Ideas & Influences

Artist’s notebook: Sue McNally

Sue McNally, My New England Home, 2023, oil and acrylic on canvas, 84×120 inches

Artist Sue McNally, a 2015 Two Coats of Paint Resident Artist, lives in Newport, Rhode Island, where her recent work is on view at Overlap, a new artist-run space in the neighborhood. Overlap founder Susie Matthews, who has been making and showing her artwork in Rhode Island for over 25 years, wants the space to appeal to creative thinkers who live amid a bustling tourist trade that favors seascapes over more challenging propositions. To celebrate the opening of the gallery and Sue’s show, Two Coats of Paint invited her to share some of the ideas and influences that have helped shape her work over the years.

Contributed by Sue McNally / Writing about my work is the hardest thing I do. I have many ideas and am subject to myriad influences, but I’m not always as adept as I’d like to be expressing them in the written word. Studio visits are much more exciting. Nevertheless, it’s important to take intellectual stock, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to do so. 

First, here’s a very short, alphabetical list of well-known artists whose work I love and undoubtedly influences my own: Charles Birchfield, Peter Doig, Arthur Dove, Max Ernst, April Gornik, Marsden Hartley, Martin Johnson Heade, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Paula Rego, and Amy Sillman.

In addition, I recently discovered Leonora Fini, Violeta Parra, and Portia Zvavahera, and their work is drool-worthy. Daniel Gibson, an artist form Los Angeles I discovered trolling the booths in Miami, is another new find; his desert paintings blow my mind. I also have plenty of artist friends whose work I admire and value, but I talk painting and art the most with William Eric Brown.

Junk shop treasures

Second, I should mention my favorite pastime. When I am not painting well, when there’s no flow in my work, I spend days trolling junk and antique stores, looking for treasures. I also like to wander around my yard and rearrange the furniture in my house. A lot. Somehow these activities afford me a kind of creative reset.

Third, there is nature itself. I hike, swim, and do absolutely anything I can outdoors, in all seasons. I love weird natural shapes, unexpected color, and even the boring hedges in the neighborhoods near my house.

Fourth, small museums. Most of my shows have been in such venues, where I invariably have satisfying conversations. I get to listen to someone who’s looking at my work through a cleaner lens, talking about it free of art-speak. It’s invigorating to hear what people simply see.

Sue McNally, installation view at the North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks, North Dakota, 2022
Junk shop color
Puddingstone rock
Puddingstone rock

A fifth and fairly obvious factor is color, my main addiction, followed closely by puddingstone rock.

Sixth, is the American Landscape. (See image of my most recent painting at top) I have been traveling the United States by car for many years. I have been nearly everywhere, spending extended time exploring the vast landscapes with much of my time in rural locations. In my studio, I have been making a painting to represent each of the 50 States. It is the chronicle of 30-plus years of exploration.

Which leads me to Seventh, our yurt and rural land in southeast Utah. In 1995, my husband and I bought 80 acres way off the grid where we built a yurt. We spend up to 3 months a year there, depending on each year’s circumstances. It is beautiful, quiet and my dream indoor outdoor studio.

Sue McNally, self-portrait

While in Utah, I make some drawings and paintings on sight of the land. I photograph a ton and I also work on self-portraits, which for me is Eighth. Although this appears here as the last of my ideas and influences, these activities are the foundation for my work. I make self-portraits using ink, gouache, watercolor charcoal, pencil, gesso…whatever quick water-based materials I have on hand. I use a mirror to make the images, looking at myself, but there is no need for likeness. I make them quickly in succession, moving them out of the way as each one is completed. Later, I hang them all and decide quickly what the names should be, a reaction to whatever the image ends up looking like. This practice is a nod to the gesture drawings we made in high school art class. We held our arms out straight and made quick figure drawings without bending elbows or worrying about the final product. This practice keeps my hand fluid and my mark making fresh. At the yurt, this quiet life allows me to just make things. Make things and enjoy the beauty around me.

About the author:Sue McNally: Order Disorder,” Overlap, 112 Van Zandt Avenue, Newport, RI. Through April 13, 2023. On Thursday, March 30 at 7pm, join McNally in Newport for an artist’s talk at Overlap or online via Instagram @overlapnewport.


  1. I needed to see this work and hear this wonderful artist’s thoughts today. Thank you all.

  2. Awesome artwork and lovely landscapes!

  3. I enjoyed learning about Sue’s non-studio pastimes and what fuels the innovative marks and inclusions in her paintings.

  4. Fantastic writing! Gorgeous paintings

  5. Sue is an incredible painter

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