Artist Snapshot: Karen O’Neil

Twenty-five questions exploring the mind and habits of an artist.

karen o'neil interview
Karen O’Neil in her studio, 2021

At what age did you decide to become an artist?
I was nineteen when I decided to get serious about art. I needed a gap year after high school to think things through, and build my portfolio to apply to art schools. I originally went to art school to become an illustrator.

How did your parents react when you told them you wanted to be an artist?
I had a great advantage of growing up in a family of artists. My father was a talented artist but did not pursue art as a livelihood. My oldest brother James was interested in drawing at a very young age, and my father immediately signed him up for private painting lessons given by a local artist. So my parents were very supportive about my decision to go to art school. I think my moving to a different city bothered them more than my wanting to be an artist!

Who are your favorite artists?
My favorite artist changes on a regular basis—Rothko is my most recent hero. There have been too many to list over the past decade, but they include Morandi, Bonnard, Hans Hofmann, Fairfield Porter, Louisa Matthiasdottir.

Who is your favorite artist whose work is unlike your own?
Robin Bell — BellVisuals.

Art book you cannot live without?
The Art Spirit, and also Hawthorne on Painting.

What is the quality you most admire in an artist?
Authenticity. Pure, clear, personal vision that transcends a subject.

Do you keep a sketchbook?
As I’m writing this, I’ve got five sketchbooks within arm’s reach. All are the same size 5½ x 8½ inches, and I fill them with ideas, quick thumbnails, notes about color, light and the time of day.

What’s your favorite museum in all the world?
In an attempt to answer this question,I’ve tried for days to narrow my list of favorite museums down to just one. It can’t be done. There are several museums (mostly in NYC and Boston and Provincetown) whose collections and exhibitions have shaped me as an artist and made a profound impact on the way in which I perceive the world. Almost any museum I’m visiting becomes my favorite at that moment.

What’s the best exhibition you have ever attended?
I will interpret the word “best” here to mean life-changing. And I will change the word “exhibition” to art colony. I lived in Provincetown in 1983 during which time I was fortunate to study with Henry Hensche. There is no one singular exhibition that stands out to me during this time period, but the constant exposure to painting that was so saturated with, and dependent upon, sunlight made a lasting impression on my life as a young painter.

If you were not an artist, what would you be?
A frustrated artist.

Did you have an artistic cohort that influenced your early creative development?
Yes, my oldest brother James, who is a painter. He would bring me to galleries and museums and supply me with colored pencils and art books. His love of color and and New England land and seascapes was a big inspiration to me as a youngster.

What is one thing you didn’t learn in art school that you wish you had?
I’ve got no complaints or regrets from art school. You can’t possibly learn the intricacies of the craft in four short years. I did learn a lot of valuable things in art school that I did not expect — perseverance, discipline, how to learn.

What work of art have you looked at most and why?
Pierre Bonnard’s Dining Room Overlooking the Garden (The Breakfast Room) at MoMA. This is the first large Bonnard painting I experienced; I needed to be in front of it a lot when I first started painting. You need to experience paintings. Bonnard pulls you into his world using his extraordinary language of color.

What is your secret visual pleasure outside of art?
My secret visual pleasure outside of art: watching sunlight stream in windows and doors and change the colors on the floors and walls inside my house.

Do you listen to music in your studio?
Never. I find music distracting when I’m working.

What is the last gallery you visited?
The Lace Mill Galleries in Kingston, NY. I was there for a group show opening, a day or two before everything shut down due to COVID.

Who is an underrated artist people should be looking at?
Emily Mason.

What art materials can you not live without?
All of the colors on my palette. My palette knife and white palette, and my dozen or so Faber-Castell HB pencils and several small sketchbooks.

Do you paint/sculpt/create art every day?
Most days, except for when I’m teaching. I organize my work time according to what I’m working on. Most of the time I’m working with morning to mid-afternoon light. I try to do other things after painting, so that my best energy of the day goes into my painting.

What is the longest time you went without creating art?
This is an interesting question, because I don’t keep track of my painting time in a linear way. My working time follows the flow of my life in an organic way. For example, a month after my son was born, I had no time or desire to work with paint, but I began to see life in a new way which eventually worked its way into my painting. I am often able to get a lot of work done quickly as a result of being inspired by one of my husband Peter’s paintings. And then there may be a series of dark days where light and inspiration seem scarce. The light in my studio often dictates what happens (or doesn’t) with my painting on any day.

What do you do when you are feeling uninspired?
I flip through the most recent pages of my sketchbooks. The small thumbnail sketches and ideas will usually provide the spark I need to start working.

What are the questions that drive your work?
Is my visual message strong, simple, and to the point? Have I gone beyond the subject and touched on a more profound universal truth? Have I overworked this to the point of no return?

What is the most important quality in an artist?
I can’t condense what is the most important quality into one word, but two will work: authenticity and perseverance.

What is something you haven’t yet achieved in art?
I don’t think about or worry about what I haven’t achieved in my work – I just work. I try not to think about artificial or irrelevant constructs. My energy is spent focusing on the process of painting.

What is the best thing about art in the era of social media?
The best thing: artists have the potential of reaching a global audience in an instant with images of their work.


KAREN O’NEIL teaches beginning and advanced still life painting at the Art Students League.

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