Thursday, August 26, 2021

DPW Spotlight Interview: Susan Paulsen

Each week we will spotlight a different DPW artist who will give away one of their best paintings. To enter to win Susan's painting "Hummingbird" go to Daily Paintworks and click on the link at the top of the page announcing their interview.

From Susan's DPW Gallery Page: 

Susan Paulsen is a North Carolina artist working in watercolors and oil. Her subjects range from still life to landscape to animal portraiture, with horses being a favorite subject.

Although an avid drawer and painter since a young age, Susan’s formal education has taken a few twists and turns. Finding few options for training in the representational painting style she loves, her natural flair for mathematics lead her to major in statistics at Princeton. There she was profoundly influenced by John Tukey and his highly creative and non-conventional approach to using numbers to describe the world.

Next, Susan pursued her PhD at Duke University where she studied the evolution of butterfly wing color pattern, combining her enthusiasm for data analysis with the beauty of nature.

Susan was inspired to take up her paint brush more seriously by a watercolor class at the Carrboro ArtsCenter. Since then she has benefited from instruction by local artists such as Luna Lee Ray and Brian Kuebler. Next, Susan studied alla prima painting with Sarah Sedwick, an Oregon artist. Her recent landscape work is influenced by her current mentor, the Australian painter Colley Whisson.

What did you want to be growing up?

I was really torn between wanting to be a scientist and wanting to be an artist -- and tried to put off the choice for as long as possible.

When did your artistic journey begin?

In elementary school I drew every day. Mostly I drew horses, a lot of horses. I was horse-crazy. In high school I was lucky enough to go to the Maryland Summer Center for the Arts. It was an amazing program. Painting and drawing and exploring other visual media all day long with great teachers. In the evening there were performances by students in the performing arts. Some important artists, like the sculptor Toby Mendez came out of this program. Sadly, after 50 years it was cancelled due to dwindling financial support. But still, after all these years, the creative joy I felt there still sparks.

(click to view)

Enter to win by clicking on the link at the top of the DPW home page announcing Susan's interview.

Did you have long periods without creative expression? How did you get back on the horse?

Freshman year of college I was so excited to take a painting class. But I discovered only non-representational work was permitted. If your work even accidentally suggested something representational, it was banished to the hallway. And it was not just this one class; I saw this sentiment everywhere in the art world at that time. While I can appreciate non-representational work, it was not what I wanted to do. So I decided to focus on my other love -- science -- and told myself that I could pursue art later.

“Later” arrived seven years ago, but it was hard to start again. What really helped was enrolling in a class at a local art center. Next, I found two great mentors, Sarah Sedwick and Colley Whisson. With their instruction and feedback I found I could more consistently produce successful work.

Which mediums and genres do you gravitate toward? Which ones don’t appeal?

I really enjoy playing with watercolor. It’s just so luminous, and I love watching the happy accidents occur. I have a thing for granulating pigments too. But lately I’ve spent much more time painting with oils. Compared to watercolor, it’s just such a joy to paint the light (rather than carefully reserving it). And you can work as slowly as you want. Something doesn’t look right? Just wipe the paint away, and try again.

Every once in a while I try gouache. Carol Marine’s recent work in this medium was very inspiring. Yet every time I use gouache, I just about want to cry. The lighter colors dry so much darker than I expect them to. I don’t have the hang of how to control edges or blending. As for genre - I love loose realism. There’s nothing like a few strokes describing the essence of a subject. On the other hand, with something like photorealism, I’m distracted by my thoughts of how much very hard work went into the painting.

Plate O' Pears
(click to view)

What was the process like of pinpointing your personal style or finding your voice?

I used to worry about not having a personal style, and I’ve been all over the place subject-wise. But one (of many) good things about posting my work at DPW is that I can look back at my paintings and see that a style has in fact emerged without my having to consciously focus on it.

Name an artist (or artists), well-known or not, who you admire. Why?

I absolutely adore Ronald Jesty, a British watercolorist. The man could really paint water, rocks, glass, metal -- really just about anything in a beautiful way. There’s a certain tidy crispness to his work that makes me happy.

As for oil painters, I really admire both Sarah Sedwick and Colley Whisson. I like to channel Sarah for still lifes and Colley for landscapes. Both have loose, expressive brush strokes and a great eye for composition.

(click to view)

If you could offer one piece of advice to your younger, creative self — what would that be?

Pay more attention to composition! My younger self was pretty good at rendering subjects, and everybody (including myself) seemed pretty happy with just that, but if my composition worked, that was purely by accident. I’d give myself a copy of “The Simple Secret to Better Painting” by Greg Albert.

Do you utilize any habits or tricks for winning the distraction and procrastination battle?

I wish I was a daily painter, but in all honesty, I’m a weekly painter, so I’m constantly fighting this battle. If my creativity has gone cold, I’ll break up the process into small steps and tell myself I only have to do one step that day: for example, set up the still life or find a reference picture. If that doesn’t take too long, and I’m starting to get excited, I’ll move onto the next step. Sometimes I can get a painting done in one day from start to finish, but it’s a huge mental block if I think I have to do it.

Seashell #6
(click to view)

In moments of self-doubt or adversity, how do you push forward?

This is when I try to remember how I worked when I was a scientist. I worked on a lot of experiments and statistical analyses that took weeks -- if not months -- of labor with no guarantee of success. I put in the time because that’s just what was required. Compared to spending several months collecting seeds from morning glory plants (which had to be untangled every day!), how bad can it be to spend three hours on a painting that doesn’t succeed? Still, I will say it hurts when a painting doesn’t work out. You are making yourself vulnerable. I just fall back on thinking it’s “just work.”

What are some of your long and short term goals for yourself or your art?

I would really like to be able to paint looser, and the key to looser, more confident brushstrokes is putting in more painting miles (per Carol’s advice!). I’d also like to paint subjects in a related series more often.

Chicken Coop at Twin Creeks
(click to view)

What does success mean to you personally?

I try not to think about success writ large too much because it tends to lead me to self-doubt. Instead, I feel like I’ve succeeded when someone likes my work enough to comment on it or purchase it. The latter may sound awfully prosaic, but it’s a concrete way of knowing I’ve created something that’s going to bring joy into someone’s life.

What is one of your proudest moments in your creative life?

It was a very small moment, just between me and the canvas. I was painting a large scene of a tractor pull (I do like to paint “local”), with a friend of mine on the tractor. I managed to capture her face and characteristic posture with just a few brush strokes. There are no real details, but anyone that looks at it knows it’s her. That’s when painting’s really fun.

Honeymoon Beach, Mosquito Island
(click to view)

Thanks, Susan!

© 2021 Sophie Marine

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