McLean was born in Glasgow and studied at Glasgow School of Art from 1961 to 1963, and at St Martin’s School of Art, London, from 1963 to 1966. At St Martin’s, McLean studied with Anthony Caro. In a reaction to the attitude of the latter he began making sculpture from rubbish.
McLean has gained international recognition for his paintings, ceramics, prints, work with film, theatre and books. McLean was Head of Graduate Painting at The Slade School of Fine Art London. He has had numerous one man exhibitions including Tate Gallery in London, The Modern Art Gallery in Vienna and Museum of Modern Art, Oxford. In 1985 he won the John Moores Painting Prize.
Mclean lives and works in London.