Pastel: Suzanne LaPrade: Getting Down the Bones

0706lapr_300x450_2Former woodcarver Suzanne LaPrade is very much interested in the underlying structures that make up her pastel and oil subjects.


by Karen Frankel

The Heiress
2006, oil, 48 x 30.
Collection Mr. and
Mrs. P.T. Farrel.

The woods behind Suzanne LaPrade’s studio in Lexington, Virginia, are full of deer, and the artist has accumulated, as she puts it, “all kinds of interesting bones” that often make their way into her still life, figurative, and landscape paintings. Trained as a woodcarver, LaPrade has come to appreciate the structural design of her subject matter. “Working as a sculptor has given me a love of bone structure, and I have amassed a wonderful collection of various bone types,” she says. “But because I work life-size on my sculptures and it’s painful to chisel for extended periods of time, I don’t do as much carving as I used to do.” Instead, the artist paints in both pastel and oil, often incorporating bones into a work’s overall theme.

Her still lifes in particular—as well as her noncommissioned portraits, such as The Heiress, with its deer spine providing a rainbow effect—reflect a taste for choosing subject matter that is often perceived as slightly scary, with an undertone of subtle humor. “I can get a little wild and philosophical and put strange things together,” the artist admits. Her pastel Still Life With Green Frog, for example, has a key chain—complete with barcode—on a 17th-century tablecloth. Her oil painting Rescue includes a knight in shining armor who is rescuing a dancing figure from the dragon painted on the vase, while in Afternoon Bath the model’s pose mimics the pose of Michelangelo’s David.

Still Life With Green Frog
2007, pastel, 27 x 38.
Collection Nancy Urick.

Another painting with metaphoric meaning, her pastel Gift, is one of the artist’s favorite images and one in which she incorporated her love of bones. The skull that appears in the work was a Christmas gift from her husband, a resin copy of a real human skull. “I thought of it as the gift of life and the gift of death that we all have from God,” the artist says. “To me, the contrast between the skull and symbols of vivacious life—curly papers and the exploding tissue paper—speaks volumes.”

2007, pastel, 32 x 32.
Collection the artist.

For this pastel painting LaPrade used foam board, which is her favorite surface to work on due to its strength, size, and durability. (She also occasionally works on Canson Mi-Teintes paper. She sometimes works on Bristol Board which she first gessoes.) The artist prepares the board by coating the front with Art Spectrum’s fine-tooth pastel primer, a combination of marble dust and a colored gesso. “One coat is usually sufficient,” she says, “but it depends on the type of texture I want.” For a really smooth texture, LaPrade puts on two coats and will sometimes add one coat of one color and a second coat of another color, allowing them to blend. To keep the board from warping as it dries, LaPrade may coat the entire back of the foam board with acrylic primer or simply paint a big “X” on the back.

Another Sleepless Night
2006, collage, 18 x 24.
Collection M.J. Hill.

Once the board is dry, the artist uses charcoal and medium-toned pastels to block in her painting, preferring Rembrandt, Unison, and Great American brands. She starts with a medium tone and also puts in a little bit of dark and light so she can keep her values adjusted. LaPrade next works out her design. “I look at it for a few days and walk by it now and again,” she says. “Then I decide where I want my sharper edges to be. The painting has to be a combination of straight and curved, soft and hard, and blended and sharp edges.” The artist also feels strongly about having a lot of contrast to entertain the eye.

As she continues to work, LaPrade blends her pastels with other pastels, rarely using stumps. Because she works with the foam board and marble-dust pastel primer, she seldom has to worry about erasing through the paper. If there’s something she doesn’t like, she simply sprays it with workable fixative, or brushes it down with acetone or mineral spirits. “Then I can go right over it with no problem,” she says. “It’s very forgiving, and you can keep fixing things without it looking overworked.

2005, oil, 24 x 30.
Collection the artist.

“After I’ve got things where I want them,” LaPrade continues, “I start squaring up elements that are supposed to be architecturally perpendicular or horizontal or have a certain manmade structure to them. Then I crisp up shadows and make sure they make sense. I start putting in details, then I’ll begin painting with minerals spirits or acetone again.” The artist goes back and forth between working on details and washing out areas quite a bit. If she needs to darken a section, she sprays it with workable fixative, which brings the colors down slightly. To really deepen the color, she piles on “a dark blue or a dark green and a purple and blends it all together with my mineral spirits, and I get lovely darks—rich blues and crimson that almost look like they’re black,” she says.

LaPrade switches between pastel and oil, almost always working in oil for her commissioned portraits. “You can go bigger with an oil because you don’t have to worry about it going under glass,” the artist says, pointing out that large pastels can get very heavy when framed and are hard to hang on a wall. Sometimes the artist will do a pastel first and then an oil, especially during the first portrait sitting, when she works out color studies of the client’s skin tone, eyes, and hair. Once LaPrade and her client have agreed on the clothing, she takes dozens of photos varying the light, position of the hands, and anything else that can affect the final pose and sends them to the client to view the various options.

Afternoon Bath
2004, oil, 20 x 16.
Collection Steve and Anne Anders.

LaPrade has learned almost all her portrait skills, including how to set up her palette, from Daniel E. Greene, with whom she studied for three summers at his workshop studio in North Salem, New York. She employs his color range, which is based on a cool and warm version of each color. LaPrade rarely uses black in her portraits—just in the pupils of the eyes. “If there is some place in the portrait that I need to use black, I mix it from my blues, greens, and reds,” the artist explains. “It gives the work more warmth and depth.”

The amount of time it takes LaPrade to do a portrait depends on how long she’s known the subject she is painting. “If I’ve at least had dinner with the subject, I’ve already begun studying the face and the bone structure,” the artist says. “I have done posthumous portraits, but I don’t usually like to do them. You really can’t see as well from the single eye of a camera as you can with the two eyes in your head.” LaPrade also doesn’t do many portraits of children. “I don’t really like to do the young ones,” she admits. “Too much flesh and not enough bone.”

Leek Soup
2004, oil, 20 x 24.
Collection the artist.

About the Artist
Suzanne LaPrade studied with James Lechay, Frank Gallo, Burt Silverman, Nelson Shanks, and Daniel E. Greene. She has been working full time as an artist for the past 12 years, and spent 17 years as a court reporter while raising and supporting her family. The artist is a member of the Portrait Society of America, the League of Roanoke Artists, and the Rockbridge Arts Guild.

Karen Frankel is an award-winning writer/producer of corporate videos and a corporate speechwriter living in New York City.

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