I remember many many years ago, seeing a fabulous painting of a Caribbean scene reproduced in a magazine (I think it was an airline magazine…?). I was blown away by its colour, the confident application of pastel, the feeling, and how my senses were awakened by it. The artist was Desmond O’Hagan and since that time many years ago, I’ve followed and admired his work. (You can see one of his paintings featured in a round-up.)
So it is with great delight that I introduce Desmond O’Hagan as this month’s guest blogger 😀
Know his work? If not, here’s a taste…
Before we go on, here’s a wee bit about Desmond O’Hagan.
Desmond O’Hagan Bio
Desmond O’Hagan is an Eminent Pastelist with IAPS (International Association of Pastel Societies), a member of IAPS’s Master Circle, and listed in Who’s Who in American Art. He is also a Master Pastelist with the Pastel Society of America. O’Hagan paints in pastels and oils and has participated in international exhibits in France, China, Japan, Canada, and throughout the United States. You can view more of his work on his website.
And now, here’s Desmond O’Hagan!!
What makes a painting interesting? Is it color, composition, technique, subject matter, all of these, or maybe something else? Is it immediately recognized or more apparent after several viewings?
As I write this, I can’t help but think back on paintings that made an impact on me. “Interesting” may be too simplistic of a term because good paintings elicit several emotions and responses.
One of the first paintings to make an impression on me (as a young adult) was Monet’s oil painting “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect,” oil, 1903. I was 20 years old, a first-quarter art student at the Colorado Institute of Art studying graphic design and advertising. We also had classes in fine art that included a trip to the Denver Art Museum. Our teacher directed us to the European collection which included a variety of impressionists, expressionists, fauvists, etc. As our group came upon Monet’s painting, our teacher said, “Look closely at this painting and remember what it looks like from this close view.”
It was a beautiful typical Monet, very loose and impressionistic, with subtle blue-purple greys, mauves, grey greens, yellows, and slight hints of red. As we continued to walk around the large gallery, we reached the opposite side of the room and our teacher said, “Now turn around.” We were now viewing the Monet from across the room approximately forty feet away. This made an immediate impact on me. All those loose swirls of brush strokes, edges, and layers of mixed colors, that seemed somewhat chaotic up close came together in such an amazing way that I felt I was viewing the scene from a hotel window facing the Thames River.
As a young art student, the impact of that painting that day opened a new way of seeing. I started to view paintings from varying distances with a new eye, seeing paintings as a whole and not just technique, style, and brushstrokes. As I think back, this may have been the turning point, subconsciously, that I knew my career in graphic design was going to be a short one. A mere six years later, after finishing school and working for an advertising agency, I went to my boss and told him I was embarking on a career in fine art.
What made this painting create such an impact? Monet certainly hit all the right notes of color, technique, brushstrokes, subject matter, and composition. The composition really was a standout. One views this painting at an elevated level (hotel as Monet painted from the balcony) through the fog and dappled sunlight that shows only vague impressions of detail. Most of all, it is just an extremely “interesting scene.”
As I developed and worked on my own paintings through the years, creating interesting scenes was one of my most important goals. It was never just picking interesting subject matter (although a necessity), but how to depict that image in a unique way.
In my workshop teaching, I concentrate on developing in students an incentive to push beyond the conventional views of certain subject matter and develop an eye for something more unique. It’s very easy in art to see paintings you admire and replicate the design, subject matter, style, etc. I do believe you learn from copying famous paintings which has been a century-old practice in learning how to paint.
Last year, I was featured in a four-video set about copying the masters, and my chosen subject was Degas. In this set of videos, I recreated a Degas pastel (Woman Combing her Hair) which also included a charcoal drawing and a charcoal and pastel drawing of the image. It was an extremely challenging project as it compelled me to get inside Degas’ head to see what made him tick.
One of the reasons I was interested in Degas was, that in his time, he pushed the boundaries on subject matter and composition. He truly was seeking a unique view. As expected, I also learned how he experimented with a variety of pastel color combinations in achieving skin tones. He also mixed detail with large abstract shapes.
My true professional interest in Degas also developed early. I had been working at the ad agency on a particularly extensive project and when it wrapped up, my bosses handed me a $500 bonus. In 1985, $500 could buy two round-trip airfares, food, and partial accommodations to Chicago to see an impressive exhibit of Degas’ paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago. (I assumed everyone did this with an unexpected $500!) This was an eye-opening experience for me. I had never seen that many Degas’ in one place. If the Monet tweaked my interest in becoming a fine artist, this exhibit cemented it.
The variety of subjects and the unique compositions were startling to see. Degas seemed to rarely paint the conventional view; he was always looking for something different. This was groundbreaking in his time as there was a system in place that didn’t allow straying towards the unconventional. In the late 1800s, the greatest goal for practically every European painter was to have his/her work accepted in the annual Grand Salon exhibit, a prestigious exhibit that could propel artists towards lucrative art careers. Although the paintings were skillfully painted, “unique” and “unconventional” were not words used to describe the show. Sure, there were always a few paintings that slightly pushed the limits, but most paintings were considered very “safe.”
The impressionists at the time were mostly unsuccessful at having their work accepted in these exhibits which compelled them to stage their own shows concurrently. Unfortunately, their shows were mocked in the press and attendance was low. Although Degas never considered himself an Impressionist, he did participate in their shows.
As I viewed his art in Chicago, I felt the impact of his unique views and knew that would be a goal for my art. In creating this set of new videos, the first two were reproducing Degas’ paintings, and the second two were creating my own paintings. I was able to show Degas’ effect on my own work with the information I learned and what I could use to advance my technique, color, and composition. We all learn from other painters and then decide what information works or doesn’t work for our own paintings.
Seeing all these paintings over time brings me to the present day and how I approach what I paint. I feel the most important element in having a fulfilling career in fine art is being true to what excites you to paint. If you paint what’s trendy or conventional, which comes and goes, it may be a short-lived career. This brings me back to what makes a painting “interesting.” The subject, technique, style, composition, etc., must be “interesting” to you.
For me, I get bored easily, so if not challenged, the lack of inspiration would reflect in my art. I don’t strive for “uniqueness” for “uniqueness’ sake.” I strive for something that challenges me, and “uniqueness” is the byproduct. I experiment with different views, ground level, elevated, interior, exterior, etc.
The most important beginning element in my paintings – composition – starts with my initial visual experimenting before touching the canvas. Since most of my paintings have fleeting light, I travel with a camera and am always ready to capture a view that sparks my interest. So, from the very beginning, I’m composing my paintings by viewing them through the camera.
Getting back to “interesting,” such a simplistic term but it may take years of viewing, comparing, critiquing, and analyzing, to develop an eye for what is truly “interesting.” My study in the past 34 years has brought me to galleries and museums across the world, used bookstores in search of the obscure out-of-print art books, and years of experimenting with my own art.
In your art journey, you will have moments or breakthroughs that propel you on a more exciting course, sometimes unexpectedly. These are important shifts that can keep the ball rolling. For me, an important shift came a few years ago as I was working on an oil painting. I split my time between pastels and oils which I love equally. The painting mentioned was dying a very slow death and my enthusiasm was waning. I’d invested some time on it at this point and it frustrated me that it was becoming wasted. (Side point: you never really are wasting your time when working on a troubling painting; you’re learning what not to do the next time.)
At the point of giving up on this painting, I decided to be more adventurous. I grabbed a large palette knife and started to reform my shapes using edges, scraping, texture, and overlapping color. Adventurous but not careless was important, and this new direction altered the way I painted in oils. I pulled the painting off life support and was very pleased with the results. This shift made this painting “interesting” to me.
I had dug deep in my mind to remember so much of what I studied and seen over the years. Those memories were crucial in how I approached this shift. Some shifts will be subtle such as a new combination of pastel colors, a different stroke, or trying a new paper. And some will be greater, as in my oil painting. The important part is to welcome these shifts, be adventurous, and capitalize on the positive effects.
There is no perfect planned course for becoming a painter. Each person’s unique skills produce a variety of different directions and paths, and much of it is trial and error. I do believe to be fulfilled as an artist; you must always be a student. Frankly, I would be nervous if I felt I had it all figured out; the intrigue, spontaneity, the new discoveries would be missing and replaced with repetitiveness and boredom. I thrive in discovering new ways and techniques, exploring possibilities, failed attempts, subtle and more pronounced shifts, and ultimately finding what is truly “interesting.”
WOW!! One of the things I like most about Desmond’s work is the edges. I also love the way he uses warm and cool colours.
Now it’s your turn! Why not let Desmond O’Hagan know what you’ve learned from his post. What about questions? Do you have any?? Ask away.
I so look forward to reading your response!
Until next time,
PS. I interviewed Desmond O’Hagan at the 2019 IAPS Convention. Have a look:
PPS. In his guest post, Desmond O’Hagan talks about the importance of composition. Check out what he had to say in this blog post all about composition!