Alfred McAdams was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1914. Originally, he planned on becoming an architect, getting his bachelor's in architecture from George Washington University. He also studied at the Chicago Art Institute and the Royal Academy in Stockholm. During the Depression, he worked as an editorial assistant with the Federal Writer's Project and taught drafting in the National Youth Administration. For the duration of WWII, he worked as a draftsman with the engineers at Trinidad, the British West Indies, and Baltimore and as part of the Signal Corps in Europe. Gradually during this period, McAdams became more interested in painting, so he began taking night classes at the Corcoran School of Art. He also earned an MFA in painting from Indiana University. His background in architecture stood him in good stead, however, for he worked extensively as an exhibit designer at the Department of State, the United States Information Agency, and the Smithsonian. He also spent time teaching at the University of Minnesota. In addition to the commission by the Bureau of Reclamation, McAdams was commissioned by NASA to record the Mercury Space Program. He has twice won awards from the Washington Watercolor Association.
McAdams' training in architecture gave him an ability to sketch with relative precision and clarity, as can be seen in the five sketches he did for the Bureau of Reclamation. His sketches, using a felt pen or ink, capture the features of the dam and surroundings with a very believable sense of depth and detail. His watercolors and acrylics echo the same precision, usually with hard edges and little bleeding of forms and colors. The scenes are well represented, but there is little personality in them; they are more like architectural renderings than impressions. One exception is From the Batch Plant, which, although it is representational, has a very graphic style. There are large areas of unmodulated color, and McAdams made good use of primary colors to create a vibrant scene. The works he completed for the Bureau of Reclamation are completely different from the other paintings he did around the same time. These other works employ abstract amorphous shapes and scratchy black lines to convey the essence of nature, rather than actual, recognizable forms. It is interesting to contrast the two styles, as architectural drafting was the starting point of his artistic career. The strong use of lines in his watercolors and drawings for the Bureau of Reclamation, transforms in his other work into lines etched into a fluid background (similar in feel to Klee, albeit more abstract). The Bureau of Reclamation line drawings are the first step towards the abstractions that McAdams creates in his paintings.