard, almost impossible sometimes. But it is work that, at its best, is uniquely, transcendently joyous. Every artist has developed some kind of system to aid them in this work, and while these systems can sometimes be idiosyncratic, they are also frequently familiar to makers across disciplines. This series of interviews focuses on the processes used by a wide range of different artists. In this month’s conversation with Rose McBurney, she discusses her methodical approach to painting.
McBurney paints subtle, brilliant scenes in acrylic paint on wooden panels made by her husband Drew. In these paintings, familiar strangers are draped in folds of mid-century garb, their faces occluded by shadow or hair, light streaming across the tangles of their ghostly figures. The colors are soft and washed out, the shadows sharp, and the spaces are defined by lonely fields of geometric shape that keep the viewer at a distance. I met with her under the willow tree in her backyard, where she told me about her practice over Earl Grey tea and almond biscuits.
How do you choose your subject matter?
What I have is a two-phase process. The first process is: “What am I going to paint?” And the second process is painting it. The first part requires me to sort of hold space and time to be in the unknown, and it’s generally pretty uncomfortable for me because I’m spending time not really doing anything, and also not making anything. So it’s very counterintuitive to what society would expect of someone during the daytime hours. I’m also not earning any money, either. So I feel like I’m really stepping into this unknown territory. And then I can slowly start to follow that. I can start to hear the ideas. And sometimes it will take days for it to actually become something that I see as worthy of painting. I’ve gotten more confident with the process, but it’s not really my favorite part.
Yeah, I feel that. We’re kind of conditioned to want to be actively productive.
Exactly. Yeah. Then a lot of the time I’ll be thinking I gotta hurry up and come up with something to paint because when people ask, “Oh, how was your studio day?” it’s like “uuuhh, well, I had some ideas and I drew little pictures of them but I don’t know if it’s gonna go anywhere.”
Is there a task you can do that helps jump start that process and cultivate ideas?
In the last two years I’ve really gotten into stills—anything from the internet, TV, movies, home movies, cinema, newsreels. I like the flatness of that world, and how it’s also just endless. Since I paint still images, it is this incredible plethora of fodder. Recently, I started watching newsreels of mishaps, [and] things not working out how they’re supposed to, and kind of just going down a little bit of a YouTube rabbit hole. And then finding these moments and pausing and taking a screenshot of that, and printing it out. But I can only do it a little bit because it starts to fry my brain out. I can only really [do] that for like an hour at a time.
“Stevie” 2019 Acrylic on wood panel 22.5″ x 28.5″
I think about your work as being in some ways about light, and the way that light creates atmosphere. Is that something that you’re looking for when you look at these images? Or is that something that happens more spontaneously?
Oh, definitely. I like a strong light source. Because in a way, it’s a visual trick that simplifies the painting process. When there’s a strong light source, it just makes everything so much easier to paint. Whereas if the light is diffuse and flat, all of a sudden faces and planes and the foreground—all of that—become so subtle and complicated.
You recently moved from a rented studio back to a home studio.
Yeah, I’ve just recently decided to return to finish my undergrad, and to then hopefully go on to grad school. When I was 30, I went back to school, and then I stopped. And then the last four, almost five years, I’ve just been a studio artist. And now I’m going back to academia. I think I’m ready to be held by something larger than myself, and be supported. Being a studio painter out in the world… it’s lonely. Artists who figure out how to be studio artists and work on their art and show it at galleries… it is, at times, like having two jobs. And I think it takes a toll on you and your ability to be able to step into that unknown and to continue to create something out of nothing.
I don’t think everybody would describe academia as nurturing or caring, but it is at least an institution that’s just bigger than you.
Yeah, totally. You’re in, you’re part of it. For me, it’s kind of nice to just feel like I’m part of society now.
“Hand to Mouth” 2018 Acrylic on wood panel 28.5″ x 34″
Where was your studio?
I was actually in a private residence, but in the backyard. It was my first studio outside of the home and I absolutely loved it. I was sad to give it up. But I also have this sort of deep knowing that when I’m done with school, that studio practice is going to be waiting for me. And I’m so excited about that. When I get back to the studio, it’s going to be like, this delicious cherry on top of my life.
Do you prefer having the studio space be outside of your home?
Yes. Definitely. It’s an amazing thing to have, but it is expensive.
And then you kind of have to feel like you’re justifying it. So it probably does change your practice a little bit.
Yeah, I think it does. I mean, I think that I’ve always tried to make my practice really not have to generate income, although I have made some sales and I do make some money at my art. But it is a labor of love.
Are you fussy about the specific materials that you use? Do you use a particular brand of paint?
I like this Abstract paint by Sennelier. It’s a great bargain, and the quality is really good. I like to have a lot of paint that doesn’t cost a lot of money so that I can waste as much as I want and not worry about it. Like, “Oh my god, that was $20 worth of cadmium red” or something.
Yeah. Because having it be precious—
It’s not good for my process. I learned that from Phil Sandusky, who’s a renowned plein air painter in New Orleans. I took an oil painting class with him at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts, and he told me: “Buy the cheapest oil paint in the largest tubes. And I want you to just squeeze it out like, you know—pbthhh, as much as possible.” And so I took that into my acrylic painting.
“Untitled” 2018 Acrylic on wood panel 18″ x 18″
You mentioned that usually in your studio you keep a big piece of glass. How do you use it?
I use a big, huge piece of thick glass as a palette, and every day I start out with a clean palette. When I paint, I will let the paint dry. And then I’ll wet it all when I get to the studio. When you wet acrylic paint on glass, it’ll bubble up after about three or four minutes. And then I take a razor blade and I scrape it all off. Then I take all the dried paint that I scraped off, and I pile it into this tower of paint that slowly builds into a giant volcano of paint. I really appreciate this weird sculpture. Like, the more paint I waste, the better the sculpture becomes. It’s a motivation to keep wasting paint, in a way. It’s proof that I’ve been working.
The wet on wet style of painting you use is kind of difficult to achieve with acrylic, because it dries so fast.
I know. Why am I doing this?
That sounds hard!
It’s really hard. I kind of put myself through the wringer. And then there will inevitably always be one thing in the painting, in the composition, that was obviously not going to work. There’s always this one thing. And it’s usually the most glaringly obvious thing. This whole process—the unknown, and going through all these stages, and finally getting to this point—and then it kind of just smacks me in the face. And so then I have to solve that issue. I had a painting recently where I had put so much work into it, and I just thought I was gonna have to abandon it. But I did it! I solved the problem and actually just sold the painting.
So how do you know when it’s finished? How do you know when you’ve solved the problem? What do you look for?
That it’s good enough. And then I’ll sit there. One of the best things about being a painter for me is sitting back in my studio, and just looking at a painting that I’ve painted, and just quietly observing it, my eyes going around it and nothing is bothering me about it.
That’s a good feeling.
It’s such a good feeling! And then I’m just like, “Oh, it’s done!”