Painting portraits of children - Ali Cavanaugh -
Ali Cavanaugh, “Essence,” 2015, watercolor on clay panel, 8 x 8 in.

On painting portraits of babies > “It was time for big changes in several areas of my creative process,” Ali Cavanaugh says.” I could feel it deep in my soul.”

Baby Painting


On Friday, May 23, 2014, I was attending the 4th Friday Art Walk in the historic little town of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. There are about 12 participating shops and galleries in the collaborative event. During this monthly event the streets and shops are filled with the local crowd as well as visitors from the neighboring city of St. Louis and tourists drawn by the town’s French history.

That night I was visiting the show of my good friend and former high school art teacher Juanita Wyman. She travels to Europe often and paints scenes from her travels. I was looking forward to seeing her new series and also excited to catch up with some old high school friends and teachers I hadn’t seen for years.

As I was talking to one of them, we moved further and further into the back of the packed gallery and my eye kept being drawn to an unassuming little painting of a sleeping baby. As my conversation ended, I turned all of my focus to the painting of the baby. I didn’t recognize the artist’s name. The gallery owner said that it had been hanging there for many years — at least since the flood of ’93. She said that no one had really ever taken notice of it, but she never tired of it so it had stayed in that spot ever since.

I couldn’t get this baby painting out of my head. It felt like a famous study from an impressionist. My research about the artist, Marilyn Manning, didn’t turn up much information, except that she was a beginning artist who only spent a short time in Ste. Genevieve. When she moved to another state in the early 1990s, she left all her work in the gallery.

Before I left the gallery the night of the show, I snapped a photo of the painting. For months I would pull up the photo and stare at it. I think it was the dreaminess of the turquoise blue and sepia with touches of pink and the impression of water circling that inspired me. It just made my heart happy, encompassing the feeling I had when I held each of my four children when they were babies: tenderness, stillness, and the purest love.

I know you’re probably wondering at this point, “Why didn’t you buy the painting?” Well, I put this painting on my wish list, thinking I’d get it for my birthday or Christmas. Guys, it’s been there for 24 years; it’s not going anywhere!

Figurative art - Ali Cavanaugh watercolors
Ali Cavanaugh, “The Moment Before,” 2014, watercolor on clay panel, 16 x 20 in.

Meanwhile, back to the day of that Art Walk — I had just completed the painting “The Moment Before” (above), and “The Assistant” (below) was taking shape on my easel. I was going on seven years of working exclusively with watercolor on Ampersand’s Aquabord. I developed a realism technique using tiny round synthetic brushes and had discovered methods of layering watercolor to give the effect of being iridescent and backlit.

Figurative art - Ali Cavanaugh watercolors
Painting Portraits > Ali Cavanaugh, “The Assistant,” 2014, watercolor on clay panel, 16 x 16 in.

As my work entered into the stage of being well received and collected, I was feeling fulfilled, but other issues in my personal life started to weigh in and began to affect and influence my work. In my mentoring of other artists I stress microevolution — having flexibility and being forgiving with one’s work because life’s bumps and turns will always be a certainty. The time had come for me to truly test my own advice.

That year I was found to have the BRCA2 gene mutation, also known as the breast/ovarian cancer gene. I decided to be proactive and take preventative measures and have the surgeries in hopes that I wouldn’t end up with breast cancer, like so many women in my family had. The three surgeries went well and I continued to paint, producing about 25 paintings that year.

Related Article > Sculpting with a Mother’s Courage

Painting portraits of children - Ali Cavanaugh -
Painting portraits of children > Ali Cavanaugh, “Open,” 2015, watercolor on clay panel, 12 x 12 in.

As 2014 came to an end, my life began to shift. My oldest daughter, Niamh, was in her first year in college. She had been my best-loved muse and daily inspiration for 18 years. Her distance from home forced me into a different relationship with my work. My go-to model was no longer present in my daily life, and the balance in my creative process was thrown off. I needed to look for new inspiration. Around this same time I also began to feel burdened by my watercolor technique, specifically the extreme level of detail I had developed over the years in my paintings. What was once an exciting challenge had now become labored and cumbersome.

It was time for big changes in several areas of my creative process. I could feel it deep in my soul.

Large scale watercolors - Ali Cavanaugh -
Ali Cavanaugh, “Saoirse the Muse” with the Immerse paintings, 2015

The New Year, 2015. Time for change.

The resolution list: work large scale, develop a new way to apply watercolor that would allow me to work large scale, and become liberated from the literal realism that had become oppressive to me.

I started the New Year with optimism and fearlessness in my openness for new things to happen in my work. I did not hesitate to jump right in. I looked to my youngest daughter, Saoirse, as my model for some experimental paintings. At two years old, she was a constant presence in my studio, so naturally I gravitated to her. I instantly fell in love with her as my muse. Her expression is open and honest. Her innocence and energy, the whole dynamic was a huge shift from my previous eight years of working with young women who expressed inward, private emotion.

I painted a few transitional paintings, “Lost” and “Outcry.” I still felt that I was painting Saoirse with reserve. Although I was discovering ways to paint larger paintings, I was still searching for more energy in my paint application.

Painting portraits of children - Ali Cavanaugh -
Painting Portraits > Ali Cavanaugh, “Collins and Boyd,” 2016, watercolor on clay panel, 30 x 40 in.

This is when I looked back at Marilyn Manning’s baby painting. I took inspiration from her dreamy limited palette. I laid out a range of turquoise and green watercolors. I began pouring and dripping watercolors instead of controlling each paint stroke with tiny brushes. My previous approach was to paint every square inch of a painting with perfection and control. With these new works, I let the free form of the watercolor move and dry in unpredictable ways. I would then respond by laying down more color. The painting and I began to go back and forth as if in conversation.

Painting Portraits in Watercolor

My new watercolor technique allowed for surprises. I became forgiving in my process. I learned how to make peace with unexpected mishaps. I gained the freedom I was seeking and combined that with the skill to develop areas where I intended the emotion to be more direct. I embraced the imperfections left by the spontaneity of the creative process. I found what I was looking for and was energized with a feeling of inspiration and flow in my work that I hadn’t felt since my early years in art school.

These first few months of experimentation in 2015 built confidence and gave me a foundation to create the Immerse series. The Immerse paintings debuted at Art Hamptons in July of 2015. The work was well received, both in person and on social media. My Instagram followers began to grow at an astounding pace — 500, then 5K, then 10K. Within the month of Art Hamptons my followers doubled to 20K.

Painting portraits of children - Ali Cavanaugh -
Painting Portraits > Ali Cavanaugh, “Elle in the Light,” 2016, watercolor on clay panel, 24 x 24 in.
Figurative art - Ali Cavanaugh watercolors -
Ali Cavanaugh, “Ruby and Clementine,” 2016, watercolor on clay panel, 30 x 30 in.

The positive feedback on the work was a huge source of encouragement as I was moving along in a new and unfamiliar direction. The Immerse paintings then traveled as a solo exhibition to Boston, Art Basel, and St. Louis. During my St. Louis show at Fontbonne University, my Instagram followers reached fifty thousand. Several paintings sold from this new series and the portrait commissions began to stack up. Portraits were keeping me busy for most of 2016, along with my first museum show, Modern Frescoes (a 54-painting retrospective), at the Marietta Cobb Museum of Art in Georgia.

A solo show in a museum setting had been a goal (or dream?) of mine for many years. During Modern Frescoes, my Instagram following surpassed one hundred thousand. My followers had doubled from fifty thousand to one hundred thousand in only ten months’ time! One of the great things about Instagram is that it has opened up my work to an international audience. I began getting requests from all over the world for portrait commissions.

One unexpected recurring inquiry was from mothers of deceased babies. Somehow the ethereal, otherworldly quality of my work portrayed the essence of a child in the way they wanted to remember their child who was no longer with them.

Watercolors of babies - Ali Cavanaugh -
Ali Cavanaugh, “Vetle,” 2016, watercolor on clay panel, 12 x 12 in.
Watercolors of babies - Ali Cavanaugh -
Ali Cavanaugh, “Aslag,” 2016, watercolor on clay panel, 12 x 12 in.

While painting these babies (and others that I haven’t shared), I never consciously thought about their connection to the original baby painting by Marilyn Manning that inspired me two years before. That is, until this past September when my husband surprised me with the beloved Manning baby painting for my birthday. One day as I was staring at it, I had a feeling that came over me of the foreshadowing in this piece. When I first saw this painting, I had no idea what was going to open up to me — the Immerse paintings, or the babies who were going to come to me because of the painting.

To end on a happy note, my daughter Niamh and her husband welcomed a precious baby girl in November, 2019. As I held my first grandchild in my arms, I was reminded that the cycle begins again. Inspiration is everywhere, usually in unexpected places. Be open, be receptive, and be brave. Peace.

Ali Cavanaugh watercolors
Ali holding granddaughter baby Fiona in 2016
How a “Baby Painting” Inspired Ali Cavanaugh
Located on Main Street, Ste. Genevieve, inside an 1850s two-story vernacular home, Galleria Ste. Gen is also a frame and gift shop. From floor to ceiling, every square inch of Galleria is filled with a painting, a drawing, or a pottery piece. The collection spans decades (the place has been in business for 32 years) and all skill levels, but features primarily Ste. Genevieve artists.


Watercolor artist Ali Cavanaugh
Watercolor artist Ali Cavanaugh

Ali Cavanaugh (American, b. 1973) is the author of Modern Fresco Paintings, published by Unicorn Press, London. Her paintings have been the subject of numerous national and international solo and group exhibitions. Cavanaugh’s paintings have been featured on book covers, countless internet features such as My Modern Met, Huffington Post, Fine Art Connoisseur, Artsy and in numerous print publications including The New York Times Magazine, American Art Collector, American Artist, and Watercolor Artist. She has painted portraits for Time magazine and The New York Times. Her work is featured in private and corporate collections throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

Ali studied painting at Kendall College of Art and Design and the New York Studio Residency Program in New York City, earning a BFA from Kendall College of Art and Design in 1995. At the age of 22, she co-founded an atelier, the New School Academy of Fine Art, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2001. It was during her six years in Santa Fe that she developed her modern fresco process on kaolin clay. She currently lives with her family in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri.