Mobile Art: A Q&A With Digital Artist Erin McGean

Erin McGean is an artist for a new era — the digital era, that is. Based in Ontario, Canada, the artist produces nature-inspired collage work. While she works occasionally in analogue, much of her work is created digitally; McGean even uses her iPhone to produce layered portraits, and has amassed an impressive Instagram following over the years.

We recently spoke with her about her process.

What awakened your love for visual arts? Can you recall the first thing you ever drew or painted?

I’m not sure what awakened my love for the visual arts because it has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a child, colouring and drawing were my favorite pastime.

Your current work explores iPhone photography and the digital manipulation of images. What led you down this path? How does this medium/method help you to realize your vision in a way that a more hands-on approach cannot?

There are two reasons my art took this direction.

The first is simply because I got an iPhone. The apps that are available to alter and manipulate your photos are incredible. I found the best apps and started taking more photos and editing them with my phone. Soon my painting studio was covered in dust and I was consumed with photography and photo editing. Discovering the Instagram app and finding more people doing the same there inspired me further.

The second reason was because my kids were young and finding extended periods of time to paint in the studio just didn’t happen anymore. Mobile photography and editing is just that, “mobile,” so I could do it anywhere and not worry about babies grabbing my palettes of paint.

You work from your own photography as well as found images. What is generally your process? Do you normally approach each piece with an idea in mind and seek out/compose images to create it, or is the idea informed by the images you happen to come across?

My images can evolve either way. I generally have an overall aesthetic I’m working towards, so often I’m looking for images that match my moods or colour schemes. Reoccurring themes and backgrounds such as birds and sky also inform what I look for. Even my camera roll is full of cloudy sky shots. Other times I look for a specific image or take a photo myself to achieve the desired effect. Overall, most of the time my process works this way: I’ll create an image “by accident,” sort of…and then spend the next few months recreating similar images using different components, creating a mini-series along the way.

Your work seems heavily informed by nature – landscapes, birds, and natural tones. When you aren’t working on your art, do you spend much time in the outdoors? From where or what do you find inspiration?

The outdoors and nature have always been a big part of my life. I spend lots of time up north at our cottage and I’m most at peace there. Other sources of inspiration are my children, students, friends, family, music, fashion, and movies. Everything, really! I’m inspired by too much, which is probably why my style and techniques are constantly changing.

For your portraits, do you tend to photograph people you know or seek out models? And how does a person’s features or personality inform the images you introduce within the collage?

As much as possible, I try to use people I know in my portrait blends. My kids, myself, my students, and occasionally a friend. But when I have nothing to work with, I look for public use images or I reach out to people on Instagram and ask them if I can edit their work. I always try to make a portrait that reflects something about the person if I know them. For example, I made a portrait of my son blended with Cheerios because that was his favorite food at the time. If I don’t know them, I let the mood of the portrait dictate the background, but either way, most often the background is something from nature.

Do you ever encounter ‘purists’ in the art world who are opposed to, or tend to look down on, the digital arts? How do you navigate those kinds of critics?

Less and less! Even I was a purist at one point and questioned whether what I was creating with my phone was art. But the notion that art is life size marble sculptures and grand oil paintings is a very conventional, traditional, and dare I say old way of looking at the artistic process or results. Art should be a reflection of the time it was made in, so it only makes sense that our contemporary art should be made about or with technology as our lives are so dependent on it. We also live in a time of being over-saturated with images, and we visually consume way more photos and videos than humans from any other time in history. I think that’s part of what led me to use digital collage; it’s somehow satisfying to find images and reinterpret them and create new stories in them. Certainly I believe any medium—including digital—can be used to create art, but for myself, after years of strictly using my phone and computer, I was craving the tactile nature of traditional art, so I cleaned up the studio and started to cut and paste. Now I use both analogue and digital collage techniques together, getting the benefits of both processes.

You have an impressive social media following. How have you made the platform of Instagram work for you? Do you ever struggle to maintain what is essentially a self-marketing tool—almost a necessity for freelancers in any field these days—and the desire to simply focus on the work?

Instagram has worked for me in many ways. It’s been a source of inspiration and a place I’ve made connections to other artists and photographers. I joined Instagram early, when there were just a little over one million users, and at the time it really felt like a small, intimate place. I was very active in the beginning, joining groups and challenges, and that’s how I gained many of my real followers who actually engage with me still today. Now there are seven hundred million Instagram users and there have been a number of changes to the platform that make gaining a large following challenging. Instagram gives my art more exposure then anything in the past. I’m sure more people see something I post on Instagram than would see it hanging in a local gallery. Because of this, I used to feel pressure to post often, and I do believe it’simportant to keep fresh content, but lately being back in the studio means less Instagram posting. Plus, due to the seven hundred million users, it’s lost a bit of the allure for me. Artistically I’m going for higher quality over quantity now. Oh gosh… when I started out I felt like I had to post something twice a day.

Your work is already multi-disciplinary, in a sense; aside from creating in multiple mediums, you’re immersed in both the digital world and art world. What kind of collaborations excite you — for instance, would you ever consider working with a dancer, a musician…?

I have collaborated many times in the past with other photographers, some professionals, even, and I’ve also had the opportunity to work with a few models and I’d love to do more of this. Designing musician cover art is something I’ve done in the past and would love to do more of as well.

I’ve never really considered myself a photographer, so I think I’m hesitant to hire real models for my work. Ideally, however, shooting all my own photos to collage with would be amazing. It’s just not physically possible at this time. Exotic locations and beautiful models are expensive.

Any exhibitions in the near future?

A portrait blend of my daughter will be on digital display at Sixteen Mile Art Centre in Milton, Ontario, Canada from June 6-July 7th.

All images are courtesy of the artist.