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A Conversation with Ron Donoughe

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Maybe you've noticed Ron Donoughe around Pittsburgh, standing behind his easel and transforming a streetscape or vista into an oil painting. Perhaps an alley in your neighborhood has been immortalized in the hundreds of paintings the artist creates each year (www.donoughe.com). The Lawrenceville resident paints outside -- en plein air -- year 'round, taking art to the streets.

Do you paint outside every day?

I paint every day except for Saturday, which I try to take off. It's an addiction; every day is an opportunity to make a new painting -- the skies aren't the same every day, things change.

What drew you to the plein-air style?

I just loved the outdoors; I grew up in Cambria County. Before I got good enough to paint in front of people, I would work privately in the woods or fields. As I became more accomplished, I moved into the city -- stopped hiding from people -- and learned to paint the architecture, and the light and shadow of the city.

Pittsburgh is such a unique city, all the overlapping hills and crazy topography ...

It has so much texture to it. Because of the lay of the land, everywhere you go you've got another vista. It's really a painter's paradise.

There are several mill scenes here in your studio. Do you have favorite neighborhoods or subjects?

I can find something to paint almost anywhere, but I like to go to a place that has a certain feeling to it, like Lawrenceville or Braddock. I'm doing the industrial paintings partly to document the decline of the steel industry. There's still quite a few mills around -- Braddock, Midland, Latrobe, Allegheny Ludlum up in Natrona. And they can be viewed from different angles; each day there is different, with the shifting smoke -- it's really a lot of fun to paint mills.

Do you get a lot of comments when you work in the street?

I've heard it all. Everybody knows Bob Ross [the late TV painter], or they have an aunt that paints. But usually it's about them -- they know you're not going anywhere.

Recently in the South Side, as I painted beside their house, two older women told me all about their lives, and that's interesting. It's my conduit to their world, and a lot of times it adds to the experience.

I really enjoy people coming up and seeing what I do. They're not used to seeing artists outside working -- not in Pittsburgh. People ask, "Why are you painting that? What do you see?" Then they see it through my eyes. Those two women in the South Side became enamored of the rowhouses I was painting -- houses they'd lived across the street from since the 1940s.

There can be a disconnect between people and actual working artists.

People can have this preconceived idea of what an artist is and looks like -- a nutcase -- so when they see me out working, it's demystifying for them. What I do isn't that complicated. I'm standing in front of the subject and painting it.

Is there something more powerful about painting an ordinary street scene, as opposed to photographing it?

Not to denigrate photography at all, but there is a feeling that comes out of the end of your arm that is transformed through your feelings [and] translated into paint that I don't think happens with a photograph. And I have to ability to up the ante with paint, right there on the spot. I can easily alter as I work and put my own spin on it.

As a painter, it's all about trying to connect that feeling of the light with an image that translates that emotion. That's really what plein-air painting is: putting yourself out there and absorbing that. To capture not just a vista but what it looks like at a certain time on a certain day -- a moment in time. It's almost impossible to do, but that is my goal.

I see lots of pastoral scenes among your works, so you're not limited to the city.

I get around all the counties -- I paint a lot along Route 22, driving to Loretto. I paint along the Turnpike ...

You stopon the Turnpike?

Yeah, I did this painting on the side of the Turnpike yesterday. In the pulloff. I have my paints with me everywhere I go.

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