Artist Peter McNeill: Portraying the Outdoor Light
“I always drew as a kid,” recalls Peter McNeill, sitting in his bright, high-ceilinged studio in the Benicia Arsenal. “I remember being allowed to draw pictures if I finished my lessons. My parents encouraged it without pushing it.” He liked to draw people, landscapes, and things from his imagination. He started painting in high school and has never stopped. McNeill’s art is primarily representational, devoted to plein air landscapes of northern California and life drawings. Recently, he has also created abstract works.
Peter grew up in Green Valley and attended Fairfield High School. He enrolled at UC San Diego for two years, then transferred to San Luis Obispo to study architecture, but lasted only a short time in that program. “I had always been interested in art and architecture, and I took painting classes at San Diego. I liked architecture, but somehow didn’t see myself as an architect.” He briefly attended California College of the Arts. He put college on hold for a while, took odd jobs, and traveled a bit, eventually completing a degree in design from UC Davis in 1984.
McNeill settled on a day job with AT&T in 1986.
He started in outside plant engineering, drawing copper telephone cable jobs. By the time he finished, 32 years later, he was a staff manager writing guidelines for putting in fiber optic cable. “My career spanned the technical evolution from copper all the way to fiber optics.” He retired in 2018.
McNeill describes his landscapes as “plein air realism,” using oil paint with assorted brush types and sizes. He strives to portray the outdoor light and color, with an intuitive sense of space and distance. “It’s important not to hide the fact that it’s a painting. I’ve been trying to teach myself to work faster. Just get the paint on. Put a stroke of color on there and that’s enough to look like it.” He works on small surfaces outdoors. Studio paintings allow him to work larger, but not always with the same vigor and immediacy. He lives in Walnut Creek, less than a mile from Mt. Diablo State Park, with his spouse Jenny, also an artist. “I’ve painted the same scene one mile inside the park at least a dozen times.”
Don’t Walk, oil on canvas
Flag, oil on paper
Peter attributes his focus on color combinations and the color of light to the influence of plein air painter and teacher Kevin Milligan, now a Carmel gallerist, who he studied with in his early 40s. “He’s a tremendous colorist. He awoke new sensibilities in me, mainly about color. Colors can tell you so much about what it’s like being there, how warm, humid, or dry it is. That’s what’s interesting to me, trying to paint what I can’t see, the air.”
McNeill has been studying life drawing since the late 1970s.
His figurative drawings are done with Conté crayon and charcoal pencils. He often uses a white Conté crayon on dark paper for the pop of contrast. He drew with a group in Crockett for almost twenty years prior to the interruption of the pandemic.
His abstract works grew out of an experimentation with how paint acts and how fast it dries when applied thin or thick. “For a long time, I needed to have a subject in front of me from which to work. It’s only been in the past few years that I felt comfortable painting abstract work that is my own. I started with simple shapes, rectangles, that suggested different things to me … like flags if they were horizontal. I take colors I like, lay out a basic shape, and then let the paint pool or drip. I’m not trying to do anything specific, I’m willing to watch accidents happen. I’ve had a few people come in and see color field stuff in my work and say ‘Rothko.’ But it’s very different. His works have layers of paint put on, very subtly, as opposed to mine, with layers put on so thick that they can drip. I think a drip would have insulted Rothko’s sensibilities.”
Autumn Afternooon, oil on canvas
Tapestry, oil on canvas
In addition to the abstract works of Diebenkorn and Rothko, McNeill admires the “incomprehensible technical abilities” of John Singer Sargent. He keeps physically active by playing tennis, attending a yoga group, and playing the piano about a half hour a day. “It’s good for the brain. It’s physical, emotive, analytical — every part of your brain is working at one time.”
In addition to participating in Benicia Arsenal Open Studios, McNeill has been showing his work at the Valley Art Gallery for the last twelve years. The gallery is located at 1661 Botelho Drive, Suite 110, in Walnut Creek. To see more of McNeill’s work, and for hours of operation, visit valleyartgallery.org/artist/peter-mcneill/.