Susan Larkin is a landscape painter who makes her home in the Lake Champlain Islands in Vermont. She works in oil and pastel, and has painted for over 10 years. Susan paints primarily in and around the Champlain Islands, where she lives, with an occasional trip east to the towards Mount Mansfield and the surrounding farmlands and rivers. Her primary goal is to record impressions of what she sees in the landscape through light and color.
Susan has been displaying her work at the Bryan Gallery since 2008. As of the date of this post she has work in the Land, Light, Water and Air exhibit as well as the legacy gallery. All the images included in this post are available at the Bryan Gallery at the time of this writing.
For those unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe your art?
I guess its kind of an expressive impressionist. I try to paint with not too much detail. I’m trying to get looser, I feel like I’m not as loose as I’d like to be, but I suppose it’s a lot looser than some people’s painting. That’s what I’m more interested in is the impressionistic quality and painterly feel. I stick to landscapes, I don’t usually have any figures in my landscapes and I don’t know why. Most of what I paint is around where I live, the area around the Champlain Islands. Water, sky, fields.
What are your goals in painting what you paint?
My goals are to do more with less. That’s probably been my goal since I started., to simplify, simplify, simplify. At least in terms of the actual painting itself. And what I want paintings to look like. I tend to gravitate to artists who do paint very simply and almost abstractly. I like to learn more about color, I seem to be really interested in how color works and how light works, and trying to teach myself more deeply about color theory. Learning how colors work differently together to create different atmospheric vibrations, things like that. I’ve found that I gravitate to explore more challenges with color.
In your artist statement you mention painting “where the landscape is illuminated by the reflection of the lake”. Can you talk about painting where you feel the light is different versus painting other places.
I used to live on Cape Cod I think when I first took my first trip up Route 2 into the Champlain Islands, I lived in Southern Vermont at the time, its very flat there and there is a brilliance that I remembered from Cape Cod. The ocean just reflects the light all over the place, its very bright, and I remember Van Gogh talking about that when he was painting in France. Where it was so bright it hurt his eyes. It was intense, and that is how I felt about the Cape and then when I went up into the Islands I had that same experience where things seem to be more illuminated. I guess its because of the reflection of light off the lake that there seems to be more of a vibration of atmosphere going on. Its hard to find words for it but I recognized it when I saw it, and that’s what made me want to get up there and live where I live now.
You mentioned Van Gogh, who were your influences when you started, and who are they now?
The old painters that I really loved, that I looked at primarily when I first started, Monet and Cezanne were always influences. I’ve always loved their work and tried to figure out what they were doing and get in their heads a little bit. Turner is another one. I remember the first time I saw turner’s paintings I couldn’t believe what he was doing. I guess of the more recent painters, Richard Diebenkorn is a really big influence on me. I love the way he uses light. I don’t paint much like him but I love his palette, and I love the way he uses light. And Wolf Kahn in terms of the landscape painters, he’s influenced me a lot.
Now, local painters that I really like, Bonnie Acker, I like the way she uses color, and the way she generalizes the landscape so its more abstract. Charlie Hunter is another painter I really admire. I like his techniques for rubbing out paint, putting it on, rubbing it out, that kind of thing. And breaking rules. I always ask myself, “Did I put enough paint on the sky should I leave it like this?” and he does that. And lately Mark Boedges. I really started studying his work and really paying attention to how he works. I probably wouldn’t paint like him because he paints a little more realistically than I am interested in painting, but I love the way he applies paint. There is something about it that is very fresh and very alive and I kind of want that in my paintings so I am trying to learn from what I can from him.
Some of your work is clearly representational, some of it has abstract qualities. Is this intentional?
Yes, as I said in the beginning I am really trying to simplify as much as possible. Another person I love is Helen Shulman, I love her work because I think she starts out with representational images and she simplifies them to a degree with color and line and its fascinating to me how she works. I guess I could end up being an abstract painter at some point, although I love the landscape. I’m torn because part of what I love about the landscape is I love this planet so much and I love being outside and I love everything around me.
How much of your painting is done en plein air, and how much in the studio?
Plein air used to be a lot more than it is recently, I haven’t been getting out as much this summer but my general process is to get out and paint a lot in the summer, paint smaller paintings and then in the winter use those for reference paintings to do larger work. They are kind of a jumping off place, and I will often combine things from several paintings for the larger studio work. Composition is another thing that I am really interested in. A lot of the time when you are outside painting you don’t have the luxury of everything being perfect compositionally so I make changes in the studio work and I work a lot on getting a perfect composition using the elements of all these little paintings that I did en plein air. I would like to be painting outside more than I do, so its maybe 50/50 I would guess.
What is your process when painting in the studio and is there anything unique about either the process or your space?
My studio is a very small room in my house, its not optimal. If you went in there what you would see is a lot of books. I pull out a lot of books a lot of the time when I am painting if I run into a problem, to see how other people have solved the same problem.
I do a lot of color charts, so you’ll see a lot of color charts on the wall. Figuring out ways to use different colors. Like yellow ochre. I never really like yellow ochre and I never really used it. One day someone was telling me how great yellow ochre was, and so I just decided to mix up all my other palette colors with it and then do tints, to see what I could do, and I ended up getting some really fabulous colors with yellow ochre which is not a favorite of mine. I do stuff like that. I do little exercises and things like that.
My process, it changes from time to time. A lot of times I will do a little warm up. I’ll pull out a little painting that I hadn’t finished, maybe a small plein air painting and work on that to kind of get warmed up and then I’ll move on to the larger painting. One thing that I’ve gone back to doing is spending a lot more time with the large studio pieces working out composition. I’ve started using Notan drawings to do that. I find that really helpful especially when your going to do a big painting, to break it down into very simplistic abstract shapes and values. Then I can see if its going to be a painting that holds up. I’ll do small studies and small drawings in just black, white and gray to see if its going to hold up compositionally before I tackle it on a large canvas.
You teach people of all ages, how did you get into teaching and what do you take from it?
I’m certified to teach high school (7 – 12 art). And I like teaching. I’m more interested in teaching adults now, but I like teaching little kids.
Some of the things I enjoy when I’m doing it, I enjoy giving people information because I was happy when people took the time to give me the formulas and the tricks to make a better painting. So I really enjoy being able to do that for people and have then find something that they didn’t know before.
What I get from it is I find I do a lot more drawing and fundamental stuff when I’m teaching that I don’t really do in my daily practice. I do different things, I may end up doing figure drawing and monotype and things like that when I’m teaching and that’s really fun. I’m doing things that I don’t usually do in my own work. One thing is the drawing, I find I am doing more drawing when I am teaching then I usually ever do, which I really enjoy. I have this motto that I can teach anybody how to draw, I really can. You have to learn the techniques and the fundamentals and its easy, and it works.
What piece of advice do you wish you were given when you first started out?
I had a lot of good advice. I guess I wish I had done some graphic design and illustration because I feel I would be a better painter if I did that. I guess also the business end of being an artist. When I was starting out nobody talked about business. You just tried to get in a gallery and that was that. Now things are very different and I wish I had more business training or someone to teach you “how do you develop a contact list”, the basic fundamentals of the business side. You really have to do a lot yourself now with how things are, how to sell paintings and things like that.
What lead to the decision to become a full-time artist?
I left my teaching job to move up to Isle La Motte. Then 2008 happened and there were no teaching jobs at that point. There really was a dearth of those jobs, so I just decided with my husband, I was painting full-time, and we decided if we can keep going with me doing this, which we could, that I would continue to paint and I could really focus. He was very supportive. That’s when I stopped doing all kinds of other things and really put time and energy into painting and marketing, entering shows with the Bryan Gallery and went from there. You have your lean years and you have your good years, but we’re doing OK and I’ve just stuck with it out of determination really.
How long have you been showing your work through the Bryan Gallery?
It was Land, Light, Water and Air in 2008 or 2009 that I first showed at the Bryan Gallery. I’ve been showing there ever since.
How did you choose what to submit to this year’s Land & Light exhibit at the Bryan Gallery?
I think they were good paintings. Maybe because they were water. I just thought they were pretty good paintings, I was happy with them and I want to always put my best stuff out there.
Looking at your submissions, at least two of them, they are very representational of where you live and paint, but also could be perceived as abstract.
Yeah they are. I’ve been doing a series of them and I really enjoy them. I’m fascinated with painting water. Painting water is really hard, it’s easy to just make it like glass that’s fun when its like that but getting ripples in it and stuff like that I’ve been working more with that. Its tough but it’s a challenge that I enjoy, and when you get it you feel “Wow that was pretty good!” That’s the fun of painting, you keep trying to do stuff you can’t do, and then you’re really happy when you can. And then there’s another thing.
Do you have any advice to give artists submitting to shows?
Enter as many things as you can, that are appropriate for your work. I think you should really put yourself out there and you have to toughen up. Its not personal. By the time I was painting it was just … enter anything, call to artists, get your work out there, get it into restaurants, or wherever. Get exposure. Get as much exposure as possible. Find out where other people are showing. Getting into galleries is tough.
One thing I did that helped me get into one gallery was, I was having a show somewhere else and I had postcards for the show. So I sent them to everyone on my list, but also sent them every gallery in Vermont that I thought would be a good fit for my work. And I did get a response from a gallery, they got my postcard and invited me to send them some work. And I got good feedback from other galleries, that maybe didn’t have space but encouraged me to keep trying, and that was valuable. But getting into galleries is really hard.
I think you have to do more now the way things are to sell your work, with social media and all these other avenues.
Do you use social media in your art career, and if so how?
The biggest thing that helped me was getting a website and starting a blog. I also send out newsletters. I’m not the biggest social media person. I will use instagram sometimes to share my work or works in progress. I’ll take a photo with my phone of something I am working on in my studio and having a couple pictures of it in progress out on instagram or facebook. I have mixed feelings about posting works-in-progress, I think you have to be careful. You shouldn’t post anything you don’t have complete confidence in.
The best exposure I have had is through the website. I always hand out cards and they direct people to the website.
Leave us with one tip or piece of advice you would share with any artist out there, one thing that you feel every artist could benefit from.
You have to do the work. There is a great quote by Chuck Close, the short version of which goes something like “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” And its so true. Other artists have said essentially the same thing, if you want to be a full-time artist its about doing the work. It’s perfectly OK if you just want to paint, not everyone wants to be a full-time artist, but if you do, you have to do the work.
Here is the full quote:
“The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”
― Chuck Close