An Artist's Process - Kelly O’Neill

by R27 CREATIVELAB on Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Its a little refreshing to see that a creative process in another field has similar thought processes. Have a good read and enjoy, maybe armed with a cup of coffee and a biscuit, maybe a cup cake and some chewy sweets. Chocolates are always good. A mars bar! Battered. What was that you say? A gob-stopper.... Okay so for me it's lunch time for but don't forget to click on the images to take a closer look and not forgetting Kelly's wonderful portfolio which can be found on her site -

My name is Kelly O’Neill. I am a portrait artist residing in Brentwood, TN, and I was asked to take you through the journey of a painting from start to finish. I hope you enjoy it!

I was recently commissioned to paint a lovely woman named Loma. She lived a long, happy life, and recently passed away in her 90’s. The family wanted to memorialize her in a painting, which will be displayed above the mantle in the grandchildren’s playroom.

Loma was a vibrant, amazing woman, and had stunning blue eyes, porcelain skin, and high cheekbones. Sherry, my client, wanted the painting to depict Loma in her youth, and a traditional head and shoulders style portrait simply would not do! The painting would be displayed in Loma’s old bedroom, which was now converted to a playroom for the grandchildren. Sherry wanted the grandchildren to see Loma’s painting for years to come, and think of the vibrant, happy woman that she was.

Sherry provided me with several reference photos from the 1940’s, all black and white and showing signs of their age. I realized quickly that this portrait would be a challenging one, but I knew how important the project was to her. We weighed the pros and cons of using different photos, but were able to make a decision pretty quickly.

The photo we decided to use was of Loma sitting on an uneven bar in someone’s backyard. Sherry mentioned that Loma had always loved sunflowers, so it seemed fitting to have a field of the beautiful flowers in the background of the painting. I went on a search for a photo of the perfect field - one that had a fence that we could have her sitting on.

After selecting the reference photos, I used Photoshop to roughly lay out the composition and get Sherry’s approval before starting to paint.

We agreed on details such as what color to make her skirt stripes, and whether she preferred a natural fence or a painted one, and then the magic began.

I always start my paintings by lightly drawing it out on the canvas. The next step is typically a quick underpainting, which gives it a base and sometimes helps with the development of color choices throughout. In this case, however, I was already confident in the color scheme, and really itching to get started on it, so I jumped in.

I work from left to right, and typically from top to bottom as well. In this case, I wanted to get some of the body of the painting completed before I worked on the sky, since they play off of each other so much. I’m convinced that a painting cannot be thought of in sections while it’s in progress. Every detail affects the others. We’ve all seen paintings that were flat and pieced together, and it never looks “right.”

I started painting in the sky, which took some thought because the position of the sun had to be established. I decided to paint it as if it were slightly overcast with the sun high above the subject.

As I worked, I blended the sky with touching areas. This is to prevent a hard line between colors, which doesn’t happen in “real life.” Our focus tends to soften the edges, so a painting should, too. You can see I started laying down color on Loma’s face, just getting the general placement of her features painted in. I will come back to this after it’s dry for detail work.

Now you can see that her face is starting to look more realistic. I began working on her blouse and dress, and I was more than a little excited to introduce the red. It was stunning against the field of sunflowers and the blue sky.

I completed the top part of the field and began working on the fence. We had decided that a white fence would work well with the setting, and it was prettier than the unfinished wood in the reference photo. During this step, I made judgments on the placement and strength of the shadows that her legs and skirt made on the fence. To leave these out would make for an awkward painting.

The last steps are always some of my favorites. They involve going back and glazing certain areas to improve the tone, color, or level of detail. These steps tend to be the ones that take the painting to a more realistic level.

I spent about 2 weeks working on this painting, and completed it in a little over 30 hours. I was pleased with how it progressed, and enjoyed every moment of it!

The end result: a 24×30 painting of a “moment in time” that never actually happened! The next time someone asks why they should invest in artwork rather than just printing a standard photograph on canvas (which seems to be quite popular these days), I’ll tell them the story of Loma and her sunflower field. :)

Please visit my website - and my blog to find out more about my work, or about having a custom work of art commissioned.

You can also follow her on Twitter: @kellyoneill

Kelly O’Neill

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Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Best Regards Rajesh