This week we feature contemporary photorealism artist Susan Harrell of Greensboro, North Carolina. Susan aspires to uplift her viewers, showcasing the beauty and strength found in the fabric of everyday life. Her major focus is still life, but a diversity of genres and subject matter can be found in her work. Harrell is a self-taught artist who began by replicating the works of Renaissance masters, eventually transitioning to her own original works. Her style incorporates supersaturated colors, high contrast, and the focus on detail characteristic of contemporary photorealism. Dramatic lighting is often a key element and Harrell enjoys making use of surfaces with reflective qualities such as glass, water, and chrome.
Favorite Tools? Brushes of all sizes. Very small brushes make my life easier, when creating high detail.
What are you currently working on? I am working on several commissioned still life pieces, and several originals. I am also designing a large public mural depicting the entire evolution of human flight.
What is a favorite piece of art you created and why? My favorite piece so far is one that I’m currently working on, called “Balanced Diet”. It’s a large painting with a mixture of rich textures and playful subject matter, featuring an antique English scale with ripe fruit on one side and delicious pastries on the other. The scale is balancing evenly, implying that the opposing contents are equal in some way (maybe even nutritionally in the mind of an optimistic viewer). I enjoy incorporating humor into my work and the opportunity to paint interesting textures on a larger scale.
How do you choose your subject matter? Over the years, I have found myself drawn to still life objects, and the idea of framing those objects within a story, bringing life to them through context or character. I enjoy a challenge, and often choose subject matter that has highly reflective surfaces such as glass, water, or chrome.
What qualities make your art distinctively you? My clients have told me that they particularly like the vibrant colors in my paintings. I use reference photographs to work from, but always exaggerate the colors when mixing pigments to create a saturated, larger than life effect.
Where do you create? I work from my home studio in Greensboro, NC. At one point I owned a studio gallery that was open to the public but have found working from home has many benefits, including more productive work hours.When do you create? I typically paint between 8 to 12 hours a day. Monday through Friday.
What do you do when you hit a creative block? I have been fortunate to not have experienced many creative blocks thus far in my career. I normally have a rotation of several pieces going at once, while layers dry. The problems I run up against are more physical; photorealism requires long hours of highly concentrated work while sitting very still. I struggle with fatigue, aches and pains. I have found that keeping a very disciplined exercise routine helps dramatically.
Do you have any special techniques your would like to share? When I first started painting, a mentor advised me to use a maulstick. This tool keeps your hands and arms off your wet paint, helps to steady your brush and helps to keep your muscles loose. This single suggestion has greatly improved my overall work.What do you listen to when you create? Music is very important to my work. It can be tricky for artists to keep a high level of inspiration and passion, which I believe are critical for the creative fields. I tend to listen to “moody”, mellow music. This could be anything from Eric Clapton to Bon Iver. Even though I access a huge music library of favorites in a given week, it helps me to constantly discover new songs and artists. At the moment, I am really enjoying Novo Amor, an alt-folk artist from the UK that I recently stumbled upon. I also listen to hours and hours of lectures and debates covering a wide range of topics. Right now, my favorite speakers include John Lennox, Stephen Meyer, Victor Davis Hanson, and Christopher Hitchens.
When did you discover your love for painting and where do you see it taking you in the future? I am a relatively new painter. I did not grow up planning to be an artist. I took an art class my last semester of my senior year in high school. Only because I had already taken all the gym classes allowed! My art teacher encouraged my efforts and suggested that I pursue art. In 2009, I painted my first original painting. I was hooked instantly. Having searched my whole life for “my gift”, while painting for the first time, I felt I had finally found it.
Tell us about any commercial art endeavors: I have been commissioned on occasion by cities to paint large public murals. To me, these projects are a special opportunity to invest in the unique character of a community. To help a city create its identity, and landmarks that people can interact with. These murals are often a challenge, but are a fun way to get out of the studio and to engage new communities, person to person.