As Jeanne O’Neal paints, she thinks in hot pink. The vision pours onto her canvas, a twist on traditional landscapes that infuses chromatic hues in the sky or a tree branch glowing from a beam of sunlight.
Once a teacher, she’s now the student, and every day she paints, O’Neal learns more about her work and exploring the wide range of colors. Lately, she’s turned her gaze to neutrals and grays.
“I’m playing with colors and grays, and I’m seeing a huge difference in the ambience of my paintings,” she says.
The daughter of a commander in the U.S. Navy, O’Neal grew up bouncing around the country, from San Diego to Washington, D.C., Rhode Island, Philadelphia and everywhere in between. While her surroundings were constantly changing, drawing was a familiar outlet for her as a child; she remembers drawing tiny, whimsical characters to cut out and play with. But her family always found solace in Charleston, where her mother is from and where O’Neal attended parts of elementary and middle school.
“We always came back south,” she says, remembering the family trips to South Carolina. “The live oak trees, the Spanish moss, the birds that you would hear, little lizards. My mom’s family is six generations from the South Carolina Lowcountry area, so when you come here, it just feels like home. It’s in our genes.”
Seven years ago, O’Neal, her husband and two daughters made it official by moving to Pawleys Island after living in Greenville for over a decade. They yearned to be on the coast, to spend time on the boat as a family. Before becoming a professional artist, O’Neal worked as a teacher and graphic designer.
The move to the Lowcountry provided natural muses for the artist, from the marshes, live oaks and palmetto trees to egrets, blue herons and the sea. And it’s something she gets sucked into. When she sits down to paint, she plays an audio book or podcast, and unless she sets a timer to pick up her children from school or to remind her it’s getting too late, she will paint for hours.
“I’ll start painting at 9 or 10 o’clock and listen to a book, and then I’ll look and it’s 11, then I’ll look again and it’s 2 o’clock,” she says, laughing. “You just get in this groove, and it’s just so freeing and healing.”
Learning is a never-ending process for O’Neal, and she’s engaged herself in courses taught by the region’s top artists. From Larry Moore, she learned that whatever rules she felt bound by in the past, she could break them—but it is important to know the rules first. Mark Kelvin Horton gave her a better grasp on color mixing, while Betsy McDonald has passed along her marketing prowess as an artist and gallery owner. Kyle Stuckey shared the importance of cool and warm colors and how they relate to shadows. The next course O’Neal is taking, Adventure of Painting, will teach the importance of values and composition.
For years, O’Neal worked solely in watercolors but switched over to oil paints—she says it’s freeing. “It’s so much fun,” she says about oil painting. “There is something about blending. I guess I like to blend on the canvas. I feel like you can’t mess up. It’s fun and you can fix it if you need to, where with watercolor it’s very unforgiving. I’m not a pre-planner; I want it to be relaxing.”
O’Neal’s work can be seen at Perspective Galley in Mount Pleasant, Salem’s Designs on Pawleys Island and boutiques around the island. Her goal is to continue studying art, work in the plein air style more and travel to Europe again.
“Just doing art every day is studying every day,” she says. “I still have 50 years more to learn. I hope I die old with a paintbrush in my hand!”
Christiana Lilly is a freelance journalist in Pompano Beach, Florida. See more of her work spanning the arts, community news and social justice at christianalilly.com.