When Susan White paints one of her highly detailed images of an animal, she’s trying to provide a look into their lives and into their character.
It’s a focused process that takes a lot of research, messages to photographers and hours of painting, but by the end, “I really feel I know the animal,” said White with a laugh.
Her latest series, all created in the last 14 months, is now on display at The Gallery at Qualicum Art Supply (206 First Ave. West, Qualicum Beach).
Containing paintings of Vancouver Island creatures only, White said it was interesting to discover what particular species of animals exist here, and how they got her in the first place.
“(It was) quite fascinating,” she said. “The animals end up here, however they get her in the first place, some of them swim and some of them have always been here, and then they are selectively sub-species.”
“That deer, I’m told, is a species that has developed just on Vancouver Island,” she said, pointing to one of her pieces.
Despite digging into drawing and pastels in the last few year, her interest in animals and drawing them began quite early, she said.
“One of my earliest memories is when I was probably about four or five and I drew a horse. I’m sure it was a stick horse on a piece of brown paper at a family gathering, and everyone made a huge fuss over it. And that was the beginning,” she said with another laugh.
Her process has grown a bit more involved since then.
In addition to research, finding reference photos can be challenging, though less so in the era of social media.
“I love social media,” said White with a smile. “I’ve really gotten into a lot of Facebook groups. There’s amazing groups around here that study animals and plants and birds. It’s astonishing how many bird species there are.”
Through those groups, White meets photographers whose work inspires her to paint.
“I’ll contact one of the photographers and say ‘Would you object if I used your work as a reference?’ Most of the time they say no, and sometimes they say ‘Sure, for a price.’ At this stage in my artistic career, I’m looking for free. But again, it’s a great way to make contact with people and then you follow their work and they follow your work,” she said.
Though White stuck to rendering images as similar to the photos as possible at the start of her realism work, she’s since grown used to changing details such as lighting, or switching out backgrounds to achieve the image she has in her mind.
The goal is to create something that is more than the sum of the references she uses.
“If I’m looking through references, what grabs me first would be the composition, and usually an expression on the animal’s face,” she said.
Pointing to one of her paintings, she said, “That little fawn, his mom’s left him while she’s off getting food. He’s supposed to be there quiet. No one is supposed to see him, and then he’s looking around and is like, oh no.” The photographer, of course, has come upon the deer and thrown a wrench into the plan, and the deer is reacting. “I think I just sit here.”
“I hope it looks like more than a photograph,” said White. “That maybe you’re sort of getting a glimpse of the animal’s spirit or personality.”
“Whether I’m painting them or not, I’ve always found wildlife really interesting, how they live their lives,” she said, though that of course is changing. Part of her work is “trying to show them in their habitat before their habitat is gone.”