Katie O’Hagan | Contemporary Portrait Artist

The Artist’s Magazine interviewed up-and-coming narrative portrait artist Katie O’Hagan for a fascinating feature article in the April 2013 issue. Restless and inspired, O’Hagan feels her way as she perfects her craft, wrestles with new ideas and pursues her own path.

Photo of Katie O'Hagan in her studio with her dog, Seamus.

Contemporary portrait artist Katie O’Hagan works in her 90-square-foot, cluttered studio, with her dog Seamus at her side.

Click here to learn more about and to download The Artist’s Magazine’s April issue.



We found O’Hagan to be such an engaging personality and compelling artist—one of the most interesting people we’ve talked with—that we decided to share the unpublished excerpts from her interview.

Katie, please explain a little about artists who have influenced your work.

The first picture I fell in love with would have to be Ilya Repin’s Portrait of Vsevolod Garshin. I find it very hard to tear myself away from that one. Such emotion expressed so simply. I could stare at it for hours.

I’m really drawn to artists who have in the past or are now expanding the definition of realism, in subject matter and/or technique. I have books by Burt Silverman, Lucian Freud, Charles Pfhal, and Jenny Saville on my bookshelf. Those are some favorites. I also really love Aron Weisenfeld’s work. He creates such a dark mood and such intriguing imagery. I only discovered his work a year ago, but I would say that my ultimate goal would be to create that kind of distinctive aesthetic. I love Ann Marshall’s work—the whimsical combination of beautiful figures in pastel or oil, with elements of collage. Daniel Sprick’s portraits are just amazing, and so is the ethereal, monochromatic quality of Brad Kunkle’s work.

Would you describe your studio’s ambiance—what’s on the walls; what music or shows you listen to; what other factors or attributes make your workspace your own?

As far as ambience goes, it is sadly lacking. “Hoarder’s broom closet” would be the closest description! It’s very small and every inch of wall space is taken up with finished and half-finished canvases. The walls are still the same bright blue as when I moved in last year, and I just haven’t had time to paint over it—despite the fact that I really hate the color and find it distracting. I listen to anything from rap to classical music. Right now it’s mainly Guggenheim Grotto, Sigur Ros, Lil Wayne and Dar Williams.

Is there anything about your studio or tools or supplies that you think would help our readers prepare their own workspaces?

I’ve grown used to using artificial light. It’s not ideal, but it’s good enough. I have two fluorescent fixtures with Chroma 50 bulbs. I have an embarrassingly disorganized workspace. It’s hard to spend more than five minutes in my studio without getting a blob of paint on you somewhere, and I’m constantly stepping in it and tramping it through the rest of the house. At this stage I’m fairly resigned to my messy nature and I wear rubber gloves and an apron to work in. I have plans to turn the garage next to my house into a studio, but have been too busy to get to it. I need to make it happen before I end up ruining a painting. I’ve had a lot of close calls in such a small space.

Contemporary family portraits by Katie O'Hagan

Malcolm, Spring and Sasha (oil, each 18×18) comprise one of O’Hagan’s popular sets of individually framed portraits of family members. O’Hagan explains, “I wanted to come up with a more aesthetically modern option for family portraits and decided on incorporating leaf into the backgrounds for this grouping. It was a real challenge!”

Would you explain a little more about your family portrait groupings?

As I continued to paint these “modular” family portraits, I tried different approaches to color but each grouping had a unifying idea. I did one set of four portraits for a local band and used bright pink and bright yellow because it reminded me of the colors on my first Sex Pistols album cover.

I also used gold, silver and copper leaf for another set. This was an African-American family (seen above), and I loved the way the leaf looked with the skin tone, though it was tricky to work with. Incorporating the leaf was a misadventure, although I really liked how the paintings turned out. When I was done, I had pieces of metal leaf scattered around; despite my best efforts, I couldn’t contain it all. At least the leaf pieces were all in the back of my old studio, away from paintings I was actively working on. When I was done, I got out the shop vac and began to clean up.

Unfortunately I had neglected to put a filter in the shop vac, and, after a few minutes, I realized the air all around my head was sparkling. I was vacuuming in the big pieces of leaf, which were then being pulverized in the shop vac and shot out the back of it in the form of a cloud of fine metal dust. It was a real nightmare—the metal dust settled on every surface of the studio. I spent hours on each painting, picking off specks with the end of a brush. As much as I love the effects, I haven’t worked with leaf again!

I’ve joked that this approach to family paintings makes things easier if there’s a split. Each person takes his own. No fighting over a group painting. It’s really is a legitimate idea though; the band I painted did split up, and each member has his own painting now.

Aine, Death Valley (20x30) by Katie O'Hagan contemporary portrait artist

Aine, Death Valley (oil, 20×30) is a modern-day portrait of O’Hagan’s daughter during a camping trip in Death Valley. A detail of the painting was used for the April 2013 cover of The Artist’s Magazine.

Tell us a bit more about Aine, Death Valley.

I did this one (see above) a few years ago. It’s my eldest daughter, Aine, at the end of a long day in Death Valley. We were driving cross-country and I had the bright idea to camp in there in mid-summer. We arrived early in the day and set up the tent. We were the only tent in the campground; this fact should have tipped me off that my plan wasn’t a great one, but it didn’t, and we spent the day exploring in the 120-degree heat.

Returning to the tent in the late afternoon, we found it had melted and collapsed in the heat. At first I suggested sleeping outside under the stars, and then an old man came by and told us to watch out for the tarantulas and scorpions after dark. We went for a walk to reconsider our options and that’s when I took the reference shots for this painting. Aine was over-heated, hungry and very unhappy to know there were tarantulas around, but she was a good sport and agreed to pose. I loved how her skin looked in that light, and I also liked that ambiguous expression. We ended up sleeping in the car that night.

If you were to teach beginning artists, what would the most important lesson be?

I think the most important thing I could get students thinking about would be what it is they want to paint. Clearly, I don’t have the most stellar credentials for teaching traditional methods. There are a lot of great teachers out there and, with enough time and effort, most people can learn “how” to paint. I would ask “why” and “what” rather than “how,” because the sooner you figure that out, the sooner you can head in a more productive direction. It depends on whether you’re driven primarily by expressing your ideas or by technique. For me both are important, but not equally so.

I started out wanting to learn everything I could about technique and that was my focus, but as that learning curve leveled out and I became better at painting, I actually found myself gradually losing interest in the whole idea of painting. That feeling was quite unnerving! Here I had finally found my “purpose” and I was already growing bored with it. Accurately rendering a likeness no longer felt quite so compelling.

If you’re a devoted painter, improving technique kind of takes care of itself over time—the skill gradually increases with each painting and each mistake. Technique is an aspect of painting that’s never finished and continually evolving, and I understand the challenge in that concept, but for me it wasn’t going to be enough. There are many painters out there who have a breathtaking level of skill, and I love to look at that work and appreciate the mastery involved. But I will never have the type of disciplined nature that can achieve that, so my focus has shifted to being more about the idea, with technique coming second.

Life Raft, narrative portrait painting, most interesting people

During a time of great personal upheaval in 2011, O’Hagan painted Life Raft (oil, 38×60). “As most of the solid ground I’d depended on seemed to be eroding,” she says, “my art emerged as the only thing keeping my head above water. I woke up one morning with this image in my head. I built the raft myself and spent the next couple of months completing the painting.
“I wanted it to look as if I’d left an underlying sketch for the unfinished portion of the raft. In reality I don’t draw on the canvas, and that area was one of the last sections of the painting I completed. The rest of the raft was finished, and I extended a sketch over the raw canvas to give the impression that there was an underlying drawing.”

If you hadn’t become a visual artist, what would you be?

My second love after art is running. I took it up a couple of years ago and now I run as much as I can, mainly long distances (marathon-plus) on trails in the woods. This is where I get and process most of my ideas. But I suppose that’s not a viable career move, so I guess if I couldn’t be an artist, I would like to be Bob Vila. I absolutely love any kind of renovation. I like being self-sufficient and learning how to fix things. The house I’m in now is the fourth that I’ve had since leaving the city, and each has required quite a lot of work. I constantly have a project or two on the go—right now I’m removing many layers of lead paint from the floor of my mud room, and I’m refinishing a rusted-out old claw-foot tub that had been rotting in a friend’s basement for decades. It was in terrible shape but now it looks brand new. I like giving old, forgotten things a new life.

Dirty Laundry ( ) a modern narrative portrait

The idea for Dirty Laundry (oil, 48×38) came to O’Hagan pretty much fully formed while she was running. “It’s basically about what it feels like to go through a personal crisis in a small community where many people know—or think they know—your business,” she says,”and the feelings of paranoia that can result.”

Any ideas where you might go from here?

I still have a couple of sad lady paintings to do, and I’ve been working on several that, I guess, incorporate another side theme about the more sinister side of small-town life. Dirty Laundry (above) fits in that category too.

I’m taking a trip to Scotland in December and have plans for a series of paintings set there. I grew up in a beautiful but isolated part of the world, full of weird and wonderful characters. I could spend a lifetime just doing paintings inspired by the local people and events. It wasn’t the most conventional upbringing and some of the planned paintings will also be on the darker side. Despite all the dark, I’m actually quite a positive person. I just find melancholy, moody work more appealing. That could change—I wouldn’t rule out doing some happy lady paintings one day. Or even painting a guy again. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but I haven’t been interested in painting anything but females lately.

I have a couple of commissions that I’ve put off for quite a while so I will also get to work on those, and at some point I’ll have to start thinking about galleries.

Learn More

• Read the fascinating article about Katie O’Hagan in The Artist’s Magazine‘s April issue (download it here.
Free Download! Oil Painting Tips for Beginners: Learn How to Oil Paint
• Learn to draw the figure using the block-in method with Robert T. Barrett.
• Rob Anderson uses a variety of ways to apply paint in this free portrait demonstration.

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