Back Issue__ Niall McClelland’s Shades of Gray

February 16, 2010 | By

Interview by Gillian
Photos by
Jeremy R. Jansen


Niall McClelland hasn’t used color in his work for about five years. He likes black, white and gray—and not because he's affected by S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) due to the long and cold Toronto winters. Luckily, he radiates his own light and is one of those people who always seems to have a smile on their face. But Niall's love for dark imagery and his attention to form, shape and shades of gray have gotten him a lot of recognition. His work has been published in Adbusters, Arkitip, Color, Design Anarchy, Hunter and Cook, I-Live-Here, Lowdown, Made, and The Walrus, to name a few. And he's collaborated with brands like Lifetime, Stussy, Burton and Creature Skateboards, with shows around North America. In a recent review of Niall's Toronto show "Black to Back and Light," writer Murray Whyte of the Toronto Star refers to Niall as “dead centre of the Facebook Generation”, and we wonder if this is a positive declaration. Either way Niall laughs it off, and after a list of press and collaborations like that, we think he has more than enough reason to chuckle.

After going to school and living and working in Vancouver, BC, Niall is happy to be back in Toronto where he grew up. Even though he says it took a while to feel at home again, he has found himself surrounded by some interesting and ambitious people who challenge him to bring something new to the table. In his words, "no slouches."

We talk with Niall about his favorite tools, separating disciplines, keeping things exciting and buds, bikes and beer. Niall is many things--a designer, artist, paper cutter, mark maker, he's into sculpture and illustration--but when asked, Niall says "I make artwork." We think that sums it up nicely.

What does a typical day look like for you?

Coffee coffee, computer work, art projects, internet, TV, book, go outside, buds, bike, beer, go to bed late.

You say your work is based on a lot of mark making. What’s the weirdest tool you've used to make marks?

Not sure if anything is really all that weird to use anymore. I use broken sticks and ink, roaches from joints, used ink cartridges, lighters—anything that works!

Do you have a few staple tools that you can’t live without?

Spray paint and black ink.

Would you say you have a thing for greyscale? Why?

I used to use a lot of colour, but about 5 years ago, I just decided to strip everything back down to basics. It seemed more transparent and relatable, like a process the viewer can wrap their heads around. I still love using color but it hasn't really worked its way back into many of my art based projects.

You went to school for design at Emily Carr, and looking at your work you can see the effect it has on your attention to shape, geometry and scale. How else has that training affected your process as a visual artist?

You pick up certain skills when you study enough graphic design, just the principles of design and general visual problem solving skills really, like a design process. I think most artwork uses those same processes at some point in its creation. I guess the difference would be that design projects have parameters set by outside sources, and art projects have parameters that are self determined.

As far as your work goes, do you ever separate the disciplines of art and design or are they always working together?

The design work is influenced by the artwork but rarely contains any artwork, and the artwork always uses various design processes.

A lot of your work uses dark imagery but seems to take a detached approach to the idea of darkness. Does it in fact come from a dark place or is it more of a study of an object/theme?

That's just how it comes out when I'm being honest, I like to make dark stuff. I'm not depressed or sad or even very morose. I'm just looking to reference points that have a lot of literal darkness in them, and occasionally cross over to things that are darker in subject matter, but its not a prerequisite. I like the color black--a lot.

Do you find your clients come to you because of your process and visual style, or do they want something different?

Well, new clients tend to want something they've seen before, and clients I've had a longer relationship with tend to want something they haven't seen before. Everyone is different, it actually makes it all pretty simple since I never really like to stick with any single method or process. I like to experiment and the "freshest" projects seem to be when that approach is embraced.

How do you personally get inspired? Where does it come from?

Books, documentaries, conversations, walks, trips. A lot of alone time to stew over ideas. I really REALLY like Fantasy art too, so anything remotely related to that gets me inspired.

How do you keep things fresh and exciting?

Fuck, I dunno, by just being a human being and participating in life. Being curious and and spontaneous always seems to lead to excitement. Refusing to be bored.

In a recent review of your show ("Black to Back and light" in Toronto) by Murray Whyte of the Toronto Star, he refers to you as “dead centre of the Facebook Generation.” I laughed out loud, as I’m sure you did. Did that comment make you wonder if that social media culture does have some sort of effect on your work? And if so, how?

Yeah, well, that quote was pretty funny. I like that he called us "naifs" too. I get where he was coming from though, I mean, I'm not entrenched in the Toronto art scene, or the Canadian art scene for that matter. But I've had an online portfolio for awhile now, and he needs to equate that with "Facebook" for the Toronto Star readership to get it. Whatever. I have a blog. More people see my work there than displayed in Toronto galleries when you get down to it. So he's not totally off by describing it that way, embarrassing yes, but not really wrong, you know? There's a nugget of truth there.

To see more of Niall's work check out:

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