Sandy O’Connor is our September 2012 Artist of the Month. Her watercolor painting, The Wonder Years, was a finalist in the still life/floral category of The Artist’s Magazine’s 28th Annual Art Competition. “I spend a lot of time chasing light in the landscape, on buildings or catching those fleeting moments when it hits the most ordinary objects and transforms them into something unique and ephemeral,” says O’Connor. “I am particularly drawn to the drama of stark contrasts, light against dark.”
I find myself returning to the same subject several times during the same day, watching and photographing the physical transformation from morning radiance to day’s end. I strive to achieve a strong center of interest that evokes an equally strong emotional connection.
The Wonder Years—which I painted in response to an exhibition titled Of Children and Childhood to benefit the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Cape Cod and the Islands—was a new direction for me. Anticipating that most submissions would feature children at the beach or in sailboats, I found my inspiration one day while I was making lunch for my daughter. As I placed the gooey sandwich on our kitchen table, I was immediately struck by the obvious: Is there a more iconic, enduring or delicious symbol of childhood than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?
While I encountered the difficult tasks of making the plastic wrapper on the Wonder Bread appear translucent and making the bread look fresh and tasty without getting overworked and muddy, I had a fun time setting up the still life with my daughter, Katie. We had a blast getting just the right amount of peanut butter and jelly to ooze out of the sandwich.
O’Connor’s Painting Process
Although I enjoy painting outdoors, I am more productive as a studio painter. As such, I sketch extensively to frame the composition and then supplement the details with photographs. Sometimes I get lucky and produce that one “perfect” shot, but most times I utilize a montage of photographs to inspire the right composition. This is especially true when painting landscapes. While I’m guilty of taking some artistic license, it is always minimal, as I’m painting what is often familiar to natives and visitors alike. As a realist artist who paints in the traditional style of light to dark, I sometimes employ a technique where I make a really bad quality, high-contrast black and white photocopy of my photos or sketches. This process allows the whites and light values to jump out and act as a road map for masking and painting.
I begin a painting with a well-planned drawing and scheme of colors. Generally, I work with a very limited palette of three main colors using the classic red/yellow/blue triad of transparent watercolor, adding accent colors when necessary; I use neither black nor white paint. If the subject is complex, I’ll develop a color chart to demonstrate how the various color combinations interact. It’s a great way to “loosen up” before plunging in to a painting. I build up layer upon layer of glazes of color for depth and intensity. Many washes might be applied to any given area to achieve the right value.
I begin to paint with the largest brush necessary and work down to the smallest for details. I try to stay organized working background to foreground, top to bottom or left to right as the subject dictates. I make notes all along the way and try to be thoughtful about my approach—but there are no rules. I work wet-into-wet, mixing colors on and off the paper along with dry brush, spatter, scraping and salt. I don’t shy away from a challenge because I learn something new from each painting. I’ve been known to tear a painting in half and continue working on the half that I think is working until it’s successful.
Although I will sometimes break out of my comfort zone and head outdoors with my oil paints for long stretches, I work almost exclusively in transparent watercolor on paper. Although I now live in Seattle, WA, I used to live in a quaint seaside village on Cape Cod, and I’m known for landscapes, seascapes and architectural depictions of various local and iconic places. However, as evident by The Wonder Years, I also enjoy painting still life and florals.
Currently, I’m working on a portrait of an old, abandoned cranberry truck. We had a lot of cranberry bogs on Cape Cod, so I went out exploring last autumn looking for inspiration. I stumbled across an old rusted husk of blue metal poking out from behind some pine trees. While I was initially more interested in capturing the nearby bog at sunrise, I couldn’t help trying to capture the feeling of seeing that forgotten old truck. I felt like I was looking at an old, weathered man.
The Road to Art
While it sounds cliché, I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t draw. I think this was my way of recording detail and beauty for myself and gaining approval from everyone else, beginning at a very early age. I was lucky to be able to grow up on a small farm, complete with a menagerie of barn animals; it was idyllic and inspiring. It was my love of drawing and the natural environment that led instinctively to a degree in Landscape Architecture from Rutgers University. After working for a couple of years, I went back to school for a degree in graphic design. I think it’s this combination of a naturalist’s eye and the discipline of a formal design education that shapes my style as a realistic watercolor artist. However, it wasn’t until I left my professional career as a creative director in 2002, that I began to take my painting seriously. I now create art for a living, which includes producing and marketing exclusive archival prints of my most popular images. I experienced complete validation as an artist when I sold my first painting in 2005.
Painting for a Cause
While in Cape Cod, I to met many artists who, like me, have a child with Type 1 diabetes. Since artists are always a very generous lot, we decided it was time to do something for ourselves. So, my husband and I created a non-profit organization called Art of the Cure for Juvenile Diabetes, Inc.
Incorporated in 2010, last year our inaugural fundraiser attracted more than 400 attendees who were able to bid on over 65 pieces of donated art. The end result generated a contribution of $91,000 to the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge, MA. You never know where your art will take you and the effect it can have to instigate change for a better world.
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