Kelly McCullough

Read G. Wayne Miller’s front page Providence Journal article about Kelly via this link or scroll down to read the text and see the accompanying video.

3.23.2012 : Rhode Island Life: Artist Kelly McCullough works on a portrait of Kendall Brown in her studio and talks about her path to becoming a painter. She describes some of the procedures and techniques she uses to work in a naturalistic style. She also teaches a class at the Providence Art Club.

Providence Journal video by Frieda Squires


Painter has eyes for detail

Portraitist returns home after studying in Philadelphia and Florence, and working in L.A.

Sight size- Pitcher

An example of the "sight-size" technique which Kelly uses.

PROVIDENCE — You find portrait artist Kelly McCullough in her studio in the historic Deacon Taylor House, part of the Providence Art Club. On this fine spring morning, she is nearing completion of her oil-on-canvas depiction of Kendall Tessmer Brown, a friend. This is Brown’s third and final sitting. Some eight hours in, the portrait is remarkably lifelike, as a comparison between it and Brown, perched on a chair to the right of the canvas, confirms; with its warmth of detail, it is more appealing than an ordinary photograph would be. It could honorably end here, but McCullough, who trained in this time-honored art in Florence, Italy, is not satisfied.

“I’m going to do some highlights in the eyes,” she says. “This is really the fun part! It gives a real finished look. I just have to find a skinny brush.”

She locates one from her vast collection, then contemplates her choice of shade.

“Something not quite white,” she says, “maybe a tad of yellow in it. All right, Kendall, keep your eyes on me.”

With a delicate touch, McCullough begins to refine the irises of the eyes.

“I’m not rushing it,” she says, “I’m dabbing. A little at a time.”

McCullough steps back, her eyes moving from canvas to Kendall, who poses in the ambient light: sunshine through windows that offer a pleasing view of a beautiful old part of the city. She moves back to the canvas, dabs, and withdraws again.

“You really want to study what’s in front of you, back and forth, back and forth, comparing,” says McCullough, who also teaches. “What you look at only remains in your mind a very short amount of time. Like that little image you get sometimes if you shut your eyes and still see something? And then it’s gone.

“There’s this fine line between being accurate and trying to really render what you’re looking at –– and also keeping it loose and ‘painterly.’ It’s easier said than done, but that’s the goal. If you really stay true to this method, you can get very loose –– almost impressionistic –– but very accurate to nature.”

Teenie, McCullough’s beloved miniature dachshund, sleeps on a chair. Brown seems marginally less comfortable, though not yet fatigued.

“How are you doing, Kendall?”

“I’m OK.”

“We can take a little break if we need to.”

Brown chooses not to. McCullough’s brain is busy again.

“So now I might put a little black in the pupil area,” she says. “I just want to get some nice contrast in there.”

Visual art began to captivate McCullough while growing up in the 1980s on the city’s East Side. Her mother, the Harvard clinical psychologist and researcher Leigh McCullough, had a creative bent and therein lay encouragement. McCullough took drawing classes as a child. After high school, she went off to Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art at Temple University, where photography captivated her. After graduation, she moved to Los Angeles, where she held various positions in the field in the mid-1990s.

“I did a lot of celebrity shoots,” she says. “Movie sets. It was exciting.”

Part of the appeal was the magic of the darkroom, where images would literally materialize in her hands. When the photo world began to go digital, no film and all cold megapixels, her passion began to diminish. Painting tugged at her again. She returned to Rhode Island, where, for a spell, the dream languished ––until her mother intervened.

“She urged me to pursue painting when I was going to let go of the dream,” McCullough says. “She pushed me to go to Italy, where so much unfolded for me.”

McCullough spent three years there, enrolling at the famed Charles H. Cecil Studios in Florence, where she studied portrait painting in the style of the European masters Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence, and the American John Singer Sargent, famed for his portraits of Edwardian figures.

“That’s what I gravitated toward,” McCullough says. “If I’m in a museum or a gallery, I like to look at the portraits. I really wanted to learn how you do that –– how to represent flesh, the light in someone’s eyes. I think by nature we’re really drawn to the human face, the infinite expressions and variations. I just find it fascinating and beautiful.”

Back in America, McCullough began to build a reputation with her teaching, exhibits and commissions. Among her more memorable works are portraits of Newport patriarch Hugh D. “Yusha” Auchincloss III and Joanne P. Hoffman, former head of Moses Brown School. Her most recent show, earlier this year at the Providence Art Club’s Dodge House Gallery, was well-attended and she sold several pieces, including portraits and still-life illustrations, created with pencil, charcoal or ink –– a newer fascination.

“I want to do more of it,” she says. “Very time consuming, though. The thing is, I kind of just keep working on them, and I lose track of time. They’re almost a little bit OCD or something –– over and over and over and over and over! Very fussy.”

McCullough used to paint at home, but now works from a studio on the third floor of the Providence Art Club’s Deacon Taylor House, built in 1784. Peering out a window, one can imagine seeing Love-craft or Poe, who once walked the streets below.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” she says. “I pinch myself every time I walk in this room!”

McCullough has filled her studio with mementoes from her travels and yard-sale and thrift-shop adventures: a phrenology bust that was a gift from her mother, antique wine bottles, gargoyles, platters, and tea cups and saucers, which she has painted.

“I am not really a tea drinker,” she says, “so why teacups? I think I like the shape and fragility of the cup –– and the gold trim along the rim of the cup and saucer create beautiful dings of light. Fun to paint. I am drawn toward objects that I experience as having a personality or an attitude.”

Capturing personality, of course, is the essence of a portrait. As McCullough finishes the details of her painting of Kendall Brown, she is pleased. She has reached the point, never easy to precisely define, when further effort would be counter-productive.

“There’s a fine line between when you’re happy with something, and when you want to keep playing with it –– and then you kill it. I don’t think I’ll do too much more on this. Do you want to look at it, Kendall?”

Browne leaves her seat and beholds the portrait, which she may give to her parents.

“I think it’s great, Kelly.”

“Thank you. Thank you for sitting.”

McCullough closes with personal philosophy:

“Learning to paint from nature is really learning to see. It is a translation of information from your eye to your hand, and one must develop a visual language. It takes time and practice until it becomes natural and inherent. Like learning a foreign language, it takes immersion and time to become fluent. Then to become a poet … a whole other level of understanding and mastery.

“And my goal is to achieve an artistic freedom that only comes from experience and mastery.”

Visit Kelly McCullough at  

(401) 277-7380