Billyo O’Donnell has been chasing light and painting en plein air since he graduated from college.

“En plein air” literally means “outside,” and it’s his favorite place to be.

Billyo, now 62, first fell in love with landscapes while growing up on a farm in Warren County. The fourth of nine children, Billyo says it was quite special because the farm was surrounded by more than 14,000 acres with no neighbors nearby.

“We could roam around the hills and go and explore and do whatever we wanted,” he says. “When school was over, we’d take our shoes off and only put them on when we went to town or went to church. We just ran barefoot all over.”

The farm is where he still draws inspiration. As a child, he would create sculptures with pond mud—paper and pencils were scarce. In fact, his degree from Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) is in sculpture.

It is the texture of mud that influences his painting.

“A lot of my paintings are about the surface, the thickness of the paint and what that paint does,” Billyo says. “I purposely create problems for myself by putting thick paint down and then trying to paint on top of that thick paint. So a lot of times when I’m looking at a subject, there’s a connection there with the way I see that and the way I respond to that through my own senses that inspires me.”

Texture and surface are portrayed in his work, as he translates the visual cues he gets through brushstrokes and paint thickness from the “surface language” all things have.

“I’ve come to the realization that I have to create my own language and paint in the way that I interpret things,” he says.

During this process, he says, “Probably every time I paint I get into that creative zone where time stops and I just get lost in the painting and the world becomes perfect.”

Photo courtesy Billyo O’Donnell

That perfect place is hard to access at times, however, because the most difficult aspect for Billyo isn’t painting but gaining access to locations.

“A lot of times I’ll see a place that’s beautiful and there’s no one there. All I can really do is come back another time,” he says. “What can be really difficult is the atmospheric changes—and it happens a lot in Missouri. When I go out on location and I paint, I may want to come back the following day to finish up a painting. Oftentimes, when I paint, I may completely forget to take photos for reference material. So if I go back the second day, in Missouri it’s not unusual for it to be completely different.” Billyo lives near Eureka, in a 200-year-old cabin with his wife, Peggy. It used to be his grandmother’s place.

In 2009, along with writer Karen Glines, Billyo received the Governor’s Distinguished Literary Achievement Award by the Missouri Humanities Council for his book Painting Missouri, which features a landscape portrait from all 114 counties in Missouri and the City of St. Louis. The book highlighted Billyo’s passion for painting on the state’s numerous public lands.

“I am thankful as a painter to have access to public lands; it is where you will often find me painting. The value is indescribable as someone who gathers inspiration from life on location,” Billyo says. “Many of the paintings in the book Painting Missouri were created in conservation areas or county and state parks. I have heard from people over the years who have been inspired by the paintings, using the book as a travel guide to search out and discover the beauty here in Missouri.”

Through his art, Billyo has almost done it all.

Each year Billyo spends a significant amount of time traveling to paint the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, the landscapes of Hawaii, and the vistas of the western states. He also teaches workshops. Photo courtesy Billyo O’Donnell.

“I’ve taken groups to Italy. I’ve been invited to the White House. I’ve been a guest onboard the Forbes family yacht in New York. I’ve done a lot of things I never thought possible,” Billyo says. “For me, it’s one of those things where I just keep doing what I’m doing, and these things pop up and they surprise me. I don’t have any real plan. I just go with what happens.”

For now, the plan is to do more painting.

Visit billyoart.com for more information about Billyo O’Donnell and his art.