A Colourful Chat with Artist Carolyn O’Neill

This week we are launching our dedicated art page. We think art is so important to the way we live our lives. Art empowers, art enlivens and art reflects our society as a rich and diverse place to live. Part of The Home Journal mandate is to give all artists from the unknown to the super famous the opportunity to tell us about their creative expression. Today we talk to Carolyn O’Neill about her art and practice and what influences her work.

What got you started as an artist 10 years ago?
I always imagined that I would start painting in my retirement when the kids had grown up and I had lots of spare time. After seeing a mural painted in the foyer of my son’s kinder I was inspired to enrol in a local art class (living in Melbourne at the time).

From the moment I picked up the paint brush I just wanted to keep painting and haven’t stopped since.

Why is painting your preferred medium?
I would have to say the physicality and immediacy of applying the paint and allowing it to drip, develop and take form. I love the texture and fluidity of paint when mixed, for example the soft buttery consistency of oils, which gradually build up layers and add further depth to the work. For me there is an innate sense of freedom to �?release’ my emotions onto canvas. It’s like going to another place without restrictions.

How do you think your work as a psychiatric nurse has influenced your art?
My past occupation has made me more aware of the fragility of the mind, including my own. It was a gradual transition from psychiatry to art and I feel that the recognition of emotions and the expression of them are relevant to both fields. As I’ve progressed in my art, my paintings have become like journal entries without words: they express what I’m unable to verbalise. I guess I can’t see the point of painting something that doesn’t connect on an emotional level.

You write that the work is autobiographical; expressing your emotions. Can you explain how your work references biblical themes and music? What music in particular?
If you look back through history to this present day, many quotes and sayings originate from the bible. Inspiration from the bible is nothing new and artists continue to draw from it. For me it’s like my road map and directs my life so it’s been a natural progression in my work.

Music is an interesting one. Ever since I can remember I’ve been fascinated by lyrics and the process or the story behind them. It’s like I have this catalogue of songs/lyrics in my mind that seem to relate to what I’m attempting to convey in a particular painting. I think there is a strong relationship between visual art and music. After completing a painting last year I stood back and could �?hear’ the Simon and Garfunkel classic Bridge over troubled water.

U2’s abstract and metaphorical lyrics have also influenced my work. I tend to prefer silence when I paint, however I sometimes play something when I feel blocked creatively.

Could you describe which artists inspire you and how?
Whilst studying visual art, a large part of the process was researching art movements and artists. I became fascinated with the abstract expressionist movement [roughly 1940s-60s] as it was the complete rejection of all origins in nature and the creation of emotional compositions based on nothing but colour, the shape and the handling of the paint itself.
Willem De Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell were some of the most influential painters and helped define the period. This art movement would not have existed if it were not for these incredibly bold and expressive artists who resisted the conventions of that time, and were often ridiculed for it. They had something to say, and expressed it with raw emotion almost poetically onto canvas.

I’ve noticed that your recent works tend to share a pretty distinct palette, and your older ones, a different set of colours. Is this a conscious decision?
Colour is integral to my work. I have discovered that confidence is a key factor in displaying raw emotion, and this can be seen in my most recent work which has become more vibrant. I try to employ challenging and unusual colour combinations and sometimes apply many layers until I get it �?right.’ My work is not influenced by trends; the exploration of line, colour and form are the continuum in my creative process. Each painting is individual in itself and as it develops, it dictates my choice of colours.

You say your work is spontaneous, frenetic and intuitive, could you explain the process a little more? What is it like when you paint, how do you decide on each stroke, colour, etc?
My process is unplanned, in that I don’t sketch out ideas or do �?studies’ for paintings. Spontaneity seems to work best for me. From the moment I begin a new work I am guided by it. I work in an intuitive manner and usually start a piece by building up layers and putting the dark areas in a kind of structure/composition.

The colour palette tends to evolve as I mix and add medium. The fluidity of the paint dripping and adding form whilst altering tones adds further depth. The frenetic pace of randomly applying paint becomes a state of initial chaos with splashes, strokes and drips of paint covering the canvas. Then I begin the process of connecting it together or �?reigning it in’ by reinforcing some areas, whilst cancelling out others until balance and harmony is achieved…in my eyes at least.

The technical aspects of the process are not readily obvious. Since it’s intuitive and emotional there is a hidden order to discover; considerations of line, shape, colour, form and contrast are integral to the composition. The contrast of wide strokes next to thin ones, tall beside short, dark next to light, rough next to smooth. These juxtapositions add tension and energy to the work.

Where do you see yourself going artistically from here?
I am continually challenging myself to create work that is balanced, considered and complex. There is less of a struggle when I consider the composition and harmony of the work. Harmony cannot be achieved without considering the work as a whole.

I am keen to get back into the habit of doing quick random sketches as it keeps me in the creative mode. I also dabble with mixed media collage and occasionally sculpture. Transferring my work onto textiles is also something I’ve been considering.

Lots of artists seem to be doing limited print runs of their work when they can’t keep up with the demand for their paintings, I wouldn’t mind being in that situation.

For more on Carolyn, visit her website.

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