Eliot O'Hara

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Eliot O'Hara
Born(1890-06-14)June 14, 1890
Waltham, Massachusetts
DiedJuly 30, 1969(1969-07-30) (aged 79)
Washington D.C.
Known forWatercolor painting
AwardsGuggenheim Fellowship, 1928

Eliot O'Hara (June 14, 1890 – July 30, 1969) was an American artist and educator known for his masterful watercolors, especially his impressionistic landscapes. The Ogunquit Museum of American Art in Maine has over 120 of his watercolors representing all aspects of his work. His paintings are in the collections of many museums in the USA and have been the subject of exhibitions throughout the United States. He was an influential educator through his nearly 40 years of teaching, writing, and film making.


Eliot O'Hara was born in 1890, in Waltham, Massachusetts to Daniel and Mayfred O'Hara.[1] His father was the owner of the O'Hara Waltham Dial Company and Eliot went into the family business. In 1923 he began teaching himself to paint with watercolors while continuing to work at the family factory.[2] In 1927, O'Hara took a few courses at the Boston Museum School and at the School of Fine arts and Crafts in Boston and then, in 1928, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in painting.[3]

1929 watercolor painting of a church in Moscow by Eliot O'Hara
Moscow Church, 1929

In 1929 O'Hara undertook an epic journey through Soviet Russia. Traveling by train, horseback and foot, he produced 130 sketches and watercolors that he later completed at a studio in Paris.[4] The paintings were exhibited in the Soviet Union and at galleries in London, Boston, and New York.[4][5] A selection of the paintings toured throughout the United States.[6] He remained an avid traveler and plein air painter throughout his life, locations for his paintings include Peru, Australia, Japan, China, Indonesia, and Thailand.[7]

In 1931, he opened the Eliot O'Hara School for Watercolor Painting in Goose Rocks Beach, Maine.[8] The school was active until it burned down in the Great Fires of 1947.[9] After the fire, O'Hara continued to offer classroom instruction at summer workshops around the United States.[10] O'Hara authored his first book of watercolor instruction in 1931, his final book was published in 1966.

During World War II, from 1943–44, he served in the Camouflage Section, Bureau of Ships, U.S. Navy.[10] In the late 1940s O'Hara began making art education films for Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, his last film was made in 1961. In 1948 O'Hara was among the first water-colorists inducted into the National Academy of Design.[6]

O'Hara died in Washington D.C. in 1969 from cancer of the kidney.[11]


Beginning with his first exhibitions, O'Hara was noted for his technical skill in watercolor. He preserved and advanced his mastery of the medium throughout his life, achieving a "miraculous"[6] level of skill. For O'Hara, mastery was not an end but a means to achieve expression of his artistic voice. He wrote that "the problems of techniques and materials are of relatively minor importance" and that the goal is to use technique to achieve "the greatest possible emotional thrust."[12]: 161 

1968 watercolor painting of Marathon Key by Eliot O'Hara
Marathon Key, 1968

O'Hara mainly painted outdoors, finding in nature a reliable source of inspiration. His later landscapes became less complex tending towards simple washes with spare, obvious brushstrokes. These later restrained and abstracted landscapes, of surprising simplicity, evoke a calm, profound power that "stand with the finest of American watercolors[6]".

O'Hara worked primarily with transparent watercolors but he was open to other media. He taught himself several printmaking techniques, made collages,[12]: 88, 105  experimented with acrylics, and sometimes painted with gouache and casein.[6]


O'Hara taught watercolor painting at his school in Maine and at classes sponsored by universities, museums and art associations around the United States. O'Hara said that his teaching was "predicated on the assumption that art itself cannot be taught",[13] therefore his teaching focused on the development of technical skills as a means to self expression. His student, Carl Schmalz, attempted to capture the organization and content of his classroom teaching in the book "Water Color Lessons from Eliot O'Hara".[6]

In addition to his classroom teaching, O'Hara wrote books on watercolor painting and made art education films.

His notable students include Carl Schmalz, George Campbell Tinning, Elsie Lower Pomeroy, Standish Backus, and Marvin Mangus .


The following films were released by Encyclopaedia Britannica Films.

  • Brush Techniques: The language of watercolor (1947). Demonstration by Eliot O'Hara.
  • Painting Reflections in Water (1947). Demonstration by Eliot O'Hara.
  • Painting an Abstraction, using planes (1950). Demonstration by Eliot O'Hara.
  • Color Keying in Art and Living (1951).
  • Painting Trees with Eliot O'Hara (1954). Best Art Film award, Cleveland, 1954.
  • Rhythm in Paint (1954). Features demonstrations by Margaret Sheppard .
  • Oriental brushwork (1956). Features demonstrations by Tyrus Wong and Chiura Obata. The film was digitized and re-released on DVD. A clip appears in the 2017 film Tyrus by Pamela Tom.
  • Painting clouds (1956).
  • Painting crowds of people (1956).
  • Painting Shadows (1957).
  • Drawing a Portrait (1957).
  • Painting a Portrait (1957).
  • Painting with Calligraphy (1958). Features demonstrations by George Post, and Paul Travis. Awarded Certificate of Merit, Cleveland, 1956.

The following films were released by Bee Cross-Media.

  • Sea and surf (1960).
  • Restraint (1961).

The following film has an unknown publisher.

  • Space cutting (1961). Discusses neoplasticism, features the works of John McLaughlin and Pieter Mondriaan.


Books Authored by Eliot O'Hara[edit]

  • O'Hara, Eliot (1931). Sgraffito prints. Washington, D.C., G. Dunthorne.
  • O'Hara, E. (1932). Making watercolor behave: with two reproductions of paintings and twenty-one photographs demonstrating brush work.New York: Minton, Balch & company.
  • O'Hara, E. (1935). Making the brush behave: fourteen lessons in watercolor painting; with twenty-nine illustrations. New York: Minton, Balch & company.
  • O'Hara, E. (1938). Watercolor fares forth: eighteen experiments in watercolor painting with twenty-eight illustrations, ten in color. New York: Minton, Balch & company.
  • O'Hara, E. (1939). Art teachers' primer: forty-four assignments to art classes, with eighteen blackboard diagrams and a frontispiece in color.New York: Minton, Balch & company.
  • O'Hara, E. (1946). Watercolor at large: nineteen chapters on the renaissance of watercolor, with thirty illustrations, two in full color. New York: Minton, Balch & company.
  • O'Hara, E. (1966). Watercolor with O'Hara. New York: Putnam.

Books Coauthored by Eliot O'Hara[edit]

  • Walker, P. Flory. (1948). Portraits in the making with Dorothy Short and Eliot O'Hara. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. The 1949 edition was entitled: Watercolor Portraiture.
  • Flory, Phoebe. (1985). Watercolor Portraiture : A Practical Guide. New York: Dover Publications. Revised version of the Watercolor Portraiture (1949).

Books Featuring Eliot O'Hara's Work[edit]

  • Schmalz, C. (1974). Watercolor Lessons from Eliot O'Hara. New York: Watson-Guptill.
  • O'Hara, E., Schmalz, C., Eaton, T. A., & Boca Raton Museum of Art. (1994). Eliot O'Hara: The world in watercolor, 1925–1969. Boca Raton, FL: Boca Raton Museum of Art.
  • Meek, W. (2018). ELIOT O'HARA's Ring of Fire in Watercolor. Blurb Self Publishing.

Museums with O'Hara's Works Online[edit]

The following museums have one or more of O'Hara's works available in their online databases.


  1. ^ "Massachusetts, Town Clerk, Vital and Town Records, 1626–2001," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:F4KX-JLB  : 17 October 2017), Elliot O'Hara, 14 Jun 1890; citing Birth, Waltham, Middlesex, Massachusetts, United States, , town clerk offices, Massachusetts; FHL microfilm 2,110,841.
  2. ^ EX-FACTORY HAND WINS PRIZE FOR A PAINTING. (1931, Jul 29). New York Times
  3. ^ "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation | Eliot O'Hara". www.gf.org. Retrieved November 11, 2018.
  4. ^ a b Warren, Lansing (December 29, 1929). "AMERICAN PAINTER 'DOES' SOVIET RUSSIA". New York Times.
  5. ^ CHERRY RUSSIA. (April 20, 1930). New York Times
  6. ^ a b c d e f Carl., Schmalz (1974). Watercolor lessons from Eliot O'Hara. O'Hara, Eliot, 1890–1969. New York: Watson-Guptill. pp. 8–10. ISBN 978-0-8230-5666-8. OCLC 790334.
  7. ^ Meek, William (2018). ELIOT O'HARA's Ring of Fire in Watercolor. Blurb.
  8. ^ "Brochure for "The Eliot O'Hara School of Watercolor Painting"". The MET Digital Collections. 1934. Retrieved November 12, 2018.
  9. ^ "Eliot O'Hara". www.harmonmeekgallery.com. Retrieved November 11, 2018.
  10. ^ a b Phoebe., Flory (1985). Watercolor portraiture : a practical guide. Paul, Dorothy Short., O'Hara, Eliot, 1890–1969. New York: Dover. pp. 137. ISBN 978-0-486-24972-8. OCLC 12161472.
  11. ^ Eliot O'hara, a water-colorist and school founder, 79, dies. (1969, Aug 02). New York Times
  12. ^ a b O'Hara, Eliot (1966). Watercolor with O'Hara. New York, Putnam. LCCN 65-20684.
  13. ^ O'Hara, Eliot (1935). Making the brush behave; fourteen lessons in watercolor painting; with twenty-nine illustrations;. New York: Minton, Balch & Company. p. 11.

External links[edit]