Interview with Susannah Blaxill

A few months ago, I came across these amazing drawings -breathtaking representations of fruits and vegetables- and I couldn’t get my head around how detailed and full of life they were. I decided to get in contact with the artist behind the strokes to tell her this and thank her for her work, and then, organically, I decided that I’d be interesting to know a bit more about her and asked her some questions that I’m going to post here. But first things first, this is her website:

Some of her drawings:

And these, some ink drawings that she kindly shared with us and that don’t appear on her site:

Her work never ceases to leave us in a state of awe. We just can’t understand how someone can express so much beauty and honesty through representing unassuming, common daily things like these.

Here’s the interview:

-You explain on your site that you felt the need to paint after years of gardening, so it happened organically… But were you raised in a creative household? Did you feel that need when you were little?

I was raised in a creatively fertile environment.  My grandfather and mother both painted and gained great pleasure from their pursuits. I was taken to exhibitions and concerts from a very early age, and encouraged to think critically about the art world in general. As a child I went to art classes and drew fairly constantly.  This continued on in to my teenage years. I did not follow a fine art path for my tertiary education, but then picked up my love of drawing again in my late 20s.

-Since you’re a botanical artist, you normally choose real subjects. Have you ever painted invented subjects?

I always chose real subjects as opposed to invented subjects, as I am not very good at inventing things. I draw best when I draw what I see. I think it was John Ruskin who said good drawing is 90% observation and 10%drawing.

-With your broad range of skills, your eye for detail, have you ever considered painting, for example, human faces, or minerals?

I have drawn human faces but not animals.  I love faces because of the huge range of visual differences and of course the endless fascinating detail. Andrew Wyeth, the American painter taught me a great deal about how a face is made up and the wonderful range of colours that can be used to show skin colour in both the light and shade.

-How do you choose a specific subject, what’s the process you follow? Once you do, are you curious about its properties? Do you feel the need to know more about it?

If I am painting for myself, choosing subjects is a challenge.  Because I need to give the subject choice a lot of thought, I keep a large file of ideas with drawings and notes to remind me of the thoughts that I have had over time. So each drawing has an almost historical perspective.  Sometimes I work for a while on an idea and then file all the notes I have made, coming back to it sometimes several years later.  There are ideas that are never used as they may have lost my interest, or they just haven’t proven to be good ones. If something has caught my imagination and it is clearly going to be worked up into a fine painting or a drawing then I spend much time exploring everything I can about it. Much the same process happens with a commissioned piece where the client has chosen the subject, and in the case where I have not made earlier notes, I then follow the same route creating a detailed framework from which the commissioned work will eventually emerge.

-You mention that the Parachidendron took 40h to paint. How long did it take you to paint the red onion, for example, or the seaweed?

The Seaweed was painted over a period of 3 months.  It was a work that I created for myself and was not commissioned, and I did not keep the hours worked on this painting.  It was created over a period of 3 months and the early drawings for composition took a long time. I have a folder of these drawing saved in case I wish to tackle sea weed again.  I treat my early loose sketches and notes as a library resource.

-Do you only paint by commission or also for yourself?

Most of my work is commissioned. When I have time, I create mainly small drawings which give me a break from the fine painting.  I love to work in ink on quite coarse Arches watercolour paper and love the texture that this creates in the drawing. The drawings are very small and I plan to make a collection of about 60 works which hopefully will be shown as a group. I also work loosely in charcoal making quite a mess and use my eraser liberally – it becomes part of the drawing. I do not show these charcoal drawings on the web site as I view this work as essentially private and experimental.

-I read that extract by Mark Brown about your fabulous beetroot painting, and how your family has never wanted to eat beetroot again XD XD. Do you have any other anecdotes linked to your paintings?

The Beetroot painting has a colourful history.  I now quite like to eat beetroot again but for years it was a struggle as we had so much to cook while the painting was underway.  At that time I was working in a tiny studio, literally a garret above a firm of solicitors.  One morning I arrived with yet another bunch of beetroot and I was greeted at the front door by one of the lawyers who commented when he saw me that “Most women carry handbags!”

-And the last one: You confessed in an email that painting in such deep, rich detail is sometimes a kind of obsession; that you just have to do it that way. Have you ever gone beyond your own limits with a given subject, where you thought you would either go mad or not be able to finish it?

There have been many occasions when I have wondered if I could persevere with the sort of work that I do. It is so intense and requires so much concentration that I do sometimes exhaust myself. I have often wanted to be a different sort of painter using large brushes and making huge sweeps with the brush loaded with paint and colour. However, I have come to accept that the fine work is what I do well and so I might as well enjoy it, and I do.  However, I need breaks every now and then to refresh my creativity and this is when I branch out into more experimental work.  I find this fun and rewarding and it sometimes gives me ideas for the finer work, but this outcome is not essential.

Thanks Susannah!

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