Moon Stories | August 2021

Wardell McNeal is a painter from San Diego who is currently making work in Oakland, California. His background in industrial design informs an introspective exploration of the emotional landscape in sensual color and wandering depths.

Q & A with Wardell McNeal

Plunge: What is the name of your show?

Wardell: Dreaming with Eyes Wide Open, for obvious reasons. It’s just something that I’ve been doing recently. I want to say it’s been present in my work a lot but I think it must be due to me working so much. Sometimes, I’ll even find myself drawing someone sleeping instead of sleeping because I just-

You don’t have time for that.

[laughs] I just dream about sleeping.

Where’d you go to school?

San Francisco State. That’s why a lot of like 3D elements, I do a lot of like solid works.

Yes, your work is very structural, and I can see the design background in it pretty clearly, so knowing that makes a lot of sense. Then it’s interesting that-- not to be so obvious- but your colors are so electric. 

Yes. Sometimes I shock myself. It’s like how vibrant things can be or how much stuff influences.

I feel like it is just bound to happen when your life and art is so intertwined. How do you find balance with that?

If I’m balanced definitely just the making and the process of creating, and just sitting with some of these things. There’s a little bit of peacefulness to it because I’m trying to find that piece. Sometimes that piece has a lot going on. It seems a bit chaotic, but I’ll really reduce it down to certain elements that I really honed in on with, but the act of mark-making is therapeutic.

How do you know when a drawing’s going to become a painting? Do you plan? 

I draw all the time. Essentially, if you see all these little pages and eventually, I’ll go through and start snipping and cutting and choosing, which I hadn’t done for the shows. It was probably the most work I did for the show was drawing in preparation. Just being mindful of time. I didn’t really have all that. I knew I wasn’t going to have enough time, but if I was prepared enough, and I have done a lot of practice.

I noticed you have a lot of books about color theory laying around, so it’s obvious that you spent a lot of time practicing that. I think I remember from school-- correct me if I’m wrong- but I feel like Josef Albers is somebody who never used black and felt very strongly about never using it and relying on it because it’s a bit of a crutch.

Oh yes. Painting professor when I was really young, probably 20, 21, which is like 20 years ago now. He told us not to use black. Even like here is wet, still makes it feel like it’s popping it. Tooney does the same thing.

It’s also interesting that you can use black in the drawings as well, but then when it’s translated to the painting, you don’t need it.

Yes. The drawing’s really informing how I’m using line weight. It’s probably with a product design background, so I’m using line weight to attract by, to make emphasis, in the color, too so if I want you to look deep into the corner of that person’s shirt, right? Just as deep as to the eye right there, then I’m just going to add a little bit of light across there so that your eye leads from one side to another because I’m leading you around this painting.

Yes. It’s so specific and there’s so much going into it, but when I’m looking at it, it feels effortless.

Like the first time, and there’s a lot of black in there. This is the first time where I start to do it. I started to say, “Hey, you know what? What’s a figure? What’s light? What’s shadow and how far can I take this?” Then from that one and there on, I started to just do. I started to just go, “Okay, I really like what happened here, and I like certain elements. I’m going to keep borrowing from that and then frame my personal relationship with work,” but I definitely use a lot of design techniques.

It seems like you’ve gotten a lot out of your education that’s obviously carried through to your art practice. You did something so different, so that’s always fun for me to see. At what point did you start painting?

Probably soon after I got out of college. I was like, “I don’t really care much about product design, product development anymore.” Just the amount of waste that happened and all that stuff. I was really conflicted when I graduated. I wanted to work somewhere I was really meaningful in terms of my impact of what I was doing versus the impact on society. I feel like art has definitely been something where the connection to the society is a lot closer. Connection to the human experience is a lot closer. It’s like, “Yes, I can make a phone that’s elegant, but who really is married to them? It’s not an heirloom piece. They are not going to hold on to it for their entire life. They’re used to throwing it away.” 

Does the majority of your work encompass some facial feature, for the most part?

Probably. I do storyboarding, all that stuff too, so there’s things that I am think ing about when creating a scene, and then how does that translate later on. I’m not that confident still, I’m getting better as I go along, but I really do it here to see if I can do it on this thing. I just haven’t really challenged myself hardcore too much.

They remind me of comics a bit. Do you read comics or do you draw them?

I did and I’m working on a children’s book as well.

You’re clearly very prolific and it’s so cool to see such an abundance of work in so many different styles and pieces of paper and just everything that you’ve done drawing on candles and cupboards and it’s surprising almost that you didn’t really start showing your work until recently.

Yes, recently.

Would you say that you’re mostly driven by this internal need to be making art and emotion?

Yes, and people always say how does that work? I can be on the phone sitting here working and there’s two canvases up and then two weeks later, there’s two canvases that look like this and now people are saying what the hell just happened? What’s going on in there? People are very interested in what’s happening in the background and how I have time to do that. You were just here at 3:00 something in the morning.

Yes. Well, thank you. I feel we should probably wrap it up. Thank you for letting us into your space of choice, your work, and talking. It’s really cool to know more about you and your story and your process in how you’ve arrived at this. Thank you.

Check out Wardell's Playlist on the Plunge Spotify Page ~

Find more of Wardell's work:

Wardell's Instagram
Wardell's interview with Pt. 2 Gallery