Black Artists Print Shop: Meet Dave McClinton

artist quote and headshot

About the Black Artists Print Shop: The Black Artists Print Shop is part of our ongoing work to help advance racial equity within our communities. We aim to create spaces for Black artists—places where you can find their work, hear their stories, and support their businesses. Our fourth collection’s theme is celebrating Black art. To do so, we’re elevating ten distinct voices by highlighting the artists’ answers to the question: “What does celebrating Black art mean to you?” Their answers represent a breadth of opinions on what Black art is, how we can support it, and the importance of representation.

About Dave: Dave McClinton has been a creative professional for more than two decades. His expertise in branding consultations, corporate identity, and web design has been developed by participating in every level of the creative process. That knowledge and drive has been honed within the publishing world, tech startups, and design studios.

He earned a BFA in Visual Communication at Texas State University at San Marcos. Dave has been published in the Print Regional Annual and Logo Lounge publications. Dave is a key collaborator and core team member of African American Graphic Designers (AAGD).

Dave is also an emerging artist who began exhibiting his personal work in 2015. His work as a graphic designer has been to communicate quickly and efficiently and that economy of message can be applied to art. Dave combines his love of photography, art and graphic design to create works that speak to the viewer by communicating aspects of Black Culture. He is featured in partnership with Saatchi Art.

How do you view your role as an artist in society?

Funny, this was a question that I think about all the time. Because I am always listening to what other artists say, and it makes me rethink what I think. My role is to very specifically speak about the African American experience in this country. Through the eyes of a man who has lived in Texas specifically—which is its whole unique spin on what that experience is. To communicate that.

Particularly in an era where books are being banned. There’s nothing like a catchphrase for people to get a hold of—like with critical race theory. When it’s really trying to just tell you this is what happened. With the effort to turn off part of history, I feel like my role is even more important. It’s becoming one of the fewer opportunities to have a Black person tell you what life is like, what life was like, what life could be like in this country. 

That, to me, is my most important role. At least the way I see it right now.

How do you identify as an artist?

I guess you would call what I do digital collage. Or collage. Others might say print. I’ve even heard more and more things like digital painting. But truly what I am is a collage artist. Each piece I do might have 30-40 pieces in it that have been collaged together. So, oftentimes we’re asked to classify even deeper. And I feel like every now and then expressionism fits. Every now and then, surrealism fits. 

For my head to toe things, I’ll be pulling heads, arms and hands and hands and feet and legs from all different sources. It results in an awkward looking figure. But that is a perfect description for what I am trying to get across in terms of the awkwardness of just being a Black man trying to get through the day.

So surrealism works too.

Tell us about the process behind your collage work.

So there’s landscapes, and there’s portraits. For landscapes, I am gathering up different weights of paper and crumpling them up, to make them look like mountains and then photographing them. And then, I am kind of always just wandering around town getting photos of textures. So I might get tree bark, concrete, a stucco wall, big boulders, you know you have big rocks in parking lots? I just walk up and take photos of those textures—and that’s how I build those mountains. 

The way I do the people, is that I’ll either look at archival photos, family photos, photos of myself, I’ll photograph my hand or my fist or whatever in a certain position. And then stitch all that together to form the face.

So the faces are an eye from a different source. A nose from a different source. A mouth from a different source. So those people don’t technically exist. So when you see a portrait of a face, that’s not a photograph of a person. That’s something that has been stitched together from several different sources. And certainly the shape of the head or the mouth—I might start with a base, but then I’ll tailor it—I’ll put new ears on it. It’s almost like a game, like Operation! Because I want to express something about beauty standards, or the nose and the lips will be exaggerated. I’ll put details in the eyes. Use coins for eyes. There’s a lot going on in those.

I think what I said earlier is probably accurate. There’s probably 30-40 images per piece.

How did you start doing this kind of work?

I’m a graphic designer, that’s what I do for a living. I would say 15 years ago maybe, I was freelancing. Every now and then I’d have a creative block. I’d be tired of laying out text for three or four days straight. So I would want to do something to shake it up, so I’d have a little kitchen timer that I would set for thirty minutes, and it would be ticking over here, and I would grab a bunch of images and just mess with them. And there wasn’t any end goal. I would just stop, flatten it [in Photoshop], put it in a folder. It was a way to wake up the creative juices, and do something fun that had no purpose. 

Then, after doing that for about a year, I was going through the folder one day. And most of it was garbage. But every now and then there was something kind of cool!

Cy and Withstand’s colors are so rich. How does color composition contribute to the message you want the pieces to convey?

The landscape—those are always going back and forth between surrealism and realism. So some of the landscapes, I’ve heard people tell me “Oh, that reminds me of a mountain I’ve climbed,” or “that reminds me of the Flatirons in Colorado” — I hear stuff like that all the time. Some of those cloud formations look real. When I say real, I mean I was trying to be realistic. Blue sky, white cloud, brown mountain, that kind of thing. And then there are some mountains that are bright orange like in Withstand. And it’s really just a matter of whatever cloud photos I captured that day. Like some of those are stormy days—those are actual cloud photos where I’ll just walk outside to the top of the parking garage and just take photos of whatever is there in the sky. 

And that kind of determines if it’s going to be a gloomy day, a gloomy piece, or a bright, sunny piece. And then that drives color.

The colors of the portraits, the people, most of the time I am using brown skin. But also one of the unique things about the facial features of Black people is that I can make their skin red or blue or green and you would know, that’s a Black man. 

So I generally let the colors of what I am capturing control it. One day I was sitting in the doctor’s office waiting for my appointment. And I just started taking photos of the fabric on the seats in the waiting room. And that drove the color of that piece—a purple and gold thing. So it’s kind of like I let whatever those found images are drive the color palette. 

On Cy, there’s a spun gold nature to the sport coat he’s wearing. That’s from the polished, steel door inside the elevator of a building I used to live in.

portrait of man in gold frame
portrait of mountain in gold frame

In your other works, the gaze of your subject is so powerful. How do you choose subjects and capture the emotion behind them?

So there’s been a discussion for a while in the Black art community about representation. About who the work is for. Who is buying it? What does that mean? It can get pretty granular in terms of all the opinions.

But my opinion is that that gaze is for the viewer as a way in, and it’s a way for me to communicate to the viewer, because I am not always there to explain it. It’s a way for the art not to be passive. It’s a way for that artwork of that Black person not to be on display for the world to just gaze at another Black body. It’s more like the opposite—this Black body is gazing at you. 

That’s why there is a lot of direct stares in a lot of the work. Because I hope the viewer comes to a point of empathy and asks, “What’s my role in this?” “How do I feel about this?” “What’s that person’s emotion, what’s their journey?” “How am I gonna handle that?” “What is it like to be them?”

What does celebrating Black art mean to you?

I think it means being open to everything. I guess we’re sort of focused on visual art now. But I think it means that understanding that not every Black artist is going to be talking about violence or oppression or anything political. It might just be “I really love landscapes and that’s what I do.” Or “I’m an abstract painter and that’s what I do.” 

So there’s an ongoing discussion, which I am really grateful for: does every Black artist need to have an activist strain in what they’re working on? And I think no. I think, if you’re a Black artist, you shouldn’t have to say that you’re a Black artist. But, there’s value on both sides. It’s great to say I’m just an artist and that’s what I do. But then there’s value in saying I’m a Black artist and this is what I’m talking about. This is what my art talks about. 

So the notion that I would want to get across, that I hope this Print Shop gets across, is that Black artists aren’t a monolith. Not everyone is trying to save the world, some people just want to try and make something beautiful. And then some people want to do both—make something beautiful and communicate something about their culture or their life. 

I would say the goal, maybe in 25 or 50 years from now, however long it takes, is that you wouldn’t need to specify. I don’t know. You’d need to talk to a cultural anthropologist to discuss the value of culture on that level!

But we should all be able to create what we want to create without the viewer trying to categorize us.

How do you hope people will feel when they see your work in a frame?

I hope that if they purchase the landscape, I hope it either reminds them of a place they’ve been, or makes them travel and they remember it when they’re traveling. So it’d be great if they were in the Alps, and are like, that reminds me of the art hanging in my living room. So that’s a fun thought. 

The other thought for the other piece would be: there’s a lot of resistance and pride and history and metaphor in the face in that piece, but I’d hope they can identify with a strain of something in that face. And it goes with them everywhere. And when they look at the art, it reinforces or certifies within themselves how they feel about the world.

Photography by Julian Thomas.

Learn more about Dave, a Saatchi Art artist, on his website and Instagram.

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