The early influences on John's painting style were from the French period. The post-Impressionism of painter Othon Friesz inspired John to paint in a direct and truthful manner. He was also influenced by the disturbing effect of the Surrealists 1933 Paris Exhibition, from which a typical unsettling emptiness and a slightly surreal perspective derived. John also cites the Norwegian, Edvard Munch as another artist who he admired.
John McNairn (1910-2009) was born in Hawick in the Scottish Borders, the elder son of John McNairn, publisher of the Hawick News and a painter himself. He trained at Edinburgh College of Art from 1927 to 1930 under D.M.Sutherland and William Gillies. Both tutors had studied on the Continent, and McNairn followed the custom for the most talented Edinburgh students to go to London and then, on graduation, to go abroad to continue their development. In Paris in the early 1930s John made, the unusual choice (at least among Scottish students) of attending the Academie Scandinave, attracted by the presence of Othon Friesz.
After war service in India, he returned to West Calder where he met his future wife Stella. The newly-weds moved to Hawick and then to Selkirk, where John became Head of the Art Department at Selkirk High School.
John's painting has been infrequently exhibited. In 1950, Edinburgh's The Scottish Gallery held a joint exhibition of McNairn and his father's painting. Then, five generations of McNairn artists were brought together in an exhibition in Peebles in 1987. Between these years, McNairn was frequently included in other exhibitions, and he organised displays of his own in the gallery he and his wife established in Selkirk.