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Katie OHagans Story: Figure and Portrait Oil Paintings

Katie OHagans Story: Figure and Portrait Oil Paintings

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This article by Christine McHugh first appeared under the title “Serious Serendipity” in the April 2013 issue of Magazine.

It’s 8 p.m., her girls are in bed, and Katie O’Hagan stands before the blank canvas in her cluttered, 90-square-foot studio with her dog, Seamus. “Painting is a solitary process that I want to get totally lost in,” she says. “I want to sing along to the music, talk to my dog, talk to myself, curse at my painting if it doesn’t cooperate. It sounds selfish, but I don’t want to have to think about another person, make small talk or give breaks. Besides, I’m pretty sure a model who’d agree to work during my typical hours of 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. would be kind of expensive.”

For the next 15 or so minutes, referring at times to several of the 10 photos on the monitor next to her easel, O’Hagan waves her hands around, measures proportions in the air and doesn’t make any marks. The placement of that first element is important, and—with no detailed drawing to refer to and no block-in on the canvas—she’s still considering where to begin. If this energetic long-distance runner had room to pace and if it would help hasten that first stroke, she would. Impatient, she finally takes her brush and starts to paint—her subject’s right eye.

“Once the eye is totally accurate,” she says, “I know I can place everything else correctly.” In four or five hours she completes the “first pass” on the head. Then, usually in subsequent sessions, using more paint and moving more quickly, she proceeds to block in and paint the larger shapes of color in the figure and background, in no particular order, sometimes holding out the paintbrush horizontally and vertically to help her eyeball the proportions (See Katie O’Hagan’s painting demonstration at the bottom of this article).

Struggling at the Start

It was a circuitous path O’Hagan followed in becoming an artist. Growing up on the northern coast of Scotland, she spent more time drawing on her textbooks and folders than studying, but she didn’t take an art class until her final year of high school. Art teacher Fergus Mather noticed a poster she’d drawn for a competition and convinced her that she could get into art school. “I didn’t have any better plans,” says O’Hagan, “so I dropped math, which I hated anyway, and switched to art.”

O’Hagan did end up going to Edinburgh College of Art but never felt she fit in. “I’d only done drawings and a few pastels,” she says, “and I wanted to learn how to paint, but I was totally intimidated by the painting department.” She didn’t understand most of the conceptual work people were doing. “None of it seemed accessible,” she says, “and I knew my mind would never work that way.”

So she took design classes, studied metalworking and silversmithing—and never actually touched a paintbrush in art school. When she graduated in 1993, she moved immediately to New York City “with no clear plan, no job, no apartment and about $600” in her pocket. She got on her feet quickly and spent the next decade working mainly in the film and television industries and enjoying a busy social life.

Seeking Expression

That entire time O’Hagan was “dogged by a frustrating, indefinable creative impulse,” but she had no idea what form it should take. She tried screenplay writing and playing fiddle in a band, but nothing seemed quite right. “I’d occasionally sketch friends as a party trick,” she says, “but other than that, I didn’t think about art.”

Her life slowed down a bit after she had her two daughters. The family moved out of the city, and she quit work to stay home. “Although I loved being a mom,” she says, “I quickly got restless with the domestic routine and found myself doodling on bits of paper and sketching fruit or whatever else was lying around.”

Operating Without a Manual

In 2004, on a whim, she decided to try painting and bought her first set of oils. “I did a portrait of a friend’s son,” she says, “and took to painting immediately. It felt like the thing that had been right in front of my face my whole life—and I was finally seeing it.” She worked mainly when the kids napped and after they were in bed at night. “I painted whenever I could; I never had to force myself to do it. I visited museums and galleries for the first time and got up close to the canvases, trying to figure out how the paintings were done.”


O’Hagan is convinced that her unsystematic, “haphazard” development as an artist is the only route she could have taken. “I used to feel very self-conscious about my lack of formal training,” she says, “but I’ve never been good at paying attention in a classroom setting or with repetitive tasks, so I think I’d have struggled to stay focused.”

Never a person to “read the manual,” she tends to figure things out herself, as she goes, which she admits isn’t always the most efficient method but does keep her engaged. “There are certainly lots of things I could have discovered more quickly and easily in an instructional setting, but I usually get there through observation and trial and error. Having a decent ability to eyeball something and quickly get an accurate representation has been my biggest asset and is probably the reason I’m able to work the way I do.” She says she’s also been lucky enough to meet and become friends with several artists, including Paul W. McCormack and Daniel Sprick, who inspired her when she first began painting and still give her valuable advice.

Painting From Photos

These days O’Hagan paints in her tiny studio, almost always from photos. “It’s virtually impossible to fit a live model in there,” she says, “especially as I tend to work on a relatively large scale.” With a monitor next to her easel, she usually refers to at least five to 12 photos, zooming in as necessary and adding her own made-up elements. “I don’t slavishly copy a photo because I’d find that boring, but luckily I’m a really bad photographer, so that’s never an option.”

For Breakneck (above), she referred to 10 to 12 photos. The subject’s head, body and hair are all from different references. She made up most of the landscape but checked photos for the gravel and boulders. “I had the poor model hike up a mountain for the shots,” she says, “so although the photos didn’t turn out very well, I made do rather than put her through it again. I actually kind of like the creative challenge that comes with wrestling mediocre reference material into a successful painting.”

Taking a Detour

Up until a couple of years ago, O’Hagan was drawn to more straightforward portrait painting and did lots of commissions. When she wasn’t in front of the easel, she was thinking about how to solve various technical problems, but since then her painting has changed dramatically.

Early in 2010, a bit weary of commissioned portrait painting, the artist began to sketch concepts for “more ambitious” paintings and to write down ideas in a notebook, but she was too nervous to put any of them on canvas, to “make a painting rather than a portrait.” The turning point for O’Hagan was the process of painting Life Raft (above), which coincided with her rather sudden divorce. She was so embarrassed about the literal, personal subject matter that she turned the piece to the wall whenever she left her studio. “It was the last painting I did in my old studio, my old life,” she says, “so it was quite emotional. Everything happening outside the studio was so fraught and so sad that I escaped there any chance I could. I alternated between feeling very sorry for myself and rather amused at the overwrought subject; then I worried that nobody would get the slight tongue-in-cheek aspect of it. It was at the same time a dead-on depiction and a ‘piss-take’ of my state of mind.”

What this painting was for O’Hagan, above all else, was a thoroughly engaging process. “I wasn’t bored or on autopilot,” she says, “and, more than that, it opened me up to a new way of thinking about what to paint. I saw how to process what was going on internally in a visual way. I’d never done that, and it was scary but exhilarating.”

Welcoming the Journey

Since painting Life Raft, O’Hagan has been “immersed in” what she refers to as her “sad lady” paintings, two of which feature the artist as the subject. Darker than her earlier work, these psychological studies chronicle her emotional journey as she wrestles with solitude and what it can mean: anxiety, abandonment, loneliness, introspection. Her subjects’ emotions—her emotions—are palpable, exposed. (One of the series, Pity Party, won second place in figures/portraits Magazine‘s Annual Art Competition and appeared in its December 2012 issue.)

The artist didn’t consciously decide to paint this series. “I feel as though I didn’t even have a choice,” she says. “The ideas felt like children clamoring for my attention, and the only way to shut them up was to focus on them—the ‘whiniest’ ones first.” And as she finished each one, she felt a little more closure about what had happened in her life.

Today O’Hagan has come to terms with her personal situation and things have evened out for her, but her new perspective on painting remains. “I have more ideas than I’ll ever have time to paint,” she says. “Going through a divorce is an inward-looking time—I was self-absorbed, I guess—and that’s reflected in the work for now. As I go forward and the ideas become less tied up with my own situation, my goal is to keep doing work that means something to me but isn’t so specific. Commission work was great as a learning process but, having come so late to the game, I really don’t have the body of work that I want. With this ‘sad lady’ series, I have my first real paintings that feel as if they’re a part of me and fit my aesthetic. Making an idea into a good painting is a whole learning trajectory in itself, and I’m still in the very early stages of that journey.”

In No Man Is an Island, Thomas Merton wrote, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” Katie O’Hagan embodies that marvelous dichotomy each time she picks up her paintbrush.

Oil Painting Demonstration: “Cobbling Together” a Figure

By Katie O’Hagan

It’s difficult for me to describe how I work because my approach to painting is as haphazard as pretty much everything else in my life. Not having learned to paint at an art school, I developed an unusual process—one that might not work well for some. Rather than starting with a detailed drawing or even blocking in the figure, I usually begin with an eye and work my way out from there. The following isn’t a full, detailed demo, but I hope my explanation will give you some understanding of my method.

1. Although this eye looks quite far along, it’s really just the first pass. I’m concerned with getting just an approximation of color and value at this stage. Once the eye placement is totally accurate, I know I can position everything else correctly. While I don’t do any intricate measuring, I’ll hold the paintbrush out horizontally and vertically once in a while to be sure everything is falling where it should.

2. Within four to five hours, I usually have a good first pass of the head done. For the first pass, I usually thin the paint with a little turpentine. Then I switch to a medium of two parts turpentine to one part stand oil.

To mix fleshtones, I generally use flake white mixed with alizarin crimson, cerulean blue and yellow ochre. This mixture will accomplish pretty much any skin tone I’m looking for. For certain highlights I switch cerulean blue for ultramarine blue. For darker skin I add Vandyke brown. I also use touches of vermilion here and there for my warmer reds and more intense areas of color, for instance in cheeks and fingertips.

3. After the head is complete, I get bigger brushes and more paint, speed up and begin blocking in large sections of the rest of the painting. No set order. I’ll usually focus on one large section per painting session so I don’t have to clean off my palette and brushes.

I struggle to stay interested when I’m not painting a figure. In fact it can be a bit of a problem when I have to paint a background; I get easily bored and can be a bit slapdash. I’m trying to force myself to put the same care into the other elements of a painting as I put into the figure.

4,5. While accuracy is important in the early stages, I don’t panic if I’ve drifted from the source material—in fact, drifting is almost a given. I seldom use the same source material for the head and the body, so a certain amount of “fudging” is necessary when joining them. This painting is no exception. The head and the body are from different images, both at slightly different angles. The hand at her neck is from a third. This method means I have to stay flexible and be willing to deviate from the reference. Photographs are often distorted and, if you have a decent sense of proportion, you’ll find yourself automatically adjusting to correct the distortion much of the time. This “cobbling together” approach isn’t always totally successful, but with time it has become easier and more instinctive.

Finished painting: At left you see my completed oil painting Almost Home. Sometimes I have a very clear idea of the exact layout of a painting before I start, and sometimes it’s more vague and I figure it out as I go. I’m just not disciplined enough to always have my ducks in a row. I sometimes end up restretching canvas or sanding down the first pass and starting over. This is usually necessary when the idea changes once I’ve already started.
I’m usually working on several paintings at once, which helps keep me interested but can cause issues when a painting has been sitting for a while. Then, when I go back to it, I’ve rethought the idea and want to change things. I’m trying to make myself complete a piece before moving onto the next.

Detail of finished painting: Actually, my painting methods keep evolving. When I first started painting, I used to hate doing hands, and I made sure subjects always had their hands behind their backs or in their pockets. That has definitely changed, and now the hands are often the most fun part of the painting for me, as may be evident in the close-up (at left) of the final version of Almost Home.

Learn More

  • Read excerpts from an interview with Katie O’Hagan.
  • Learn to draw and paint the figure with the video download Drawing and Pianting People With John Raynes: Anatomy of the Body, Part 2.
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Watch the video: How to paint oil painting. Art by Vladimir Volegov (June 2022).


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