Artist Ron Donoughe magnifies subtleties of local landmarks
Panther Hollow, Polish Hill, Schenley Park — they are just a few of the places that many Pittsburghers drive by every day but rarely stop and take a good look at. But for Pittsburgh painters past and present, places like that — as well as the steep hillsides, many bridges, industrial sites, even the outlying wooded countryside — have held and continue to hold a charming allure.
For the past four years, landscape painter Ron Donoughe has been capturing all that Pittsburgh and the surrounding region have to offer, in oil paint on canvas or panel, all for the purpose of producing a unique exhibit and book titled “Essence of Pittsburgh: The Paintings of Ron Donoughe in the Plein Air Style.”
The exhibition is on display at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Shadyside. And, as visitors will discover, the 162 small works on a panel that comprise the exhibition show the diverse texture and character of the Western Pennsylvania landscape through the eyes of one of the area’s most accomplished artists.
Gone are the days when legendary local painters the likes of George Hetzel (1826-1899) and Aaron Harry Gorson (1872-1933) would set up an easel outdoors to paint a babbling brook or billowing steel mill. But, though the landscapes and cityscapes have changed, the tradition hasn’t in Donoughe’s mind. A native of Loretto, Pa., now living in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh, Donoughe has been capturing the lay of the land in his paintings for at least 20 years.
The artist contends that even without its once-bustling steel industry, the Steel City still boasts opportunities of great visual surprise. Pointing to the piece “Butler Street Morning,” Donoughe says: “This is one of my favorite paintings in the show. It’s just something that I’ve driven by a thousand times and then, at a particular time of day, in the morning, I noticed this ivy blowing on the side of the building, and the background all in shadow. And I found it interesting how the reds and the greens were different in the shadowed areas, one closer and one pushed back.”
There are lots of subtle observations like that to be found amongst the works on display, and, unfortunately, many will go unnoticed by the untrained eye. Nevertheless, it is the overall impression that will resonate most, likely well beyond one’s time spent with this incredible display of talent.
That impression is what drives Donoughe to use his talent. “Nearly every day, I try to paint something from life,” says the 48-year-old artist. “The paintings are, a lot of the times, finished in the studio. They’re not always completed on-site. Sometimes, I revisit the location before I finish them in my studio.”
One painting Donoughe is certain he completed on-site is titled “Linn Run.” It was completed in three hours, from start to finish, as part of a demonstration filmed for the 2005 PBS series “The Visionaries” in Linn Run State Park, near Ligonier. “That was done while the cameras were rolling from that show. I never touched it again,” he says.
It’s not the only painting Donoughe completed on-site. Believe it or not, most of those he completed in the field — or “en plein air,” as it’s called among the art set — were painted in the dead of winter.
“Winter is one of my favorite times to paint,” Donoughe says. “There are subtleties in snow that can’t be (recorded) with photographs. And so, by standing in the snow, with your feet cold and your hands cold, you are observing subtle changes of light on the surface. It picks up reflective lights from every direction, just like water does.”
That’s obvious in a painting such as “Winter Light,” in which Donoughe has captured the odd green color on the shadow side of a tree illuminated by the warm light reflected from the snow fallen along Trillium Trail in Fox Chapel.
More subtle is the artist’s use of dull grays and blues to define the sky and tree lines surrounding a snow-covered, bald patch of forest once cut away for power lines along Route 22 in the piece “Winter Cutaway.”
“It was a freezing cold day, but I wanted to show how colors change over distance,” Donoughe says.
Although the landscapes include vistas found in nearly half a dozen counties, including Allegheny, Westmoreland, Cambria, Lawrence and Blair, many of the cityscapes depict the row houses that surround Donoughe’s studio in Lawrenceville.
For example, in “Boat on Roof,” the artist chose to paint a small fishing boat perched on top of a back-porch roof of a row house along Foster Street. “This is one of the last paintings I did for the show,” Donoughe says. “I thought it was so funny that they stored their boat on the roof. I mean, where else do you put your boat?”
Another depicts the back half of the building that houses Starr Discount, across Butler Street from Donoughe’s studio, which collapsed in July when workmen were repairing the third floor. It’s just one of several paintings in the show that document the destruction of buildings, intentional or otherwise, such as “Bus Station,” which captures the demolition of the Greyhound bus station, or “End of an Era,” in which Donoughe chose to paint the very last section that remained of Three Rivers Stadium before it tumbled to the ground.
“There’s something interesting about the texture of a building as it is being torn down,” the artist says. “A lot of people are interested in looking at it, but rarely is it documented.
“I just feel like there are so many buildings that are being torn down. There’s kind of a sadness that these buildings won’t be around anymore. It’s the end of the line, and so part of it is sentiment and part of this is documentary to preserve it as it’s going away.”
That’s why Donoughe views this exhibition, and especially the book, as a time capsule in a way.
“It’s like a time capsule of all of these paintings over the last four years,” he says, “because a lot of these paintings are sold and I never get to keep them as a group.”
It’s also a time capsule of a time and a place, much like those works painted by the aforementioned landscape painters of yesteryear, which no doubt will be enjoyed by future generations just as those paintings are.
‘Ron Donoughe: Essence of Pittsburgh’
What: More than 160 small paintings by Ron Donoughe
When: Through Jan. 21. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays
Where: Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside
Details: 412-361-0873 or www.pittsburgharts.org
Artist talk: Exhibiting artists Ron Donoughe, Carol Brode and Kathleen Dlugos will each speak about their works on display concurrently at the center, followed by a poetry reading by Marie Pavlicek. 6 p.m. Nov. 30. Free
‘Essence of Pittsburgh’
Subtitle: ‘The Paintings of Ron Donoughe in the Plein Air Style’
Publisher: Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts; $29 hardcover, $18 softcover; 144 pages; full color
Description: The first book published by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Ron Donoughe’s ‘Essence of Pittsburgh’ contains full-color reproductions of nearly every painting in the exhibition as well as several more that are not included. It features an appendix containing a thumbnail of each painting, along with comments by the artist regarding the stories behind it. The book also contains a foreword by Barbara L. Jones, curator, Westmoreland Museum of American Art, and an essay, ‘The Roots of Plein Air Painting in Pittsburgh,’ by Frank J. Kurtik and Gary Grimes.
Details: 412-361-0873 or www.pittsburgharts.org