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Life & Work with Neil Milligan

Today we’d like to introduce you to Neil Milligan.

Hi Neil, please kick things off for us with an introduction to yourself and your story.
Painting has become a way for me to continue hobbies and games I’ve had since I was a kid. As you move through art school you’re given more and more freedom to pursue your specific artistic passions. Eventually, my professors would turn me loose during class to run away down to the river and paint.

There’s something about painting outside that is incredibly meditative and allows you to talk to a specific place. I had become captivated with the West while I was raft guiding in Utah. West of the Rockies. The opportunity I have now, to paint the Santa Catalinas (Mt. Lemmon) and so many other places in Arizona, is something I’m incredibly thankful for.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I think art is rarely a smooth road. Even if you look at someone as happy as Bob Ross there’s always a rocky backstory. A lot of people attribute the beginning of the “tortured artist” stereotype back to the Renaissance. There used to be an idea of divine intervention in art and when that concept started to fall away it puts immense pressure on artists to make these transcendental creations. It’s also worth noting that art is one of the only things people do that is often, from start to finish, a solo act.

Most things we tackle in groups because two minds are better than one. That being said one of the hardest things to do is to find your style and I think once you start to figure that out, collaboration with other people becomes incredibly difficult. So going back to the idea of divine intervention, for Plein air, it becomes this weird tension between collaborating with the mountain you’re painting and battling it.

To stand in front of the Grand Canyon and consider attempting to capture its beauty, it’s hard to not feel like it’s taunting you and making you feel like a 5-year-old with a crayon and some Elmer’s glue. Yet at the same time, it’s offering you the most breathtaking subject you could want. To sort of sum it up: painting the wilderness you love is to collaborate with it and in so doing see it more clearly than ever before. Yet the more you know you don’t.

Thanks for sharing that. So, maybe next you can tell us a bit more about your work?
So I specifically use oil paint with pallet knives. It’s a technique called “impasto”. I settled on this for a few reasons. First, it allows you to switch colors easily and move around the painting a lot more. Because pallet knives are easy to wipe off and don’t require solvents it lightens my painting kit a lot too which allows me to get further down the trail and make more paintings while I’m there.

Second, it leads to a heavy application of paint. This gives a lot of body and materiality to the picture and sometimes almost crosses into sculpture. Paintings are one of a kind and they should feel like it. The texture is a huge part of the visceral experience. The drawback to that is they are much harder to photograph and almost impossible to make good prints of. I also paint exclusively on wood boards. This again is routed in a decision of practicality that leads to my visual style.

Stretched canvas is sort of springy. This makes your brush act very differently. In my case a hardwood board allows a pallet knife to make and remove marks in a way that you can’t on canvas. I’ve also found the wood grain to be another interesting compositional tool. One of the most underrated painting tips is “underpainting”. Essentially before you even pick a subject you should cover all the white space on your canvas with a mid-tone.

This helps for so many reasons that have to do with color theory and portrayal of space that I won’t go into for the sake of time but when I started experimenting with underpaintings on wood I found that I was getting some interesting abstract compositions that came, in a large part, from the wood grain. This lead me to stop feeling obligated to cover the entire surface. That way I can experiment with how the actual shape of the picture can affect the perception of space.

Lastly, it plays into the fact that all painting, on a scale of color blocks to photorealism, is abstract and allows me to incorporate some pure nonrepresentational forms as part of the image. The last thing I do to a painting brings it back to the studio and add some black colored pencils. This helps me define form and space but also helps me get closer to one of my all-time biggest influences, Bill Waterson. I always get a funny look when I tell people that “Calvin and Hobbes” is a huge inspiration for oil painting but I think (or maybe hope) it all gets clear when you look at my work.

Do you have recommendations for books, apps, blogs, etc?
There’s a podcast coming out of KUOW in Seattle by Chris Morgan called “The Wild”. First of all, the man has the most soothing voice you can imagine but the stories he covers are not only incredibly surreal but also very important. The story on nuclear refugee otters was a real standout. Did you know that woodpeckers’ tongues wrap around their skull? Chris Morgan does.

AllTrails is a super useful resource for anyone who likes to get outside. They provide everything from trail length and elevation change to traffic and even reviews. is an awesome spot to snag backpacking permits. Highly recommend getting to the bottom of the Grand Canyon if you can (although any campgrounds below the rim are actually from via a pdf form).

A comic book I love (that’s not Calvin and Hobbes) is “Tales of Sand”. Interestingly it’s by Jim Henson although there are mercifully no Muppets. I’d say it’s a great read but there are almost no words. He does amazing things with visual literacy and it’s beautifully drawn. And obviously, as an artist I use Instagram which can be a great source of inspiration and a tool to find new artists.

Contact Info:

Image Credits
Kaitlyn Jo Smith

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