An Interview With Carla O’Connor

Lately I’ve become obsessed with artist interviews! Long hours alone in the studio can be very isolating and lonely, and online artist interviews are a great way to connect with other artists from across the globe. I always gain some new insights and a deeper understanding of the creative process as I listen to someone else’s ideas, thoughts, and working process. I love hearing what other artists have discovered and experienced and how they deal with the challenges involved with finding clarity, a personal voice and vision, and balancing everyday life with a life in the arts. I often come away feeling refreshed and invigorated knowing that I’m not the only artist who struggles with those challenges. And I’m comforted because I find that I’m also not alone in feeling frustrated by the fact that the art journey I began so many years ago still hasn’t led to anywhere that I can really count on. The struggle remains. As artist Ken Kewley said, “The secret of painting needs to be discovered everyday. Secrets only work for a little while.” And most artists agree that those secrets are only found by working on our work.

Recently, I summoned up the courage to ask one of my friends and all-time favorite artists, Carla O’Connor, if she would be open to being interviewed for my blog. I’m extremely grateful to Carla for replying, “bring on the questions!” And I’m very excited to share her answers with all of you today.

Carla O’Connor Interview with Donna Zagotta

Carla O’Connor lives and works in Olalla, Washington. Along with being a masterful painter, she has spent the better part of her life sharing that knowledge and expertise with eager young artisans all over the world. Beginning in her early married years as an Air Force wife, she was transplanted around the world with much frequency and made the most of it. For the next 30 years, she traveled throughout the US, Canada, and Europe, leading workshops that were eventually so sought-after, they were booked out 2 to 3 years in advance. Carla would sometimes work for multiple weeks with artists in this capacity, a true teacher at heart. Carla’s layered color and complicated patterns became her signature style. She has worked in oil, acrylics, watercolor, and gouache, never afraid to come back to a piece weeks or months later until it decides it is done.

Donna Zagotta
Carla, what do you think makes a great painting?

Carla O’Connor
It is the ability of the artist to convey a message or communicate a unique and personal vision. Regardless of perfect technical skill or mastery of style, a great painting must invoke an emotional, visceral response in the viewer that leaps into the imagination and stirs the heart.

Are your paintings mainly based on direct observation, photography, memories, or imagination? In other words, how do you find ideas and inspiration for your paintings?

I use all – observation, photography, memories and imagination – for inspiration. Some new ideas come out of the blue when I am least expecting it and others are possibly related to an event such as a visit to a museum or travel to distant lands. More personal experiences are also an important source of inspiration – a major move, birth, death, loss and joy- all can contribute to the content of the work. I feel that most pure non- objective paintings are inspired by pure emotion.

What is your working process? Why do you prefer gouache as an opaque medium rather than oils or acrylics?

I am a direct painter, very old school. Many years of training in oils taught: thin to thick, light to dark, big to small. I do not draw with a pencil first but with a brush directly on the surface. I do very quick, small thumbnail studies for composition only. I have never been one for visualizing the finished painting before hand. With only a very rough idea to start, I prefer to be surprised, hopefully a number of times, and frequently challenged through the entire process.

I consider gouache to be my mature medium because of its similar handling to oils. It is as if I have come full circle (oil to acrylic to watercolor to gouache) and found the medium that conveys my vision the best.

Carla O’Connor, The Gift

Are you a slow or fast painter?

I start by blocking in the big simple shapes of the composition using a round brush. Then, I work big, loose, thin color and repeated textural effects. I try to get something happening on the surface to play with. With each layer I begin to slow down and become more selective and controlled. I allow the painting to rest on an easel in different light and conditions in order to study it in its entirety. The refining, additions and deletions come at the end stage. All tiny details are saved till the very last.

What are some of your most important composition and design considerations?

Over years of experience I have come to the conclusion that composition is the most important factor of a painting. All the finest skill and technique in the world will not save a poorly composed painting. Knowledge of the purpose and the use of deliberate and thoughtful formats is real power to an artist. It can pull the viewer in and hold their attention. Knowing what to take out or what to add is critical.

The color palettes in your paintings have a sophisticated and quiet elegance. How do you choose the colors for your paintings?

Carla O’Connor, Men of the House

I do not consider myself a “colorist” and have never taught color theory. I prefer soft warm greys and save the pure color as a punch or accent in the composition. Color seems to be ever more brilliant when surrounded by greys. The chemical properties of gouache require that you must mix thoroughly to avoid streaking. I never worry about the wrong color choice since gouache is sitting on the surface and can easily be lifted and changed. Also gouache dries darker as opposed to transparent w/c which dries lighter. I am often surprised, and sometimes disappointed, at the final tone. But there lies the challenge!

DZYou have been painting the figure for many years and your paintings have a decidedly contemporary point of view. What fascinates you about the figure and how do you achieve that contemporary slant?

All my training in college and post-graduate study has been life drawing and figure based. It is the “thing” I know best from the inside out. As with any subject, you must be able to draw it realistically in order to then abstract it convincingly. My aim is to depict the three-dimensional human form on a two-dimensional surface. By flattening shapes in and around the figure I hope to be successful. This combination of real and abstract gives the work a contemporary look and encourages the viewer to participate in the process.

How did you develop your own voice and your own way of looking at things?

An artist’s personal ‘voice’ is the unique and recognizable style that is distinctly their own. It is imperative if one wants to teach, publish, sell, or exhibit, especially internationally in today’s world. It is to be known for something particular. I believe we are a culmination of all we have ever heard, read, seen or been exposed to. Finding your voice is a process of filtering, editing those influences and fully understanding yourself and what you want to say.

Carla O’Connor, Bellisimia

Your new work is on claybord and is also on a much larger scale than traditional watercolor paintings. How have those modifications changed your work and/or your working process?

Working large is not new to me. I enjoy the physical aspect and the scale. When the format is small, I find I tighten up my grip on the brush and the resulting image shows tension.

Claybord is so smooth it is like painting on porcelain, which only enhances the lifting properties of gouache. The treated panels are rigid and strong and will stand on an easel as opposed to a flat painting surface. That can be particularly helpful when working with the figure for accuracy and avoiding any distortion.

How do you deal with the distractions and disruptions inherent in everyday life? How do you balance everyday life with your painting life?

It has been my habit for years to attend to all domestic issues of everyday life first thing in the morning. When all is done I feel free to go to the studio for the remainder of the day.

Lately, I find it is not so much how many hours are spent but the quality of the time. Two or three hours of very focused work can be more productive than six hours of messing around cleaning the studio. Our lives are multifaceted and complicated, sometimes messy and often unpredictable. That is what makes art interesting.

Can you describe an ideal day in the studio for us?

Years ago I wished there was a slot under my studio door where I could slide finished paintings out and someone on the other side would slide a dinner tray back to me. All I wanted to do was paint! Needless to say, that didn’t happen and I no longer wish for it. Every season of our lives has a tempo – a beginning song and a finale- I have learned that any time in the studio is precious whether 20 minutes or 20 hours. Make the most of it!

Carla O’Connor, Still Water

How do you refill the well when it’s empty?

Occasionally the well will be empty. No ideas, no inspiration, no nothing! It happens! Many books and articles and studies have been written about the ‘Artist Block’. Everything from laziness, health issues, fear, guilt, distractions to talking too much have been blamed. I imagine that every artist experiences a block at some time or other. I have recently had a major change in my career path that has had an impact on my creative energy. It has been the inevitable ending of one cycle and the transition into a new state of circumstances. I am learning to accept the necessity of these “endings” and looking forward to the change and renewal of purpose. I have no idea where this new cycle will lead in my art journey but have faith in what the future has in store.

What advice would you give to someone who really wants to become a serious watercolor artist?

Paint as much as possible! Enter every chow starting with local then regional moving to national and eventually international. Each step builds your name, your reputation and your “voice”. Expect rejection at every level. Get mad and then get back to work. Stay focused and hold on to your passion. Remember to breathe!

I want to thank Carla again for taking time out of her busy schedule to do this interview with me. You can see more of Carla’s work at and at the Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Bye for now…..Donna 


16 thoughts on “An Interview With Carla O’Connor

  1. Elizabeth (Betty) Concannon

    Loved the interview! And , surprisingly, it makes me want to get some of my older but not quite inspired paintings out of the studio storage and “make a miracle”. Thanks to both of you!

  2. artistruth

    A great interview with one of my favorite artists! I love the image of sliding the finished work out of the studio and having a dinner tray return – LOL!

  3. Susan Kiedio

    Wonderful to hear from Carla O’CONNOR through your blog..she is one of my favorite artists..I was fortunate to take a workshop from her many years ago..the experience stays with me both inspire me to try gouache again and again..thanks Donna

  4. Vicki Wood

    Wonderful interview! Great questions with insightful and informative responses. Thank you to Donna and Carla!

  5. Liz Walker

    I feel so lucky that I was able to take a 4 day workshop with O’Connor in Aug. 2013 on Whidbey Island. She is an absolute inspiration, and it’s wonderful to read this interview and learn more about her thought process re: artmaking. Thank you!

  6. Pamela Howett

    Thanks for this inspiring interview with two powerful ladies. You are both fans of gouache paint. I think I will incorporate gouache into my fall class.

  7. Anna Kay Singley

    Carla is a work of art herself…her humor,her indepth understanding of painting and its problems, and seeing into your work and solving your problems.Great personality…great lady and so damn fun…love her!

  8. Toni stevenson

    It is inspiring to me that one can produce such great work as one matures. After a pressing year of “gotta do & haveta do” I am now looking forward to “I wanna do. Um-mm I like the idea of the dinner tray myself. That painting I started in your workshop Donna, I have decided to give it another go.

  9. Janice

    Loved this interview, Donna. Loved how open Carla is about her work, her goals, and above all her process. Thank you for sharing this!

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