In the Studio: Process of a Painting with Heidi Draley McFall

Heidi Draley McFall (NAP #30, #113) creates monumental pastel portraits that are haunting and endearing, personal and startling. Through heightened contrast in black and white, she invites us to explore the souls and personalities of those she depicts. There is an openness and volatility to her subjects that instills a closeness and sense of shared humanness between the artist, her viewers, and her subjects.

McFall first takes photographs, then prints them, and then draws with pastel on paper to create these large six feet portraits. She recently updated her process, embarking on a darkroom photography class so that she could add an extra layer to her process by printing the photographs herself rather than going through a lab.

Heidi Draley McFall | Taylor Drawn From a Darkroom Print, 72" x 48", pastel on paper. All photos courtesy of the artist.

In this installment of Process of a Painting, please explore McFall’s fascinating multi-step process and read her own words about her work below. - Ellen Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor

Heidi Draley McFall: This picture is the first drawing that I have made using an actual print from the darkroom that I personally printed...It clicked in my head some time ago that I was surrendering a vital part of my process away to this second party. Every time I would get a photo from the lab I was always somewhat disappointed and often left wondering what other information on the negative was perhaps left behind or lost in translation, or what printing decisions were made by the lab tech or machine that were different from the decisions that I would make in photo development. 


HDM: So I enrolled in a darkroom photography course at a local college. The experience was totally transformative and I can only imagine what it will mean for my work going forward. The magic and beauty of making your own photograph in a darkroom is an activity like no other. It is arduous, difficult, painstaking and wondrous. Exploring this end of my art making process filled a gap in my work and felt as though a missing puzzle piece was finally put into place. 

HDM: The photo upon which the drawing is based is a preliminary drawing of sorts, in that the finished work is very dependent on the original source material. Gathering control over this initial part of my process means that I decide what the photo will look like and hence how the final drawing will turn out.

Heidi Draley McFall | Taylor Drawn From a Darkroom Print, 72" x 48", pastel on paper. All photos courtesy of the artist.

HDM: In this work I drew in the border of the photo because it was a very beautiful soft edge that just seemed perfect, so I included it. 


Heidi Draley McFall was born in Iowa City in 1974 and has been making art since childhood. Her work is currently on view in group shows at the Dubuque Museum of Art and the Elmhurst Art Museum show entitled New American Paintings: Midwest Edition. In this show, the juror Staci Boris decided to mount an exhibition of the artists featured in the recent 2014 midwest edition of New American Paintings.

A self-taught artist, Heidi’s drawings have been the subject of solo and group exhibitions at galleries and museums including Annina Nosei Gallery, New York, Leo Castelli Gallery, New York, Paolo Curti Gallery, Milan, Italy, The McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, and The Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, writer, and editor.


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