Carla O'Connor received BFA from Kent State University. In school, she focused on oil and realism. It wasn't until after college, and experimenting with various mediums, did she find her artistic home in gouache. Carla is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, National Watercolor Society and Northwest Watercolor Society and is an AWS Dolphin Fellow. She is also a Creative Catalyst artist, with her workshop "Figure Design in Gouache."
What is it about the human form draws you to paint it? How does the human form as a shape allow you to play?
The human form has been the touchstone of my work from the beginning. The majority of my university fine arts education centered on anatomy — primarily drawing from live models for years before being allowed to paint. Now, much of how I approach the human form is intuitive. I no longer think of bones and muscles but of movement, gesture, emotion and attitude.
I never thought of the human body as one shape but rather many, many shapes arranged like a puzzle to complete a whole image. After so much training to adequately and realistically portray the figure, I am now free to exaggerate, eliminate, distort or enhance those puzzle pieces as I please to express the desired content.
For you, process is incredibly important. Could you explain why you consider yourself a process painter?
I had never thought of myself as a “process painter.” I didn’t even think about or define in my mind what my actual “process” was. I just painted.
It was not until I began teaching watercolor workshops - some 30 years ago - that I thoroughly dissected how I got from the beginning to the end of a painting. In other words, figuring out my personal process. I know now that it is more than just dipping a brush in water and putting it on paper. There is the thinking part, the doing part, the jump, and the frustration, determination, excitement, adjustment, relief and resolve part! All of that and probably more comprises the process for every artist to some degree.
I am now at the point where I cherish the doing part of painting and all that it entails and regret the point of finishing.
Could you give us an overview of the stages in your process? What are you focusing on at each stage?
I do not have a strict formula because the best part of painting is the actual creating and it is different with every work. That is where the joy is for me and I hate to see it come to a close.
There are moments of complete surrender and absolutely uncontrolled events. An artist can either throw up their hands and give up or be excited by the prospect of figuring out a solution to what appears at first to be a total mess. Here is the chance to lift or scrub out a shape and see what is texture underneath. One can always paint it back on. But it might be the hint of your first masterpiece in the making.
I do try to stay focused on what is happening at the moment, adjusting, and reacting to what the painting is trying to tell me.
What planning do you do before you begin a painting? Why is planning important to the way you work?
I do very little planning prior to beginning a painting other than basic composition format, desired mood, and atmosphere. I do not want to have an image of the completed painting in my mind. I look forward to being surprised along the way. But I do try to keep in mind what excited me about the subject in the first place and be open when new possibilities arise during the process. At this point I strive for more content in the work and worry less about the context.
What watermedia do you paint with and what do you paint on? How does this affect what you can do and how you work? What freedom does this give you?
After formal training in Oils, I moved to Acrylics on canvas then to Watercolor on paper and now a combination of transparent watercolor and Gouache. I use only smooth painting surfaces - Hot Press #140lb. paper, boards, and most recently Claybord Panels.
The chemistry of Gouache, an opaque watercolor, gives the artist the ability to manipulate the pigment by lifting and texturing.
Gouache is transparent watercolor with one important additive - chalk. Originally, the extra ingredient was marble but that was difficult to find and expensive. Chalk was abundant and easily obtainable.
This one little addition changed the medium considerably. Now the pigment sits on top of the painting surface, not soaking into paper fibers, allowing many new opportunities for the artist.
Additionally, when dry, the color is darker than it appears when wet — a value challenge for sure. It also is an interesting visual to place a transparent passage next to an opaque shape for even more variety on the surface. For me Gouache is my mature medium of choice after a career of exploration.
How conscious are you about color going in to a piece?
I am not a colorist. Color is an aspect of painting that one could explore for a lifetime. I love color too but my main concern regarding color is balance and its place in my design. To me, it is a second string player. I use color and its considerable impact to re-enforce my message by setting the mood or express emotion.
Color is the most dominant and impactful element of design. It is the every first thing a viewer is aware of and it sets the tone for the entire piece. Not only is color used to emphasis emotion but also it has an influence on the artist by its mere location and surroundings.
For instance, in our warm southern U.S. states, you are sure to see a lot of hot reds, oranges, and yellows in the art. By contrast, here in the Pacific Northwest, the climate invites a vast variety of beautiful warm and cool greys. I believe that color is made more beautiful by what is next to it.
What is the biggest struggle you see your students facing with color? What advice do you give them?
The biggest struggle I see facing students with color, at least those who love color above all else, is that they want every color on their palette in one painting. The result is that each one of those colors cries out for all the attention. It is very difficult to convince a student to be selective and use some grey hues to surround and enhance the color even more. Remember, the most important design principle is Dominance.
How has your use of design evolved as you’ve become a more skilled painter?
The beginning years of my art career were focused on drawing, technical skill and study of various mediums. That took a great deal of time but gave me a strong foundation to create art. Experimenting with many mediums was important to understand which was the best choice for my vision. Time well spent for sure.
For the last 30 years, I have painted exclusively in Watercolor. With the addition of Gouache I feel I have come full circle and found my mature medium of choice. Having that decision made, enabled me to concentrate on the importance of design and composition to reach a higher level.
The purpose of the Elements and Principles of Design in concert with a deliberate composition format is the basis of artistic expression. It is the common denominator in all art and I feel the pathway to works of lasting import. Design, itself, in a nutshell is all these components combined.
Why is design important to a painter?
A painting is a human artifact - a deliberate construction. The artist seeks to impart a special viewpoint of some aspect that is meaningful to that artist.
Design is organization. It gives artist the tools to use before, during and after the painting process.
It is also a sequential thing – not born all in one piece.
Design can feel like this huge and intangible concept. Any advice?
My advice to artists is to have a basic plan in mind but begin painting intuitively. Do not try to remember the Principles (7) and Elements (7) or even the composition format, except in very basic form. Just begin freely.
When it is time to pause and rest you can refer to the P&E’s and composition format. Reevaluate the work you have done so far, make adjustments or eliminations, and then jump in again and continue painting.
Rest, pause, reflect, and paint again – over and over. You have all the tools for objective self-critique and the power to know when to add something or take it out in order to create a perfect composition.
Composition is not difficult. Just remember it is a device to draw the viewer’s eye into and around the painting. There are pre established compositions you can use such as Circular, Pyramidal, Axial, Meander, Cantilever,
Vertical/Horizontal, plus others.
Without this important component, the viewer is likely to enter on one side and fly out the other with little or no appreciation of the artist efforts.
Another piece of advice: Save all the details for the very last and when you are satisfied that it is the best you can do at this moment, and nothing you could add or take out would make any difference, sign it! The next one will be better.
Learn more about Carla O'Connor by visiting her website.
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