Injecting Sophisticated Drama: Painting Skies and Coasts With Delicate Brushstrokes

20 Apr 2009

Gulf Coast oil painter Susan Downing-White has a found a way to depict warmly illuminated skies and coastlands using light strokes and a muted palette.    

by John R. Kemp

Places East of Here, No. 7
2008, oil, 32 x 32.

There are powerful lessons in the way Susan Downing-White uses a muted palette and calming compositions to suggest peacefulness even in the roiling thunderheads of an approaching storm. She is an exceptional painter whose high-key palette and delicate, feathery brushstrokes capture the strong, diffused light found in humid, coastal tidal marshes. In paintings such as Places East of Here, No. 7 and Wish, No. 3, she creates the same atmospheric drama that attracted 19th-century American Luminist painters such as Joseph Rusling Meeker (1827–1889) and Harold Rudolph (ca. 1850–1884). The best light, Downing-White explains, is winter light. “When the sun is lower in the sky, almost any time of day will give the slanted light I love to see: That light that rakes across surfaces and has an almost melancholy tone. It has some drama, but it’s quiet. It has that intangible quality needed in any kind of art, be it writing or music or painting, to compel your audience to stay a moment longer. I go for the moments at sunrise and before the sun sets. Years ago, the glare of midday interested me too, but I’ve come to prefer the mystery of the sideways shadow.”

Downing-White finds all the inspiration she needs within 100 miles of her home in Mobile, Alabama. As she travels coastal roads, her painter’s eye finds visual poetry in iridescent marshlands illuminated by the afterglow of a sunset or by the soft, warm light left as veils of rain sweep across a watery prairie. “The skies interest me most,” she says, glancing at the little garden just outside her studio window. “They change and express mood. The best skies are along the coast after a summer thunderstorm or a sunset. It’s so easy here to find a spot where you can see all the way to the horizon. I tend to work with what is close to home. Being away from the salt air and the kind of plants and architecture found in this area doesn’t interest me much. It might sound like a needless restriction, but I lose focus when there’s too much choice. I once spent a summer in Colorado, and I felt uneasy. I don’t know why. When I returned home and smelled the salt air, I felt better.”

Some Dreams They Forgot
2007, oil, 32 x 32.

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina drove her from New Orleans in 2005, placing her in Mobile, Downing-White suffered a mild stroke that has affected her approach to painting. “In one way, it was a gift because it cut away a lot of ambivalence about what I want to do with the rest of my life,” she says. “Some old resentments dropped away. Maybe there’s a metaphor here. My palette has also become lighter and more transparent. I can’t twirl a round sable brush to make a point on my palette, though, and I miss that.”

Downing-White always has a camera and sketchbook by her side to catch and collect images—a certain angle of marshland, a calm bayou, grass, trees, a heron quietly fishing, or dramatic clouds—for later use in her studio. When something catches her eye, she stops, takes photographs, or executes small drawings in her sketchbook with brief notations about color and light. “Photographs,” she explains, “are visual notes. It’s helpful, for example, to see how a stream curves through the landscape. I choose my subject matter intuitively.

“I take my own photographs, but if all the elements in one seem too perfect, I don’t use it,” Downing-White continues. “It seems a shame to translate a good photograph into paint, and a boring thing to do besides.” The artist has hundreds of photographs filed by subject. With the aid of a computer and Photoshop image-manipulation software, she builds a composite image that will guide her painting—but she cautions against relying too much upon a composite photograph and not enough on the imagination. The convenience is undeniable—digitizing photographs enables Downing-White to build images much quicker than she could with printed photographs. In addition, she can correct colors on her LCD monitor. “I can preview what the painting might look like in Photoshop,” she says. “I usually have a vague idea, then jump into it and let it surprise me. The photo composite lets me work out details and make changes, but in the end there are no shortcuts.”

Places East of Here, No. 10
2008, oil, 32 x 32.

Downing-White mostly tries to see what the painting is asking for. “Some fall off the brush and other times it’s a battle,” she says. “Building a composition is an intuitive process.” She occasionally does thumbnail sketches to establish imagery placement and proportions, but she doesn’t overplan. “I like to be surprised,” she says. In almost all of her paintings, Downing-White directs viewers’ attention to a single focal point at the center of the canvas. In Wish, No. 3 it is a fisherman casting a net. In Some Dreams They Forgot it is a young family playing in the shallows. These calming focal points tell stories in their own way, but more important, they set the stage for the more dramatic and foreboding visual counterpoints of light, boiling cumulus clouds, and approaching storms. Therein lies the poetry and the drama—she seeks that which “compels your audience to stay a moment longer.”

Although Downing-White has worked in pastel and watercolor, she prefers oil. “Oil paints are so beautiful,” she says. “I love the look, the way they smell.” She favors oil paints made by Holbein, Schmincke, Gamblin, and Winsor & Newton, but she prefers Rembrandt’s raw umber, Grumbacher’s greenish umber, and Williamsburg’s turkey umber. Her chosen shades of yellows and blues vary from painting to painting.

Downing-White’s preparatory steps are pretty basic. She stretches her own canvases, preferring prepared Claessens type 13 double oil-primed canvas because of its gripping texture. Before drawing in the composition, she applies an underpainting of pigment thinned with Liquin, which dries quickly and locks down the first value. This imprimatura’s color depends upon the dominant colors in the composition; she often uses a Venetian red or raw umber, diluted in Liquin. Occasionally, as in The Details of the Journey, Downing-White continues the underpainting onto the frame with stream-of-consciousness grisaille sketches or words that may or may not relate to the painting. These sketches might be detailed or simply a ghost image of the painting. “There’s the old reference to the frame as a ‘window,’ and that’s appropriate here,” she explains. “In my case, though, it’s probably the car window. Because the frames refer to the way I begin a painting—using the grisaille—I think it represents memory. And the text—which may be thoughts I have while working, something overheard, or a quote from what I’m reading at the time—has a relationship to the central, colorful image. The relationship is intuitive but not sentimental … I hope.”

Places East of Here, No. 12
2008, oil, 24 x 24.

After the underpainting dries, the artist draws in the composition with a small brush, usually a size 4 or 6 round, using raw umber cut with turpentine. Working from dark to light, she first blocks in landmasses with Winsor & Newton alkyd titanium white to make a gray or muted version of the final color. The imprimatura and this first layer is her underpainting. She then goes to the skies. She loosely sketches in the edges of cloud shapes and then works into them with a neutral mix of colors that will be used throughout the painting. She paints in the first layer of the sky with zinc white mixed with Liquin. The Liquin dries fast, and zinc white is more transparent than titanium white. After building up several layers in her skies, she drops in highlights of brightest lights with titanium white. (She previously used flake white but now avoids it because of its toxic pigments.)

Early in her career, Downing-White worked with paints directly from the tube. She now mixes in a little medium to give the paint transparency and to help it dry faster. “I try to be methodical in my work but not too much,” she says. “I try to keep the darkest values as transparent as I can by using glazes rather than opaque paint. They seem more interesting that way. I want to keep the color—a glaze should not be so deep that it loses its color identity or goes to black.” Her glazes usually consist of 5 parts turpentine, 2 parts stand oil, 1 part damar varnish, and the desired pigment. “Applying glazes adds some transparency and permits the underpainting to show through,” she explains. “It looks rich and beautiful like stained glass.” Paintings take about two weeks to a month to complete, depending upon the weather and humidity. Once the paint is completely dry (usually a couple of months for thinly painted work), she applies two coats of varnish by brush. Her preference, one that she learned while restoring paintings in New Orleans, is a solution of 1 part Talas’s Acryloid (Paraloid) B67 crystals, 3 parts toluene, and 1 part mineral spirits. Each coat dries within an hour. She says it doesn’t yellow, it’s not too glossy, and it can be easily removed.

The Shifting Islands
2007, oil, 32 x 32.

Although Downing-White was born in Chicago, she has spent most of her life in Alabama, southern Florida, and southern Louisiana. She studied art at the University of South Alabama, in Mobile, and Auburn University, also in Alabama. Most of her instructors were heavily into Abstract Expressionism, but one teacher had a lasting influence on her approach to painting: Jack Dempsey, a retired art professor from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. “He had a specific and useful way of defining terms in art,” she recalls. “One was the difference between ‘painting’ something and ‘painting about’ something. It’s a distinction that’s always in the back of my mind when I work.” She also gained some knowledge about painting during her three years as an art conservator’s assistant in New Orleans with her former husband and conservator Richard D. White. “It was a real learning experience,” she recalls, “to sit for hours with great paintings and get inside an artist’s head to see the logic of how he put the painting together.” Reflecting upon earlier artists who have influenced her interpretation of the coastal landscape, Downing-White credits the Luminists but singles out the English painter John Constable (1776–1837) and the 17th-century Dutch painters. “It always comes down to Constable,” she says. “You can see through the paint. The whole experience of color and transparency, through to the ground pigment, looks beautiful. I also see that in the Dutch painters. Their work expresses mood so well. They are intense but quiet. Even in thunderstorms, they have that feeling for me.” Downing-White finds that expression in her landscapes. “When there’s a lot of sky, I have a free, euphoric feeling, a sense that I can breathe.”

In a way, Downing-White’s artwork—especially her iridescent marsh landscapes under storm clouds—calls to mind what famed magic-realist painter Andrew Wyeth once said about his own paintings: “I don’t want to be an artist strong in the picture. I am an instrument … I wish I could be nothing, just float over the woods and fields.” In Downing-White’s paintings, viewers float above the marshes and landscapes of her imagination.     

John Kemp is the author of numerous books and magazine articles on the arts and a deputy director of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.

To see the Table of Contents for the June 2009 issue of American Artist, click here.


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