Artist Phil McKay talks about painting the "bizarre and unique" beasts of Revelation, his decision to stop painting fantasy and paint from the Bible, and his Roman obsession.
Question: You are an Adventist artist, and many of your paintings show themes from the Bible. Jesus appears in many of your works—especially in modern-day settings. How do you get inspired to paint a specific picture on a certain theme?
Answer: To be honest, it is sometimes very difficult to get inspired—I guess I experience a type of writer’s block for artists. Though after some time with the Lord, flicking through images, and reading the text in the Bible it always becomes clear.
Many of your paintings depict scenes from Daniel and Revelation prophecy. What has drawn you to these images? How do you decide what to put in your paintings, or how to picture a specific beast from Revelation? Do you use the Spirit of Prophecy books, Adventist literature, or previous pictures done by Adventists to help you imagine what the scenes will look like?
I used to paint a lot of fantasy-style images: beasts, dragons etc., and I see a lot of similarities to this in Daniel and Revelation. The images depicted in these two books are really quite bizarre and extremely unique. I personally have found the images used to depict prophecy in the past to be too subdued, and so I wanted my depictions to be a powerful and dramatic visual representation of what they really are.
"The Three Angels"
Your pictures have been used to illustrate Bible studies by Adventist evangelist Mark Finley and other work from the It Is Written broadcast ministry. Are those works commissioned or have those organizations bought the finished paintings? What agreement do you have with them? Have they licensed the images to use however they wish?
Basically, I do commissioned work for an organization for Bible studies, books, commissioned paintings, etc. If another organization wants to use an image of mine, they are able to license it from me for their specific usage.
What other Adventist organizations have used your work? I know you were on the cover of the South Pacific Division’s Adventist Record not long ago.
Some that come to mind are the South Pacific Division, the Inter-European Division and several North American Division publications, the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Ministry, the Trans Pacific Union Mission, It Is Written Oceania, Amazing Facts, and many other ministries.
When did you start painting? What other forms of art have you worked in?
I started painting at an early age, exploring and experimenting with a variety of mediums. Many artforms interest me, and I would need to live a very long time to learn them all. In the past I have been a signwriter, screen printer, and vehicle airbrush artist.
One of my passions is Roman history, and my friend and I make historically accurate Roman swords/daggers and other pieces. My part in these collaborative projects is metal repoussé, gilding, and other artistic elements.
You said you used to paint dark images, before you turned to painting from the Bible. Did you sell your previous images commercially? What made you change direction?
Indeed, I used to paint a lot of thematically “dark” images, mainly murals on show cars and motorbikes. It was quite lucrative, and I guess that was the draw card. Not only that, but I was very good at it and built a name in that industry. But I never felt comfortable doing it, and there was always a prompting to glorify God with my gift rather than the devil. One day I decided I had to make a choice, which I did, and I have never painted anything “dark” since.
Following my decision, I still needed an income, so I handed my situation and decision over to the Lord. The very next day I started painting the gospel for It Is Written Oceania, and have been painting it ever since. The Lord is faithful and he has blessed me, for that was 13 years ago.
"The Lord of the Sabbath"
Have you always been a full-time artist, earning your living from art?
Yes, most of my life I have been fortunate enough to make a living from my artwork, in one form or another.
Did you train in art? How did you learn to paint?
No, I didn’t have any formal training—I’m self-taught.
What artists have inspired you?
Many of the Renaissance masters have inspired me over the years, and I love visiting art galleries and seeing the masterpieces that were painted throughout that period. Certainly, my friend Nathan Greene [Adventist artist who paints in the style of the late Harry Anderson] also comes to mind.
I see a lot in nature that inspires me, especially the colors and how they complement each other. So, really, God’s creation is my greatest inspiration.
What kind of nature inspires you?
Nature has always fascinated me. The sheer beauty, perfection, and variety that surrounds us is incredible. I love painting God’s creatures in his creation, whether it is the amazing color palette of the coral reefs and fish, to the blazing and earthy colors of some of his birds and wildlife.
Your work has been featured in non-Adventist publications as well. Where else have your pictures been published or shown?
Much of my biblical work has been licensed to other denominational ministries around the world, and featured in TV programs. I also illustrated wildlife for the Australian Geographic magazine, several cover artworks included. My work has also been published for calendars, greeting cards, and more.
"Woman at the Well"
What new projects or themes are you working on now?
At present I am working on a project for Signs Publishing Company. It involves illustrating two picture rolls, one on discipleship and the other on the Bible from Genesis to Revelation—an exciting project to be involved with.
Where do you work? Do you have a studio in your house?
Yes, I do have a home studio that I work from—I call it my “Ro-man" cave. The studio basically is my workplace/Roman museum. Come to think of it, I need a larger space!
You live in Port Macquarie, Australia and attend the Adventist Church there. What is Port Macquarie like? Can you tell us about your family? What do you do when you are not painting?
Port Macquarie is a beautiful coastal town on the New South Wales Mid-North Coast. It has an idyllic climate—in fact noted as the best in the Southern Hemisphere.
My family consists of my wife Sharon and our two children, Kelly and Charlie. We are all artistic so spend a lot of time together drawing, coloring, and making art. We are a very close family, so whatever we are doing, we are doing it together.
When I am not painting, I like to get my hands into my Roman passion, whether that be in the form of making armor and the like, researching, or expanding and cataloging my collection of Roman antiquities. I am planning on getting my Roman collection into schools and colleges/universities here in Australia for educational purposes. I want to share it and educate people who are interested.
Of course, the beach and skateboarding with my family is always squeezed in, too.
Images by Phil McKay, used here with the permission of the artist. To see more of his images, visit his website.
Alita Byrd is the interviews editor for Spectrum.
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