An Interview with Ron Donoughe

  Ron Donoughe Shadow 9x12

I'm both happy and proud to be able to begin my interview series with the extraordinary realist painter Ron Donoughe.
Ron was born in Loretto, Pennsylvania and now lives and works in Pittsburgh. His paintings of the Western Pennsylvania landscape, cityscape and industrial scenes are a fascinating combination of beautiful technique with a clear-eyed, unsentimental depiction of his world. In other words, his paintings have both poetry and grit.

 Moving Steel 36x36
 From Ron Donoughe's website:
Painting from life has become a ritual for me, but it is also my work. Every day I go somewhere to make a painting without knowing exactly what will happen. Because I have no preconceived idea as I set out, my subject matter is unlimited. I might choose to paint a scene on the basis of light and shadow, or because of the feeling I get when I see a lone building at the top of a hill. I do not seek a postcard scene; I seek an intensity of feeling that comes only from being in a particular place at a particular time. So many things in the landscape are interesting, especially here in Western Pennsylvania; steel mills, city skylines, snow-filled parks, twisting side street, and even back yards. For me, it is a painter's paradise."
You can find out more about Ron from his website and his Facebook page, and by reading his interview. Learn about his current project of painting 90 Pittsburgh neighborhoods at his Tumblr Blog.

Over the last 15 months Ron has completed about 60 plein air paintings in and around the Pennsylvania city of Johnstown, which are on exhibit at Art Works in Johnstown through May 25, 2012. Here is one of the paintings from the exhibit:

Champagne Lane 30"x 40"

     TD: You are a graduate of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where you earned a degree in art education. I’m curious; did you want to teach art when you entered college, or were you being practical? At what point did you realize you wanted to paint full time instead?

RD: Both. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think I was good enough to make a living as a full-time artist. After student teaching I realized being an art teacher didn’t leave much energy for anything else. I switched gears and worked as a graphic designer, again being practical. My drive to become a painter eventually got the best of me.  I was about 27 when I knew it was now or never.

Rooftop22" x 30"

TD: I like your condensed description of many years’ worth of working all sorts of jobs- you have been a “landscaper, gravedigger, chicken catcher, art teacher, museum installer, graphic designer and college instructor”. How long has it been since you left these jobs behind you and been able to paint full time? What has been your least and most favorite job other than painting?
RD: It was 21 years ago when I quit my day job. I was 32 at the time. What happened was what you might expect ­– a life of absolute financial struggle. I picked up a lot of part time stuff to make ends meet. I was married at the time with two children, ages 2 and 6. To make things more complicated, my wife was a potter! What was I thinking!

Catching chickens in a commercial chicken coop was terrible. That was high school. My twin brother and I stripped down to nothing before we entered our house. Then I had to sleep with my hands under a pillow because it was impossible to get the stench off them. I enjoyed installing work at the Frick Art Museum because it was an opportunity to learn from curators to museum directors.
TD: You are known for painting outdoors in all seasons. Do you dislike painting indoors? Do you find painting still life unsatisfying?

RD: Yes, still life is boring. But as an artist friend said you can learn more from a still life than anything else. That is probably true.

Twin Peaks 16"x 20"
TD I've read that you paint outdoors “every day but Saturday”, and that this “is an addiction; every day is an opportunity to make a new painting—the skies aren’t the same every day, things change.” 
 I love painting outdoors too, but the changeableness of the light and weather frustrates me. How do you handle working with changeable skies and a continually moving sun?
RD: Yes. The possibility exists that I might make a really good painting. You just never know. Over the years I’ve developed a system of pre-mixing “parent colors” before starting a painting. This does many things that are useful. But mostly it forces me to make decisions before the brush hits the panel.  Once these 3-5 parent colors are mixed I use variations of warm and cool to make “derived” colors. They all have the same DNA, which creates a subtle harmony.
It sounds complicated but actually speeds the time of a plein air painting. As you mention, there is only a small window to get the spirit of time and place. I enjoy the challenge it presents.
Last Patches 5"x7"

Allegheny River 5"x7"

I really enjoy being outdoors. However I’m doing more work inside these days. My studio is amazing, a huge space with wonderful north light. So I’m still getting out but I do not feel like it is as important as it once was. I have learned so much about light by painting outdoors for the last 25 years. That knowledge is now helping to give life to my studio paintings.

TD:  You love to paint in the snow. How cold does it have to get before you’ll decide it’s too cold to go out?
RD: When the light is good I’ll venture out in single digits. But if it is windy, overcast and 5 degrees, forget it.  Snow has a texture that needs to be observed up close. The color and value changes are worth the suffering. It just doesn't translate from photography.
Patch of Path 9"x12"
TD:  You often paint older buildings and city street scenes that seem nostalgic in the better sense of the word. I never think you fall into the trap of over-idealizing the past, but I sense you have a deep respect for times that have been forgotten in the rush of modern life. To what extent do you consider your work to be about the past?
RD: It is true. I love history and feel that my work is a bridge from the present to the past when things were slower and less complex. It could also be that I look to American artists who were working from 1900 – 1940 as an influence.

J&L Works 36" x 60"

TD:     I don’t see figures in your paintings, but I do sense a strong feeling of personality in your portraits of buildings. I think this is in part because you choose to paint buildings that have unique qualities, and also because they are bathed in a lively and warm light- but it seems to go beyond this. Do you feel a strong sense of kinship with certain buildings? Did you ever consider becoming an architect?

RD: No, but I do love buildings.  I think artists become very influenced by their environments. For me, I feel a connection to my neighborhood and daily walks through alleyways get me inspired. Buildings are my way to show the presence of human life without painting figures. A lot of my close friends are architects so I learned to appreciate the impact buildings have on everyday live.
Also I really get excited by what light can do. It is the constant in my subject selection

Fences 9" x 12"

TD:    You spent most of the past year painting on location in the city of Johnstown, PA. Why did you decide to do this? What was it like to leave your usual painting haunts and focus on this city? 

RD: Johnstown has a beautiful sadness about it.  And it fit my mission, which is to paint the region in such a way as to record its truth and character, a visual time capsule. I was raised in rural Cambria County, and still maintain our family home there. We used to go shopping in Johnstown when it was a bustling city. It is now a classic rust belt. I titled one painting, Valley of Labor, because that precisely describes what it was.  If you want to find out the character of a place you need to put yourself there physically. That is when you meet people. Some may even tell you to finish up that paintin’ cause we are going for a ride. And they show you special places that add to the experience. That is living in the art spirit. It isn’t just about putting paint on a canvas to make a pretty picture for me. It comes from the heart. My first painting professor told me to paint what I know. That is good advice for any beginner.

Industrial Orange, Johnstown 9" x 12"

Valley of Labor 30" x 50"

TD: Please name some of your favorite painters.

RD: There are so many. Robert Henri comes to mind because of his book, “The Art Spirit”, which changed how I thought about life.  Ed Hopper because of the feeling he got into his work. Andrew Wyeth shows us that good paintings are made from familiar surroundings, and that we must care deeply to make work that will last.

TD I like the idea of ending an interview by asking an artist what direction they see their work taking in the future, but I’m not sure this would be appropriate for you. You seem to be painting at the height of your powers- you work both very large and small, and are continually challenging yourself to try ambitious subjects such as a steel mill in full operation. Do you see any change in direction in your future as a painter?

RD: Wow. Thank you Taryn! That is impossible to answer. I believe artists are guided and informed by the body of work that has been made. It is a journey. The loop that runs through my head is looking and thinking about what may be next. I really love what I do and try to make each new painting a little better. But it doesn’t always happen. That’s why I just keep working.

TDThanks so very much Ron!

You can find out more about Ron from his website and his Facebook page, and by reading his interview. Learn about his current project of painting 90 Pittsburgh neighborhoods at his Tumblr Blog.

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