Painting from Memory

East Providence painter Karen Murphy captures the mood of coastal Rhode Island


A misty marsh at dusk. Waves lapping the shore. Untrodden sand dunes. An early morning wetland. These are just a few of the subdued scenes from East Providence artist Karen Murphy’s collection.

“I focus on the emotion and mood of a place, rather than the exact rendering,” she says about her pieces. “I want to capture the feeling.” This contemplative style is a nod to the Tonalist movement of the late nineteenth century when artists painted from a mix of memory and aid of sketches.

From a glance, Murphy seems to be living the dream: she’s doing what she loves and it’s paying off, with her work displayed in galleries across New England in addition to her studio. It’s hard to imagine it wasn’t always like this. Murphy has only been painting fulltime since April of 2015, when her husband – a firefighter and fiction writer – suggested she pursue her passion when the commute to her job in Massachusetts was chipping away at her free time in the studio.

“I would say it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself,” Murphy admits about her decision to trade the corporate world for the creative one. Murphy’s interest in art has been lifelong. Her father, too, was a painter, so the creative gene was in her blood. She grew up sketching the horses on her family’s farm – her first “models,” she likes to joke – and got her first set of oil paints when she was thirteen. While she was working as a graphic artist and then in market research, her weekends were dedicated to plein air painting and commissioned pieces, before finally transitioning to focus on her favorite subject: landscapes.

“As soon as I discovered landscape painting, I quickly knew this was my muse,” she says. “That’s what made my heart beat fast.” The scenery featured in Murphy’s paintings might not be of specific locations, but they are inspired by them, like the East Bay Bike Path near her house or the marshes and beach where she walks her dogs.

“I feel like as a painter, you’ll be a student for life,” Murphy muses. “You’re always learning new things and tweaking your process – where I am now is where I am now, and I don’t know where I’ll go, but I just enjoy the moment.”