In her Daniel Island studio overlooking the marsh, Betsy Jones McDonald paints quickly and dynamically. She blends colors directly on canvas using a “wet onto wet” technique and bold brushstrokes. Once the colors dry, there’s no going back; no adjustments will be made. This is how she evokes the energy Photograph by Holger Obenaus and vibrancy of a Lowcountry marsh.
“It’s painting at first attempt,” she says. “The speed is just what it takes to give my art the expression I want it to have.”
Prior planning is ingrained in her process, however. When she goes on location, she takes a photograph and does a “small scene” painting on canvas before returning to the large canvas in her studio. There, she stands and uses her whole arm to create spirited brushstrokes. McDonald carries four tubes of paint—red, blue, yellow and white—and custom mixes all of her colors.
McDonald paints in one lengthy, feverish sitting, starting at 6 a.m., and often paints straight through until midnight, taking only occasional breaks. Typically, during this focused period of work, McDonald comes up with another scene she wants to capture. But it has to wait until later, when her current work is complete.
“When I finish one painting, I always have another in my head,” she says. “So I have to express the idea before I forget it. Then, only then, will I move on to the next painting.”
McDonald is a passionate, energetic painter who visibly lights up when discussing her work. For her, painting is a direct expression of joy and dedication.
“When my customers ask me, ‘How long did it take you to paint this?’ I answer, ‘A lifetime,’” she says. “There’s a whole lifetime of experience that goes into putting something that large on canvas in a short amount of time.”
McDonald was pulled into art in second grade after a teacher commented on a drawing. From there she gained experience painting and lettering grocery store signs for her father and painting murals. As an art student at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia, McDonald broadened her knowledge of mediums and worked in “communication art”—sketching ideas sourced during brainstorming sessions for businesses.
Upon graduation, McDonald worked as a visual design manager at a department store, but it wasn’t a fulfilling venture, so she decided to take the plunge into painting full time.
“I knew that I was either going to be good enough to make a living at it, or I would put my paintbrushes down,” she says. “So I put everything I had into seeing what I could produce if I dedicated myself solely to painting.”
She estimates that about 85 percent of her paintings are of marsh scenes, a subject that has provided her with an endless source of inspiration.
“The marsh is an ever-changing landscape that evolves through nature—over time and not because we manipulate it,” she says. “I could paint one view over and over, and it would never be the same.”
McDonald’s art can be viewed at Island Art Gallery in Pawleys Island, Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet, Perspective Gallery in Mount Pleasant, and Charleston Artist Guild in Charleston. She also teaches classes on color mixing and oil painting but has no plans to curtail her rapid rate of production. She knows work leads to more ideas, more paintings to work on.
“I buy up tons of canvas because every painting evolves into the next one,” she says. “I’m worried I don’t have time for all of the things I want to paint!”
So she keeps working, putting a lifetime of experience into each canvas, knowing there will always be another scene and another day to do what she loves to do.
Scott D. Elingburg is a freelance writer who lives in Charleston.