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Serious Serendipity (Katie O’Hagan in The Artist’s Magazine)

Serious Serendipity (Katie O’Hagan in The Artist’s Magazine)

It’s 8 p.m., her girls are in bed, and Katie O’Hagan stands before the blank canvas in her cluttered, 90-square-foot studio with her dog, Seamus. “Painting is a solitary process that I want to get totally lost in,” she says.

“I want to sing along to the music, talk to my dog, talk to myself, curse at my painting if it doesn’t cooperate. It sounds selfish, but I don’t want to have to think about another person, make small talk or give breaks. Besides, I’m pretty sure a model who’d agree to work during my typical hours of 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. would be kind of expensive.”

For the next 15 or so minutes, referring at times to several of the 10 photos on the monitor next to her easel, O’Hagan waves her hands around, measures proportions in the air and doesn’t make any marks. The placement of that first element is important, and — with no detailed drawing to refer to and no block-in on the canvas — she’s still considering where to begin. If this energetic long-distance runner had room to pace and if it would help hasten that first stroke, she would. Impatient, she finally takes her brush and starts to paint — her subject’s right eye.

“Once the eye is totally accurate,” she says, “I know I can place everything else correctly.” In four or five hours she completes the “first pass” on the head. Then, usually in subsequent sessions, using more paint and moving more quickly, she proceeds to block in and paint the larger shapes of color in the figure and background, in no particular order, sometimes holding out the paintbrush horizontally and vertically to help her eyeball the proportions.

Struggling at the Start

It was a circuitous path O’hagan followed to becoming an artist. Growing up on the northern coast of Scotland, she spent more time drawing on her textbooks and folders than studying, but she didn’t take an art class until her final year of high school. Art teacher Fergus mather noticed a poster she’d drawn for a competition and convinced her that she could get into art school. “I didn’t have any better plans,” says O’Hagan, “so I dropped math, which I hated anyway, and switched to art.”

O’hagan did end up going to Edinburgh College of Art but never felt she fit in. “I’d only done drawings and a few pastels,” she says, “and I wanted to learn how to paint, but I was totally intimidated by the painting department.” She didn’t understand most of the conceptual work people were doing. “None of it seemed accessible,” she says, “and I knew my mind would never work that way.”

So she took design classes, studied metalworking and silversmithing — and never actually touched a paintbrush in art school. When she graduated in 1993, she moved immediately to New York City “with no clear plan, no job, no apartment and about $600” in her pocket. She got on her feet quickly and spent the next decade working mainly in the film and television industries and enjoying a busy social life.

Seeking Expression

That entire time O’hagan was “dogged by a frustrating, indefinable creative impulse,” but she had no idea what form it should take. she tried screenplay writing and playing fiddle in a band, but nothing seemed quite right. “I’d occasionally sketch friends as a party trick,” she says, “but other than that, I didn’t think about art.” Her life slowed down a bit after she had her two daughters. The family moved out of the city, and she quit work to stay home. “Although I loved being a mom,” she says, “I quickly got restless with the domestic routine and found myself doodling on bits of paper and sketching fruit or whatever else was lying around.”

Operating Without a Manual

In 2004, on a whim, she decided to try painting and bought her first set of oils. “I did a portrait of a friend’s son,” she says, “and took…

(more coming soon)

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