INTERVIEW: Kelly McKernan, Ethereal portraits in watercolor


Wandering around whimsical webs of art around the world, we were introduced to the many portraits of Nashville, Tennessee based fine artist and illustrator, Kelly McKernan. Intimacy, delicacy and a serene feeling of a powerful yet feminine force melting, transcending realities. As it says on her webpage, Kelly obtained her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Kennesaw State University”. Focusing on opposing forces, Kelly’s artworks also “reflect her own fascinations and discoveries as a woman with a penchant for idealism, on a journey toward self-awareness”. And juggling between motherhood, family and a full-time artist, we do feel lucky we got to talk to her. Read our interview with Kelly about her nude muses, inspiration, childhood stories and the role of art on a regular basis.

Kelly McKernan, Ethereal portraits in watercolor - Jellies

Tell us a few things about you, Kelly.
I’m 28 years old, a wife and a brand new mom to my 5-month-old daughter, Penny. These things define me most. I couldn’t have my art career without my husband’s support, and while I’ve only been a mother for 5 months now, my life has permanently changed, and learning to adjust to my new role on top of my previous ones is quite the challenge. I enjoy listening to podcasts (Radiolab is my favorite), collecting candles, snuggling with my cats, taking bubble baths, and breakfast. Breakfast is my favorite.

Your muse is the Feminine: a woman’s portrait and a glimpse of her nude. Can you tell us why this theme became such an influence on your art?

As a woman, I feel the strongest connection to my work when I am painting the female form. I feel that much of my work is self-portraits, in that respect. The themes that surround the forms define corners of my personality, struggles, thoughts, and dreams. I prefer to keep the women in my paintings nude as I don’t like my work to represent any era, as I feel clothing can distract from the actual focus of the piece.

Watercolor is a very intuitive medium and difficult to control all aspects of, which is what I love about it

Kelly McKernan, Ethereal portraits in watercolor - Symbiosis

I also admire the cosmic and nature symbols blending in. Ethereal goddesses with animal forms. What does this symbiosis mean to you?

Like you said, they’re symbols, and therefore represent something bigger than what the eye immediately sees. I don’t try to decipher the imagery that ends up in my work until I’m finished with the piece, so when I choose various symbols to include in a piece, it’s done from a distance and on instinct.

What do you love most about watercolor? I know you paint with acrylics, too, what are the pros and cons of both techniques?

Watercolor is a very intuitive medium and difficult to control all aspects of, which is what I love about it. What I can control, I do with purpose, and what I can’t, I allow to form on its own, like the textured backgrounds in my pieces. Watercolor works for my process since I plan very little before I begin a piece, so I allow parts of the process to be up to how the watercolor wants to behave.

As far as acrylics, I’ve begun working with them to build up an illustration portfolio. I can get much more vibrant colors and depth with acrylic. I can also count on being able to fix mistakes more easily than I can with watercolor. I also like that I can create glazes with acrylic, whereas that’s difficult to do with watercolor.

lachryma kelly mckernan

As a person of words, I cannot but love that you sometimes inspire from words or that you define your pieces as abstract concepts. Powerful, yet simple, wise chosen. Do you love to illustrate abstract concepts, how do you choose them?

Some of my work is inspired by a particular word from the start, but I still maintain a certain amount of distance while forming the piece because I don’t want to contain the piece from the very beginning. I more often prefer to keep the piece open-ended until I get a better sense of where it’s headed, and then I choose a word or concept to form the remainder of the piece. That word usually becomes the title.

Your characters and symbols remind of fantasy. Are there references to fairytales, myths or stories that used to captivate you in childhood and nowadays? Can you tell us about your favorite stories, creatures or characters that you love or influenced you? 

There aren’t any references in particular unless I’m doing a piece for a gallery show with a fairy tale theme, but the stories and mythology do stay in the back of my head at all times as I’ve always been fascinated with them. My favorites have always been The Little Mermaid and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Kelly McKernan ethereal paintings

What sort of things you were fascinated about when you were little?

There was one summer when I pretended I was a mermaid at all times, especially while swimming or in the bath. I was also very much into reading, and read a lot of fantasy books. My favorites were the His Dark Materials trilogy. When I was a little older, I would draw the characters and scenarios I read about.

A moment or a challenge that greatly influenced you or a struggle you had to face with?

My hardest struggles are very personal, so I’ll just share my current struggle: being a new mom and maintaining my career. I get the most work done when my daughter is napping, or has gone to bed, so I really only get a few hours of work in every day. It’s very hard to resist the urge to nap while she’s napping and instead get work done. I also suffer from migraines and that’s a very frustrating thing to have to deal with while taking care of an infant.

kelly mckernan

Do you find yourself painting when you’re upset or angry, as therapy? What do you do when you are in a bad mood?

Not really. I can say that art is therapy for me, because if I’m not painting for a period of time, I get quite depressed and anxious. I’m very fortunate to have it as my career. It keeps me happy as well as feeling fulfilled and accomplished. When I’m in a bad mood or am anxious, I love to bake desserts.

Do you have a personal motto?
Hmm. If I’m having a rough day, or didn’t accomplish what I wanted to, I can always count on tomorrow being a new day and a new start.

Two young girls, commissioned piece

For more of her artwork:
Website: Kelly McKernan 
Facebook Page;  
Photo credit: Kelly McKernan


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