Voices of Experience - An Interview with Susan Mayfield
Voices of Experience
Susan Mayfield lives in two worlds—the lush and verdant Lowcountry of South Carolina, and the high mountain desert of central Colorado. She translates these diverse landscapes into vibrant and dynamic pastel and oil paintings. Mayfield has exhibited her work across the southeast and western United States, gathering accolades for her paintings, including several Best in Show awards and multiple Quick Draw awards at plein air painting events. She shared with us the evolution of her artistic career, her mentors, her inspirations and her aspirations.
"I grew up in a typical suburban household in the 60s and 70s in Charleston, South Carolina. I had very little exposure to art as a child. There were no art classes in my high school. I was a daydreamer in school, and filled the margins of my notebooks with sketches of cats, eyes, faces. My family had a set of childrenʼs books illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, and on field trips to the old dusty Charleston Museum, I thought the painted dioramas were magical and had dreams of one day becoming a diorama illustrator.
The possibility of becoming an artist was not on my radar at all when I entered the College of Charleston intending to major in physical therapy. I signed up for a few art courses to fill out my schedule, and when I took a drawing class, something clicked and I could SEE. It was like a switch was turned on, an epiphany. I teach students that, yes, you CAN learn to draw, because it happened to me. I found I had a knack for doing portraits, and started thinking maybe I could do this, something I actually love. My C+ in biology classes was further reinforcement, and I changed my major to printmaking.
Not many artists were doing pastels at the time. The supplies readily available were Rembrandt pastels and Canson paper, but I discovered a set of Schminke soft-as-butter pastels, using them on sandpaper from the hardware store, and was hooked. I got some books by Albert Handel and took a workshop from him. Later, I studied briefly with Doug Dawson.
Balancing between South Carolina and Colorado, are you working more in the studio or on location outdoors?
I paint en plein air as much as possible. For the past 13 years, Iʼve split my time between Salida, Colorado and South Carolina. I keep a studio in both places. The dichotomy of Southwest/Southeast keeps life interesting. While in Colorado, in the fall, I pack up my Volkswagen camper van with supplies and go on the road, doing a few plein air festivals. I have always carried a camera—now I use my iPhone solely, and continue to take many, many photos for reference. I get more info and inspiration from blurry photos. Iʼm really not interested in photographic details. My process is a combo approach of gathering info with small plein air pieces and photos and then working larger in the studio. I find the time spent painting plein air informs my studio work with a better understanding of color, particularly in shadows, and it helps me from overworking my paintings. I have two sizes of Heilman pastel boxes that convert to easels when attached to tripods, that I use these in my pastel plein air work.
I love the immediacy of pastel, the vibrancy. Pastel artists have to deal with covering the paper surface with small sticks, so large work in pastel can be a bit problematic, thus my pastels are generally 30 x 40” or smaller. I generally use UArt sanded paper 400 grade, mounted to archival foam core, a sturdy surface that accepts a solvent. I always use toned paper. I do thumbnail value sketches in a notebook, then draw in my design on UART paper with very loose, thinly applied pastel and apply a wash with alcohol using a brush. I often use complementary colors in my initial wash. For example, if my subject has a lot blue sky or blue water I will use orange, Burnt Sienna, magenta in the underpainting. After the wash dries, I block in with thin layers, then finish with thicker, softer pastel strokes, more in the focal areas. Pastel has to be framed with glass to protect it. I always use Anti-Reflective (AR) glass. Itʼs more expensive, but worth it.
Please tell us where you find your inspiration and what your aspirations are for your work.
I attempt to tell a story in my paintings. I pick out the most important thing, the focal area, and try to weave an interesting visual trail to that place. My goal is for a painting to make you want to walk over to it from across the room. I amp up the color, the value, and tweak the composition to make it more visually interesting. When it works, it connects with the viewer on some level, visually, emotionally. I teach workshops on ways to create bolder, more interesting, more dynamic images. Itʼs a constant mission in my own work.
All artwork copyright Susan Mayfield
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