Karen O'Neil

Karen O'Neil Painting

If I'm honest, the idea of a still life painting does not usually excite me. Having had to draw and paint many scenes filled with cups and assorted fruit sitting on fabric as an art student, I grew a bit tired of them. But I'm here to tell you that my love for the age-old still life has been renewed! How could it not be after seeing these paintings by Karen O'Neil? The cheery colors and use of light are truly exquisite. I believe any one of these bright paintings would liven up even the dullest of rooms. 

Karen, who has been teaching at the Woodstock School of Art since 1990, leads painting workshops and offers online critiquing services for artists that cannot commit their time to a weekly class. Karen kindly shared her response to my interview questions in essay format below. I hope you enjoy reading about her life as an artist as much as I did!

Karen O'Neil lemon still life

Becoming a painter had a lot to do with nature/nurture! Several members of my family are talented visual artists. I believe there is a genetic component – in my case, at least! My Dad was very talented, although never had any formal art training. My parents valued, and nurtured talent.

When my older brother James began drawing at an early age, my parents found an artist nearby to provide him with private art lessons. James went to art school on scholarship, and is a successful painter. His work can be found here. While he was in art school, he would let me tag along on trips to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I learned a lot, and more importantly, became inspired.

Karen O'Neil Still Life Painting

Following in James footsteps, I went off to art school after high school, intent on becoming an illustrator. I loved the first foundation year of art school – drawing, drawing, and more drawing, and pulling all nighters to finish projects for 2D & 3D design. The second year proved more challenging as I entered the illustration department at what was then called the Philadelphia College of Art.

I was passionate about the drawing classes, but had a really difficult time with narrative story telling with my drawing. I found myself skipping classes and going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where I would stand for hours in front of some small and exquisite Vuillard and Bonnard paintings. At some point before that year ended, I realized that light, color, form, and painting issues were my subject, so I came home to Massachusetts and transferred to Mass. College of Art. Fortunately, I found myself in George Nick’s painting class – which was exactly what I needed at the time. I still hear George’s voice sometimes when I’m painting – “make that darker!!” I also had the great fortune to study with Henry Hensche in Provincetown one summer. Staying with brother James, who was living in Truro at the time – I would ride my bike to the Cape School, paint colored blocks in the sandpit all day, work at Napi’s restaurant washing dishes until 2am, ride bike back to Truro......and begin early at the Cape Shool the next day! It was great discipline, and exercise. 

Karen O'Neil Interview
Karen O'Neil Still Life

After art school, I worked part time jobs – waitressing, office jobs, etc. I was always painting during the week, and my friends from art school would keep meeting, going to drawing sessions, and painting together.

I met my husband Peter at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum – he had just graduated from art school. We both worked at the museum, and quickly became good friends. We were constantly at art museums, always going to New York & Washington DC. Art and life have been interwoven for us since we met. Eventually, we moved to Woodstock, NY, after participating in an artist residency program here. We both began teaching at the Woodstock School of Art. I‘ve been teaching there since 1990 – and have loved (almost) every minute of it.

Karen O'Neil
Karen O'Neil Fruit Still Life

Having to explain something to another person clarifies things for me, which has helped me in my own work tremendously. I am a hands on kind of teacher. Visual people learn in visual ways, and I do a lot of demos in my classes. I have learned so much from students, which has helped me to become a better teacher. Most of the time, painters struggle with value issues (light & dark), and color relationships, and seeing the big picture.

Orange Still Life Karen O'Neil
Still life painting Karen O'Neil

Knowing when a painting is finished is another issue painters struggle with. When you are “noodlng” a painting (making unneccasary brush strokes, etc....), that’s a sure sign that you need to stop and reflect. When you have communicated your idea, or your feeling – that’s enough. Overworking kills the freshness and spontaneity of a work. 

Karen O'Neil Viva Bang Bang
Pear still life Karen O'Neil

I feel so fortunate to be able to make a living from painting, and teaching painting. I have also seen my own work develop dramatically in the last 15 years. A lot of things seemed to start to come together, and I feel like I’m developing my own visual language. In November, I’ll have some work at Mason Fine Art’s new gallery space in Atlanta.

Karen O'Neil candy still life
green cup still life Karen O'Neil

See more of Karen's inspiring work on her website and be sure to like her facebook page! *All images are property of Karen O'Neil and used with artist's permission.