Ron Donoughe finds inspiration in contrast and color, the slant of sunlight as it slides across an alleyway, the bluish cast that reflects off a field of snow.
The cityscapes of Pittsburgh and surrounding Pennsylvania countryside are to Ron what the water lilies and haystacks were to Monet. A plein air painter in the French impressionist style, he carts his easel and paints into the elements, no matter the weather.
And this winter has been particularly brutal.
Ron’s latest project is a visual love letter to his hometown. He’s painting each of the 90 neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, working on them in alphabetical order and displaying each on his blog. A formal exhibition is in the planning.
“I feel like I’m documenting an end of an era,” he says with a sweep of his hand, standing in his Lawrenceville studio before an a few dozen paintings that hang on the wall. He slips into a moment of thoughtfulness as he stops to consider his work before him. “My deep affection only grows as I explore the nooks and crannies. It has been an extremely challenging winter to be on location with my paints and I’ve met some real characters.
“Why did I pick this year?”
Formerly an art education teacher and graphic designer, Ron studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland before beginning his transition as a full-time painter.
The work of American impressionist Edward Hopper and the Pennsylvania impressionists figure prominently in his works. Several of his paintings are part of the permanent collection in Westmoreland Museum of Art. Another hangs in the cigar bar of the Duquesne Club while still others have found their way to corporate offices and private homes.
You may have seen his paintings in the background of one of a dozen movies filmed in Pittsburgh including “Wonder Boys,” “Promised Land” and more recently “Those Who Kill.”
Each landscape and street scene embraces a sense of immediacy, of being in the moment. He selects scenes that are so obviously simple, yet ones we might otherwise miss without the help of his artistic eye.
“I don’t know what the next generation will experience of the region, especially when it comes to the steel mills,” he says with a shrug, standing before a painting he constructed of a billowing steel mill near Braddock. “They’re beautiful without ever meaning to be.”
The neighborhood paintings are small vignettes of each community, composed to reflect the texture, light and colors of each place. Three identical-looking houses on a hill in Brookline, each surrounded by a band of red paint, is his favorite so far.
Another captures laundry hanging from a line on the back of an apartment building in Bloomfield. Others depict the bright autumn trees of Fairywood and the soft pink “fresh” donut shop in Crafton Heights.
“I am really interested in light and color and how colors change over space,” says Ron. “Alleyways especially allow that to play out. As a painter, it’s interesting to change colors as you paint to achieve the illusion of depth.”
Selecting the angle from which each neighborhood is seen is an interactive process, he explains. Sometimes he drives around a neighborhood and watches the play of light from different points of view throughout the day. Other times he’ll talk to residents in an effort to see the neighborhood through their eyes.
Each composition has a sense of balance, an effect that he calls “unorganized busy-ness.” People never appear in his paintings, yet their presence is felt through the lived-in feeling given to each place.
“I’m more drawn to things that aren’t inherently beautiful,” he says. “I like giving places a voice that would otherwise be overlooked.”
When he’s in the midst of working, it’s not uncommon for Ron to attract crowd, especially on temperate days. This winter has been especially challenging, he admits. While most are painted on location over several hours, he revisits places often and takes pictures for later revisions to compositions.
“Being on location, you really feel the subject in front of you,” he says. “Some kind of spirit gets into the work that doesn’t happen when you’re inside. That’s why I’m physically going to every one of these neighborhoods.”
Work will continue on the 90 Neighborhood Project throughout this year and documented in the blog he’s doing. Plans call for a Kickstarter later this year and an exhibition of the finished works at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in 2015.
“I thought I knew Pittsburgh before I started this neighborhood thing. But there are so many nooks and crannies. People are so taken by the fact that I’m in their neighborhood. They really love their city and take an enormous amount of pride in it.”