We recently sat down with Dutch Art Gallery artist Suzanne Moseley to learn more about her and her painting process.
Q: Describe your style and subject matter.
A: I am a huge fan of the classical Baroque style. The most influential artists of that time used the contrasting elements of a dark background with brightly lit subjects, and created a balance between those tonal differences and composition so that it’s almost like the viewer is intruding in the space as part of the painting. That type of composition tells a much more interesting visual story, so I try to incorporate that style wherever I can. My subjects are more often animals than people, but I do love portraiture as well, especially that if older skin or interesting and unusual features.
Q: When did you realize that you had a talent for art and were driven to create?
A: I am sure most artists probably have the same answer, but my childhood was filled with escapes into quiet drawing and coloring spots from as soon as I could hold a pencil. I just never really stopped drawing, and having an incredibly supportive family that encouraged my creativity, and did everything to support my art addiction, was probably the single biggest benefit to my growth.
When I was in elementary school, kids would pay me to draw things for them with snacks and friendship bracelets. I was a little entrepreneur. My teachers encouraged me, too. My first grade teacher even laminated my self portrait, which by comparison is hilariously bad, and gave it to me when I graduated high school, laminated. My high school art teacher gave me a “scholarship” out of her own pocket for college where I was paying an art degree.
There have been so many people and events that have given me the drive to keep going, The Dutch Art Gallery being one of those. It is my good fortune to have so many people in my life like this. As an adult I have realize just how much further I can take my art and, even moreso, how I can help others with their art dreams through teaching, encouraging, and guiding.
Q: Who or what inspired the beginning of your artistic journey?
A: My mother. She’s my best friend. One of my finest memories is mom coming home from a long day at work, late, because she stopped by the art store and bought an easel, and arm loads of new art supplies. I stayed up all night and drew and drew and scared the heck out of her the next morning with my stacks of charcoal and pencil drawings in my arms while standing at her closed door in the mostly dark halfway, waiting when I knew she got up at 5 AM. She didn’t know I would be waiting for her. I still laugh about it. She screamed pretty good. She still has those drawings though!
Q: What subjects or style of art were you doing at the beginning?
A: This may not come as a surprise, given the topic of The Art of Equis Show, but it was horses that I was first most obsessed with. I learned how to break down their form into shapes to get the anatomy and proportions right from studying a “How to Draw” book that was about the size of a tall magazine. Everything was in pencils and charcoal until I discovered watercolor, and then eventually oils.
Q: What drives you artistically?
A: I only partially joke when I say this, but narcissism and dopamine. I know how terrible that sounds, but I enjoy the connection that art creates in people. It draws them to you, starts discussions, it’s a gift to share, and people enjoy seeing what you create. Seeing others happy makes me happy; that’s the narcissism part, especially when they’re taking about my artwork. From that comes the dopamine, the happy brain chemical that makes you feel amazing when you’re doing something you love. When I sit down to work on a piece, I love every second of it and get lost in the time. When I was a kid, 12 hours could pass before I’d realize it!
Q: What is your inspiration for your particular art?
A: I just love the shapes, forms, contrasts in color and lighting that make up the subject. I love the way something can radiate light just because of the color choices involved, and the sense of depth with careful brush strokes and blending. Composition is another vital part. Even where something appears to be a straight forward portrait, it’s about how you use the closeness to the subject, the angle, and colors to move the viewers eye around the canvas. There’s a science to it, and it changes how you see the world around you.
Q: What are you trying to communicate with your art?
A: Every piece has its own story, but probably the most overreaching aspect is I like to incorporate the viewer in some way. It may not be obvious, but I want the viewer to feel like they’re present in the moment with the subject of the painting and be affected by it.
Q: Do you paint from the heart?
A: I think I’d describe it more as painting from the brain. The concept starts from the heart, but I am actively thinking through my process from start to finish, what sections to work and when, what brushes to use, color choices, and even the understanding of what colors dry the fastest vs the slowest so I can plan what comes next and when. From the very beginning, I know what my piece will look like when completed before there’s even paint on the canvas, and what steps are needed to get me there. This comes from years of practice, and it means I can be effective with the least amount of wasted time or paint.
Q: What does being able to share your vision mean to you?
A: I love to share my artwork, but even moreso, I love to share my process with other artists. Part of my vision of art is to share what I have learned. I love watching new artists grow and blossom. I get as much enjoyment from that as I do with painting.
Q: Do you have an emotional attachment to each piece?
A: It can be difficult letting go of some pieces. They become like your children in their own way, afterall, you create them from the first brush stroke through to varnishing. For commissioned work, though, I’m eager to get those pieces to their owner because they are often memorial pieces, and it’s like bringing them back a piece of their loved one that will last forever.
There is a sense of loss, but it’s also of gain because it’s something that you’re creating that is loved and cherished by someone else as much as by you. My favorite part of a painting is the start of a piece, so coming to a conclusion of one gives me the excitement of starting the next. It’s definitely an addiction.
Q: Has your style, medium or subject evolved or changed over the years?
A: As I’ve grown in my style, I’ve come to recognize what elements stop the viewer to look a little longer. The average time someone looks at a piece of art is around 3 to 5 seconds. The question is, what makes a person want to linger for longer? If they stay longer, what makes the viewer feel attached to the subject? From there, will they buy it? Often it’s something familiar that is the most endearing, like cats, dogs, wildlife, children, or elderly. Further, is there a scenario that tells the story through action or inaction? Lighting and heavy shadows and color catch the eye and direct it across the surface of the painting. This is a tactic that can be used to help tell the story of the subject as well. All of these things have driven my work from basic portraiture to something with more depth and empathy, making them more visually appealing.
Q: Many artists say they can only paint when inspired. How do you keep yourself motivated?
A: A lot of people may be familiar with Pavlov and his experiments with dogs where ringing a bell would cause the dogs to salivate even without food present. This happened after he spent time feeding them while ringing a bell. The dogs associated the bell sound with food, causing them to salivate when a bell is rung, regardless of the presence of food. This technique, with a few tweaks, can be used to trigger artistic inspiration. Scent, for instance, has a direct link to the brain without the filtering process that sight and sound go through before reaching the brain. By having certain scents around me when working, and listening to certain types music, and working at the same time of day, by recreating the scents, sounds, and habitual time to work I am immediately inspired to work, raring to go even. Also, being willing to do any amount of work and not setting high expectations for a sitting makes it more welcoming.
I have withdrawals if I don’t paint for too long. It’s definitely an addiction, but one I’m happy to have. At least it pays for itself.
Q: Why do you prefer to work with your particular medium?
A: My two favorite mediums to work in are pastels and oils. They are very much alike. Pastels are a dry pigment, while oils are pigment with oils added to make them fluid. Both are rich in color, both blend beautifully, and both layer nicely. Oils are my favorite thanks to the way they apply, their blending, luminosity, and the control over their drying time which can be varied from slow to very fast. Oils are by far the most versatile traditional medium with incredible longevity. They can be used on most surfaces including glass, metal, paper, canvas, linen, and wood with minimal preparation ahead of time. You also don’t need to fear mistakes as they can easily be painted over and corrected.
Q: Describe your process. How much time do you actually spend “arting”…prep, research, etc.
A: I often already have a composition in mind when I come across an inspiring reference image. I’ll combine multiple images sometimes in order to get what I want digitally to create a complete reference to paint from to show me to visualize lighting and color composition clearly. This doesn’t take long, maybe a few minutes to an hour. I buy my canvases these days instead of stretching my own due to my arthritic hands, but I’ve discovered Fredrix Blue Label canvas which are super smooth and pre-primed so well that I don’t need to do further prep work and they are excellent at taking fine detail. Sometimes I’ll spray paint the surface black first, but otherwise it’s ready to go. My underpainting process, arguably the most important part of the painting, sets me up for the best possible outcome from the start. Which type of underpainting I use depends on the painting subject. Over the years, I’ve learned what processes slow things down and what speeds things up. Back when I was still learning, a 9×12 cold take me several weeks, now it may only takes a fraction of the time.
The single biggest piece of advice I give new painters is to start darker than you think you need, and don’t try to create a finished painting when you’re only at the underpainting stage. Instead, wait to add highlights and details until you’re at your last layer. Highlights need something to contrast against to be shine brightly.
Q: Describe how you feel when inside the “zone” creating.
A: When I’m really lost in the process, I get the sense that I’m watching from a position from above and slightly behind, like I’m looking over my own shoulder. It’s a peculiar sensation. It’s like a feeling of floating. Overall, I feel pleasant, content, and happy. Maybe it really is an addiction to dopamine?
Q: Do you accept commissioned work?
A: In love doing commissioned work as it is often a portrait of someone that was deeply loved. In the process of painting them, whether animal or person, I feel like they become someone in my life too, and that I can also help carry on their memory.
Q: Some successful artists work at their kitchen table. Some in an elaborate studio. Others strictly outdoors. Describe your workspace and its importance , or non-importance, to your creative process.
A: I often work on multiple pieces at once. This allows me to have one piece drying while I work on another in an endless cycle of painting happily. I have work spaces all over the house, in the spare bedroom is my digital media and pastel/colored pencil drawing area, in our dining room and half of the living room are my multiple easels and rolling table used for storage and to hold my palettes. I have cameras, lights, and microphone setups as well. Not to mention areas for drying, supplies for shipping, etc. My husband very graciously doesn’t fuss over my taking over the house with art things, and I’m very appreciative. In total, I have 14 easels, most are small, 4 are large. My brush collection is in excess of 200 at this point over all the years.
Q: Describe the atmosphere around you while you work. Do you prefer quiet or is there music blaring in the background and what type of music?
A: I do my best work with headphones on playing music. My preferred type of music is called TripHop, which does not sound like you might expect from the name. It’s a relaxing, smooth, ambient music that includes bands like Deep Forest, Enigma, Morcheeba, etc. Second to that, I enjoy podcasts that includes crime/murder, art, or historical topics. I prefer not to have TV on as it’s a visual distraction. When I was younger, I hated being interrupted while working, but as I’ve grown in confidence and knowledge, rather than dread being interrupted, I invite it when someone has questions or are interested in my process.
Q: Paint me a picture as to what is going on around you or in your head when you paint or does the world simply melt away?
A: Melt away is a very apt description. Everything disappears, worries get lighter, physical discomfort disappears, at least for a little while. Eventually my back catches up to me though.
Q: A somewhat random question, but if you could own an art treasure, what would it be and why?
A: I would absolutely love to have the recently created paint VantaBlack. It’s so black in pigment that light is absorbed entirely. If you paint a statue with VantaBlack, it will look like a flat piece of black paper with contoured edges. It’s incredible stuff.
Q: Do you have people in your life to thank for your art career, who are/were your biggest supporters?
A: My mother, Cynthia Alleman, by far. She has and is always interested in my work, has supported my choice in college degree being art related, and gets as excited as I do over projects. Growing up she bought me endless supplies to keep me going, even though she was supporting me as a single mother. I have had several teachers from elementary through college be tremendous supporters and encouraging. My grandmother, Sylvia Raber, was side by side with mom encouraging and supporting me. She’d brag about my art to her friends in church as well. And my husband, Chris, I love watching his eyes light up when we’re visiting friends and he starts taking about my paintings. I think he gets more excited than I do, and that makes me feel incredibly loved. Thanks to all of the support I have received, I try to do the same for others. I get a great deal of pride and joy in watching art friends and students grow in their art skills and gain public interest in their work.
Q: What would you say to someone who is interested in becoming an artist or exploring art at any age?
A: Don’t wait until retirement to start your passion projects. It’s never about talent, it’s about skill, and skills can be learned. That means anyone can do what I do. It only takes the interest and willingness to put in the practice and work. Art is work. It requires patience. Most importantly, do not compare your work to others. Where you may be at the start of your art journey, a person you compare yourself to may be years into their art journey. A comparison in art from student developmental levels can lead to disappointment. Instead, keep pieces you’ve made in the past and compare to current work and you’ll be shocked at the difference in skill growth. When looking at others artwork that you love, ask yourself what it is about that piece that makes it successful and try to emulate that quality through practice. This will lead to further growth in your own work.
Q: Do you have challenges in your life that you have to work around in order to create your work?
A: I have my own physical issues which involve several herniated discs in my neck and back that put pressure on my nerves causing constant pain and frequent severe headaches, as well as pain that goes down my left arm and both legs. As if that weren’t enough, I have arthritis in my hands and shoulders since my 20s that continues to brother me, shortening the time I can sit and work on a painting.
My husband is disabled after a neck injury that almost left him paralyzed. It took 16 surgeries to get him as close to back to normal as he is though he is in constant pain. You can imagine what the medical bills look like. Due to this, I maintain my day job to keep health costs covered. One day, I hope to be able to focus solely on art full time once we get those expenses down. I’d love to travel with my husband to scenic places to paint and teach traveling workshops.
Q: How would you like to remembered in life?
A: I would love to be remembered as a friendly and knowledgeable art teacher that helped bolster the art careers of some amazing people. As well as for my own art of course.
The Dutch Art Gallery is proud to represent the work of Suzanne Moseley. Don’t miss “Art of Equis” featuring the equine paintings of Suzanne Moseley and Marie Gray opening Saturday, September 11th, 2021. The artists will speak about their work at 1pm on opening day. The show runs through October 9th.
by Rebecca Zook