8 Katie O'Hagan


Katie O'Hagan is an amazing Scottish-American, realist painter from Beacon, New York, where she lives with her two daughters and her dog Seamus. She's exhibited internationally, including at the National Portrait Gallery in DC and the World Art Museum in Beijing. She's most celebrated for her startling, challenging, inspiring, and extremely personal self-portraits. Katie's won awards from the Portrait Society of America, the Oil Painters of America, Allied Artists of America, the Salmagundi Club, and The Artist's Magazine.


Katie O'Hagan was born in Northern Scotland. She talks about her life and moving to America (right after college) in this interview with Deanna Selene (Combustus, no date):

"I grew up in a small, remote community and I spent a lot of time dreaming about leaving. My family situation was often unstable, and my way of coping was to focus on getting as far away as possible. I became obsessed with American movies and I decided that America would be my first stop. I had a great romantic (to me) notion of driving around the west in a pick-up truck, going to rodeos and listening to Hank Williams. 

"I think my Dad expected that college would shake this fixation, but it really never wavered. I was totally unprepared, of course, and arrived with hardly any money, no job and no place to live, but I figured things out quickly. As it turns out my first stop was as far as I got. New York was overwhelming ~ in just the way I’d hoped it would be ~ and I felt like I had found a place where I could disappear and start over.  I ended up living with a bunch of crazy hippies in Brooklyn, waiting tables, and having the time of my life. 

"I never lived back in Scotland again, but from a distance I have developed a true appreciation and affection for the place where I grew up. The stark beauty of the land, walking on the moors for hours without seeing another soul, getting the “craic” down the pub, all of the crazy characters and even the dreich weather. Most of all though, I miss my dad. Other family and friends too, of course, but my Dad is hands-down the best person I know and I miss him a lot. I do get back every few years, but not as much as I’d like."


Katie studied jewelry making at the Edinburgh College of Art. In this interview with Deanna Selene (Combustus, no date) she talks quite candidly about her time at college:

"To be honest, I could just have easily picked anything else. I had no idea what to expect from art college. I had always been able to draw well and it seemed like the easiest way to get out into the world. I didn’t give much thought to what I would do once I got there. Back then there were no fees and there were grants for living expenses, so for that reason I’m glad I was able to get a debt-free degree, but I didn’t get much out of it, except socially. 

"During the first year we spent a few weeks in each department ~ they had everything from fashion to glass blowing to painting. I felt out of place everywhere ~ particularly in the painting department. I remember a couple of drawing classes but I don’t remember ever actually painting. Other students seemed to have much more purpose and confidence than I did. There was a lot of work I didn’t understand with in-depth explanations that I also didn’t understand. I felt like an impostor. Art just didn’t affect me on an emotional level at that age.  I was kind of a late developer in a lot of ways and I was motivated primarily to go to the pub and play darts. Silversmithing seemed as good a choice as any but it was a fairly arbitrary decision. I bluffed my way through as well as I could, but I was mediocre at best. I don’t think I visited a single art gallery or museum while I was at college. It was a means to an end, not a calling. It would be over a decade before I found my way to painting. I [didn't] have the desire or the confidence or any real sense of who I was, so it’s probably just as well I didn’t pursue it then."


Katie moved to New York in 1993. She says in this interview for the National Portrait Gallery (2013) that after waiting tables, she worked ten years in the film and television industry.  She tells Selene how her career in painting started:

"It was sheer boredom that drove me to it! I was a stay at home mother and far from domestically-inclined. Every few years after college I would get the impulse to find paper and a pencil and sketch someone, but usually more as a party trick. Once, when I was bar-tending in the East village, a customer stole money. We only knew him as “Al the Murderer,” but it so happened I had sketched him once on a slow day. The cops were able to identify him from my sketch, which I actually felt kind of bad about. Anyway, it was that kind of thing. Never taken seriously. 

"One day, I just sat in the kitchen during nap time and sketched some fruit that was sitting in a bowl. Shortly afterwards I had a sudden urge to try oil painting, so I went to Walmart and picked up some canvas panels and some cheap paint and brushes and started to paint. I got an instructional book which I can’t remember the name of. It wasn’t very useful because I didn’t know what a lot of the terms meant. I probably picked up a few tips there, but really you have to learn by just doing it, and then years later when I met other artists I picked up a lot of information. 

"As for balance, I’ve never really had one. I always feel torn between being with my girls and being in the studio. We live a kind of chaotic existence. I’m not the traditional cookie-baking mother, and I felt guilty for a long time about that, but luckily my girls are turning out to be very adaptable and self-sufficient and we make a great team.  They accept my domestic limitations with a lot of humor."


"One of my first paintings was of a friend’s kid and it was a pretty good likeness. I was surprised by how natural a brush felt, and from that point on I rarely ever drew again. I had a decent talent for drawing, but I didn’t love doing it and almost never did. Painting just felt “right” as soon as I did it, which was really unexpected. Even now I rarely even sketch ideas before I paint. I write them down and then I start right in with the paint. Although I have a couple of larger scale paintings coming up and I really need to make myself at least do thumbnail sketches first. I know it would be helpful. I just have an aversion to preamble. Not only with painting. I’m not a planner and I have a tendency to jump into things completely uninformed and figure it out as I go."


Katie tells Selene about her influences:

"Paul McCormack has been a great influence.  He’s always generous with his time and has talked me off a ledge more than once when I’ve screwed up.  I will still email artists once in a while – even if I don’t know them – to ask how they do a specific thing. I still approach a painting pretty much the same way as I’ve done since day one, though.  I start with one eye and work my way out.  Paul did attempt to show me a more sensible way to do it, but the results were really bad, and he said I should just go back to what felt natural."

She continues (National Portrait Gallery, 2013):

"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."

Katie also credits Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville for their "raw energy". "My own work is nothing like theirs, but I think I could learn a lot from them."

'Dirty Laundry'

Katie tells Selene that she often gets her inspiration from dreams, and nightmares - often recurring ones.

"The spider dreams I had were particularly vivid. More like hallucinations. For years I would have episodes where I would wake up in a panic with spiders all over me, or descending towards me, and then I would watch them scurry off into a corner and at some point would wake up for real and they would be gone. Very unsettling. They stopped a few years ago, thank goodness. I was telling a friend about them and he told me that spiders in dreams are supposedly there as messengers to draw your attention to some trouble in your life that you are ignoring or suppressing which needs to be addressed. That made sense to me and that’s when I decided to do those paintings. 'Reflection' is also based on a dream."

'Life Raft'

Katie tells Selene about the painting of 'Life Raft', and when asked if she made the raft herself, she says,

"Yes, I did make it! I had a lot going on personally. My marriage had just come to an end and my dad came over from Scotland for the summer to help me pack up my house and figure out a new place to live. I had the idea one night and I did look around online first to see if I could find a raft to buy. I couldn’t find anything though. At least nothing suitable. I wanted something very rustic and home-made looking and so there was nothing for it but to make it myself. My dad and I headed out into the woods behind my house and traded the hand-saw back and forth for a couple of hours until we had enough branches, then I got some twine and tied them together.

"I wasn’t too surprised that it didn’t float. I took reference shots at a local reservoir at the crack of dawn. I didn’t read anything into its failure to float. Actually the process of trying was ridiculous and hilarious. My friend, Erin, tried to hold it up, then we rigged up some rope, but it was just a really crappy raft. I’ll never be a carpenter. We ended up taking shots on the bank instead and I made up the water and the sky."


Katie explains why so many of her paintings deal with problems and tension (Selene, no date):

"The ideas just show up that way sometimes. I really don’t seek them out at all. From a distance I can look back at the things I’ve chosen to paint and see a clear visual diary of what was going on with me at the time, but I don’t “try” to create that. I’m not sure I would be able to if I did try. My usual coping mechanism during stressful times is to detach a bit emotionally and power through, but I guess there are always cracks in the armor, and these images just find a way to slip out. It can sometimes be cathartic to paint them at the time, but more often I have a delayed reaction, and it’s only after a period of time that I can think about why I wanted to paint them.

"I don’t want to give the impression that I walk around in a constant state of angst. Life is pretty great most of the time. There are even a few lighter paintings ahead. I saw a parrot last week at a festival and it triggered a memory of a bizarre confrontation I had 20 years ago and now I can’t wait to paint it.  I think it’s a funny one, but maybe it’s just weird. I guess I’ll find out when it’s done."


Katie talks about crafting a narrative in painting, and pitfalls when she composes (Selene, no date):

"With the more narrative paintings, there’s always the risk of being too heavy handed and dead-on. I’ve definitely been guilty of that at times, but it’s part of the learning process. The shift towards more narrative work is still relatively new, and I have a lot still to figure out. Although, as I mentioned, I don’t seek to intellectualize the ideas themselves, I’m trying to get better at what happens after the initial burst of inspiration, which is the shaping and editing of the raw idea into a successful painting. Paring it down as much as possible. Including just enough to tell the story but leaving enough open to interpretation that you aren’t spoon-feeding the viewer. The most compelling paintings have unanswered questions, but hopefully subtle ones. The question I ask most when composing a painting ~  looking at paintings – is “why?” If an object doesn’t have a reason to be there ~ even if it’s a cool object or one that would be fun to paint, I try to leave it out."

'Tectonic Shift'




Katie tells Selene this about 'Figment' (Combustus, no date):

"This is my youngest daughter, Lulu. It’s kind of a personal one…about the tendency a lot of kids have to idealize the past when their parents are no longer together. It’s kind of a sad painting, but I need to point out that she’s actually a really happy kid. This is just one aspect of her world that I felt like I wanted to get down on canvas. I do tend to gravitate towards the darker stuff, subject-wise."




'Pity Party'

'Aine, Death Valley'