Capturing the Captivating Human Figure

Among the dozens of paintings that hang in Carla O’Connor’s Olalla studio is a tiny, framed crayon drawing of a purple cow. It’s the very first picture O’Connor ever drew — when she was just 3 years old.

O’Connor with painting
O’Connor with painting

Another small, framed drawing of a kitty looking at the moon hangs nearby, done around that same time. And in between the cow and the kitty is a slightly larger oil painting of a streetscape in Paris — complete with trees; puffy, white clouds in a pale blue sky and people mingling in front of tall buildings.

“I was about 9 years old when I made that one,” O’Connor recalled. “My mother was an artist and she loved to travel. When her business sent her to Europe on a buying trip, I got to go with her and I painted on location in oil and watercolor in Paris and in Venice. She dragged me through every major art museum she could reach in Europe and in the U.S.”

Those early art experiences shaped O’Connor’s future. She went on to earn a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in painting from Kent State University.

Back then, art students weren’t allowed to actually paint until the end of their junior year, so she also dabbled a bit in glass, clay and “drawing, drawing and more drawing.”

“That was pounded into our heads and now I’m so thankful for that firm foundation, especially in figure drawing,” she said.

StudioThanks to all those drawing classes, the human figure — especially the female figure — often features prominently in O’Connor’s work.

“Figurative work was my first love and it’s where most of my training was concentrated — all those classes drawing the human form,” she said.

Frequently, the figure is surrounded by, or superimposed on, abstract shapes.

But sometimes the paintings are purely abstract — “patternings,” as she calls them.

In some ways, inspiration for her abstract work can be traced to her first glimpses of the Puget Sound region. Her husband, Mike, was assigned to this area as his last assignment with the U.S. Air Force, and O’Connor immediately fell in love with the rocky shore. She began painting a long-lasting series of landscapes she called “Rock Rhythms.”

Works in progress for Gig Harbor garden tour
Works in progress for Gig Harbor garden tour

“I probably made 50 or 75 big ‘Rock Rhythms’ paintings, and I won a lot of awards for them,” she said. “They were all tied together in some ways. I loved it. I couldn’t wait to paint every day and I felt like I couldn’t paint them fast enough. I’d see one little thing and I’d think, ‘Oh, that’s so beautiful,’ and I just had to paint it.”

She was working mostly in watercolor and gouache. Then, the urgency to paint rocks suddenly ended and she began adding figures to the “Rock Rhythms” paintings.

Not long ago, she did another “turn” and decided to return to painting abstracts and creating collages.

Brushes“I took all the old paintings and tore them up,” O’Connor said. “But I kept some of the pieces and now I’m adding them to my collages.”

People sometimes think that collage is for artists who don’t know how to paint.

“But collage gives so many different textures and levels to a painting. It’s really exciting and full of possibilities,” she said.

Recently, O’Connor was working in her studio on four small collages that depict the four seasons. Those, and other of her works, will be on display during the Gig Harbor Garden Tour in late June, when she’ll be a featured Artist in The Garden at a nearby Olalla garden.

Carla with Tribe
Carla with Tribe

Teaching and Traveling

The “Rock Rhythms” paintings resulted in O’Connor being invited to more and more art shows, and soon, people were asking her to teach classes and workshops.

“I was flabbergasted when I started getting asked to do workshops,” she said.

But for the next several decades, she travelled all over the world, presenting workshops. She taught workshops and classes around the United States, Canada and Europe, including Italy and the Czech Republic.

“It turned out to be very lucrative and very fulfilling,” she said. “I’d spend a week or two in a single location and got to meet so many wonderful people and see so many beautiful places.”

Deep Blue Sea
Deep Blue Sea

One year, she taught 17 workshops — a very full calendar — but back then there was “lots of competition between instructors,” she said.

“Taking a workshop was a real gift that artists could give themselves,” O’Connor said. “It got them out of their regular environment to meet new people and exchange ideas. We’d all stay in the same hotel, eat together and sit up all night in pajamas, drinking wine and talking about art.”

Things have changed dramatically in the past few years.

“The workshop phenomena suddenly exploded across the country,” she said. “Everyone who knew even a little bit about some painting technique or another started offering workshops in their own location, so fewer and fewer artists were traveling to some place new.”

Jungle Tango
Jungle Tango

The internet has also made a huge impact — people can sign up for an online class and just stay in their own studio for the whole experience, she said. O’Connor has capitalized on the online trend and created a DVD of one of her classes.

“That was the scariest thing I ever did and also the most interesting. I spent four days in the video studio in Albany, Oregon, in the middle of summer. It was hot! And I had to just about sleep sitting up because every shot needs to look the same so you can’t mess up your hair, and you have to wear the same clothes and accessories every single day,” she said with a laugh.

These days, she spends as much time as she can in her studio — her brand new studio in the home she and her husband built in Olalla a couple of years ago.

“The house is the biggest piece of art I ever made,” she said. “I loved making all the choices. It’s like painting in a way: You start with the foundation and work up.”


The house is designed around a great room, with her studio on one side and lots of windows.

“I can sit in my studio and see what’s going on in the living room,” she said. “And we have really good neighbors with a lot of different backgrounds. And I love seeing the wildlife that comes out of the woods into the yard.”

New Shows and More Awards

In addition to her membership in just about every watercolor society in the country, O’Conner recently joined a women’s art group and has started entering shows that include many different media because she enjoys seeing what “experimental artists” are doing.

In 2018, she won four Best of Show awards, including the Best of Show and the Gracie Award from the International Society of Experimental Artists, the top award for two-dimensional art at the Creative Visions Gallery (CVG) show and the Best of Kitsap award from the Cultural Arts Foundation.

This year, her work is included in the American Women Artists exhibition at the Steamboat Springs Art Museum in Colorado. She exhibits at the Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and her work has been spotlighted in many magazines, including publications in Japan and China, where she is an honorary member of the Jiangsu Watercolor Research Institute in Nanjing.

O’Connor was one of the eight founding members of the Gig Harbor Open Studio Tour, now in its 27th year. Although she no longer participates in the event, her studio is open by appointment.

Her advice to young artists? “Draw, draw, draw! Drawing is the foundation of all art making, so keep practicing and never stop.”

Carla O’Connor