“Many forms of art evoke a sense of belonging in me and connection to all of humanity. Art is our common global language. It’s like a beautiful thread that is woven through countless people and transcends our superficial differences".
Brian O’Neill is a professional artist that works in both contemporary realism and abstract work. He is a highly sought-after instructor that teaches drawing and painting at his atelier located in his hometown of Rochester, NY, USA. O’Neill was born in 1969 on Long Island, NY, just outside of NYC. Brian is the son of an Irish immigrant and first generation in America. Both of his parents and extended family were always in full support of his talent for art, which revealed itself very early on with daily drawings and paintings. During Brian’s high school years, his art teachers were continually amazed by his work. One of his teachers said to him, “In my many years as an art teacher I’ve never told a student this, you are truly talented, you could really be a successful professional painter.” One would think that most aspiring artists would be overjoyed by this remark; however, he had the opposite reaction; fear.
In his younger years, Brian was very shy about his artistic talents and faced anxiety about pursuing a career and life as an artist. His mother was always very supportive and brought him to the top art schools in NYC for interviews where he was accepted by all of them. Fear got the better of him and he turned away from art and worked in a series of retail jobs instead. It wasn’t until his late twenties that Brian began to revisit his love for art. When the pain and frustration of not being a full-time painter became greater than the fear, his mantra became, leap and the net will appear. Brian started his own business doing decorative painting with murals and faux finishes in homes and businesses in NYC and Long Island. With this new-found identity as a working artist, Brian got back into painting on canvas with oils, experimenting with watercolor, and pushing his creative efforts to the max. This was a very important time in this young artist’s life, a crossroads, where he chose to dive deep into a creative gift and discover the many gifts that had to offer.
Brian has had many accolades, awards, and honors in his over twenty-year career. As an emerging artist, his work was exhibited at The New York Art Expo with Nan Miller Gallery. From this, his paintings were sold by galleries in England, Canada, and Japan. At this time, Brian was entirely self-taught, and was experiencing great success; however, he always regretted not taking those early opportunities to study art in college.
“Creating art feels like something more powerful than me is channeling a force I don’t always understand, which I then interpret and place out into the world. It’s something that I tried to ignore for years, until it felt like I was attempting to contain an ocean in a teacup. Eventually, it overflowed and I am so glad I allowed it to do so”.
In his late thirties, Brian was accepted to apprentice with master painter Anthony Waichulis, director and founder of the Ani Art Academy. This was another one of those life changing decisions that continues to influence his work today. Brian soaked up the experience of being a student and his work was transformed to a high level of objective realism in a short time. He quickly began winning awards in some of the world’s most prestigious art competitions, such as: The Art Renewal Center’s International Salon Competition with frequent Honorable Mentions and Finalist Awards, Art Kudos Competition, Artists Magazine Annual Competition, and The Pastel Journal’s Top 100, where his painting “September” won second place in the still life/floral category and was featured with a full-page image in the April 2011 issue. He also won an Honorable Mention in the same competition with another painting. By this time Brian was experiencing the results of his hard work and was quickly learning that effort and taking risks were key to success. He took a chance and entered the Blossom 2: Art of Flowers International Competition and was thrilled to learn that his pastel painting “Casting Call” was accepted to be exhibited during the premier event at The Naples Museum of Art, Naples, Florida. Brian’s painting won a Jurors Choice Award and was then selected to be part of the three-year traveling exhibition which was held in museum venues across the United States.
Calling upon his keen business skills, he developed a collaborative art show with Rochester City Ballet, called ‘Muse’. Brian came up with the concept of using ballet dancers as models in his paintings with his partner James, also a dancer. The collaborative process was exhilarating for both the artist and the dancers. Brian conducted photoshoots with them that would be used as reference images for the paintings in historic landmarks where he lives, thus connecting three points of interest in his home city: its premier professional ballet company, the cities many rich sights, and Brian’s loyal collector base. The show was a massive success, so much so that Brian and the ballet company teamed up again three years later to repeat the collaboration with even greater success. The experience of creating Muse and working with the dancers was a pivotal moment in O’Neill’s career. Brian was so inspired by the dancers artform, grace, and movement that his work changed, it grew into where it is today, a combination of classic oil figurative painting and contemporary abstraction with the use of metal leaf.
O’Neill has always admired both abstract and realism art. In April of 2017 his abstract diptych “Summer Discovery” 1 and 2 was featured in The Wall Street Journal. Brian was commissioned to create these paintings not knowing where they would eventually call home. He was amazed to see them hanging in a 13,000 square foot home that was
being featured in the WSJ’s ‘Mansion Section’. Most recently, Brian’s paintings were exhibited at Art New York in May 2019 with Hazelton Galleries. He created four new figurative paintings for the show, all of them sold. Brian’s work has been exhibited in many high-end art shows, and museum venues, such as: The L.A. Art Show, Arnot Art Museum, Elmira, NY, Palm Beach Art Show, The Armory Show, NYC, The Shreveport Museum of Art, and Sedona Desert Museum, Tucson, AZ. Brian has just completed 6 new figurative works that will be exhibited at Context Art Miami this December 2019 with Hazelton Galleries. In addition to these numerous awards and exhibition highlights, one of Brian’s greatest joys as a painter is working with a collector to create and custom painting either for their home or work place. One notable example was when he was awarded the honor of creating the centerpiece artwork for Highland Hospital in Rochester, NY. The 12x8 foot painting “Highland Park in Bloom” depicts the beautiful flowers of near-by Highland Park. The graceful composition of the painting has been a source of joy and comfort for all who see it.
O’Neill’s work has been featured in many publications, most notably: Art Business News, Artist Magazine, The Informed Art Collector, artist feature, Along Magazine, China, American Art Collector, Wall Street International, Phoenix Home and Garden, and The Palm Beach Art and Antique Magazine.
Brian’s works of art are a constant reminder that despite life’s difficulties, there is always room and space for those delicate moments of truth. A beautiful truth that we all have a chance at experiencing. Whatever your truth may be. Through his art, Brian offers us a distinct longing that needs to be fulfilled. And this can only happen by realizing that the answers lie within you. Observing and absorbing Brian’s art can leave us with a sense of realization where all has been met and done. In such an elegant manner, Brian’s art simply offers a beautiful and subtle reality of what is, even if you have yet to recognize it.
Q. What role does the artist have in society?
A. To be honest. Honest with myself about the quality of the work I make, as well as how it touches others. Personally, I see my role as an artist very much as a spiritual practice and experience that brings joy into this world. As far as artists in general, we must always counter many of the world’s hardships with our truth and create from that space. Sometimes those creations inspire, shock, anger, or, evoke deep feelings of awe. Regardless of people’s reactions to our work, the artist must never stop creating and always push society to think, pause, question and move towards greatness.
Q. What’s your best childhood memory?
A. I have many wonderful childhood memories. I would have to say that my favorite would be fishing with my father and brothers on the south shore of Long Island, NY where I grew up. My dad would build a fire on the beach and we would be out there very late into the night. I can clearly remember the bright full moon glowing on the water’s surface, the peaceful sound of the rolling waves, the scent of salt water, and the warmth of the fire on my face. I cherish these memories.
Q. As a child, what did you wish to become when you grew up?
A. I don’t recall thinking about anything other than art. I was obsessed with drawing and painting and fantasied that one day I would grow up to be a working artist; however, I didn’t tell anyone my dreams. I think I was afraid as a child to acknowledge that was even a possibility.
Q. Do you remember the first art you made? What was it and how old were you?
A. Yes. The first piece of art I made that I recall was when I was 5 years old in kindergarten. It was an abstract collage of shapes and colors on paper. My teacher remarked in my quarterly report card that, “Brian is extremely good at art and this should be encouraged.” I still have both the art and report card and take them out every so often to look at them. It reminds me that I am doing what I was called to do.
Q. How and when did you first become seriously interested in art?
A. I was seriously interested in art at an early age. I got my first set of oil paints for my 8th birthday and I remember using them while watching the artist William Alexander on his TV show. Alexander was the predecessor to Bob Ross. I understood everything he was saying and doing, it was like we shared a common language that nobody else in my life at that time could understand. He would create these landscape paintings in 30 minutes as I attempted to paint what he was doing at the same time. Art was for me as natural as breathing so I don’t ever recall a moment in my life when I wasn’t either drawing, painting, or dreaming about art. While many of my friends were involved in sports activities, I would ride my bicycle to the local art store and just wonder up and down the aisles looking at the many paint colors, brushes and supplies. I felt safe and inspired all at the same time.
Q. Tell us about your particular style and how you came to it?
A. My particular style is a blending of classic realism and contemporary abstraction. As a child, I was enamored with Dutch still life paintings. I loved the drama, the lighting, and subject matter. I was also attracted to antique Japanese silk paintings, especially the use of gold leaf. I have always painted both abstract and realism. Early on in my career I was told many times that I needed to choose between the two or I would never be successful. I listened to my intuition rather than the opinions of others. This continued practice of growing in both genres lead me to where I am today, creating contemporary realism figurative work that is juxtaposed by imagined abstract environments, with layers of texture and luminous metal leaf. As far as my abstract work, I take inspiration from the natural world and work with themes of water, fire, mineral, horizon, etc. I use a lot of texture in my work by adding many layers of a light weight gel medium first to define the composition, before any color is added. The metal leaf, which is sleek and contemporary, juxtaposed with the more textured areas, creates a tension and harmony that I find fascinating; the old with the new existing in the same time and space.
Q. What does your art aim to express?
A. My goal with each painting is to express my deep gratitude for this gift and experience. Hopefully, that feeling of gratitude manifests itself in my work and is able to be felt by others even if we have never met in person. I try to make art that evokes an emotional relationship with the collector by honestly expressing what beauty means to me.
Q. What personality trait has gotten you in the most trouble?
A. Disorganization. This has always been my weak spot. I lose things, make piles of clutter, can rarely see the surface of my desk, and I am usually looking for something that’s right in front of me. People say that artists and creative types are like this, however, if I am being honest, I don’t like it. I don’t like how it makes me feel cluttered internally as well.
Q. What have you had to sacrifice for this career?
A. I don’t think of it as a sacrifice, but more about priorities and choices. That being said, there are those times when I swamped with deadlines for upcoming shows and commission work that I cannot make plans with friends or my partner. Being a successful professional artist is a full-time, 7 day a week job. It sometimes feels like a sacrifice is when the weather is so nice and I want to be outside. I try to be mindful to and set aside time for my marriage and friendships, without those things, no amount of professional success would matter. I have taken great risks and worked very hard to live this dream. If I ever catch myself complaining about being busy or being in the studio working when it’s a gorgeous sunny day, I pause and remind myself how fortunate I am. Gratitude is a very powerful tool to change my attitude from a feeling of sacrifice or missing out to one of contentment and joy.
Q. Who are your biggest influences? Are you inspired by the work of your peers or anyone else in particular?
A. My biggest influences would be first, my parents who taught me a strong work ethic and always supported and accepted me as I am. Without that initial acceptance for who I am and who I was made to be, I wouldn’t be sitting here answering these questions. They paved the road for me in a way that has taken me years to fully appreciate and understand. My spouse James is a dancer and choreographer. It is very inspiring for me to have a partner that is an artist as well, albeit in another form, our conversations about craft, composition, and the creative process fuel both of our efforts and lives together. I am very inspired by the work of my peers. I think that social media can be a trap and time waster for some but I love being able to scroll through Instagram and see amazing paintings, drawings, dance, architecture, sculpture, etc. It’s comforting to know that across the world, at any time there is an artist making work. As far as posthumous artists, I became obsessed in my twenties with the Pre-Raphaelite painters for the allegorical nature of the work and the almost impossible attention to detail. There are too many other artists to list but if I were to choose living artists, I would have to say that Cesar Santos and Daniel Sprick’s work blows my mind for how good it is. Also, my friend and mentor Anthony Waichulis, who as my teacher changed the course of my artistic life. He provided me a set of tools to use, how and when to use them and left enough room for me to add my voice and discover that those abilities were there the entire time, I just needed a teacher to help me find them. In my opinion, he is the best Trompe L’oeil artist making work today.
I am inspired by the work and dedication of my students. Teaching what I love makes me a better artist. I am continually explaining and demonstrating technique while teaching. I hear myself say things that I need to do. Creating a space for other artists to grow both creatively and personally is very inspiring to me.
Q. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
A. No, not for me. I am perfectly content in my own company, especially in my studio. I am fortunate that the building where my studio is located also is home to many close artist friends. We often have lunch together, talk about what new art we are creating, or just say hi and then get back to work. I will sometimes ask a friend in the building to stop by and look at what I am working on so I can get another perspective and point of view.
Q. Apart from art, what do you love doing?
A. I have a lot of joys outside of art. I love food, cooking, baking, gardening, and travel. Cooking Is very similar to painting. Good food has layers of color, texture, and flavors, and how that is presented on a plate becomes like a painting. I use the same ideas of balance, asymmetry, and color harmony in my garden that I do in my artwork. They are all very connected. I love the ocean very much. My winter travels are always to sunny and warm locations. I can just sit on the beach all day reading a book, enjoy a glass of wine and stare out at the waves and be perfectly content.
Q. What is your philosophy in matters of art?
A. I strive to make work that is true, real, and meaningful to myself. If I have done that, then others will respond to it as well. I have a distain for superficiality in people and art. Art should have depth and purpose, it’s not enough for it to be pretty to look at or match the drapes. I have a core philosophy about art that I don’t like as well. I say this to my students, if you see a painting, dance, or any piece of art that you say, I don’t like that, then the next thought should be, why? If it’s simply because the aesthetic isn’t something I don’t respond to, then I must ask myself what it is that gets me fired up inside to paint and then go do that. Art has purpose and if it caused a negative response in me, that means it had an impact and exists whether I like it or not. I don’t place a hierarchy around styles of art. For example, Oil realism is better than abstract painting because it’s real to look at and harder to do, so it has more value. One could argue that on the surface this prior statement is true, however, if I only observe art at the surface level, and not the response I have internally to it, then it is I that is shallow, not the art. To keep it simple, all people are not going to love everything I make, I’m not going to love everything I see, but if I say that’s not even art, its pretentious and superficial, I have a responsibility to go deeper within and make work from that place. It all works, even the art that I don’t care for can push me deeper towards my true voice if I view it from this perspective.
Q. What does 'success' mean to you?
A. I define success by an internal experience while I am working on a painting. I can feel when a color is ‘off’ or ‘right’ even before I place it on the canvas. I feel successful when I am deeply in the moment creating, when nothing else exists or matters. It is at those times that I pause to say thank you for this gift, thank you to whatever power blessed me with this artistic experience. There is, of course, the professional and monetary success as well, when a painting sells, a collector contacts me about a commission painting, or a gallery contacts me about representation. All of these are part of success, it’s just a different component of the same word.
Q. What are the biggest things you've learned in life thus far?
A. I refuse to have my joy and purpose defined by the limited thinking of others. If I had a dollar for each person that told me I would be poor if I pursued art as a career, I’d be very wealthy. I have learned that I have a personal right and responsibility to advocate for myself. Day dreaming about success will bring me nothing if I don’t take actions. I am often asked to lecture and demonstrate painting and I always say, ‘later is now’. If you say, I’ll do it later, you are sending a clear message out into the Universe that success can wait. There is no separation between my job as an artist and who I am at my core, they are the same. I have learned that joy and fulfillment are spiritual gifts and that I am worthy of them. It took me a long time to allow myself to know and feel that I am worth doing this for and that the world is made a slightly more beautiful place because artists create a respite to recharge. The only limits in this lifetime that are placed on me are the ones between my ears. My thinking and ego will say no, you can’t do that, it’s too hard, while a deeper voice says, yes you can and you will. I’ve learned to listen to the latter. When something is difficult or new to me, I always remind myself, it doesn’t mean I can’t do it, it just means I haven’t done it yet. I learned that being able to ask for help is a great sign of strength. I don’t have to do any of this alone. Above all else, I have learned to trust my intuition, which has never once lead me in the wrong direction.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, and by who?
A. That’s an easy one, by my friend and celebrity makeup artist Kristopher Buckle. Kris and I have been friends since teenagers, both artists and creative souls. I put my art life to the side while he was chasing his dreams and became astoundingly successful. I was visiting him in NYC and catching up since we hadn’t seen each other for years and telling him about my artistic goals but also about the lingering fear of failure and success. He looked at me and said, ‘what you need to understand about when opportunity knocks and the door opens, is that as it’s opening it’s also closing at the same time. If you hesitate and wait too long, the door is suddenly shut and you’re left standing there asking yourself what happened? Walk through the door and figure it out.” I felt a rush of fear and excitement at the same time. I knew he was right and that my part in all of this was to show up for myself and walk through every door like I belonged there, even if I didn’t feel it or truly believed it. I learned to act as if, feel the fear and do it anyway.
Q. What advice would you give to the next generation?
A. Don’t expect so much instant gratification. Put in your time, work hard, do what you love and think big. If something isn’t working and you are trying to fit into an ideal set up by someone else, you will never be truly happy. This applies to both personal and professional relationships. As far as aspiring young artists, never stop being a student. What I mean by saying this is, always retain the mind and willingness of a beginner, regardless of your age or success. Approach each new painting as an opportunity to grow and discover something new about yourselves and what is it that you want to say to the world.
Q. Do you have a favorite type of music that you listen to while painting?
A. Yes. I love the singer-songwriter, acoustic genre of music. I listen to a lot of 1960’s-70’s folk and Rock because the lyrics and melodies are so timeless and beautiful. I find that this style of music inspires my imagination and I love to sing along while I paint.