Over the course of history, the way artists have painted—and the mediums they use—has evolved. New technology and changing tastes mean that the paints used have inevitably continued to diversify. For artist Susan Isaac, her loose figurative style with bold use of colour and application of texture are the product of several mediums, but always with oil at the heart of her work.
Susan always drew from an early age and was fortunate to have access to various materials, but discovered the unique qualities of oils from the offset.
“There’s this lovely plasticity to it” she marvels, “Its versatility is extraordinary as it can be mixed opaque or transluscent. You could emulate watercolour for example if you so wished, or you can build and sculpt into a variety of textures. It makes a statement, and I love its eventual sheen.”
There are times though when she likes to mix it up and bring out the acrylics - and does find them quite handy to work with - and agrees that watercolours are particularly good for enhancing drawings. In fact she still takes a tin of watercolours with her when she is out and about sketching, to enhance the black and white with a splash of colour.
Susan’s town and seascapes have been drawing interest from afar, with a legion of fans and an inbox of commissions, which has seen her working on a diversity of subjects and themes - often sentimental or poignant to the customer. Each are lavished with her trademark flamboyancy of colour and confidence. The common thread being to capture the essence of the subject. And it would seem more recently that there has been a great deal of interest in obtaining paintings of local churches. Perhaps this is due to the many months in lockdown and the reflectiveness that ensued.
“It’s rather lovely to work on a single project, particularly something that evokes strong feeling in someone” she muses, “a memory or a place that has touched their life. It is special to be included in this personal journey.”
It’s a stance that has paid off in her own pieces in which she has continuously strived to embrace the spirit of a place or thing that she has known and treasured, or that has captured her attention and ignited the flames of her imagination.
Memories of childhood - and the security and comfort of those years growing up - have often been evoked when she has revisited Cornwall as an adult. In recent years trips to the north Yorkshire coast and north Norfolk with her own children have also played a pivotal role in her studio work. Coastal depictions and harbour scenes continue to lead her collections.
When juggling commissions and/or her own individual pieces with the fulfilment of exhibitions there is a certain pleasure to be had it would seem in focusing on one specific item. Of course collective projects are exciting (albeit time consuming) but for Susan it is a much more enhanced and satisfying experience to give one piece your full attention rather than a full body of work.
We all have different levels of understanding of art, and it would seem we all have the capacity to create. And for many, it’s a way of saying something about your world and expressing yourself. It’s an exciting and possibly also terrifying step for a budding artist, filled with discovery, learning, excitement, potential and at times failure. For those starting out it can be hard to know which medium to use, which form of art to pursue, and how to levy your inner thoughts and feelings towards the creative depths of your imagination. Ultimately to let this manifest itself in the way you express your art.
For Susan, you need to be certain within yourself and not afraid to express.
“I’d say get comfortable in knowing your aim and then communicate this. I believe it is a useful skill to develop. You can be taught the technical elements once you have chosen your medium but you need to know what it is you want to say, and how. The rest will follow.”
As an artist who is fortunate to bring her passion for expression and colour alive alongside the focus on many precious memories there is nothing more therapeutic and totally absorbing as painting.
“A blank canvas screams possibility. Art is both contemplative and exciting.”
When asked from which of the greats she draws inspiration it could only be J.M.W. Turner and the expressive excitement of his work. John Piper, Samuel Palmer, and Anselm Kiefer were also given the nod. “I particularly like early British modern art for its tonality and order - mind you I'm not particularly good at being ordered!” she laughs.
Ask any artist and the studio is their sanctuary. A place for reflection and inspiration. For Susan, the studio has been joined by a renewed love of working plein air for she has been enjoying the fruits of her garden orchard as it were, setting up canvas and seizing the days, staying outside for as long as possible. A common denominator, however, for whatever location, is classical music. Having discovered the creative benefits of listening to classical at a friend’s house, she has found this hugely beneficial in the creative process.
It is back to the studio though for her ceramic works, something which she is equally passionate about although this is on less of a commercial level and rather more of a supporting complement to her paint work and contrasting artist output. Working with 3D can help with perspective and form, and as Susan muses “It allows me to fill in any blanks and inspire a new direction with a piece.”
Her ceramic work, particularly the hand-built stoneware geomorphic heads, certainly draws on geological references and has an industrial aspect, perhaps a nod to her coal mining family heritage in south Wales, or perhaps a link to her work in archaeological landscapes or her geologist father.
“I like to fuse human and landscape forms” she confirms.
Each piece is enhanced with a variety of glazes and stains, and often wood fired which results in contrasting surfaces and adds an elements of excitement to the finish.
Well it would seem that winning the Paint Out Norfolk competition in the summer of 2020 scored highly, along with winning the wildcard section in an episode of this year's Sky Arts 'Landscape Artist of the Year', and these were taken, in her own admittance, as the affirmation she needed that she was finally getting to grips with working plein air.
There is also an instance many years ago of one of her paintings of Southwell Minster being used in a local community driver to illustrate how a view of such a landmark could be lost if a development proposal was to be granted approval. The petition was successful, and although not one to involve in politics, for Susan the fact a piece of her work had positively impacted on a local cause was incredibly satisfying.
With multiple art accolades, including being shortlisted for the Sir John Hurt prize, having work in the Harley Gallery Open Exhibition in Welbeck, and a sculptural piece accepted in the Wales Contemporary Exhibition, not to mention an incredible array of artwork and ceramic pieces, we would say there is plenty to be proud of.
Susan’s work was recently exhibited at Gallery 6 in Newark and also she has a couple of paintings in the Royal Cambrian Academy Open exhibition, which is now open to view virtually. Future plans are to work with several galleries on collective exhibitions and to continue to welcome commissions. One event that Susan is working towards over the coming year is an arts trail 'Living Landscape' which is planned to take place in the Autumn over farmland around the HopBarn in Upton (for details visit: www.thehopbarn.org.uk).
You may have caught Susan on Sky Arts in the new 'Landscape Artist of the Year' (she was involved as a 'wildcard', filmed last August).
If you missed it you can read all about it in Susan's blog about the Sky Arts episode filming at: www.susan-isaac.co.uk