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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Susan Isaac- Charlestown3-800cThis painting of Charlestown in Cornwall was selected for ‘Open 28‘, the East Midlands Open Art Exhibition in Leicester, which is on at the Old Library Gallery, 50-54 Belvoir Street, Leicester, LE1 6QL from 6 July to 26 August, 2017.

The wide expanse of dockside at Charlestown seemed to lend itself to a marine landscape format. Interesting shapes fan out in all directions with walkways and slipways. Upright bulwarks and railings stand to attention, as do the masts of the fine square riggers, in this scudding light that all but bleaches out the colour and throws hard shadows. A line of dressed stone edges the quayside like teeth around the mouth of the harbour whilst marks in the pink and grey hued concrete spreads out in the foreground in imitation of a sunburst. The windows of the Pier House Hotel and those of a terrace of cottages keep vigil from their vantage point over all. The scene is becalmed in what must have once been a busily bustling port.

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Buxton Spa Prize Exhibition

Earlier this week I delivered two paintings and a sketchbook to the Green Man Gallery in Buxton, as submissions for this year’s Buxton Spa Prize. The exhibition of entries runs from 1-31 July (The Green Man Gallery is at Hardwick Hall, Hardwick Square South, Buxton Spa, Derbyshire. SK17 6PY).

Susan Isaac - The Illuminating Light Img_8706-500My first painting is ‘The Illuminating Light’, a view of the Church of St Mary the Virgin from Heath Street in Buxton. I came upon the building enfolded in its own paddock like a peaceful interlude from the surrounding busy roads and residential terraces. It reminded me of interwar children’s illustrations – Enid Blyton perhaps. Initially I was eager to portray the front elevation with its architectural details – arts and craft style dormer windows and heavy porch. But after much deliberation and at the eleventh hour, a prospect exclaimed itself at the opposite side of the building. The, by now, low sun had illuminated the trees from behind in such a way that the branches were lining the sky and their leaves were showering down in greens and golds against the silhouetted form of the church. Although in deep shadow, it radiated warmth from the reflected light of the surrounding grass, now sunlit and setting the building apart from the heavy shadows of the boundary wall. This wall and the tree trunks to the fore provided an edging to the building. Beyond the wall, strong radial marks flooded over the pavement, reminiscent of the sunburst motif beloved of the period the church belonged to.

The second painting, ‘Filtered’, looks along the cast iron and glass canopy of The Colonnade on Terrace Road in Buxton. This structure runs alongside the Cavendish Arcade, formerly the Thermal Baths that were built in 1852-53 on the site of the Roman Baths.

Susan Isaac - Filtered Img_8709-500The Colonnade creates a semi-enclosed space that is also open to natural light. The brilliant sunshine on this day gave lovely warm colours to the buildings and sky, which were filtered by the overhead glass panes into something paler and less focused. Shadows thrown into the road by the translucent roof structure were ameliorated into pastel shades. Further interest came from reflections in the shop window panes, where the natural hues of the buildings opposite were deepened. The cast iron struts of the canopy extend into these reflections, creating the impression of walking through an enormous rib cage. The black supporting uprights were also reflected in the window glass with their arching forms echoed in the dark painted window frames. These uprights, the receding flags, paving stones and glass roof divisions enhance the sense of perspective. I loved the various types of light and imagery, filtered and unfiltered, that this prospect offered. Metaphorically, the shop windows are also offering a filtered vision to passers-by and ultimately there is the filtering of the artists eye.

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I was delighted to learn that this work has been shortlisted for the Sir John Hurt Art Prize and will be in the ‘Exhibition of Shortlisted Works’ at this year’s Holt Festival (22–30 July at the Auden Theatre in Holt). It is a view of Wells harbour one early spring morning, with silhouetted uprights and horizontal shadows forming the bones of the composition. Pontoon mooring posts and the masts from Dutch clipper ‘Albatros’ have their lengths exaggerated through reflection in the harbour water, whilst the elongated shadows of harbour railings fan out in ladder form inviting you to step forward towards the ‘Albatros’ and ‘The Granary’ building beyond.

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Painting in the Orchard

Yesterday, having planned an afternoon of plein air painting on this hottest of days, I found a heavily shaded spot under one of my favourite Bramley apple trees. Working in watercolour on a 22″ x 30″ sheet of Saunders Waterford,  I attempted to capture the dappling light before it disappeared.

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Painting Cambridge

Here is the first in a new series of paintings based around Cambridge, and which I have been preparing over the winter. The Mathematical Bridge springing from Queens College is the focus of this composition. I enjoyed the simple structural elements of the bridges and the way in which its geometric shapes were reflected in the paving stones of the foreground. The bridge is largely silhouetted against the buildings of Queens College, providing a warmly illuminated backdrop.

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Sketches of Wells-next-the-Sea

susan-isaac-wells-next-the-sea-2016-12-19cHere is another painting composition I have been working on in my Norfolk series. This side of The Quay at Wells tends to be dominated by The Granary. Its gantry creates a striking cantilevered form with delicate supporting girders tracing through the air like ship masts. In this sketch I have aimed to balance the composition with the lobster pots stacked on the right.

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Sketches of Wells-next-the-Sea

susan-isaac-wells-next-the-sea-2016-12-16a1This morning I started exploring some compositions for a painting I want to make of Wells in Norfolk. In this sketch I’ve been working in watercolour.



Several sketches later, this feels like a more interesting perspective from which to work. I rendered this view very quickly and directly, with Payne Gray and Yellow Ochre. Working quickly in this way really helps me to find the focus.


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