Usk Castle

I spent some time in the Welsh borderlands at the end of January, en route to a family visit in South Wales, place of my youth. Wye valley is a landscape full of mystery and enchantment. On this occasion I made a stop at the pensively beautiful ruin of Usk Castle, evocative of Gothic tales and faerie legends. But all along this stretch of countryside, where the land begins to heave and roll, rimmed as it is with the remains of embattled and portentous buildings, are places wonderfully encouraging for the imagination.

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Staithes Beck from North Side

Susan Isaac - Staithes Beck from North SideCompositionally here, in this final Staithes view, my primary interest was in the dynamic procession of post and rail, springing diagonally from the foreground and branching off in the distance of the painting. The starkness I found came in part from working contre-jour, with the glowering sky and simultaneously presaged rain contrasting with the possibility of brightness from behind a break in the cloud, all enhancing a curious tonal atmosphere. I enjoyed too finding texture and interest in the mundane, particularly with the tamped concrete road surface.

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Staithes Beck & Footbridge

This Staithes painting revolves around the footbridge over the Beck and in particular, the upright form of its nearside buttress. A bright and briskly sunny day enhanced the shadows and highlighted the roughly textured courses of masonry and cobbles. This swathe of stonework, along with the foreground retaining wall, directs the gaze forward into the scene, after which the eye can choose to travel on towards the end of the harbour, or turn to cross the bridge itself and into the jostle of cottages.

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Staithes from the Beck

Susan Isaac - Staithes from the BeckI enjoyed playing with the complimenting colours of blues and oranges in this composition. The foreground boat, held in suspension by its web of moorings, set the key hue of orange, tints of which are echoed in the silted estuary, as well as being scattered amongst the cottage roofs. Intermingling with the salmon red mud was the reflection of soft blues from a billowing sky. The deep tones of the overlying seaweed marked the way of the receding tide.

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The Slipway at Beckside, Staithes

Susan Isaac - The Slipway at Beckside, StaithesThis stretch of wharfage lies along the upper reaches of the Staithes estuary. I found here a spiralling accumulation of compositional elements. In the foreground, reaching from the right, a cobbled boat-slide sweeps underneath moored fishing boats, lying at angles dictated by an absent tide. The arm of Cowbar Nab curves in from the left hand side, and around the harbour to the north. The sense of a vortex is further implied by the swirling cloudscape above. The striated masonry of the wharfage directs the gaze towards the centre of the painting and the footbridge, which stands like a portal to a scene beyond the viewers reach.

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Cowbar Nab at Staithes


I recently completed a new series of Staithes paintings, that are now in the Staithes Gallery and wanted to write a little about them. In this first work, the monumental land mass of Cowbar Nab Susan Isaac - Cowbar Nab and North Side at Staithesdominates this view of Staithes harbour, with its deep mirrored image extending into the becalmed foreground waters. Warm pink and grey hues form distinctive striated layers of shale and ironstone. The red tints resonate first through the pantiled roofs of the nearby cottages, and then again, more stongly, in the vibrant paintwork of the foreground boats and their buoys. The albeit unintentional cruciform of the mast on one of the boats has implications of warding off disaster out in more perilous waters.

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Paint Out Norwich 2017

On Thursday I returned home after taking part in Paint Out Norwich 2017 – a 3-day, juried, en plein air art event involving 35 artists (as part of Norfolk’s Hostry Festival). The whole experience was exhilarating and a really good exerciser – very absorbing in the same way that  life drawing can be. It was also physically quite exhausting, partly from carrying equipment all round the city to paint at several locations on each of the three days, but also from the concentration required to complete 5 paintings, each in 2-3 hours, alternating between watercolour and oils.  For my own satisfaction I have set down some of my thoughts and feelings here about each of the paintings and of the experience as a whole, and hope this may be of interest to others.

Susan Isaac - Trees beside St Peter Mancroft, NorwichMy first piece, from the Sunday nocturne session, was a view of an avenue of trees on the north side of the church of St Peter Mancroft. Whilst exploring the area by daylight, I had been drawn to the lyrical atmosphere of this tree lined walkway laid out in parallel to the church. I headed back there to set up for the evening, observing the structure and rhythm of the railings with the secondary lines of tree trunks beyond, their boughs setting a delicate tracery against an ebbing sky. Whilst the trees had maintained much of their foliate cloaks, some leaves, in topaz hues, had begun to gather at the sides of the pathways, breaking up the formality of the paving slabs. Choosing watercolour to explore the graphic qualities of this composition, I painted towards dusk as the colours cooled and the tones deepened and exchanged places. Finally, when the light on my paper and palette was all but extinguished, I made my last approximated decisions by torchlight.

On Monday morning I set up my easel beside the Susan Isaac - Bishop Bridge, Norwichmedieval Bishop Bridge that spans the River Wensum to the east of Norwich Cathedral. I chose this bridge for its intimate scale and details and its zig zagging parapet that leads into the painting. The low lying form of the parapet gave access to the shapes beyond with a series of brick and pantile buildings drawing the eye further into the frame and eventually to the distant Cathedral spire. The lovely warm pinky browns of this middle ground work well between the soft grey/blues of the stone bridge and the sky. On this particular morning the sky was suffused with sunlight that set up sharp contrast, enhancing the structure of the composition.

Susan Isaac - Norwich Cathedral from The CloseThat afternoon, under a surreal Saharan dust laden sky, we moved towards the city and I found an interesting aspect approaching the Cathedral from the east on a narrow lane. The all-pervading inventive textures that make up the medieval areas became increasingly apparent the closer in I walked. Along this lane, the rising Cathedral spire was framed by the blue flint speckle of a high boundary wall to one side and the crow-stepped gable of a cottage to the other. I was particularly interested in the mark-making possibilities for describing this cottage, its flint facing relieved here and there by weather-worn brickwork that picked out the odd feature. Softening the hard edges of masonry, a variety of trees and shrubs flourished in the middle ground. Finally in the background I rendered the spire itself with vague descriptive marks. I enjoyed working quickly using watercolour for the composition in this quiet corner of the Cathedral Close.

Tuesday morning took us toSusan Isaac - Norwich Castle Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery where I was drawn to a series of patterns playing over the stonework at the castle’s entrance. A set of railings was sending dark striations of shade over the cobbled floor, which itself had been ordered in a fan pattern. The first decision to be made in the short time scale available, was how to simplify these complex patterns and render them with sufficient suggestive marks? Secondarily, how to create an adequate pictorial space out of this compact set of elements, particularly in view of the brightly lit stone surfaces everywhere? I chose to enhance the tonal contrasts between middle ground and background, whilst emphasizing the masonry joints of the foreground. The strong, regular patterns of ashlar masonry blocks helped to enhance the perspective of the buildings.

Susan Isaac - The north porch of St Peter MancroftFor the final session on Tuesday afternoon I was a little late in starting, so had the least amount of time to complete a painting. This helped me to approach the challenge with a degree of abandon. Returning to St Peters Mancroft, I was interested in a section of the church that included the north porch, with a vertically orientated view looking up the adjacent path – and to emphasise this arrangement, I chose an elongated rectangular linen support on which to work. I decided to use oils to give me the best opportunity for depth and impact. My intention was to further explore the linear tracery of tree branches overlaying the various tonal planes. I wanted to convey the way the darkest shade of the branches cut across the soft grey blues of the nave and tower and then, with even greater impact, against the paler pinky blue of the sky. Angled and arched marks overlaying the nave elevation were intended to suggest the Gothic forms of the windows. This theme continued with the diagonal cut of the path, left as a swathe of black against the strongest hues of the verge. A pale band across the path marks both a step in the pathway and the foreground boundary of the picture plane.

On Wednesday my five small offerings joined a further 150 spontaneous renderings of the Norwich townscape in an exhibition at the Cathedral Hostry. Emerging from the three days of plein air painting felt a little like emerging from a grandly-scaled art performance, done with an energy and communality that would have been hard to replicate in a studio setting. The experience was further enriched by the opportunity to meet and get to know the other artists in this community. I am very grateful to the organisers for being given the opportunity to take part and for all their efforts in making it such a successful, exciting and enterprising event. The exhibition at Norwich Cathedral Hostry, runs to 28 Oct through the last week of the Hostry Festival.

The Paint Out Noriwch Ar Exhibition 2017 at Norwich Cathedral Hostry

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