Making Waves

Artist Susanne Taylor takes viewers on a journey with her still-life paintings

By Debra Lawless | Photos of artwork courtesy of Susanne Taylor; Pictured above: “Waves” 

Chatham painter Susanne Taylor’s palette celebrates the colors of the Cape Cod beach: the blues of sea and sky, the greens of dune grass, the burnt sienna of sand.

As a young child, Taylor spent several weeks each summer on Cape Cod beaches. As a teenage lifeguard in Dennis, she studied the roiling water.

“The light here is fantastic,” says Taylor. “I love it.”

Photo by Debra Lawless | Painter Susanne Taylor, pictured in her Chatham studio, says her goal is to make the viewer’s eye “go on a journey” within the objects.

Even when she paints indoors, her still-life studies of lilies and hydrangeas, as well as mussels and shells, stick to her beach-inspired palette. She might introduce a hint of red with an apple or a dab of cocktail sauce.

Working in her small studio, she meticulously sets up her still-life scenes. Her goal is to make the viewer’s eye “go on a journey” within the objects. She might devote two weeks to painting the still life in oils on a 12-by-16-inch canvas. Illumination comes with natural light from the windows and sometimes a studio light. As she paints, lilies open and orchids grow. “It’s a lovely thing to watch,” she says.

More than a decade ago, Taylor was living in a Chicago suburb when she asked her three school-age children how they felt about her enrolling as a full-time student in the School of Representational Art in Chicago. They said, “Go for it, Mom.” It was there that she found herself as an artist.

For the first year, she drew only in pencil and charcoal. In the second year, she graduated to black-and-white paint. Color was finally introduced in the third year when she painted small still lifes and figures in color.

In Chicago, the northern light filtered in through skylights. Particularly on short winter days, Taylor was conscious of how different the light was compared with the strong, water-infused light of Cape Cod.

Informing the stunning paintings that Taylor creates is her formal training in the school’s centuries-old method of mechanical measuring called “sight-sizing.” This is the system of classical realism used to teach the old masters. When she begins a painting, Taylor steps back from her easel to a blue tape mark on the floor, holds up a piece of string for size, and then steps forward to transfer what she sees in scale to tracing paper.

“Mussels and Copper Pot”

The goal of this method is to make the subject appear as it does in real life. Taylor calls her own work “contemporary realism.”

After Chicago, Taylor lived in New York City where she often visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art—in particular, three Winslow Homer paintings of waves. Everything Taylor sees percolates through her mind. Last winter, the waves emerged on her canvas.

She often visits Hardings Beach with a pad of paper, charcoal and sometimes gouache, a type of opaque watercolor paint. If you think it is easy to paint rapidly moving water, to catch the foam and light glinting off it, think again.

“You never feel like you actually caught it, you just keep trying to catch the light,” she says. When Taylor paints en plein air, her favorite spots are, of course, near the edges of the water.

Taylor’s skill and passion for painting were recognized by Boston’s venerable Copley Society of Art, which accepted her as a member artist two years ago. More than accolades, though, she considers herself fortunate to have found her passion.

“I get going sometimes and painting is all I want to do,” she says. “I’m not really interested in going out to lunch.”

Susanne Taylor is represented by Camilla Richman Fine Arts, 843 Main St., Osterville. Taylor’s paintings will appear in the show “Alternate Views” at the Creative Arts Center, 154 Crowell Road, Chatham, now until Aug. 31.

“Nauset Marsh”

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