Armed with only primary colors, Betsy Jones McDonald brings Lowcountry marshes to life on canvas Bring the Rain, oil on canvas, 30" x 24"


Bring the Rain, oil on canvas, 30" x 24"
Bring the Rain, oil on canvas, 30″ x 24″

Painter Betsy Jones McDonald doesn’t have to go far for inspiration; the fine artist’s studio on Daniel Island faces the marshlands of the Wando and Cooper rivers.

“You can’t look out the window without seeing something beautiful,” she says. “The marshes are beautiful, the wildlife is beautiful, and I think people come here on vacations at good times in their life. This area just evokes a feeling of warmth.”

In her workstation, she only has four colors of paint at her disposal: the primary colors and white. Back in college, Jones McDonald learned to use her color know-how to create whatever pigment she needs to fully capture the swaying grasses of the marsh or the feathers of a heron. She spreads these curated hues onto large canvases while using large brushes, completing her pieces in one sitting in the alla prima style.

Mirror Image, oil on canvas, 40" x 30"
Mirror Image, oil on canvas, 40″ x 30″

It’s no wonder she’s become a pro at color theory, something she’s been teaching her art students for the last 15 years. This impressive method of painting started as simply a way to save money on art supplies when she was a student at Columbus State University in Georgia. She made her way to South Carolina when she landed a job at JCPenney as a visual merchandise manager in Columbia, where she flexed her artistic muscles by taking charge of the brand’s retail windows and advertising. However, when she was promoted to the position of buyer, Jones McDonald knew she needed to stay in art.

“I just missed art so bad; I really had a hard time transitioning into corporate-type work,” she remembers. “My love was art, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Tidal Waters, oil on canvas, 30" x 40"
Tidal Waters, oil on canvas, 30″ x 40″

Opportunities came her way to paint murals at local schools in the early ’90s, including turning a hallway at her children’s school into a jungle scene. It was also at this time that she sold her first paintings. In 2000, she completely devoted her life to painting, spending at least four days a week creating her latest works. She opened her own gallery with a fellow artist on Pawleys Island from 2007 to 2011, and she’s been painting scenes of Charleston and the surrounding areas since 2006.

“I think I paint with my arms more so than with my hands,” she explains. “I hold my paintbrush really loosely at the end. I just like creating something that has drama to it, and to me the larger pieces have more drama.”

Summer Kaleidoscope, oil on canvas, 24" x 36"
Summer Kaleidoscope, oil on canvas, 24″ x 36″

And create drama she does—her most recent mural was done at the historic Hostetter home in Downtown Charleston, transforming the four walls of the dining room into a marshland scene, fit with herons looking out over the grasses.

Jones McDonald’s artwork can be viewed and purchased at Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet and Perspective Gallery in Mount Pleasant. In June, she’ll be participating in the Brookgreen Gardens Art Festival, one of the few she takes part in because of the size of her works. At Perspective Gallery, she’s known for popping in to chat with customers, and she also teaches classes. Much of her work is creating landscapes of the Charleston area, especially the marshes outside her home, pieces that become the centerpiece of her customers’ homes.

Charleston Summer, oil on canvas, 36" x 48"
Charleston Summer, oil on canvas, 36″ x 48″

“The marsh never stays the same. With the light, it changes. It changes with the tide. It changes with the time of the year, and the water patterns change constantly,” she says. “I live on the marsh, and that’s what I see the most and that’s what’s authentic to me to paint.” *

Christiana Lilly is a freelance journalist in
Pompano Beach, Florida. See more of her work spanning the arts, community news and social justice at

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