December 11, 2010

Painter Pete McKee’s Common Touch

Photograph by Chris Saunders

In “Frank and Tiddles”, a cat is observing a fish in a bowl. The cat is either admiring from a distance or contemplating dipping paws into the fish’s sanctuary, equipped with a sand castle. In “Her Favourite Things”, a girl is looking out the window. She’s wearing headphones, listening to her favorite vinyl, with record sleeve in both hands. There are pictures hanging on the wall, and next to a resting guitar are a glass and bottle filled with red wine, her preferred beverage as she relaxes in her private world. In “Cockles in Castle Market”, which is part of the series “22 Views of Sheffield”, two gentlemen are sitting at the bar in a restaurant: one is eating, the other is looking around. These are ordinary moments in everyday settings painted by Pete McKee. His source of inspiration is his hometown of Sheffield, England. His artistic scenes take pride in the usual. They depict working class roots and the activities of youth.

McKee’s visual approach was described by fashion designer Paul Smith as an “economical modernist style”. There is a strong sense of economy in McKee’s work: distinct shapes, bright colors, uncluttered compositions. Most of all, there’s clarity. What’s apparent is the humanity of McKee’s focus, whether it’s the beach, the pub, the train station, the bus stop, a room or anywhere else the pace of humanity takes place. I suspect that this is why the cartoon painter’s website is called “The Real McKee”. Nothing ordinary about that. Here he shares his thoughts on why and how he does his work.

Can you please tell a little bit about yourself?
Where are you from?

I’m 40-odd years old and from Sheffield in England. I like long walks in the park, watching French films and doing crosswords, hahaha…

What do you do for a living?
I paint pictures for a living but before then I’ve been a shop assistant, a mailman, a shelf stacker and a gag writer for greetings cards.

What is your statement about being a painter?
Honesty. If you paint with genuine integrity and a true feeling for your subject, then you will sleep soundly at night and the people looking and buying your work will know you are not a fraud.

What tools and materials do you use to work on your ideas
and make them grow?

A blank MDF board, a 2B pencil, a large rubber gum eraser, a felt marker, several small pots of household emulsion paint and a vivid imagination (above).

What makes Sheffield, England, a special place for you
and your art?

Sheffield is a tough, beautiful city with lots of trees and parks next to plenty of empty factories but full of people with an independent character who thrive on self-deprecation.

Painting “Sea Breeze”

Why do ordinary moments and subject matter
the working class and youth culture fascinate you?
A young Ray Charles was once told not to impersonate Nat King Cole but to sing and play in his own style. Hearing this was an epiphany to me and the very next day I began creating works about my life and the things I know, and I never looked back.

The great thing about the working class and youth culture is that both are very emotive subjects that people feel passionate about. Quite often the small things mean the most to people like shopping with your gran on a Saturday morning or eating coco pops while watching cartoons.

Your paintings attracted the attention of Noel Gallagher
of the rock band Oasis, Cartoonist Matt Groening,
plus Filmmaker George Lucas. Why do you think your workappeals to them?
I assume for the same reasons as everyone else who likes my work, it’s the common touch.

How does time factor into your making of paintings?

Well, at the moment, there’s not enough time but there’s nothing finer for finding a creative idea than those empty moments in your head like when you take a shower or brush your teeth. As for time to create the painting, then there’s nothing better than a deadline.

What is the most rewarding part of being a painter?
People’s reactions.

Was there a part of your work that was particularly trying
and how did you deal with it?

Nothing springs to mind but I tend to put too much work on myself when I’m late with deadlines and I’m up till 3 A.M. finishing an exhibition off and then driving across the country the next day to hang it.

How do you stay creative? Do you draw? Or keep a journal?
I’ve never kept a journal. I often have grand ideas of documenting holidays and trips but I end up enjoying myself instead by drinking beer and reading books. But there is seldom a day goes by where I’m not drawing, and drawing is a skill that requires a lot of practice.

Painting “Game King”

What are some of your sources of inspiration?
Memories are my main port of call for inspiration but I do get inspired to create if I’ve seen a good film or watched a fantastic gig, even the odd piece of art has inspired me too.

What is your advice to people who aspire to be an artist,
a painter?

Talent’s not enough, you need to be determined have an ego the size of India if you want to sell your work. If all you want to do is paint or create works for your own amusement then get a good rubber [eraser] and enjoy yourself.

How can people see your art and buy your work?
Your first port of call is my website,

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All images courtesy of Pete McKee.

• • •

See Libre Film Director Vianet Djenguet’s wonderful short documentary “The Real McKee: A Northern Soul”.

• • •

Big thanks to Steve Dale for making me aware
of Pete McKee and his art.

• • •

Read more from Design Feast Series of Interviews
with people who love making things.

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