Born 1952 in Akaroa, McWhannell graduated Diploma of Fine Arts from the University of Canterbury in 1972 and has been exhibiting since 1974. McWhannell is probably best known for his paintings of people. In many of his interior works, he places silent figures in domestic settings and replaces disquiet and Gothic tones with a sense of calmness and contemplative repose where figures are depicted in soft warm colours. As a portrait painter, he considers self-portraits less problematic than using other people as models, finding there to be more freedom to make necessary distortions and to investigate the human physiognomy. The painterly surface of his self-portraits and the looseness of the brushstrokes have been for McWhannell, a technical metaphor for psychological abandonment whereby his interest lies not so much in asking “Who am I?” but “WHAT am I?”
McWhannell has exhibited widely throughout New Zealand and his work is held in public and private collections throughout the country. He is represented by John Leech Gallery and Orex Gallery, Auckland New Zealand.