One of Carla O’Connor’s objectives in a workshop is to persuade students to stop thinking about the tools of watermedia painting—the brushes, paints, and paper—and to focus on expression. To her, focusing on materials is like wondering whether a great writer used a No. 2 pencil, a ballpoint pen, or a computer to reveal his or her most profound thoughts.
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by M. Stephen Doherty
|New York Model
2007, watercolor and gouache, 30 x 20.
All artwork this article
collection the artist
unless otherwise indicated.
Students in my workshops can get very upset watching me continuously apply and then wash off layers of gouache,” Carla O’Connor says. “They think I should be more deliberate. What I have to explain is that the process is an essential part of how I express myself. Besides, who cares if I use the materials economically if I wind up with a painting that doesn’t mean anything to me?”
That seemingly aimless process allows O’Connor to create masterful paintings that resonate with other artists, exhibition judges, curators, and collectors. Last year alone she was invited to conduct 15 workshops, judge four international exhibitions, participate in three group shows, and help judge the awards for the American Watercolor Society’s 2008 exhibition. One of those group exhibitions, the Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary International Watermedia Masters, continues to travel throughout China and Taiwan and was documented in a 76-page book.
O’Connor has the remarkable ability to integrate representational figures into abstract pictorial spaces, an approach she has worked hard to develop during her career. “On one level or another, every artist deals with the abstract qualities of pictures and the illusion of a three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface,” she comments. “For me, I almost always need to relate what I’m doing to a human form, and more often than not that form is a woman. I sometimes paint men and children, but I experience the world as a woman, and that’s the best reference point for me.”
The artist introduces figures in one of two ways, either at the beginning of the creative process or after a rich surface of colors, shapes, lines, and textures is well established. “I can’t explain why I pursue one approach or the other, but sometimes I start out with a figure that becomes the key to the painting; other times I pursue a more intuitive method of letting a figure emerge from inside a painting and surprise me,” O’Connor explains. “The figures are usually based on drawings or paintings made from a model who posed for a workshop, or someone I hired to come to my studio so I could photograph her in black and white. If the pose of the model or the expression on her face suggests something to me, I start the painting by establishing her form on the paper and then build the painting around her. I may respond to suggestions of her body turning, bending, stretching, or crouching down; or I might empathize with the emotions expressed in her face, voice, or gestures, and those become the reason to paint the picture.
2006, gouache, 30 x 22.
“The motivation to paint may be something as simple as the shape of a model’s T-shirt or the elegant extension of her arms,” the artist continues. “Unless I sense a strong emotional connection to the person that needs to become the content of the painting, I just evaluate the forms in the model’s body, clothing, and environment. Not every painting oozes content, but there is always a message to be discovered and conveyed through the model’s body language and the patterns I create around her to support that.
“The second approach is to add the figure later in the painting process and to make sure the human form is not the dominant part of the painting,” O’Connor adds. “I just put one color down, add another, wash off the paint, and repeat that process until I am satisfied with the shapes, patterns, textures, and colors. Throughout those stages I try to avoid visualizing the finished painting because I don’t want any of my decisions to be made in anticipation of what might come next.
“Because I think it is important to stay in the moment and not anticipate the creative process, I advise students to identify the most obvious focal point in the subject they are considering and make a conscious decision to ignore it,” O’Connor says. “I want them to discover and develop something unexpected when they paint. That’s why I sometimes begin my paintings by applying and washing off gouache and then introducing a figure in an unusual location so that it supports but does not overwhelm the composition.
“With either approach to painting, I try to remain focused on enjoying the process and not setting a goal of making a product,” O’Connor emphasizes. “Too often artists treat the painting process as if they were accomplishing a task rather than enjoying an experience. I understand that it’s hard to switch from a lifetime concern for achieving objectives and measuring one’s accomplishments in terms of money, awards, or recognitions; but creating meaningful art has nothing to do with that kind of process, nor can it be measured according to an objective, quantifiable standard. That’s hard to accept for many people, but once they do they are free to be truly creative.”
2007, watercolor and gouache, 20 x 30.
O’Connor has a lot of clear ideas of how she might be able to help other artists derive more enjoyment from the creative process, and that’s one of the reasons she is willing to conduct so many workshops and why students return to work with her year after year. “One of the best ways to grow and develop as an artist is to teach someone else, and I certainly have learned about myself as I’ve tried to help others,” she explains. “The creative process is almost 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical.”
That clarification happens in a very structured workshop program that includes mini-demonstrations, clear recommendations, group discussions, and individual conversations. “I suggest to people that they take on a new identity when they participate in one of my workshops,” O’Connor says. “I want them to be prepared to try something completely new. I presume they signed up for a workshop with Carla O’Connor or someone else because they want to learn from that instructor. Why spend all that time and money taking a workshop if the student only intends to demonstrate what he or she already knows?”
2006, mixed watermedia, 30 x 22.
Collection Mr. Alan Long.
“My painting process is so open-ended that I don’t even attempt to complete a painting during one of the demonstrations I offer a class,” O’Connor adds. “It is a process of trial and error—back and forth, put it down, lift it off, experiment—until all the effort used to produce the painting is no longer evident. There are so many changes taking place that students can get confused, frustrated, and sometimes bored if I made them sit through it all. Instead, I just do short demonstrations of specific ideas, materials, and approaches to illustrate some of the points I cover in conversation. I may go back and work on the same painting, but only if there is a point I can make that might be helpful to the participants.
“If a model is posing for the workshop, I insist that people work and not waste time chatting, breaking for snacks, or allowing themselves to be distracted,” O’Connor says. “We’re paying for the model’s time and we need to have a collection of drawings available when we start painting, so it’s imperative that we take full advantage of the opportunity to draw. The model is a precious commodity, and drawing is the basis of all art.”
O’Connor recently worked with Creative Catalyst Productions (www.ccpvideos.com), a producer of outstanding DVD art-instruction programs that feature some of the best instructors in the nation. “The producers did such a great job that I’m sure viewers will think they just walked into my studio while I was working; but like most filmed programs it was actually a much more complicated procedure than anyone would imagine,” the artist explains. “I was in a completely soundproof studio under hot lights with five cameras aimed at me, and I had to stand on a mark indicated on the studio floor without being able to walk around. After a very long day of filming, the editors pieced it all together so it was a seamless, fast-moving program filled with valuable information for watermedia artists—especially because the DVD technology allows them to stop, freeze-frame, rewind, and restart the program; or they can select the chapters they most want to see again. It’s like having your own private instructor who will repeat anything you want to see again or who will stop painting so you can look at her work for as long as you want. It’s really amazing.”
2007, watercolor and gouache, 32 x 32.
About the Artist
Carla O’Connor earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Kent State University, in Ohio, and continued her studies at the University of the Americas, in Mexico City; the University of Dayton, in Ohio; and the University of Wisconsin, in Milwaukee. She is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society (Dolphin Fellow), the National Watercolor Society, and the Northwest Watercolor Society. Her paintings have been included in exhibitions organized by those organizations as well as those of the Rocky Mountain National Watermedia Society and the San Diego Watercolor Society. In addition, her paintings have been featured in a number of books and national art magazines. She teaches workshops throughout the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.carlaoconnor.com.
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