Colour is at the root of all John McLean's paintings. He worked on a large scale, painting spontaneously onto the canvas using fluid paints to make abstract and rhythmic compositions that suggest light and space. The artist's shapes became more formal throughout his lifetime, introducing a minor degree of narrative, meaning any shape could be open to interpretation as a sign or metaphor. McLean regarded the abstract elements in his work as being informed by external experience and having an emotional dimension.
McLean was born in Liverpool to Scottish parents in 1939. He studied at St Andrews University from 1957 to 1962 and at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London from 1963 to 1966. McLean went on to teach at various art schools in London from 1966 and had his first solo exhibition in 1975. He lived in New York in the late 1980s. His work has been exhibited as a touring exhibition in China. It is also held by many public collections worldwide, including the Tate, London; the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh and the Yale Centre for British Art; New Haven, USA.