Allison Finegan, Technical Writer and Artist

What I love the most about art and painting is how I can lose myself in what I’m doing. Hours can pass and I’m not aware of the time. Painting really relaxes me as I concentrate on what I’m working on – everything else melts away.

My name is Allison Finegan. I’m an artist, a beekeeper, and I work in the IT industry as a technical writer. I prefer to work as a technical writer part-time and/or remotely so I can strike a balance between IT work and my other main interests – bees (May to Sep) and art (Sept to May). I am Canadian and met my husband while living in Vancouver. We moved back to Ireland in 2003 and bought our house in Co. Offaly 13 years ago.

I grew into technical writing over a good many years. When I graduated from the computer science programme in BCIT, I was able to combine both my fine arts and computer science training at a time where it wasn’t really common to have a foothold in both worlds. I actually started my IT career by illustrating key concepts for technology in software training manuals and technical guides. I then began editing and maintaining existing proprietary training materials before writing my first corporate training course in 2002. After that, I began writing and illustrating procedural step-by-step documents and manuals more and more. I love that my role today as a technical writer allows me to be creative and help people to understand and use complex technology and systems.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had an interest in arts and crafts. I would have to say my mother is my main influence – from a very early age, she encouraged and guided me. She taught me to appreciate the natural world and taught me skills in capturing what I saw onto paper. I also think that growing up in a small town on the Western Canadian coast was a big influence – the natural world and all its beauty was all around.

It was in 2011 that I started seriously painting and selling my artwork. A friend encouraged me to try painting on some reclaimed slates they had in their yard. I enjoy painting on reclaimed slates such as Bangor Blues, as it is a fascinating material to work with. No two pieces are ever the same, neither in colour nor in texture. So, every painting I do is truly an original piece of artwork.

I mostly paint in acrylics on slate, canvas, and MDF boards. I like to paint a variety of subjects – I would say that my favourites are animals and nature. Of course, I occasionally go off on a tangent and do spells of abstract and sci-fi type pieces. To date, my art commissions have always been of animals and/or landscapes and farm-related scenes.

The most important element I’m trying to capture in my paintings is the energy and aliveness of my subject. It has often been said to me that the animals I paint look as though they could walk off the slates they are on. I spend quite a bit of time on the subject’s eyes and I add a lot of depth to my paintings, which I think helps to make them come alive.

My process of painting depends on the subject. For a commission, say of someone’s dog or prize-winning sheep/cow on slate, I work from a photograph. I outline the animal in chalk, then I sketch over the lines in a watered-down paint and roughly block in some areas on the animal. If there is to be a background behind the animal, I start there. Next, I work on the eyes of the animal and work out from there, building up layers of paint on the slate. I then work back in towards the eyes and finish them with a small dab of paint to create a glint and highlight in them.

If, on the other hand, I’m painting something out of my imagination (such as an abstract piece or maybe a landscape), all bets are off as to where I end up. I always have an idea of what I want to achieve, but there is no hard and fast goal that I’m working towards. The piece just grows until it tells me it’s done.

How long a painting takes me to do depends on a few things, such as the overall size and if the slate is cooperating. Quite often, I will spend a good couple of hours shaping and drilling slates and end up with only one or two that will work for the piece I want to create. Because the slates I use are so old, they are sometimes quite brittle and break easily. It’s better that they break while I’m shaping and drilling than after I’ve spent time painting on them – it has happened.

The actual ‘painting’ takes on average about 3-4 hours. It can take longer if it’s a large piece, a very detailed subject, or my groove is a little off. On average, a 9×11 inch slate painting takes me a total of 8 hours to prep, paint & dry, seal & dry, and finish with a sturdy hanger.

In the autumn time, I knuckle down with my painting to create items for sale at Christmas craft fairs. I take in roughly 15 – 20 commission paintings between October and mid-December from people wanting customised Christmas gifts. 15 – 20 is usually the limit of what I can produce in 3 months.

Also, at these fairs, I sell honey and wax products such as candles, lip balms and hand creams that I make using the wax and honey from our beehives. In addition, I am an active volunteer in the Girls Friendly Society here in Ireland. Part of my current role allows me to contribute both my writing and artistic skills to society.

I have several paintings that I’m particularly proud of:

  • The most unusual would be my painting of a Lanark sheep and collie dog on a creamery can with a Monarch butterfly on the can’s lid.
  • The largest slate to date is of a bull called Oscar. This was a most nerve-wracking task as I only had the one slate, so everything just had to go right! Luckily, it did.
  • My first venture into painting on MDF boards was an oversized painting of a mule sheep with a pair of shearing blades under it.

In the future, I would like to have a studio gallery that I work in that is open to the public (either that or have a gallery feature and carry my work). I also think about teaching painting techniques in small class settings, as I love helping people with their creative journeys.

I see the use of imagination as a similarity between art and technical writing. As an artist, I often imagine myself in the scene I’m painting – I find putting myself inside the painting helps me to paint better. As a technical writer, it’s very important to put yourself in your audience’s shoes. I feel that if I imagine I’m the end-user for the document I’m creating, it helps me to write more suitable content that targets what they need.

I think my art and painting experiences have definitely been a benefit to my technology career. It is a key way for me to relax and recharge, and it has taught me to look at things in different ways.

My advice to anyone interested in painting is to practice. I feel 90% of a painting is the creative idea for the painting – seeing it in your mind’s eye. Only 10% is the motor skills and techniques required to create the painting for others to see what you’re seeing in your head. These skills develop with time and practice. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try something new. There is no such thing as a painting being wrong – if you make a ‘mistake’, turn it into a ‘feature’ in the painting. Often, I’ve added an additional tree or two to a painting to hide something I considered a mistake.

I think it’s very important to help in sharing the creative passions of technologists from all over the world. There is always more than tech! Technology is a tool that can sometimes be used as part of a creative process. It is also a means to an end. However, without creative passions, we are nothing more than the machines we are using to get our jobs done. Human beings weren’t meant to be chained to a desk in an artificial environment. Human beings are meant to create, explore and renew themselves through creative passions, no matter what they are. We are a part of the natural world – I strongly feel that without creative outlets, the tech will drown us.

To check out Alison’s website, including information on her commissions and portfolio, be sure to check the following link:

http://afinart.com/

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