Resize and add color with charcoal drawings. In this talk with Austin Williams, artist Susan offers exciting insights into how she creates her impressive and powerful charcoal drawings on a large scale, what she loves about drawing crowded urban spaces, and her advice for young artists. How did the city become your central theme? Have you always been fascinated by urban areas? They have fascinated me since I moved to New York. Wherever I am is a little bit what I draw. Since I’ve been in New York for a long time, I know it well and use it in many styles as a comparison, as we all do. She is my muse, I might say. And since I know this well, I don’t have to try so hard to find the images. I know what I’m watching for, and I only take pictures. So I use multiple photos to make a drawing: I don’t work on a specific photograph.
What are some of the stuff you look for when taking pictures?
Usually a time of day or type of time. For example, I like night scenes, and I like when it is raining or windy. Eight o’clock in the morning in autumn has beautiful shadows. It’s that easy. In many ways, it is a formal requirement. I am amazed when I turn these photos into charcoal drawings. In a way, these moments are a bit mundane, but when I draw and exploit them, those everyday moments turn into something very different, and it becomes an exciting narrative.
In your drawings, the center is constantly alive, full of people. Do you think this is essential for the appearance of a town?
I don’t think I’ve ever done a piece of New York City without people, although there are no faces in my drawings, as some observers have pointed out. I don’t want the viewer to get caught in a person’s sight. I like to use the body in the most iconic style. A woman with her head down carrying a bag or a child running in a certain way. I hope we know who they are by how they move and by recognizing our gestures.
How did you get to work mainly in drawing? And your combination of charcoal and pastel drawings?
What I love about 3d drawing is that we all did it. As children, we take a pencil or chalk and draw. It is not valuable. I can take the time to make these articles, but I love that everyone can relate to them. I also like that the movement of my hand can change the image. There is movement in the drawing, physicality, and the gesture of my writing is always involved. As for charcoal and pastel, I have managed to work them almost as if they were painting over time. I love the idea of graphic design.
What do you like about working big?
It started because, historically, drawings and papers were thought of as studies and a particular dimension. So one of the reasons is the idea of taking a drawing and blowing it up to make it work in its own right so that people don’t understand it as a drawing but as a product of art similar to painting. A second purpose is that a piece has a different drama when it is significant or physical. A great drawing invites the viewer into a very different world. That’s not to say that I don’t like intimate designs, but big ones are where I feel most comfortable. And going big allows me to get real. I love using my collection to design concepts.
Do you do sketches or preliminary work, or do you dive in?
I fully immerse myself. When I say there is no preciousness, I mean it, which I love about drawing. If I think something is not going somewhere, I break it and throw it away, and that gives me freedom. My process begins with taking pictures. Then I go to the store, and they print a hundred. I take them into my studio and find things in some photos that excite me, and I hang a dozen of them on my studio wall. Suppose we want to make three 50×60 layouts. I put those three tables. I fill in the headphones, switch on the music, and start. It does not mean that everything will work out. The next day I could come in and dismiss what I did. If my photographs do not allow me to find a plot, I will take more photos. I will change it.
Tell us more about your process. How do you start your charcoal drawings?
I like to draw quickly drawing. I’ll have it all, at least initially, in about five hours. So I want to put it all together at once, not finish one part at a time. I begin by entering what I call my “staging” or my environment. If I’m drawing a view of Lexington Avenue, that set will stay the same, but I’ll keep changing people until they work for me. The color happens. It works on its own during the process. I don’t plan on it, but I like to have a sense of total composition on paper. It’s more of an ideal expressionist way of staring at the whole card, not the apple head, then the vase, then the board.
What’s in your toolkit?
I use the soft, dark jumbo charcoal from New York Central Art Supply for the charcoal drawings. Eventually, those coals form a kind of background paint. The cakes I love the most are Diane Townsend. I order them directly to her; they are glorious. Also, I use Sennelier cakes, the jumbo ones. I can’t work with small drawing tools – I use my fingers a lot, but I can’t tie myself with small movements or sharp instruments. My surface was just paper, but large pieces were challenging to frame, so now I work on paper mounted on cardboard. I also pulverize the designs a lot, which allows me to build up the layers. If you take a paper towel, rub a highlight, then spray it on and put a white on it, it’s brighter.
Have you had influential teachers?
I studied at Bennington College, which had a wonderful art world that I immersed myself in. I earned a master’s degree from Brooklyn College, where Lois Dodd and Leonard Anderson taught. From Bennington to Brooklyn, I have been blessed to have amazing artists who control my thought and teach me a new style, a new way of thought. Coming out of graduate school, I was fortunate to have people interested in my work. I mainly was painting at the time, but I had some drawings in the corner of my studio, and Rick Davidman, who ran the DFN Gallery in Chelsea, saw them and said, “These are beautiful drawings!” I understood that there were better artists, and drawing is now more natural. Why force yourself to do something more complex? I don’t want any more barriers.
What is your advice for young artists or those who want to get into drawing seriously?
I am a huge supporter of artists who go to graduate school. Get a studio, a place to work and connect with other artists. It is essential to receive criticism. There is a language to learn. I also think you must have an absolute passion for this. There is business and creativity, and they have to go hand in hand.