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085: Intersection: Keight MacLean, Portraiture

Updated: Dec 15, 2023



In the previous episode, we met Shen Ramu who spoke with us about how she continues to refine and redefine her style, how she keeps herself inspired and the tools she uses to create her work. She also reminded us about the need for boundaries and today’s guest agrees.


Allow me to officially introduce you to today’s guest: Keight MacLean.


Keight MacLean is a Toronto-based painter. Her paintings combine the old with the new, reproducing historical portraits by hand before applying contemporary and experimental methods. With a love for European History, MacLean's focus on women was born after years of reading male driven histories. Her work now seeks to celebrate the many women in historical portraits, giving a voice to the silenced.


In our conversation, Keight and I discuss the ways in which she fell into her work by accident and through lots of experimentation, the ways living abroad immersed in art for a year continues to impact her professional work, as well as how and why she never experiences creative block.


Key Ideas Discussed:

  • Studied illustration at OCAD

  • By happenstance she fell into painting and drawing as a minor

  • She studied in Florence Italy for a year - impacted every part of her life

  • She considers herself a history nerd

  • All of her portraits are based on old master's paintings, with a focus on women and how they've been portrayed throughout history + introduce modern and contemporary elements

  • Loves having fun with the work and marrying old and new

  • She never starts a painting from a blank white canvas; instead she primes the canvases with black primer

  • If you're working up from dark, it's different than working from down from light - approaching a painting in a different way; subtractive art, "carving away"; a black background is also easier to start with because it looks a lot more finished

  • Time in Florence was transformative

  • Spending time with masters paintings in the museums

  • The masters paintings feel so familiar to her

  • Copying the old masters as an exercise is really good practice

  • There's one class that kickstarted her work now - playing with different materials/surface each week

  • If you 'mess up' a small painting the cost and time commitment of failing is small; good way to experiment; less afraid of messing up; experimentation; have fun - as soon as she figured this out it was huge

  • Smaller paintings are a jumping off point from an experimentation

  • Everyone has room for a little 6x6 painting!

  • Process is labour-intensive

  • Very particular about her painting surfaces: wood panels, 20 thin layers of gesso - white and black to get a medium grey + so that the wood grain doesn't show through, sanding between layers, 2-3 layers of thinned out black gesso (she does them in batches of 20 at a time), paint marker sketch (compositions ahead of time on her computer), several layers of canvas (beige) coloured gesso, switch to acrylic paint, one final layer in slow drying acrylic (gives her time to blend), final finishes are different on each painting (spray paint, gold leaf, etc.)

  • If she needs a break from painting she'll stand up and work on canvas prep

  • She paints in bulk (orders 70 panels at the time)

  • She has lots of 90% done paintings (portraiture is done) - hanging on the wall staring down at her and when she knows what the final process will be, Keight takes them down and finishes the painting

  • Workflow and option in bouncing around to different tasks and processes; she feels its a good balance for her and she's never bored in her work

  • It takes her approximately 1.5 months to complete a batch of 20 finished paintings

  • She really likes boundaries and is always getting better at it

  • Having a studio outside of a house is much easier for her - 9-5 Tues-Sat

  • Painting as a profession has and hasn't changed her work - it's encouraged her to paint more, which she loves

  • She doesn't get creative block - regimented process and having lots of the on at the same time helps with this

  • Never falling out of practice because working on painting full time

  • Spray paint, drippy paint markers, gold leaf are some of her favourite modern materials to use - she has accepted that she can't control them so she sees them as 'collaborators' in the process and even when she doesn't agree, but she likes the chaos that brings into her art (contemporary finishes); the switch off between super meticulous traditional paintings meets contemporary and chaotic finishes (letting go)

  • Sells directly to clients most of the time - it takes away the preciousness (in a good way) - you have to let other people see beauty in your own flaws

  • She loves having her own studio space now


Among many insights gained, Keight reminds us about how to integrate the past with the present. In the next episode we meet Sana, a bridal henna artist who shares Keight’s feelings about how she uses her artistic practice to interweave traditional and modern ideologies, techniques and stories.


Stay tuned…



The first is a digital illustration that depicts Keight MacLean’s point of intersection between ‘boundaries’ and ‘traditional meets modern’. There are two overlapping circles connecting these themes and a straight line connecting her to the place where these circles meet. When connected with the 16 other artists these circles form a map.

A painting entitled ‘Agnes’; a woman looking concerned, up and to her right, with streaks of fluorescent yellow paint dripping skyward.

A circular painting entitled ‘Abide’ of a woman’s head with detailed white ornately-drawn lace enveloping her hair and surrounding her head.

A painting entitled ‘Entreat’ of a woman looking over her shoulder directly at the viewer with painted white lines in her hair, masked behind dripping gold paint extending skyward.

A painting entitled ‘Halo’ of a woman with her head bowed, tears running down her face and a gold dripping halo encircling the crown of her head.

A circular painting entitled ‘Forgotten’ of a woman with tan skin and shadows cast on her face with a linework headwrap and blotches of gold leaf surrounding her.


The complete map of the colourful, intersecting circles that represent the 17 artists and their connections to one another.

About Our Guest:


A photo of Keight looking directly into the camera with dark hair, wearing glasses and a black hat.

Keight MacLean is a Toronto-based painter. Her paintings combine the old with the new, reproducing historical portraits by hand before applying contemporary and experimental methods. With a love for European History, MacLean's focus on women was born after years of reading male driven histories. Her work now seeks to celebrate the many women in historical portraits, giving a voice to the silenced.



Music (public domain via Free Music Archive): Chad Crouch - Rainbow


Talk Paper Scissors Theme Music: Retro Quirky Upbeat Funk by Lewis Sound Production via Audio Jungle


Boat Origami Photo: Boat Origami Photo byAlex onUnsplash

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