Contemporary realism - portrait paintings -
Mark Kang-O'Higgins, "Amharc/Gaze," oil on canvas, 6 x 4 ft

Contemporary Portrait Painting > Based in Seattle, Washington, Irish artist and educator Mark Kang-O’Higgins explains that he became an artist to understand the world and himself: “I paint oil portraits because they help me understand other people.”

Mark speaks a number of languages but is passionate about preserving the Irish language (Gaeilge), which is still a thriving language spoken along with English in Ireland. He says, “Titling paintings in Irish and English is a way of reminding the viewer of the multiple language and nuanced world views that surround us.”

Portrait Painting: The Eternal in the Fleeting

BY MARK KANG-O’HIGGINS Contemporary artists -

My work is based on observation and expression. My art is centered around figurative and landscape work. We are inescapably human and though we might try, it is difficult to separate ourselves from the world, or see it through anything other than human eyes. For me the act of depicting the human has always been an act of existentialism.

I am looking for the eternal in the fleeting, for what is common to us all even though we are individuals. In the monumental and the mundane, there is a commonality of experience that speaks of a deeper meaning, even if that escapes us. When I paint, my aim is to show the universal in each place or person whether that is an aspect of their personality, the emotions that they are experiencing, or the situation that they are in. In this way, I hope the images strike a chord with others so that the viewer can see something of us all in each piece.

My work as an artist has, in many ways, been a form of existential inquiry itself.
I started my professional career working in political and environmental education because I had a need to understand the world. I became an artist to understand the world and myself. I paint oil portraits because they help me understand other people.

My work as an educator and artist is now helping me understand my identity and my relationship to other people, and place in, the natural world. My current art work explores and represents people through figurative and portrait work and explores the natural world through landscapes.

Each of the paintings here represents the individual depicted, people generally, and also a story.

“Journey/Aistear” is a painting of my eldest son Oisín, when he was around 6 years old. The root of the Irish language (Gaeilge) word shares a meaning with the word “aisteach” (strange). I wanted the painting to be about him but also the idea of how all youth grow, in their lives, in themselves and their imagination. The idea of the piece is about their internal process, and what is known and unknown to them as they journey through life.

Contemporary realism - oil paintings -
Mark Kang-O’Higgins, “Journey/Aistear,” oil on canvas, 2 x 3 ft

The pieces “Amharc/Gaze” (shown at top) and “The Prophet/An Fháidh” are similar. My youngest son Rónán is looking at the viewer. He is younger and his gaze is measured, poised but has wonder and calculation. He, like all children, can have a gaze that can take in a whole world at a glance, and speak truth that strikes to the heart of us.

Contemporary realism - portrait paintings -
Mark Kang-O’Higgins, “The Prophet/An Fháidh,” oil on canvas, 6 x 4 ft

For me, each painting tries to show a quiet or pivotal moment in people’s lives that I try to capture in the piece and title accordingly. Of course, the viewer will really decide what each piece means to them.

Contemporary realism - portrait paintings -
Mark Kang-O’Higgins, “The Time/An Taim,” oil on canvas, 6 x 4 ft
Contemporary realism - portrait paintings -
Mark Kang-O’Higgins, “Instant/Meandar,” oil on canvas, 6 x 4 ft
Contemporary realism - portrait paintings -
Mark Kang-O’Higgins, “Sleep/An Choladh,” oil on canvas, 6 x 4 ft


Mark Kang-O’Higgins is an Irish artist and educator based in Seattle, WA with over twenty years of experience in fine art exhibitions, university education, and environmental research. His work is an integration of classical observational practice with contemporary conceptual training. He is a member of faculty at the Gage Academy of Art, Digipen Institute of Technology, and the Wilderness Awareness School in Washington state.

As well as being an educator Mark is a working studio artist. He has an active fine art career with multiple gallery exhibitions and work in private and museum collections locally and internationally. Locally, Mark’s current and recent shows where his work is on display, include the Nordic Heritage Museum, the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, the Bellevue Museum of Art, and the Seattle Convention Center.

Currently Mark is working on fine art projects that reflect his interests in portrait arts and sociocultural issues as well as landscape painting and wildlife education. Such projects include figurative work, landscapes and interactive mixed media installation projects related to track & sign of predator-prey kill sites which explore human attitudes to the natural world, mortality and the preservation of indigenous bodies of knowledge.

Connect with Mark Kang-O’Higgins at

Related > The Powerful Portraits of Stanley Rayfield

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