Susan's "subject matter, context and medium...present a coherent artistic vision"
John Torreano, Clinical Professor of Studio Art, NYU

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Seymour Chwast

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Charles Read Interview with Susan


Conducted by Charles Read

When did you start making art?

I did my earliest art at age three and have never stopped. I still have it. It is quite a good likeness of an apple.

What is your formal art background?

Undergraduate courses at School of Visual Arts, Bachelor of Fine Arts from Parsons School of Design and Master of Arts in Studio Art from New York University.

Whom did you study under?

I studied illustration with Jack Potter (of Lord & Taylor and Coca Cola illustration fame) at School of Visual Arts; cartooning with  Stuart Leeds (New Yorker cartoonist) at Parsons and painting with Professor John Torreano  and others at NYU.

How was the training?

It was instructional, informative, nurturing, challenging, intense and infused with the zeitgeist. I wouldn't even be able to draw today if it weren't for the many classes I took with my mentor, Jack Potter. Stuart Leeds took my Jack Potter-learned drawing skills and transformed them into edgy and funny cartoons. Then John Torreano took that drawing ability and edginess and shaped them into fine art.

Were there any professors or artists you worked with that had a profound effect on you?

They all did, but the one that stands out most is Jack Potter. In his illustration classes, he admonished us that if we had to use words, we didn't do the drawing right. He also insisted that we employ fine art techniques in our drawings, and that we draw our illustrations from life rather than from photographs, as was commonly being done at the time. He relentlessly reminded me that I was not drawing people, things or concepts, but rather shapes. That was the major breakthrough in my drawing. If you think about it, an angle is a lot easier to draw than a flexed arm. It is far less intimidating when you don't have to consider skin texture, muscles, tendons, nerves, joints, fingers and so forth. By simplifying, you achieve a more spontaneous drawing. Once you have the overall shape, you can go back and put in as many of the visual details as you need to tell your story.

Do you have a favorite artist?

All historically significant artists have created something by which I as an artist can be inspired. Some of ones who inspire me the most are Fairfield Porter, Francesco Clemente, Alex Katz, Egon Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Karen Kilimnik, Elizabeth Peyton and Jenny Saville.  My favorite artist is Edouard Manet, for his masterfully rendered flat canvases and the “art for art’s sake” rubric. I aspire to paint like the painter's painters Willem de Kooning and Lucien Freud. I work towards that every day.

Do you have a favorite color?

I am fickle, so it changes from time to time. Currently my favorite trick is using pink as a neutral. I also like to use colors in unusual ways. For example, I know when a sky has to be yellow. I believe that there are no two colors that do not look good together. You just have to use them in the right proportions.

What influences your work?

Everything I see and do–a color, a shape, light, an emotion, a gesture, a mood, other painters and illustrators. The elements are all grist for my painting mill. They remain in my head. (It's crowded up there.) I draw (pun intended) on those stored ideas and elements when it's time to paint.

Much of your work is portraiture or portrait based. Do you find yourself attached to the people you are painting?

I start out being attached to my models because they are usually friends or family. I select them for the physical qualities that make them interesting enough to paint. I also try to add intangibles, such as their personality or mood, to the work. But I have found that when you get the form right, it is a truer, purer, more distilled portrayal of the model and his or her essence. When the painting is finished, even though it may look very much like the model, it is an abstract conglomeration of painted shapes, rather than a stand-in for the model. So once the painting is completed, I think of the subject as a character created in my painted alternative reality.

Can you describe this world?

Jack Potter used to refer to each student’s work as his or her own world. My world starts out as remembered conceptual bits and pieces, much like those of a kaleidoscope, rotating around in my mind. Then with the aid of brushes and pigments and mind/hand coordination, I can give those elements in my world a newer, truer form. My world exists on a flat plane. As long as I am distorting three-dimensional ideas and subjects by putting them on a two-dimensional canvas, I think nothing of changing them to suit my formal and conceptual needs. For instance, a human can have a bird's beak instead of a nose, or perhaps the sky is at the bottom of the picture plane. My world is a softer, kinder, more democratic world where all things are equal and fungible. I actually think my world works as an absolute. Nobody has ever asked me why a snake, rather than a watch fob, holds a pocket watch in one of my paintings. They see it as truth. And, indeed, it is–at least in my world.

You also use a lot of animals in your work. Are they symbols?

I love animals. I think they are visually beautiful and noble creatures. But in my paintings they work as quasi-disguised symbolisms leaving playful clues and suggestions for the viewer, so that he can bring his own thoughts and conclusions to the painting. In my illustrations and cartoons, where a more concrete message is required, I frequently use animals as stand-ins for humans if the message would otherwise be too harsh.

Your landscapes appear to be locations for the people and animals in the portraits. Can you explain a little about this?

Because the landscapes are more concerned with design and painting than the actual place which I painted, they seem more suited to my painted people and animals than to real-life ones. In the landscapes, there is really no place for a real person. In Pergola there is a small, insignificant chair in the middle of a tumble of foliage which does not look as if any real person would want to use it. In Tree Tunnel there is a bench on what seems like a road, but there is no traffic and it is overgrown with grass. That one is for my painted people and animals. And in Upsidedown Sky, there is a swimming pool, but no chairs around it for real people. The sky is more intense than the real or painted sky and also is inside the pool.

What materials do you prefer?

I prefer painting with acrylics on stretched linen. I work wet-on-wet by retarding the drying time of the acrylic pigment. But I also utilize acrylics’ quick drying time for building up glazes and layers. I do a lot of sanding between layers. I might do a preliminary pencil sketch on the back of a napkin or envelope if an idea occurs to me, but I never do formal studies for a painting. I work it out on the canvas. I recently switched from roughly blocking in the composition with a pencil to blocking it in with a paintbrush. This gives me a looser, more painterly image.

How has your work as a commercial artist and illustrator affected your work or creativity?

The effect was positive. Working commercially enhanced my creativity and strengthened both my organizational and artistic skills. My commercial work was like going to a gym for creativity and efficiency. You never knew what you were going to be asked to illustrate. There was an extremely short turnaround time. You had to please another artist, the art director, and you had to produce a work that was appropriate for the particular publication. I usually didn’t have time to research the images I had to draw, so I just pulled them out of my head. I was basically drawing remembered images. I never knew I could do that and never would have known it if I had not worked commercially. I always kept in mind the principles of fine art and tried to make sure that the finished work was first and foremost a work of art. I found out that a stunning piece of art can deliver the message more effectively than a prosaic illustration.

You work with both photos and live models in your work. Do you have a preference?

My preference is working with live models. I’m more in control because I can place them in the pose of my choice and light them as I wish. If I work with a photograph, I might be getting information from the photo, but I will most likely have to change the pose and lighting. When I do work with photographs, I work with a group of them for more information. The result is not as static as working from just one photographic image.

Do you find your own features showing up in your work as well?

Sometimes I paint from my imagination. If my imaginary model is not well-lit in my mind's studio, I might have to light myself in actuality and look in the mirror to have the reference I need for the drawing. The image will look like me because my reference was me. In a similar vein, Stuart Leeds, my cartooning mentor, used to tell me that all my cartoon bums looked like Ph.D's. Actually, they were all MD's because I used my father’s, Dr. Harrison McLaughlin's, features as my reference.

You appear very dedicated to your blog, Depingo Ergo Sum. How does the blog feed your work and vice versa?

The blog is somewhat of a “tryout” for paintings. If the image I create for the blog is successful enough, I will do a painting of it. Almost all of my paintings end up on the blog, either so that I can analyze them or  just to illustrate a concept or story.

How did you become a blogger?

I started it a couple of years ago as a fill-in because I was unable to use my studio for a week while skylights were being installed. I discovered that I could paint with words as well as brushes and have just kept going.

Do you find that the blog mirrors your work?

Yes, they are both about life and art, which covers pretty much everything.

You have called yourself a formalist, but you nonetheless use a plethora of images in your work. Do you still consider yourself a formalist or are you becoming more conceptual in your image choices?

For a long time I believed I was a formalist because I was more interested in the paint itself than in the subject of the painting. But because my paintings are not about painting, but rather the images I create, that was not an accurate way to describe myself. In addition, my images incorporate numerous hidden or subtle symbols offering clues to the meaning of the work. So I now describe myself as a symbolist in figurative clothing hiding inside a formalist closet. Some day I hope to come out.

Charles Read, an artist, curator and critic, resides in Roxbury, CT and is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts.