Paintings by Matthew McDade

Matthew McDade’s ethereal acrylic paintings explore themes from the subconscious, evoking a sense of mystery. After enduring addiction and a hiatus from art-making, the twenty-one-year-old artist returned to painting to aid their recovery and to help them stay “clean and alive.” Art Editor Elizabeth Blackford reached out to McDade to discuss their work and the role of art in their recovery process.

Colorworldacrylic on cotton canvas, 24″ x 30″

Elizabeth Blackford: The colors and brushwork in these images are very atmospheric. In certain images, the muted palette looks almost ashen, while in others, those brownish colors are contrasted with cloudy pinks, blues, and yellows that energize the compositions. The brushstrokes blur figure and ground, giving the impression of a crowd obscured by smoke or figures emerging from a fog, which evoked a sense of mystery for me. Did you set out to cultivate a certain kind of atmosphere in these paintings?

Matthew McDade: I certainly did—but not at first. When I first began this series, I actually didn’t know that it would be a series! I almost “accidentally” made the first couple of paintings in it (Brimstone Men and Colorworld). Later on, I decided to harness the atmospheric tone of those two pieces and produce paintings that pushed it further—which was occasionally hard and led to failed pieces more than once. I think “happenstance” paintings can be great, but trying to reproduce their feelings intentionally can be near-impossible sometimes. But to elaborate on the actual feelings I had evoked accidentally, and then later tried to replicate intentionally, I would call them mysterious, alluring, and true. I later set out to replicate those feelings as exactly as possible, and that was, truly, a real pleasure (for the most part). Encapsulating several feelings into a general tone of “atmospheric,” and knowing that I’m a painter of atmospheric pictures, really made (and makes) me feel wholly creative.

Brimstone Menacrylic on canvas panel, 6″ x 6″

EB: Faces feature prominently in these images. Some, like the Portrait of David, seem wide-eyed and apprehensive, while others, like the faces of the Brimstone Men, are blank and inscrutable. Whatever their expression, they all stare outwards, at the viewer, creating an unsettling sense of being observed or confronted. What drew you to these faces as subjects?

MM: Honestly, a little bit of everything! I had begun this series at a somewhat tumultuous time in my life. I think, at the beginning, I needed a sense of commonality between myself and the rest of the world in my heart—as well as in my art. The particular expressions of each piece’s faces do coincide with how I was feeling, in relation to the rest of the world, at the time. Chronologically, I can look back and realize quite easily why each face carries the expression that it does. But that happened inadvertently. So, it was a somewhat-subconscious need to relate to everybody else that drew me to them, and an equally subconscious laundry-list of inner-emotion that influenced their particular individual expressions.

Portrait of Davidacrylic on cotton canvas, 16″ x 20″

EB: We’d love to know a bit more about your composition process. Do you plan your paintings beforehand, or develop them intuitively?

MM: Definitely intuitively, which can be a blessing and a curse. I find my own intuition to be extremely helpful at times, but other times it may lead to a “crash and burn” in my creative process. And I’ve found that there’s really no way of predicting the outcome either. I wish there was, but I’m willing to sacrifice knowing for the sake of a potentially interesting outcome from when the process does work well.

Ghost Darlingsacrylic on cotton canvas, 12″ x 16″

EB: You mentioned in your submission that working on these paintings aided in your recovery from addiction. Would you mind speaking a bit more about the role art has played in your recovery process?

MM: Addiction is a really rough, but helpful, aid in becoming a person in general—if utilized wisely. Too many people die from it in order for just a few to live. I’m alive. And I can look back at my darkest times and see how my art almost reflects them in the form of a sheer-opposite. I think creating art can help a recovering addict see that their output in this world doesn’t have to be in just police reports, mugshots, and rehab cigarette-breaks. There’s so much more that a person can be, and do. I almost want to say that sounds obvious. But there’s a real “tunnel vision” aspect to being an addict. It doesn’t just encompass getting high either. A person’s whole self-perception begins to exist only as someone who does, wants to, or did, use drugs. But there are people out there who do, want to, and did brush their teeth this morning. Are they letting that stop them from living the rest of their lives?

EB: Has your experience with addiction informed your art? If so, in what way?

MM: It absolutely has, but I’m not exactly sure how. Foregoing specifics, I can say that I know that it absolutely has because in reviewing myself (through an active recovery process), I’ve explained myself to myself in ways that I certainly see crop-up in my art. Did addiction make me more impatient? I don’t know. But I do see my impatience in my art sometimes. I wouldn’t trade my experiences, and who I am, for the world! That’s for sure.

Puzzleismacrylic on cotton canvas, 9″ x 12″

EB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

MM: I’d just like to thank The Journal for the experience of this interview, and for publishing my work. I’d like to encourage any artist out there to give their own intuition a try—however that may be. I’d like to say, lastly, that life isn’t a race. Don’t compare yourself to so and so, because their destiny isn’t yours! I find that when I slow down and look at my life from a certain perspective—hey, it’s been pretty interesting thus far.

And lastly, lastly—I’m of course still at it! Please follow me on Twitter (@matthewsmcdade) or Instagram (@matthewmcdadeart) or e-mail me at, and get in contact! I, as of writing this, have some exciting oil painting in the works that certainly serve as a logical follow-up the pieces showcased in this article. I’m twenty-one and look forward to what the future holds! I hope to re-locate from Ohio to New York City eventually. I’d like for you to meet me and my pieces at your favorite gallery soon!

Matthew McDade (they/them) is an artist from elsewhere (the small town of East Palestine, Ohio) who conveys emotions to be felt everywhere, and by anyone. Growing up creating, McDade spent hours and hours finding their ethereal, personal creative presence among plenty of toasted-cheese sandwiches and endless packets of printer paper in a one-bedroom apartment with their single mother throughout the early-mid 2000s. And although they eventually stopped making art, McDade turned to it once again at the age of 19 in 2016. Since, they have persevered almost solely for the sake of proving one point to themselves: “I’m alive.”