As an educator, Jeanne O’Neal always dabbled in art, ceramics and watercolors. Then, eight years ago, O’Neal had surgery on her vocal cords, which meant she couldn’t talk for two weeks. Her mom took her two daughters for a few days, so the artist had time to enjoy the incredible nature around her home in Debordieu, South Carolina. She took her watercolors along and, in the deep quiet, began painting oyster shells.
Realizing how much she missed being in the zone as an artist, O’Neal found the courage to unbox a set of oil paints that had been sitting on her art table for more than a year. After her first try with oil paints, she knew she’d found her medium. All these years later, she’s still hooked. “Oil paints are in my blood now. I eat, sleep and breathe painting,” she says.
Today, O’Neal is an accomplished artist with gallery representation all over the Lowcountry. Her nature scenes are popular with locals, visitors and people who want commissions of a scene that captures a special memory. Recently, she painted a rice field for a couple, which had been the backdrop for their vows. But most of the time, she paints local scenes that capture her heart.
Though she’s a Charleston native, her family moved around the country, following her father’s job in the Navy. She moved back as soon as possible, graduating from Clemson and eventually settling in Georgetown with her husband. “I’m totally inspired by the Lowcountry. The birds, the trees, the water, the Spanish moss are just in me,” she says. “Whatever I’m doing, I’m always studying the colors and shadows of the marsh and clouds. It’s what I think about all day long.”
As a mother of two teenage daughters, O’Neal no longer teaches, so she has more time to devote to her art. On a typical day, she gets up early and paints in her pajamas, then creates content for social media and answers emails. She tends to stay up late in the summertime, painting into the night. “I live the crazy art life during summer,” she says.
The artist easily switches between a plein air practice and in-studio work. While some plein air artists find flow in sketches and color studies, O’Neal is more spontaneous. While re-creating plein air paintings in the studio, O’Neal tries to remember the feeling of the sun, the wind, the birds chirping and even the mosquito bites. “I skip sketching and go right to painting,” she says. “I can remember what it feels like; when it’s done, I hope other people can too.”
Oil painters typically have several canvases in the works at once, and O’Neal is no exception. “I have a lot of different canvases of different sizes on hand. Then I’ll have a day where I just paint a bunch with a first layer of transparent red oxide, which enhances other colors without dulling or overpowering them,” she explains. Sometimes she’ll use red oxide to sketch the outline of lights and darks, then create a horizon line and begin to work from photos or vivid memories.
“My favorite part of painting is getting lost in the flow,” she says. “It’s just so much fun, and you can’t make a mistake with oils. You can always paint on top of it, so you don’t have to be afraid to try something new.”
O’Neal’s paintings range from postcard size to large 48-by-60-inch canvases, and often she’ll create a series of the same painting in different sizes.
While the artist enjoys taking classes and attending workshops to deepen her practice, this year she’s focused on incorporating everything she’s learned into her work.
O’Neal’s paintings are available in Georgetown at Art Harbor Gallery and Georgetown Art Gallery, on Pawleys Island at Gray Man Gallery, and in Mount Pleasant at Perspective Gallery. Commissions are available. *
Robin Howard is a freelance writer in Charleston. See more of her work at robinhowardwrites.com.