Portrait of an Artist: Katie O’Hagan

Life Raft / Katie O'Hagan / Oil on canvas / Collection of the artist
Life Raft / Katie O'Hagan / Oil on canvas / Collection of the artist

Q: Where are you from, where do you live now?

A: I’m from the far north coast of Scotland originally. I came to New York in 1993 right after college and now I live about an hour north of the city, in Beacon, New York.

Q: What medium(s) do you work with?

A: So far I only work in oil.

Q: Tell us about your technique/creative process.

A: I guess the style is realism, but the process is a lot less organized and academic than many realist artists. I don’t have any hard and fast rules and it’s a fairly instinctive process. . . . I just start right in with the paint. Usually I begin with one eye and get that down as accurately as I can. . . . As long as that first eye is the right size and in the right place then I know I can get the rest of the painting the way I want it. . . . . It’s not the way an art school would teach to do it, but being self-taught I didn’t know any better, and now it works for me. My few attempts at beginning in a more traditional way—starting with a drawing of some kind—have never turned out well. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this approach to other people, but it’s the only way I know.

As for the rest of the creative process, I usually spend at least a couple of hours a day running in the woods with my dog. That’s when most of the ideas come together. Sometimes they just land in my head fully formed out of nowhere, but more often I get fixated on a location, or a feeling—sometimes even an interesting-looking person I’ve met—and it just rattles around in there for a while and before too long I have a light bulb moment about a way to convey the thought visually

Q: What is your background (education, career, etc.), and how does it contribute to your art?

A: I came late to painting. I did go to art college in Edinburgh, . . . but I found the painting department very intimidating. . . .. I had always been good at drawing and wanted to learn to paint realistically but that didn’t seem to be the focus of the department. I took silversmithing instead and never did any painting at college.. . .

When I left college I moved immediately to the States. I didn’t really have a plan, and I had no job lined up and no place to live. . . . I got a waitressing job right away and was lucky enough to get on my feet pretty quickly. The next decade-plus was spent having fun and working mainly in the film and television industries. . . .

I never had the time or resources to take any classes, so I bought a couple of books and I began to teach myself through a process of trial and error.

Q: Tell us about the piece you submitted to the competition.

The process of painting Life Raft really changed things for me. It was very different from anything else I had done, and I was incredibly self-conscious about it. In fact I was so embarrassed about what I was doing that I turned the painting to the wall whenever I left the studio, just in case someone came in and saw it. It was just so personal and overwrought.

Although I really did feel that way, there was also an element of melodramatic humor that I wasn’t sure would come across, so I resolved never to show it to anyone. There was no option to not paint it, though. I woke up with the idea during a very intense time in my life. My marriage had suddenly unraveled . . . and I was still trying to come to grips with all of the changes that were about to happen.

I had just finished turning my garage into a great studio, and I took refuge there. I went to the woods behind my house with a saw and cut branches to make the raft. I realized it would be the last painting I would be able to do before everything changed permanently, and so painting it was quite emotional. It was also a way for me to be still during all of the upheaval and to process what was happening. I guess it took my old life exploding to reveal a way forward.

I finished the painting the night before I had to pack up my studio and move. On impulse I posted it online and was surprised at the positive response. Putting that first really personal piece out there was very scary, but I’m glad I did it. Since then I’ve really changed direction and it’s getting easier, although it’s still very new for me. I’m developing an approach that feels more meaningful than the work I was doing before. I have a lot still to learn about how to effectively communicate my ideas, but I’m engaged with the work and the creative process in a whole new way.

Q: How has your work changed over time?

A: Up until a couple of years ago I really only did portrait commissions. I’m still primarily interested in figurative work, but these days the subjects have become more personal and less traditional. One of the frustrations of painting in such a realistic way is that it takes quite a long time. I have way more ideas than I have time to paint, so going forward I hope to experiment more with ways to help solve that dilemma stylistically. I don’t anticipate any radical departures from realism, but I want to look at ways to create more work than I am currently able to do.

Q: Who is your favorite artist?

If I had to pick just one, it would have to be Burt Silverman. You would be hard-pressed to find an American figurative painter who doesn’t consider him to be an influence. He has been producing work of such a high quality for a long time, during a period of time in America when this type of work was disregarded, he really is an icon to a lot of us. His was the first book I bought, and I was thrilled to later have the opportunity to meet him and participate in several group shows with him—including the Boochever show.

Q: If you could work with any artist (past or present) who would it be?

A: Past would be Lucian Freud, and present would be Jenny Saville. There is a similar raw energy to their work. My own work is nothing like theirs, but I think I could learn a lot from them.

Q: What inspires you?

A: I’m inspired by all kinds of random things. Sometimes it’s a lyric I hear in a song, or an outfit I see someone wearing, or an unusual face on the subway. Other than making sure I get outside as much as possible, I don’t have any go-to methods of finding inspiration. It just happens when it happens and I just have to be ready to grab those fleeting thoughts and figure if they are worth making into something.