Thursday, October 3, 2013

Friday Feature: Carolyn McDonald

"Haunting" by Carolyn McDonald

It's time for another Friday Feature.  I swear weeks keep getting shorter and shorter.  Today I'm doing a longer interview with Carolyn McDonald.  She took part in the 30 paintings in 30 days challenge and I just loved her works so I asked her to do a feature.  She had so much fun doing the challenge she is going for 60 in 60.

Carolyn McDonald paints and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama.  She has taught basic principles of art for over 25 years.  She has taught kindergarten to graduate level art and gives thanks and praises to her influential teachers such as Dawn Whitlaw, Michael Shane Neal, Peggi Kroll Roberts, Timothy Thies, and Carole Gray-Weihman for their encouragement and their selfless attitude about teaching painting. 
     Her portrait work has been described as having, "the elusive feel of a movie star idol from the 1940's" and Michael Shane Neal describes her work as bearing "strength of color, an acute sense of design and bold application of paint."  McDonald states, "I am not only privileged to be a student of Shane Neal, but to also have been his figure drawing teacher at Lipscomb University.  My student became my mentor."  She earned two fine arts degrees from the University of Tennessee in painting and drawing and a doctorate in art-education with a minor in painting from The Florida State University.
     My interest in painting is just as Robert Henri said, "I am interested in painting as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living."  Everything becomes painter's fodder when I am drawn to the colors, values and textures of a subject.  I push myself to capture the personality of a person, feeling of a place, or the effects of light; to slow-dance and become intimate with the subject.  That process brings me joy.  Henri also said, "All great works of art should look as though they were created with great joy."  During the painting process, I lose track of time, and as the painting unfolds, it is as if I am existing in that world of joy and infinite peace.

To see more of her work visit her website, blog and facebook page
"Garden Party" by Carolyn McDonald
How did you get your start?  What’s your artist journey so far?

I can remember drawing faces of girls at the age of 5.  I gave them names and invented my own little world of friends.  In high school I dropped Algebra 11 to take art when I was a sophomore.  I used pastel and acrylic paints until I was a senior.  When I began college, I fell in love with the smell and consistency of oil paints.  I had great drawing professors, however, my painting professors would walk in the studio the first day of class and say something like, “I want one red painting, one white painting, one black painting, and one impasto painting by midterm.  See you then.”  It was a time of giving homage to Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism reigned.  My work remained representational and ultimately, received little praise from the painting professors.  At the beginning of my senior year, I decided to double major.  I graduated with a B.F.A. in painting and drawing and a certificate teaching art.  I wanted a family after graduation so we had two beautiful boys.  I did very little art during those early years.  When they were in the elementary school, I took a teaching position at Lipscomb University in Nashville.  I began to paint again and it was like a long lost friend that moved in next door.  During this time of teaching, I also went to Florida State University to work on a Ph.D. in art education and a minor in painting and women studies.  While working on my dissertation, I took a high school position in Homewood, Alabama teaching Advanced Placement Studio: 2-D Design, Advanced Placement Studio: Drawing and Introduction to Photography.  As an artist-teacher, I had to carve out space in the studio room where I could produce art along with the students.  I’ve continued to take workshops in Scottsdale, Atlanta, and Nashville.  I could really see leaps and bounds in my work as I painted “almost” daily and continued to learn from artists such as Michael Shane Neal, Dawn Whitlaw, Timothy Thies, Leslie Saeta, Dreama Toll Perry, Carol Marine, and Peggy Kroll Roberts.  I tell my students, “A year from today, I want to look back on my work and say, ‘My work is better today than a year ago.’”  There is no doubt about it; painting everyday makes a difference.

Where were you born?

I was born in Sparta, Tennessee.

If you could live anywhere where would you live?

I like where I live now in Hoover, Alabama.  However, I really liked living in Nashville, Tennessee too.  I still have many friends there and it feels like home when I am in town.
"Combat Boots" by Carolyn McDonald
What’s your favorite thing to paint and why?

Eyes!  You can see the depths of the soul if you’re observant enough.  However, since eyes are on the face, I like to paint faces; not so much formal portraits but character observations.  I prefer to take the photograph myself because I’m looking for the soul, not just a pretty face.  That’s why I’m doing a series of close-ups.  A newer favorite is painting shoes on the feet.  That perspective offers an alternative look at a persons personality.  Bow-ties and neck-ties are great too.  There’s something about the way a man ties his tie, or not, the color combinations he chooses, and the style of the shirt.  To me, that type of testosterone is very engaging.  Now, if you ask me in six months, I may have a new favorite to add to the list.  I don’t want to box myself in but explore new challenges.

Could you talk about your painting techniques?

During the past 30 days of 30 paintings, I discovered that the three most important things for me to do was 1)  Draw and paint shapes, 2)  Pay attention to the subtle changes of temperature and value, and 3)  Have different edges: soft, hard, and lost.  When starting a painting, I draw the shapes and make sure the proportions are correct.  Next, I outline the drawing shapes with a dark value...usually mixture of burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, and cadmium red medium.  Next, I evaluate whether my darks need to be cool or warm and paint those first.  My values slowly get lighter, warmer, or cooler as I move through the painting and noticing what the local colors are.  One of my favorite colors to use to cool things is Richeson Oils (The Shiva Series) Ice Blue.  It’s opaque and a little goes a long way.  I check my edges and adjust soft, hard, or lost and come back in with highlights at the end.  I’m always checking my painting through a mirror that hangs behind me while I paint, or I turn it upside down.  This practice helps me to see things that I may have missed.  Also, as I take more workshops, I try new things:  some work for me and some don’t.
"Lucus Masked" by Carolyn McDonald
Do you always work from a sketch or do you use photo references?

Both.  However, this past 30 days I’ve worked exclusively from photo reference.  I take note of the colors and values before shooting the photo.  I realize that a photo can show the darks too dark and the lights too light.  At the same time, I take liberty to change anything that is not working.  For example, I remember what Dawn Whitlaw taught me at our last workshop.  She kept asking me, “What is the painting really about?”  So I may downplay pattern, hair, or skin color to keep the focus on what I really want say about the work.  I also use photoshop to change color, crop something out, or add too, to make a more pleasing composition.

How did you arrive at your current style?

Through a lot of mistakes!  It is true that you learn when you make mistakes if you learn how to overcome them.  Over the years, I’ve struggled with not being able to paint like my friends, Shane Neal and Dawn Whitlaw.  I’ve painted portraits using their methods, but I realized I would never paint exactly as they did.  I felt depressed.  Then, a major crises happened in my personal life.  Timothy Thies once looked at a painting I was working on and said, “You don’t trust yourself, do you?”  He was right.  I walked out of the studio and went to the restroom and cried.  I was taking steps to allow God to change me and it took several years to work through my past and present relationships.  I began to love myself!  I found myself trusting my thoughts and feelings.  I learned to say no and I learned to say yes to the things that kept me on a path of healing.  The personal healing flowed over into other areas of my life.  I became a better Christian, wife, mother, teacher, and artist.  I trusted my instincts when I tried new things.  I could take what others offered that would help me and let other things go.  I didn’t have to paint like anyone else.  I grew more comfortable with failing and making mistakes.  It was okay to paint a wonderful painting one day and a “scraper” the next!  I stopped beating myself up about not being as good as my favorite artists.  I stopped comparing my work to others and looked at my own progress over the years.  Basically, I began to just make good art!  If others wanted to buy it, great.  If not, I still had work that I enjoyed painting and looking at.  My work became my own.

Do you have a favorite artist?  Who has been your biggest inspiration?

Peggy Kroll Roberts is my favorite.  Her works are joyful and that’s where I want to be.  She’s also a fabulous teacher.  Leslie Saeta and Dreama Toll Perry have been my biggest inspiration.  Their workshop came at a time when I needed to hear from another artist, “Your work is very good.  Do you know that?”  I’ve also followed Carol Marine for several years and became involved in daily painting.  Her writing and simple, but powerful paintings inspired me to paint daily....well, almost daily.
"Velvet Whiskers" by Carolyn McDonald
What are some of your favorite things or things that are essential to your well being/success as an artist?

Faith in God and faith in what He wants me to become.  Everything else just falls into place.  I love what I do!

Do you have go-to paints/colors, what are your favorites?

Any purple is my friend!  My pallet consists of cadmium red medium, transparent red medium, cadmium yellow light, sap green, ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, dioxazine purple, kassselerbraun cassel earth, Indian yellow, quinacridone violet, and ice blue.  I usually use titanium white, but I just ordered a warm white from Dick Blick.  When I am teaching beginning painting, I have my students use ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow light, and cadmium red medium.  These three colors really help them to learn how to mix many, many colors with a limited pallet.  

What are five things you would like to happen in your life in the next five years?  Dream big here:)

  1. Retire from teaching high school, 2)  Move to Nashville and live in a loft with large North windows, 3)  Teach adult painting workshops there and help others to believe in themselves, 4)  Teach national painting workshops, 5)  To always be grateful and continue painting.
"Mr Academia" by Carolyn McDonald
What is your advice for other artists who are just getting started in their career?

Be trustworthy and learn to respect and believe in yourself.  Paint as often as possible and those paintings do not have to be large for growth to occur.  Look for artists that are willing to share their experience, strength, and hope.  Open yourself up to the goodness in life...unfold the arms (have you ever noticed how many art professors pose with their arms folded across their chests?)  I wonder what that implies???
a collage of Carolyn McDonald's 30 paintings in 30 days challenge
What is the best advice that you have received as an artist?

To believe in myself.

Sunny beach or rustic mountain retreat?

Either as long as my family is with me.

Book or movie?


Favorite author?

C.S. Lewis

Favorite book & movie?

Movie:  A Beautiful Mind - I can relate to both of the main characters.
Book:  Till We Have Faces:  A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

Romance or comedy?


Favorite ice cream flavor?

I grew up when we only had chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry.  My Dad would buy me chocolate ice cream and even today, when I eat chocolate ice cream, I think of him.

Night owl or morning person?

My natural body rhythm is being a night owl, but teaching school forces me to go to bed early and get up early.   

Cake or Cupcakes?

Chocolate cake with thick chocolate icing!  My mom would fix anything and everything chocolate.  I guess that is why I like chocolate so much.

Thank you so much Carolyn:)


  1. Great Carolyn's work...

    1. Thank you so much Maria. You are a great supporter.

  2. Carolyn's work is beautiful and I enjoyed learning about her! Thanks.

    1. Thank you Jean. I'm glad you enjoyed reading the post.

  3. Wonderful interview and she has a unique style too. I like the chicken best - made me chuckle! And I love her shoe series - how quirky and different! :0)

  4. Always love these Friday features. I got such a kick out of the feet paintings for some reason. Just immediately caught my attention.